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To Hear or Not to Hear and To Be or Not to Be; That is the Question

Written by: on March 9, 2017

Introduction

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?”[1]  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.

Summary

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

Analysis

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.”[5]

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.”[6]  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.”[7]

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?

[1] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York:  Vintage Books, 2012), 300.

[2] Ibid., 325.

[3] Ibid., xxi.

[4] Ibid., xxi.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid., 190.

[7] Ibid., 191.

About the Author

mm

Phil Goldsberry

12 responses to “To Hear or Not to Hear and To Be or Not to Be; That is the Question”

  1. Kevin Norwood says:

    Phil,

    Thanks for an insightful blog. I thought the author looked at the language of the development of the evangelicals with both the formal language and the “slang” language. Her explanations of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues and interpretation were clear and concise and non church. Her exploring “name it and claim it” theology was spot on.

    Here is my question, how can someone who is this entrenched into the activity of God, not be a believer? Is it because of all the “false?” Or is it simply a choice to examine the power but not want to do anything with it? What was her major disconnect? I remember reading the part that you quoted about her seeing six druids and reflecting back that everyone is looking for something spiritual.

    The stories she told sounded like my upbringing in the Assemblies of God and all the non denominational churches that my friends attended. It had real power in it. I can’t explain it all and some things are still a mystery to me but I know that it was real. What do you know is real?

    Kevin

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Kevin:
      I had the same thoughts on several accounts: 1. I felt she had been around some of my childhood days. 2. How did she get so close and still remain so far?

      What do I know? God is real and longs to have a relationship with me that is real and intimate. I had my moments in my 20’s when I wondered on several major accounts. What kept me sane was a reliance and exploration of what I know was real. God’s patience amazed me.

      Phil

  2. Claire Appiah says:

    Phil,
    I like your objective critique of Luhrmann’s book “When God Talks Back.” Her most telling statement about her research results comes from her concluding comment which you quoted, “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 (whatever that means) 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.” (p.325) Doesn’t this somewhat echo Acts 27:28—“Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian?” After two years of being an eyewitness to Christians experiencing the power of God’s Spirit on a personal and intimate level, Luhrmann walks away as an intelligent, rational person, confused and not understanding what she believes. And I am curious just what she thinks she knows about God if not what was demonstrated and taught at the Vineyard. What did she learn from studying the Bible and from prayer sessions?

    Her project started out with the wrong hypothesis. Instead of exploring how intelligent people are able to sustain belief in an invisible God, she should have been investigating the substance and validity of what intelligent people believe about an invisible God. This would have eventually lead her to comprehend salvation through faith in Christ and the resultant regeneration and transformation of the human spirit which is capable of communing with God.

  3. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Claire:
    As usual, great insight on our reading. The analogy to Agrippa is probably the best analogy. Intelligence does not take us to God no more than “natural theology” save us. Her hypothesis could have been shifted but did not.

    Phil

  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Thanks Phil,
    In the same vein a pastor I knew emphasizes that academics and intellectualism don’t mean that you are anointed, gifted, or have wisdom when it comes to knowing and understanding things associated with God.

  5. Phil, I laughed when I read that you got more out of the preface than the rest of the book. I felt the same but didn’t have the guts to say so. So thanks. For me, I think it is more style issue. I didn’t really care for the style of story telling and then placing some psychological-anthropolocial academic writing “here and there.” I do see her point though that she “lived” it for a few years. She states in the conclusion that she did not cross the line and become a Christian after all her time though. Seems to me she was attempting to have it both ways: write as an outsider and an insider.

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Aaron:

      How different is pastoring today…..people want the inside and the outside both. Luhrmann just causes us to step into the world of today’s mind.

      Phil

  6. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Phil,

    I had a similar response to yours: how could you spend that much time in Vineyard churches for four years and still be on the fence?

    You wrote, “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.”

    With the subjective nature of hearing from God, have you seen examples of our human wishes muddying the water of accurately assessing what God says? In other words, are we in danger of misreading, or imagining a god that is to our liking?

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Marc:

      Great question. I believe as long as “man” is involved we are capable of all types of antics. Luhrmann seems to make the allusion that whatever we “imagine” can turn into reality in what God is saying….well then we may have a real problem.

      Phil

  7. Pablo Morales says:

    Phil,
    I echo some of your perceptions of the book and your disappointment to learn that she did not embrace Christ after her research (at least, not yet). Perhaps because the context she explored is so unknown to me, I was rather fascinated by the book. It was hard to put down. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews and the historical background.

    You mentioned that you had your own moments in your 20s that apparently made you doubt the reality of some of the experiences. In your ministry as a pastor now, have you ever doubted other people’s experiences of the supernatural? Have you ever had to confront it?
    I am just wondering.
    Pablo

  8. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Pablo:

    Being in the “Spirit-filled” community I have had moments that doubt has arisen about what was “perceived” as supernatural. But I also wonder how would I have felt when Jesus spit in the ground and stuck it in a man’s eye……mmm, that might have been a major issue.

    Confront it? There have been times that I have had to confront what was good people involved in “perceived” supernatural. Luhrmann turns on prayer from an academic perspective and sometimes people act upon what they see. It’s no different, just a different view.

    My question, who holds people like Luhrmann accountable?

    Phil

  9. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Phil,
    I love your firm tone to the nature of this book. In reading this book, I had a plethora of emotions. At first, I wasn’t sure if the author was promoting Vineyard Churches, belief or unbelief. However, I realized this book in its myriad of emotions, focused on new adult converts to Evangelical Christianity. Beyond the fog, we’ll find the author investigating how new converts cultivate their relationship with God. For e.g., the author shows that the typical new convert experience God much different from the unchurched convert who will have to get used to having God as the center of their lives. Chapter four talks about the developing your heart but Chapter three sets the foundation for the unchurched where their imagination becomes the tool that helps them form the reality of God. This is one of those read between the lines kind of book, where you probably won’t practice those theories on your new converts in your church, but these exist in some churches.

    Garfield

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