This book is intriguing even before you open it. Right there on the cover hands are raised, which might make some people think back to a time in Sunday School when a Bible quiz was being battled. “I know the answer! I know it!” This is most certainly because the cover photo only reveals one hand rather than the usual two hands lifted in worship, which is of course something else you might think about when you see the photo. Of course there is the book title, what is there not to love about that? When God Talks Back, if you read it one way it might be easy to conjure up some serious zapping, in line with a Star Wars battle. That seems a bit beyond the point, but maybe that is part of the brilliance, when we think about God, especially God talking back it seems a given that you have to at least clear out the mental “stuff” we think about when we consider God talking back, not all of which is friendly. Finally there is the author’s initials, T.M.; it’s almost as if the author did not want to disclose the first name. Of course as a female author, she is not the first one to do so, nor will she be the last, but all the same it added to the book’s intrigue.
I point out these things to simply highlight the creative genius in how the book was presented to the reader. Significantly because this is book looks at faith from a different viewpoint, rather than trying to convince someone to believe T.M. Luhrmann (the “T” by the way is for Tanya) sets out to “explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real.” Honestly Luhrmann had me in the Preface. She was writing about my experience, especially when she writes about doubt. Like an undercover cop she points out that doubt is part of the Christian faith, that it is present in Scripture. “The problem for ordinary Christians–often surrounded by other Christians, often having grown up among good, committed Christians—is how to maintain their belief despite their skepticism.” Brilliant.
I liked the book straightaway because she simply acknowledged that doubt and skepticism might be more normal than we ever give room for, in doing so the defenses of both believers and unbelievers fall down. She orients us in a direction that allows both faith and doubt. For me it began here, “What I saw was that coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something.” It seems today that we most often think about doing in connection with missions or being missional. Churches will plan specific days in the year (often just once or maybe twice) to go and be the Church, everyone goes out into their local community to participate in work projects, the doing part. While I have issues with the perception this communicates that we are not the Church when we go to church, it does introduce the practicality of experience. Something Luhrmann might suggest is attentional learning, “In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.” This is both fascinating and sobering. Experience is crucial. The author steps out and takes us with her, “The goal of this book is simply to help readers understand the problem of presence more deeply.” Perhaps today we do not recognize how we have been conditioned to experience God and therefore understand and know the God we worship.
I received an email this week from a student that briefly explained their early frustration with the seminary prayer course I am teaching, they just wanted to know “how to pray.” Learning to pray is not like learning to drive a car, shoot a basketball or even understand Cricket. You learn to pray by praying. Each week students engage in a different prayer experience drawn from MaryKate Morse’s book. Interestingly students experience these prayer exercises differently. They are influenced by their theological background and experiences, their age, where they live and their own life experience, some react to a prayer exercise, some are cautious and some love it. They often do not recognize this. It is fascinating. But prayer is fascinating in the book because Luhrmann reminds her reader that nonbelievers might also want to understand why prayer works and how it works. It might just explain why research study after study indicates that non-religious people pray as well as religious persons.
Interestingly in what is essentially the middle of the book, the author writes about contemplative prayer. If there is a type of prayer that is the most difficult and challenging for students overall it is contemplative prayer. It is also the prayer that is the most foreign to a majority of students, with one exception. That exception would be the prayer that is referred to as the “daily office.” Liturgical prayer that is prayed at set times during the day (ordered prayer is another term). The author is observant and abstract, fully engaged and objective as she describes her experiences in prayer. I am fascinated. “The point of religious conviction is that the everyday world is not all there is to reality; to see beyond, one must change the way one pays attention.” Of course she brings up the “m” word, manipulation. But I am glad she did. It helps me pay attention.
This is a book that I will read, word by word. It is just too good, too important not to. Perhaps with the advent of an intensely personal God, who’s presence we expect and crave, who’s assurance we need there might be room to now consider (and learn) what it is to not experience God. If we can “train” ourselves to experience God’s nearness, what does it mean to experience a God who is silent?
 Ibid., xvii.
 Ibid., xxi.
 Ibid., xxv.
 Ibid., 188.