Lurhmann’s book, “When God Talks Back,” is an anthropological look at American evangelicalism and the complex cognitive processes at work in a dialogical relationship with the divine. She is concerned less with how God reveals himself as how evangelicals perceive God’s self-revelation and conceive of a God they can dialogue with about all of life. Luhrmann’s tiresome attempt to write as a non-judgmental inquisitive outsider enabled her to position herself as a neutral keen observer in her ground research. Nevertheless, the Christian reader may easily smell the bias of Lurhmann and her contemporaries. According to one reviewer, one of Lurhmann’s implications is that believing that God can “talk back” to humans does not come “naturally,” but requires “hard work”:
The definite intuition that an agent is around, that this agent really is the god, that the god is talking, requires a lot of work, and is rather rare and frustratingly elusive. Even among the most accomplished of believers, a few islands of intuition are surrounded by oceans of doubt and disbelief (GTB: 133). This is splendidly illustrated in Lurhmann’s eth- nography, and raises important questions to do with both our understanding of “beliefs” in anthropology and our cognitive models of belief states.
Where a book like this might be useful to someone like me is for the purpose of self-awareness. It is interesting to see how a non-Evangelical sees how Evangelicals respond to God, often in ways they are not aware. If I were to classify myself as an “Evangelical,” and perhaps I do depending on one’s definition, it’s not that I am not aware of my own complex relationship with God (whether real or imagined), I just find it interesting to see how an outsider perceives how Evangelicals perceive themselves. She makes too many assumptions in my view, and I think a self-aware Evangelical could be more intuitively accurate. I admit my frustration at what I perceive to be an arrogance on her part and I am inclined to get defensive, which perhaps is useful self-awareness information in itself.
But to think this is how observant outsiders might perceive our practices of prayer could serve well to help guide those who are also skeptical of their skepticism of Christianity (or “Evangelicalism” to be precise). Perhaps we could be aware of our complex relationship with God in order to guide others whose prayer experience is also difficult. It is true that “belief” takes hard work, in a sense, but the hard work is largely done by God. Ours is the work of surrender. This is true. But the work of surrender is not the same as the work she is describing. It is responsive work, not innovative work. We do not conceive of God ex nihilo. We simply respond to his revelation in our lives, as was the case for me when I was 16 years and God showed up unannounced and uninvited into my life. God commandeers us and then we figure out how to adjust. Lurhmann does not grasp the responsive nature of the Christian faith.
HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349–57