Tanya Luhrmann’s work, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, is one woman’s perspective and premise on, “How can sensible, educated people in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives?” My first objection is her broad use of the “American Evangelical” Church when her reality her book reflects her personal interactions with the Vineyard Church which only a subcategory of the Evangelical church in America.
Of great concern was her ending of the book, “And there is another factor that shapes the way the individual experiences God. That is the real presence of the divine. 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.”[2
I entered the book with great interest. I read the book with a question mark in mind. I finished with a deep concern how someone could be around “hearing” and “believing” and walk away saying that she would not call herself a Christian.
Luhrmann’s journey in and around the Vineyard Church is what gave her an anthropological view of her search for how people discover and believe in God. Luhrmann focuses on her Vineyard experiences and the semantics and practices that are common to the Vineyard churches that she attended. Her book is a collection of various people and their stories of their miracles, interaction, and miracles that they had received When God Talks Back.
Luhrmann introduces us to potheads, mothers, and intellectuals who experience God in their own personal way. “In fact, what I saw was that coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something. I would describe what I saw as a theory of attentional learning – that the way you learn to pay attention determines your experience of God.”
Her ethnographic and psychological background, seem to present a detailed, yet tainted view of some of the experiences. “In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all—but God’s.”
This may sound a bit crass, but I got more from the Preface, than I did the book. At times, I couldn’t distinguish if it was “tongue in cheek” or an outright distaste for the supernatural that she saw/heard. Some of Luhrmann’s experiences were not new or over the top from the myriad of experiences that I have observed over the years.
In Luhrmann’s chapter, “The Skill of Prayer”, I found myself a bit taken back with her experience in London. Her premise was that, “We have seen that in the kind of prayer taught in evangelical churches, those praying focus on what they think, feel, and imagine. And we have also seen that prayer traditions presume that these practices alter spiritual experiences.”
I followed some of Luhrmann’s skepticism; at times, I have asked questions about legitimacy and experiential environments that caused questioning of faith and reality. Where I have some pause is when we mentally attempt to presuppose or analyze a transcendent God that performs and behaves in ways that are totally foreign to us.
Luhrmann, on page 190, says the following: “I thought I could figure out whether the mental changes they reported really did take place” (this was about prayer and understanding God), “I was curious about how magic come to seem real to modern people”, “When I set out to understand…”, and “For the most part, I found, the rituals depend on techniques of the imagination.” She then tells of reading, “…Arthurian Britain and Celtic Isles (it was written by a magician), I allowed myself to get deeply involved with the story….allowing it to grip my feelings to fill my mind. I read late into the night. And as I woke the next morning, I saw six druids standing against the window, above the stirring London street below. I saw them and they beckoned to me.”
Shakespeare begins Hamlet with the following words, “To be or not to be. That is the question.” These words from the early 1600’s seem to reflect Luhrmann. My question is what did she truly resolve in her pursuits? Did she hear? Did she believe?
 T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 300.
 Ibid., 325.
 Ibid., xxi.
 Ibid., xxi.
 Ibid., 189.
 Ibid., 190.
 Ibid., 191.