One day a psychological anthropologist from Stanford University shows up at your church with a brilliant idea. She wants to spend two years attending your services and participating in your small groups in order to better understand how people experience their Christian faith. She attends Bible classes, church retreats, and everything that can help her understand your Christian experience. Throughout those two years she observes, participates, takes notes, and interviews your church family. Then, she writes a book about her findings, interpreting the data based on her understanding of psychology, the brain, anthropological studies, and the historical background of Christianity in America. Yet, she does not consider herself a born-again believer, even though she believes in some concept of the divine. What will she discover?
Dr. Tanya Marie Luhrmann, professor in the anthropology department at Stanford University published her findings in her fourth book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. In this research, Lurhmann seeks to understand the neo-Pentecostal Christian experience as embodied in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship denomination.
In light of the scientific advances of our secular age, many scholars predicted that people would eventually abandon religion. However, the current trend in American society shows that charismatic churches are growing faster than any other denomination. This trend is also found across the globe. In light of this trend, Luhrmann tries to explain how, in a secular age, there are still people who are reasonable and educated yet they experience a personal God who talks back to them.
“This book explains how this new use of the mind allows God to come alive for people. It explains what people learn, how deep the learning goes, and how powerful it is. My goal is to help nonbelievers understand this learning process. This will not turn the skeptic into a believer, but it will help to explain how a reasonable person could choose to become and remain this kind of Christian. Perhaps that will serve as a bridge across the divide, and help us to respect one another.”
Thus, writing for an audience of skeptics, Luhrmann explains that the way many evangelical Christians experience God feels very real because they train the mind to interpret reality in a way consistent with their belief system. She argues that these mental processes have many parallels with many studies of the mind found in the field of psychotherapy. Thus, there is a logical explanation why these reasonable people speak of God as if He were real, even though He is invisible and the Bible is full of apparently absurd beliefs.
“In the end, this is the story of the uncertainty of our senses, and the complexity of our minds and world. There is so little we know, so much we take on trust. In a way more fundamental than we dare to appreciate, we each must make our own judgments about what is truly real, and there are no guarantees, for what is, is always cloaked in mystery.”
As a Christian who was not familiar with the Vineyard churches, this book helped me understand the historical background and the mindset that characterizes much of neo-Pentecostalism. It also helped me see the perspective in which a person who is not a born-again believer may perceive evangelicalism.
I grew up in a Baptist church, and I had my conversion experience at age six. I was taught the importance of praying, but I was never taught that I needed to expect God to talk back to me, or that I had to visualize pictures as I prayed. My theological training emphasized a hermeneutical system shaped by a cultural/grammatical/applicational approach to the biblical text (What does the author mean? How does it apply to my life?) rather than an emotional approach (What does it mean to me?). My relationship to the Holy Spirit has been one of sanctification and guide rather than one who provides mystical experiences and comes and goes into rooms in response to the level of faith that the congregation displays. Therefore, the book functioned as a window into a different theological framework from the one that has shaped my Christian experience.
When I hear people say things like, “God told me” I wonder what the person really means, because I have never heard God’s voice loudly. Luhrmann helped me understand what different people mean. I can therefore identify with the epistemological question that the author explores. How do I know that what the person is saying is true? How do I know that it is not imagined, misinterpreted, or made up? How do I know? I believe that God can speak, or perform miracles, or be experienced in a different way from the way in which I have experienced Him. I just don’t trust people’s perceptions.
This mistrust in the human perception has shaped the way I communicate my own perceptions, because as a pastor I have to be careful not to misguide people by speaking from God in areas in which God has not clearly spoken. If it is biblical revelation (and not a gray area of interpretation), I feel much more free to say “God says” (because He did!). However, in experiential matters, instead of saying, “God told me” I may say instead, “This is what I been thinking.” As pastors we encourage, give advice, and confront in many areas of life. Therefore, because the level of influence that pastors have over the sheep is rather delicate, we must be careful in how we communicate God’s perspective.
As objective as Luhrmann attempts to be in her book, she writes from the experience of one who is not born again. Thus, her very perception is limited by her own experience and assumptions. For instance, an anthropologist may want to research marriage by living with a married couple for two years. Yet, if the anthropologist has never been in love and experienced marriage herself, everything she describes may seem to her as mechanical and hard work. She cannot really perceive it adequately until being married to a person she loves. Only then she can see marriage for what it really is.
This is perhaps the underlying fallacy of the book. A non-born-again person may observe and explain things in scholarly terms, but unless the person has experienced the supernatural love of God that the Holy Spirit gives us when we are born again, her very perception will be distorted by her spiritual condition. As Saint Anselm of Canterbury puts it, this level of understanding in the Christian experience is the result of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), not the other way around.
 Luhrmann, T.M. (2012-03-27). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid, 325.