In When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, T.M. Luhrmann – psychological anthropologist at Stanford University — offers thoughtful reflections on what faith means to some people in the Evangelical Movement from the perspective of an open-minded observer.
I found Luhrmann’s book important. I don’t agree with all of her stances, but I think that she offers an important window into viewing a reality that is both all too familiar to some and all too distant to others. While I feel that the book is a bit condescending at points (without, I think, meaning to be) in its description of how people come to believe in God, I think that the description of the methods whereby this occurs and how this changes people is golden.
Luhrmann uses the traditional anthropological methodology of participant-observation as her modus operandi. However, for me, to do this as well as possible, one must approach the subject matter with an open state of mind that at least allows for the possibility that what one is researching might actually resonate as more deeply true to the researcher than the researcher’s own currently held beliefs. I’m not convinced that Luhrmann deeply enough embodied this sense of engagement in her work – at least from this first time reading through for me. I think she was respectful, but I didn’t sense openness to the possibility that this all could well be more true than anything she had yet encountered and/or experienced. She exhibited sympathy, even empathy, but didn’t seem to progress toward manifesting interpathy.
That noted, I found that important emphases that were carried throughout her study was the affirmation that doubt, questioning, struggle, growth, change, transition, were all healthy parts of moving into and maintaining the robust, relational forms of faith that she was observing. It would be wonderful if more permission was given within the ranks of Evangelicalism to navigate these principles which have solid biblical basis and which are actually the very things which can lead to mature, deeply-rooted, wise faith.
Again while I did like this text, I waffled throughout. For instance, right at the outset of the text, I really appreciated how she explained that she originally attended the church that she would later return to conduct her study, but did not immediately stay there because the church did not meet her initial stereotypes/assumptions of the characteristics that an Evangelical church would exhibit. For me, this showcased important honesty, authenticity and humility. Yet, immediately after this scenario is related she launches into a discussion of differentiation between “mainstream Protestant church” use of hymnals in comparison with how music is utilized/practiced/engaged at “a church like the Vineyard.” The description and discussion that ensues is exceptionally cliché and lacked depth. For instance, Luhrmann noted that for the Vineyard “music is prayer” apparently suggesting it is not for mainstream Protestant churches. As well, the author perpetuates simplistic constructs of community versus individual based orientations in these opening passages. I was just hoping for a bit more complexity of analysis in these beginning sequences from an anthropologist.
Overall, this narrative fluctuation between things I highly valued and aspects I highly questioned continued throughout the text.
I do strongly recommend the text. I recommend it as offering new lenses through which to see cultural morays and norms that might have gone unrecognized and that are related to rhythms of inclusion and exclusion, empowerment and disempowerment, mission-fulfillment and mission-drift, etc. I don’t recommend it as a theological tour de force. If you are looking for general insight into a movement that you have been part of and perhaps can no longer see the forest for the trees or if you are seeking knowledge about a movement with which you have very little personal experience, for both of these orientations, you will find a treasure trove of valuable information and insight. As well, if you are looking for a general history of a section of modern Evangelicalism, you will get some of this. And, if you are looking for a social-scientific critique of religious expression, of faith, particularly as is related to Evangelicalism, you will find your curiosity at least partially sated.
As you might imagine, much ambiguity remains upon completing this reading. One piece of this ambiguity that I want to further problematize just a bit impishly is the differentiation between sanity and psychosis that is discussed in chapter eight – “But are they crazy?” – of the text. Of course, a social science related text that covers the topic of people talking to an invisible God is likely going to engage the idea of psychosis. It is no surprise that this text goes there. However, I want to take us back for a moment to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, to Hannah Arendt’s famous formulation about the banality of evil and this following quote from Thomas Merton about psychosis and sanity,
One of the most disturbing facts that came out in the [Adolf] Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane. I do not doubt it at all, and that is precisely why I find it disturbing. . . The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake.
This issue of sanity and psychosis is a main point of the text. Perhaps there are significant areas along the continuum that we can definitely name as psychotic and ones that we can label sane. But, somewhere closer to the middle, what is sane, what is psychotic, what both of those terms mean and how it all plays out becomes a lot more difficult to rigidly ascertain. Thus, this book. And thus, the ongoing conversation between people who claim such faith and those who don’t.
 Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).
 Ibid., 3-4.
 Thomas Merton. “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann” in Raids on the Unspeakable. (New York: New Directions Publishing Co., 1964).