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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The View from the Outside

Written by: on February 15, 2018

 

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).

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.

Bill Jackson, The Quest for the Radical Middle: The History of the Vineyard(1999):78.

Luhrmann.  231.

Luhrmann.  325

About the Author

Stu Cocanougher

9 responses to “The View from the Outside”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Stu, I totally remember the addition of choruses with the hymns, then gradually the chorus books replaced the hymnals in the pews.
    I also identified with your phrase: “Reading this book was a lot like having a stranger live with you for a year who then writes about it.” It felt a bit like a voyeur observing our sacred practices from the outside. I found myself a bit disturbed by her open curiosity and study of Christianity yet intrigued with her outcomes. I often wondered what people in her small group thought of her or felt about her studying their private spiritual practices. Her comparison of hearing God to psychotherapy and psychology background I found to be a bit confusing and unrelated at times. I think that sequel sounds promising. I’ll say I heard it from you first.

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Stu, what an excellent post! I too thought about how I would react to a stranger coming to live and join my church for a year and then write about it. I can imagine being at that board meeting when they discussed it! 🙂 But the openness of the church and the authenticity of the people made an impact not just on Luhrmann but by extension the academic conversation about religion and faith in America. I think this research can be an important starting point for a discussion of the supernatural with secular people. Thanks Stu.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    I thank you for your writing. We both have a Baptist background. It was good to see the perspective of one desiring to know God better through the eyes of the congregation. I must admit that can be scary because Christian folks are not the same in their beliefs.
    It would be great to read her next book on the Voice of God.
    We need to pray continuously for those in leadership that have not experienced or recognized the essence of God. Hearing his voice is a requirement to lead his people.

  4. Mary says:

    The only thing I remember about Vineyard Churches is the “Toronto Blessing” and the devastation it caused my daughter when it broke out in her Christian school and she did not speak in tongues.
    She came home with tears in her eyes because she wouldn’t get on the floor and bark like a dog and call it a word from the Spirit.
    Sorry to be so graphic, but it brings out the point that needing some sort of visual proof can be dangerous.
    I did not have a problem with Tanya Luhrmann living with the church for 4 years and studying it. She was honest about it. I like reading what an outsider thinks. If nothing else, it helps us to understand when skeptics say that anyone claiming to hear God’s voice is psychotic and how we can respond as Christians.
    Our experiences are all different as readers of all the Cohort 7 posts can see!
    And hurray for the Baptists and Reformed who sing praise songs now!!! Interesting post, as always, Stu!

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      My son had a similar experience last summer in Taiwan. He and some friends were serving as a summer intern for a missionary there.

      They helped out with a youth camp of a charismatic church in Taiwan. Most of the church members come from families that were Taoist, so spiritual things were a part of their daily worldview.

      Anyway, some of the youth could speak in tongues. Others could not. The kids who spoke in tongues told the others “you are not Christians” because they did not have the Holy Spirit.

  5. Stu, good post – What you pulled out resonated with me as well.

    I loved the quote about her defending Christianity – when I read that, I immediately thought ‘what a testament to those Vineyard churches she observed and the people she met with.

    Your description of this book as ‘challenging and enjoyable’ about sums up my feelings as well.

    We aren’t going to spend any time talking about why you were watching ‘The View’….. nope. 🙂

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Stu I must have been living under a rock this past week because I was not aware of Joy’s comments. I think any time mentions that God talks to them it is assumed that it is audible. Because today God does not exist in the flesh it is hard for people to understand how that could ever take place. Things we do not understand we call “crazy”. I do think that many people think prayer is one directional and that God becomes a passive listener. Unfortunately, those who think this way are missing out on the intimate and powerful practice that exists in prayer.

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Stu, when I heard about Joy Behar’s comments I rolled my eyes and wondered if she would make the same comments about Oprah, or Glennon Melton Doyle, or any of the other strong women who tend to agree with her on other topics. I doubt it. I think she took the opportunity to take a shot at Pence. (Side note: I have my own issues with Pence, but it is disingenuous to call him crazy because he doesn’t ‘hear’ what I hear from God.)
    Like you, I believe in a God who pursues skeptics. I love that Luhrmann does not claim the title of Christian without being able to fully commit to it, but has learned enough about it to offer a defense. Wouldn’t it be awesome if that were sort of the baseline?

  8. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    “for those who do not have a background in a modern evangelical church, the concept of hearing from God is confusing”– yes, indeed! For that reason, I’m thankful for Luhrmann’s commitment to observation and how she helped “outsiders” to the modern evangelical church better understand the phenomena.

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