Tanya Luhrmann shows how the Vineyard is attempting to create social imaginaries to break out of Charles Taylor’s immanent frame that was created as the secular solution to the problem of how humanity 500 years ago started the transition from not making sense of the world without talking about God and arrived at our current situation where humanity does not need God to explain how and why anything happens here on earth. According to Luhrmann, the Vineyard is attempting to break out of Taylor’s secularism with specific practices and strategies to train the imagination and mind to recognize and sense an invisible and intangible God. For the Vineyard, God is real, God loves you unconditionally, and God is here now.
Reading this book felt an awful lot like when I go to the doctor for a physical exam. Like psychological anthropologists, medical doctors are scientists. It can get a bit awkward sometimes explaining spiritual or unseen phenomena in empirical scientific terms. It is even more awkward for me because, like a physical exam, it is very personal. I have been part of the Vineyard movement since 1983. I felt vulnerable and tried hard not to get defensive as I read the preface and each chapter. I could almost hear Luhrmann slap a rubber glove to her hand and say, “You might feel a bit discomfort.”
Given that, When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann is an important ethnographic investigation from a psychological-anthropological point of view showing how the Vineyard addresses the issue of the presence of God. How does God become real for people? It is quite a task to layout a framework of how a group of people experience the invisible. By all accounts, Luhrmann does a brilliant job at explaining how this happens in a couple of Vineyard churches.
What stood out to me in “The Invitation” is the importance of context. The Vineyard was started from a specific time and place in southern California history and originally developed and organized by a musician. I have often wondered, how the Vineyard would be different if John Wimber was a filmmaker instead of an arranger for the Righteous Brothers. Also, given the hippy counter culture of the 1960s in SoCal, how different would the Vineyard be if it were formed in the mountainous states of Colorado or Montana? My guess would be a lot less Hawaiian shirts would be worn. Luhrmman contends that a desire to have a personal connection with God was already on people’s minds in SoCal so the Vineyard was ripe for creation. My question for Luhrmann here is, What role does the Vineyard kingdom theology play with this desire of connection? She mentions Ladd in her last chapter, but for me she is putting the cart before the horse here. In a sense she is saying the culture was already hungry for personal connection and the Vineyard found a way to satisfy that hunger. Could it be the other way around though? What if there was a theology for this, Ladd’s “now and not yet” or “here and not yet” for example before the “invitation?” Like a doctor who might be right about the diagnoses, but got the symptoms out of order, Luhrmman doesn’t give theology any weight here.
I found it fascinating to read about a couple of my favorite books “Experiencing God” and “Celebration of Discipline” from an anthropological point of view. I kept wanting her to tell me if she thought they were good or bad. Should I be ashamed the my youth leader gave me Foster’s book for my 18th birthday and I read that thing over and over and have incorporated many of the practices described in my life? Should I take back the kinship group I lead through Blackaby? Was it not a good experience? Did we not experience God? Luhrmann suggests that I have developed and trained my mind to experience God. I have room for that. To be honest, the way it is presented feels a bit awkward still but I can agree with her experience. I am not a scientist. I am a Vineyard pastor who prays every day that the people in my church would experience God on a personal and intimate level. Luhrmann points out how bazaar that could sound to an outsider. I can accept that.
The book also reminded me how different every Vineyard is. I know Chuck Smith and the vision for Calvary chapel was that, like Starbucks, whenever you walked into any Calvary Chapel it would look and feel exactly the same as all the other ones. This is not true of the 600 Vineyard churches in the U.S.A. and the over 1500 outside of the U.S.A. Like doctors who rely on test cases and then make sweeping general statements, Luhrmann was part of only two Vineyard churches for a short time and then makes some generalized statements about the Vineyard and American Evangelicals. For example, I have never heard of and have never suggested myself to pour an extra cup of coffee for Jesus. Reading “Let’s Pretend” was like reading about another denomination to me.
Blogging about this book is a lot like telling my wife how my 2 hour physical exam went with Dr. Yu. I could go on and on and tell story after story (John Wimber came to a meeting at my house once when I was a teen), but after the prodding and poking, and blood work of course, and the admonishments to lose a few pounds, lower the cholesterol and don’t forget to exercise, I’m generally healthy.
Probably like every Vineyard pastor who has read this book I was really saddened to read on the last page that Luhrmann does not consider herself a Christian. Even after all her experiences with the Vineyard, Jesus’ kingdom missed her. Maybe she doesn’t have the imagination for it.