This week (February 13, 2018) the hosts of the ABC television show “The View” were discussing Vice President Mike Pence. Specifically, they were reacting to reports that Vice President Pence claims that Jesus speaks to him.
Referring to Pence, co-host Joy Behar made the following statement:
“It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you. That’s different. That’s called mental illness.”
You can watch the entire segment here:
As you would assume, conservative news outlets and evangelical bloggers immediately criticized Behar. Yet, it is true that the idea that Christians can “hear from God” is viewed by many in our world as the same thing as a psychotic person “hearing voices.” In fact, this assumption is the backdrop to the book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann.1
Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist. In When God Talks Back she respectfully and objectively writes about her experiences in over four years of in-depth research while attending Vineyard Churches. The Vineyard Movement had its roots in the Jesus movement of the early 1970s. In fact, the first vineyard church is reported to have begun in the homes of two pioneer Jesus movement singer/songwriters: Larry Norman and Chuck Girard (of the band Love Song). 2
Today, over 2,400 Vineyard churches seek to be a middle group between modern Charismatic churches and traditional evangelicalism. These churches place a high emphasis on Bible study, evangelism, expressive worship, and prayer that values intimacy with God.
While I did not grow up in a Vineyard Church, my experience as a teenager in a Southern Baptist Church in the late 1970s and early 1980’s was anything but stiff and unspiritual.
It was during the 1980s that many Baptist churches began to add “choruses” in addition to hymns. These short, repetitive songs were played on guitar and shown on an overhead projector on “transparencies.” Many of these were from Maranatha Music, a ministry of Calvary Chapel (a church that was started as a result of the Jesus movement by pastor Chuck Smith.). In the 1990s Vineyard Music, a record label featuring Vineyard Church songs and artists, exported a new form of worship to churches around the world from a variety of denominations. Today this musical torch has seems to have been passed along to Hillsong Music.
Along with this fresh expression of worship music. More intimate expressions of prayer arose at the same time. While some conservative Christians were turned off by television preachers like Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts who regularly claimed to “have a word from the Lord,” Southern Baptist leaders like Henry Blackaby (Experiencing God) and Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) authored best-selling books that influenced millions of Christians around the world. When these authors wrote about prayer, the act of listening to the voice of God was stressed as being just as important as talking to God.
Yet, for those who do not have a background in a modern evangelical church, the concept of hearing from God is confusing. In fact, When God Talks Back includes a chapter entitled “But Are They Crazy?” I this chapter, Lurhman uses her psychology background to describe in detail the characteristics of schizophrenic people who have audible hallucinations. She writes…
The hallucinations associated with psychosis are frequent…they are extended…These hallucinations are unpleasant, even horrific…They are spontaneous, they happen to you and you are at their mercy….that is not the way that people in The Vineyard hear God speak.” (Luhrmann page 231).3
Reading When God Talks Back was a challenging and enjoyable experience. As a full time pastor, much of my life is spent in the “Christian bubble.” Reading this book was a lot like having a stranger live with you for a year who then writes about it. The author was an outsider, which is the correct way to do an anthropological study, yet, she was deeply affected by the experience. On the final page, she discloses…
“I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity.”
Reading that quote made me smile. I believe in a God who pursues the skeptic. Some of the great leaders of modern Christian apologetics (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Lee Strobel, and Nicky Gumbel) started out as skeptics. Maybe someday Tanya Luhrmann (or Joy Behar) will write a book about hearing the voice of God.
1T. M. Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012.
2 Bill Jackson, The Quest for the Radical Middle: The History of the Vineyard(1999):78.
3 Luhrmann. 231.
4 Luhrmann. 325