As I read Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, I was transported back in time thirty years to my seminary years (yes, I know this dates me, and I just re-did the math to verify that scary truth). The premise – an anthropologist with a scientific approach to understanding the ineffable and the sublime – reminded me of a similar book by John White, When the Spirit Comes with Power. White, a clinical psychologist, similarly began attending a Vineyard church in the 1980s, and like Luhrmann and her ethnographic intent, sought to understand the psychology behind the spiritual expression. White, like Luhrmann, was gradually yet convincingly drawn in when God’s mercy was experienced at an intimate, visceral level. White’s book was key to my own spiritual discovery of the charismatic at the time, so I was fondly disposed to reading Luhrmann’s more recent account.
Luhrmann, as a competent observer, joins the Chicago Vineyard and participates in worship, prayer, Bible reading, weekly small groups, and retreats. She attempts to critically maintain distance to rationally examine this cultural sub-group, but as the book develops, cracks begin to appear. Interestingly, it wasn’t in the modern worship style of the Vineyard, but through premodern Ignatian exercises that she uses her imagination to connect to herself and to God.
She recounts, “I felt this too. I cried in prayer, and I cried in the group. Even now I can remember the weeks we spent en route to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt. I remember imagining the donkey and the dusty heat and the vivid blue of Mary’s robe. I had complicated philosophical thoughts about whether God was real – but I remember gazing into the baby’s eyes, and I wept.” Who cannot admit that she was encountering the divine in that moment?
For Luhrmann, cultivating the imagination is a work done within this church community and others like it. What I found fascinating is her citing parallels to broader postmodern culture which also encourages discovering truth through story, finding meaning in the telling of novels, television shows, and movies. We consume stories and absorb new environments at a greater rate than any point in history. Peter Stromberg, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tulsa states in his review of Luhrmann’s book: “[T]he form of spirituality practiced at the Vineyard may well grow naturally out of the broader culture in which the church is embedded.” So where our culture values story and imagination, so too does the Vineyard and expressions like it.
It is important to contemplate the idea that the way we worship and pray is often culturally-bound and culturally-shaped. Because we are “of the culture”, like fish in water, we aren’t always aware that what surrounds us determines how we connect to God. Simon Chan highlighted this in his book, Grassroots Asian Theology, when he discussed how veneration of ancestors and the role of shame influences the way many Chinese approach God and one’s fellow believers leading to a Christian faith that has a very different expression than North American Christianity. In like manner, our postmodern culture which prioritizes individual stories, celebrating the uniqueness of each person, and at the same time hungering for relationship, creates the conditions for a religious movement where God speaks conversationally, intimately, over a cup of tea. Certainly there are only few historical examples of people with a conversationally friendly relationship with God, like St Teresa of Avila.
I find this a hopeful reality: to know that the varied religious expressions in our world are cultural constructs, just like the Vineyard expression highlighted in this book. The mystery of God is deeper than the veneer we paint him with. He is bigger than the boxes we attempt to construct for our theological understandings.
In framing her Vineyard anthropological investigation with patience and grace, Luhrmann seems to defang what most of her audience would typically fear. Certainly, in my Canadian context, all religious expression is suspect and marginalized, and the same is likely true within the author’s academic context. But, according to Stromberg, Luhrmann suggests otherwise: “She is saying, in effect, do not imagine that these believers are rigid defenders of some long-dead religious orthodoxy. They, like you the reader, are curious, open-minded, and (perhaps unlike you the reader) open to the possibility that there is something beyond what is obvious to our limited senses and intellect. In pointing to this mystery, she is saying, “They don’t understand it completely, nor do I, nor do you, reader.””
 T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 178-179.
 Peter Stromberg, “Christian Charismatics, Anthropologists, and Truth: A Review Essay on Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.Pastoral Psychology, 63(2), 2012, 215-222. doi:http://dx.doi.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11089-013-0525-9.
 Peter Stromberg, “Christian Charismatics, Anthropologists, and Truth: A Review Essay on Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.Pastoral Psychology, 63(2), 2012, 221. doi:http://dx.doi.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11089-013-0525-9.