During our Advance trip to Hong Kong, one of our speakers was Dr. Philip Wickeri, an Adviser to the Bishop of Hong Kong and a Professor of Church History, especially the history of the Chinese Christian church. He is also a family friend who I have known through the years.
During his presentation to our group, he was talking about the theology of many of the new and growing “family churches” in China as well as those in Hong Kong that are thriving these days. He noted that there was a surprising strand of Calvinism or Reformed Theology that was ingrained in these churches. Then, he looked around the room, saw me and asked, “David Watermulder, tell us, which was the largest section of John Calvin’s Institutes?”
I had no idea. It turns out that the largest section in the Institutesis the one on prayer. This is kind of surprising, because we don’t usually think of John Calvin as a “warm-hearted prayer warrior”. In the Reformed tradition there is often an emphasis on the intellectual side of faith, where things are done “decently and in order”. Ever since being called out in the group setting in Hong Kong, I have been slowlymaking my way through John Calvin’s writing on prayer and seeking to be grounded more deeply in my life with God.
That kind of deep grounding and ongoing relationship with God is what T.M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Backis all about. She is a Professor at Stanford University and in her book, she is exploring and seeking to understand the American Evangelical Christian way of approaching and practicing prayer. She describes it as an experience of really talking and listening to God.
She talks about the classic paradigm for prayer, a pattern that many Christians seek to follow, which is ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. But in unveiling her research, she goes beyond merely what we “do” in prayer (such our body postures, or verbal markers like “amen”). She describes prayer as a skill that is learned and developed.
First, prayer in the Vineyard churches that she was associated with had to do with training our minds to think differently. As the New York Times Book Review summarizes it, “After more than four years of observing and interviewing Vineyard members, and participating in prayer groups, Bible study and weekly worship, Luhrmann arrived at a simple but arresting hypothesis: Evangelicals believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind.”
She describes prayer and discerning God’s voice as a “richly layered skill”, it is something that one can learn. She writes, “whatever one makes of the ontological claim that the person praying is a link, prayer clearly is a technique: a skilled practice that has to be learned.”
In a way, this sounds a lot like Calvin. In the Institutes, he writes “for the value and necessity of that assurance which we require (the assurance of God’s presence), is chiefly learned by prayer.” He intimates that it is through a regular, disciplined prayer life, that the reality of God’s word and will for us is made clear. Calvin emphasizes that the most important thing is the state of our heart, our intentions and our attention to God’s presence with us.
Calvin even writes that, “believers ought to be exceedingly cautious, never to enter into the presence of God to present any petition, without being inflamed with a fervent affection of soul, and feeling an ardent desire to obtain it from him.”
It is this “fervent affection of soul” and the “ardent desire” that Luhrmann is largely focusing on in her exploration of evangelical forms of prayer. It takes not only a learned technique or language or posture, but also a heart that is honestly open and seeking God. She describes this as a way of conditioning our minds and our thoughts so that prayer is actuallyeffective.
Luhrmann also opens up the practice of “imagining” that God is there, as a way of experiencing the reality of God’s presence. This is a version of the idea that we can use our “baptized imaginations” to see the things that God wants to show us. She even invokes “St. Clive” (CS Lewis) who is one of the most revered saints among evangelicals. In his classic Mere Christianity, he has a chapter entitled “Let’s Pretend”, in which he seems to counsel that “if you pretend that you are with God, God will become more real for you.”
In the end, this is a scholarly book that is also surprisingly personal. Luhrmann spends years attending weekly prayer groups, worship services, and taking on the practices and approaches of prayer that her “subjects” are engaged in. She is personally affected by this and is even moved to tears at various points.
In the end, I want to go further than she is willing to go. As a researcher, she maintains a certain professional distance even as she steps into this particular world in order to study it. For myself, I need to overcome that anthropologists lens, where I am simply observing the spiritual lives of my congregation, or noting their progress in my book. Instead, I want to join John Calvin, the surprising prayer warrior, in coming ardently and expectantly into God’s presence every day. And then, out of that central relationship, to be a pastor and friend to others who are also on the way.
T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God(New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 158.
T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God(New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 157.
Molly Worthen, review of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by T.M. Luhrmann, New York Times, April 27, 2012, Sunday Book Review, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/when-god-talks-back-by-tm-luhrmann.html.
T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God(New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 60.
T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God(New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 135.
John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion3.20.7.
John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion3.20.6.
T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God(New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 73.