Tanya Marie Luhrmann—When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
In his book, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor’s investigation seeks to answer the question, How did we become a society “in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others?”  Tanya Luhrmann believes our secular society does not take God seriously. As a psychological anthropologist, she frames her exploration of Christian faith and belief from her professional context and asks, “How does God become and remain real for modern evangelicals? How are rational, sensible people of faith able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being and sustain that belief in an environment of overwhelming skepticism? How do some believers hear His voice amid the clutter of everyday thoughts?” 
According to Luhrmann, “The major shift in American spirituality over the past half century has been toward a God who is present, kind, personal, and intimate. This God loves unconditionally, forgives freely, and brings joy.”  In her efforts to understand how God becomes real for modern individuals, she sought a nondenominational church for study that taught people to hear God speak back. She selected the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in California and Illinois as representative of this “shift in the American imagination of God—the evangelical Christianity in which God is thought to be present as a person in someone’s everyday life and in which God’s supernatural power is thought to be immediately accessible by that person.” . This evangelical Christianity emerged as a force in American culture in the conservative Christian tradition, but with an emphasis of God as more personally and intimately experienced; these Christians sought to hear the voice of God and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Luhrmann’s methodology at the Vineyard included ethnography work, attendance at church services and Bible discussion groups, conducting various interviews and experiments with church members. She noted congregants learned intimacy with God through prayer and pastoral teachings from the biblical texts. Pastors were also teaching congregants to utilize the Bible to understand God as both a source of power and a personal and intimate friend whom they can dialogue with.
The author closely observed the freedom and intimacy exhibited in Sunday worship services. The congregation had the liberty to sit, stand, sing, pray, dance, lift hands, lie prostrate, or worship in the manner that suited them. “Worship was a time to commune with God alone while in the presence of others.”  She resonated with the dynamic, intimate, contemporary music that was not about God, but personally to God as opposed to the older church hymns. The author noted the congregants expressing familiarity with God’s voice and His presence and they talked about specific things He said to them. “God is understood to speak to congregants inside their own minds. Worshiping God at the Vineyard requires developing the ability to recognize thoughts in your own mind that are not in fact your thoughts, but God’s.”  It is taught that when Christians develop a relationship with God through prayer, “God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images He places in the mind, and through sensations He causes in the body.”  God is always talking to His people. They must learn to listen and be attuned to His voice. He may talk through the Bible, prayer, silent time, circumstances, worship, or dreams.
Luhrmann identifies four tests for knowing God has spoken to a congregant: 
- “What you had heard or imagined was the kind of thing you would say or imagine anyway; If it was, the thought was probably yours.”
- “Whether it was the kind of thing that God would say or imply.” (Didn’t contradict God’s word in the Bible).
- “Whether the revelation could be confirmed through circumstances or through other people’s prayers.”
- “The feeling of peace. Prayer and God’s voice are thought to give you peace and comfort.” (If what you heard or saw did not, it did not come from God).
Luhrmann indicates, “The failure to recognize God’s voice—or even worse, in recognizing him, the failure to respond—is understood to carry real-world consequences.” 
Just how closely Luhrmann depicts the tenets and practices of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship congregations is not known to me right now. But, from all appearances it seems to earn its name as a “new paradigm Protestantism.” But, Luhrmann states, “Churches like the Vineyard handle the problem of suffering with a fourth solution: they ignore it. Then they turn the pain into a learning opportunity. When it hurts, you are supposed to draw closer to God.”  There are no easy answers when a loving and powerful God does not deliver. According to Luhrmann, “As a result, cognitive dissonance is sharper at a church like the Vineyard than at any of its mainstream counterparts.”  Since Luhrmann is not a Christian, I wonder if she is misreading these situations.
Last week our cohort read Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, by Shelley Trebesch in which she informs us that seasons of “dark nights of the soul,” or “isolation experiences” are processes designed by God for spiritually refining and transforming our character, increasing our intimacy with Him and dependency upon Him, and pruning and developing us to be all that God created us to be for His purposes. That would mean that the Vineyard got it right. There’s no better place to go than closer to God in humility and submission when it hurts, to see what He wants to do in the situation.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
- T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), Front overleaf.
- Ibid., xvi.
- Ibid., xix.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 39.
- Ibid., 41.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 52.
- Ibid., 268.