“The vengeance with which religious issues have again entered the public arena illustrates what pollsters long have known: the United States contains more citizens who value religion than other western industrial societies. This odd combination of modernity and religion defies conventional wisdom, which suggests that secularity and socioeconomic development are positively related. Such manifest religiosity in an advanced industrial and technological society raises interesting questions about the nature of popular religious movements in the United States and about the contrast between American popular culture and that of other western industrial nations.”[i]
From: Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity
It must be aggravating for modern intellectuals when faced with American’s continued love affair with Christianity. What should be happening here is what happened in Europe over the last two centuries: the mass exodus of people from church. At least Europeans are enlightened about religion (opiate of the people, mindless superstitions, and the cause of all the bad in our world). But, strangely, in America, people aren’t leaving the church. One has to wonder if this strange phenomena–of enthusiastic allegiance to God and spirituality in modern America– might be the real reason researchers, such as T.M. Luhrmann, to spend so much time trying to figure out what makes supposedly educated and normal people not only claim to hear God, but dedicate their lives to His serve.
I found When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God an uncomfortable read. Examined where these feelings came from, I came to several conclusions. First, I felt offense, that “my people” were being studied like lab rats in an anthropologists experiment. It just seemed a little awkward to have an outsider scientifically dissect important concepts like faith, prayer, and intimacy with God. It felt like Masters and Johnson had entered my bedroom with a clipboard in hand. It didn’t feel comfortable.
My second reason for feeling uncomfortable was the strange disconnect I felt with Luhrmann’s interpretation church and faith. This may be due to the particular groups she studied, but her conclusions are far different from my Christian experience and understanding. The believers she described sought above all else to convince themselves that God actually spoke to them. This involved “play” or “make believe.” It also involved a great deal of mind games to give the believer a sense that God is real. She suggests that to the “anthropologist, the central principle was identifying the ‘not-me’ experience: a thought or image or sensation that one felt was not one’s own. If a thought felt spontaneous and unsought, it was more likely to be identified as God’s.”[ii] Faith becomes a mental game or exercise. “In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all-but God’s….They construct God’s interactions out of these personal mental events, mapping the abstract concept “God’ out of their mental awareness….”[iii]
Third, is the assumption that ultimately these believers are trying to convince themselves to believe something that they know to be patently untrue. “They know that they are pretending to talk to God”[iv] and this is why it is such hard work. “This is play, but it is a serious play: a play that cultivates the imagination for a serious end, precisely because congregants presume the basic claim of Christianity to be unbelievable, even foolish, in modern, secular society.”[v] She further suggests that it “is a fragile process, because what they are doing is so hard, because it violates so much of what we take for granted. It takes an enormous amount of work.”[vi]
Finally, I am uncomfortable with her conclusion that this kind of Christianity thrives because it lacks any real solid foundation. “It is a truly ‘new American Christ’ who is just as raw, both concretely present and curiously untheologized. His churches emphasize intimacy not historical understanding. They care that people know Jesus, not that they know and memorize the scriptural text, and they want their congregants to feel as if church is meeting in the upper room in Jerusalem, with Jesus at the table.”[vii] This untheologized, unscriptural, unhistorical Jesus is what Luhrmann suggests modern American Christians are finding. That must be her conclusion, since this Christianity has no basis in anything other than the mind or imagination. But, is this what Christianity is really all about? I hope not!
So, what are we left with? We are left with one anthropologist’s perspective and interpretation of a small group within evangelicalism through which she seeks to answer the allusive question of how in the world can supposedly smart people possibly believe today in any religion, especially Christianity? What I believe we can take away is a clear understanding of how an intellectual section of modern American society might explain away the large and dedicate Christian community in American today. Or, to put it another way: How very smart people might explain why so many Americans believe in something that has long been discredited?
One point she does get right: “there is evidence that the quality of someone’s relationship with God has consequences. In a study of the relationship between prayer and mental illness…. when God was experienced as close and intimate, the more someone prayed, the less ill they were.”[viii] Hummm…there might be something good here after all, even if it might all be just “make believe.”