Disclaimer: I’m visiting a niece in Carnforth, England and have little to no internet access. I wrote this on the train hoping to add in quotes and such once I could get on line, but I’ve been having trouble connecting. I have a window here, so I’m going to post what I have and hope to add quotes later! Sorry!
Reading T.M. Lurhmann’s anthropological study of American evangelicals made me feel a bit like I imagine a gorilla might feel in the zoo, were he given a book written by a zoologist who had observed him for a few years. That’s assuming, of course, that the gorilla could read. And from Luhrmann’s perspective, it seems a literate gorilla wouldn’t be any more far-fetched than a God who speaks.
I bounced back and forth between happily and proudly relating to the people she interviewed and feeling deeply embarrassed and ashamed by the same. Though she tries to maintain a scientific perspective—stating observations and findings without assigning value or judgement to the experience—she lets certain words and phrases slip into her writing that reveal her personal stance. She strongly rooted in Taylor’s imminent frame. Though she mingled with the Vineyard church members for several years, it’s clear she never became one of them. Throughout her book she maintains an outsider’s voice, slightly antagonistic and bordering on condescending. She seems to use her extensive engagement as proof that what she witnessed was valid, but is careful to distance herself from the true believers, lest she be mistaken for one of them.
She may have spent years visiting the zoo, but she’s making it clear that she did not become a gorilla.
Someone once told me that reading the Bible without the Holy Spirit is like reading somebody else’s mail. You might understand all the words but you’d have little understanding of what it all meant. Luhrmann’s interpretation feels like that.
And yet, this gorilla was drawn to reflect on some of her observations. Because there were some things that she said that made me cringe precisely because they rang true. Particularly this idea of how individualized and self-centred American Christianity has become.
I am particularly aware of this when listening to modern worship songs. While the hymns of old were theological proclamations about who God is, the latest worship choruses are all about who I am or how I feel or what I need.
And when in worship in the States, I have the impression that we close our eyes and each go into our own little individualized worlds, praying our own individualized prayers, which are mainly focused on our own individualized needs. Luhrmann’s observations confirmed my suspicions.
The part that killed me was when she talked about how a woman shared that she had gotten angry with God (a sentiment I can understand) because it had rained on the day of a church picnic (a reason for being angry at God that I cannot understand). I was reminded of a story that Rachel Held Evans told in her book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She had just come home from visiting her sister, who was a missionary in India. There she had a met a young girl who was praying for her mother to be healed of a deadly (but curable) disease. If her mother died, the girl would be left a destitute orphan. Rachel had begun praying fervently for the recovery of this girl’s mother, and continued praying even once she returned home. That first Sunday back home, she went to church where the pastor praised God for his great faithfulness in having provided all the funds that they needed to resurface the parking lot. As she left church, Rachel received a note from her sister in India—the girl’s mother has died. Saving her would have cost a fraction of what it was going to cost to resurface the parking lot.
Rachel was left questioning what kind of God would prefer parking lots over mothers.
I’ve long stopped praying for parking spaces. It’s not that I think that God doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with such minutiae, it’s that I think God has already provided me with everything that I need in order to figure that one out—and that I can honour him by using the brain that he gave me. And the choosing of clothes or painting of the kitchen table? I can almost feel God rolling God’s cosmic eyes at the silliness. Except God is even nicer than I sometimes I imagine God to be—and always free from snarkiness. So God doesn’t roll God’s eyes. Or face palm. Or sigh. God is patient. But I do wonder if we might encourage USAmerican evangelicals to rethink their prayer priorities.
I’m a fan of the Vineyard church. I’m a tongue-speaking charismatic that knows in my knower that God speaks to me. I love that God is personal and available, that God is intimate and approachable. I relate to many of the experiences that Luhrmann describes. But as she holds up a mirror to this individualistic behaviour, I’m bothered by what I see.
And the problem is not only in the USA. I was recently meeting with a young woman from church who was telling me about all of her disappointments with God. She asked for this and God didn’t respond. She looked for that and God didn’t show up. She needed such and such and God didn’t provide. I wondered if she knew that God is not her servant, she is God’s. I wonder if we’ve lost the wonder. We’ve brought God down into our imminent frame, praying our imminent requests, and forgetting that God is the transcendent One.