When God Talks Back: Book Review

Luhrmann, T.M. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

By Nofit Itzhak (University of California, San Diego)

While conducting fieldwork for her dissertation project among contemporary witches in Britain, Tanya Luhrmann woke up one morning to the startling vision of six druids standing against the window of her London apartment. The vision, a kind of temporary blurring of the boundary between the perceptible and the imagined, was the fruit, Luhrmann surmised later on, of visualization exercises aimed at enhancing one’s imaginative capacities, exercises she engaged in alongside her interlocutors, as she tried to understand how modern, rational people came to experience magic as real. In Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989), the resulting ethnography, she suggested that it was specifically this kind of imaginative and sensory retraining that allowed her interlocutors to inhabit a world which was at once rational and magical. Luhrmann’s latest ethnography, When God Talks Back, picks up where Persuasions left off, or rather addresses a similar problematic in a different ethnographic context, that of the American Evangelical Vineyard.

The Vineyard is a Southern California-originated, but now global church-planting denomination, combining Evangelical and Pentecostal logic in its ritual practice. Its US membership is primarily made up of white, educated, middle-class Americans. Luhrmann traces the historical roots of the church and its members’ particular fashion of relating to God to the Jesus People movement and Hippie culture of the 1960s, a time during which a strong evangelical interest in experiencing God in a direct and personal manner gained in popularity, and which she identifies as the onset of a period of religious excitement or “Great Awakening” in American history. Experiencing God in a direct and personal manner, however, is not a simple task for Luhrmann’s interlocutors, considering the fact that this very God is also invisible and intangible. The central problematic here, then, goes back to what Matthew Engelke (2007) called the “problem of presence”, or the inherent difficulty in establishing a relationship with, indeed in ascertaining the existence of, a God which cannot be directly perceived with one’s senses. When God Talks Back is an ethnographic investigation of the manners in which members of the Vineyard address the problem of presence, specifically through a retraining of their imagination and by learning to interpret particular inner sensory experiences as indicative of the presence of the divine.

Anchoring her analysis in psychological and cognitive anthropological perspectives, Luhrmann frames her research agenda in opposition to familiar evolutionary psychology accounts that consider religion to be a byproduct of our evolutionary trajectory (e.g. Boyer, 2001). The more interesting question, she insists, is not how people come to initially believe that non-corporeal agents exist, but rather, how they maintain that belief in light of evidence to the contrary, or when living under conditions of secular doubt. Thus, while humans may well be “hard wired” to believe in the existence of gods or spirits, Luhrmann finds that for contemporary Evangelicals of the Vineyard, the task of experiencing God as real in their lives requires considerable psychological labor. This is achieved, specifically, through making God “hyperreal”, at once imagined and real, something that Vineyards attempt through engagement in playful, make-believe activities, such as having “date night” with God, as well as through kataphatic prayer practices that center on imaginal experience and elicit strong affective responses in practitioners. The ability to effectively deploy the imagination, and consequently, experience the divine as more sensorily present in one’s life, Luhrmann notes, is tied to the psychological proclivity for “absorbtion”, or the ability to focus on, and become absorbed in, mental objects. While this psychological capacity varies among individuals, making God more experientially accessible for some than for others (indeed, some member of the Vineyard seem to have never had an inner-sense encounter with the divine), Luhrmann’s account seems to indicate that the kind of kataphatic prayer that her interlocutors engage in does indeed develop the psychological capacities associated with a heightened sense-experience of God. Importantly, through this inner-sense cultivation, imaginal content gains in sensory vividness which makes it experientially closer to real life memories, effectively blurring and reworking the boundary between the external and the internal, locating God in a unique epistemological category.

Luhrmann takes the case of the Vineyard as indicative of American Evangelical Christianity in general, suggesting that the growing popularity of forms of Christianity where God becomes hyperreal to believers is a symptom of living in a Secular Age, where the existence of God is no longer a given truth, but merely one possibility among others, an option that must be asserted (Taylor 2007). It is imagining God as magically real, accessible and always present, that helps believers to manage the doubts surrounding them. Reading Luhrmann’s account of the Vineyard alongside other ethnographies of Charismatic Christianities that stress the valorization of the imagination as a portal to the divine and the engagement in imaginal and sensory cultivation to that end (Csordas 1993, 1994), certainly lends credence to reading the Vineyard and other Charismatic churches as engaging in a form of religiosity particular to living under conditions of secular doubt. As Taylor (2011) himself points out, the move towards a more personal mode of religious engagement went hand in hand with the gradual secularization of the West, and was a strong factor in the removal of “magical” elements from Christian religious ritual and, consequently, the disenchantment of the world (Gauchet, 1997). An investment in making God hyperreal, then, can be read as an attempt at reenchantment, an attempt to recuperate a more porous relationship between the Self and the world. However, one must wonder how far this particular analysis can go considering the flourishing of Vineyard-like churches in social and cultural contexts where the existence of God has never been doubted, a question that invites for cross-cultural comparison along the lines investigated by Luhrmann in the American Evangelical context.

While to scholars of Christianity it would become evident by now that When God Talks Back is not primarily engaged in a theoretical dialogue with the anthropology of Christianity per se, I would suggest that the book should be of particular interest for those of us primarily engaged with Christianity as a “virtual object” of study (Bialecki, 2012). As a psychological anthropologist who has written on such varied topics as contemporary witchcraft, psychiatry and schizophrenia, Luhrmann brings a wealth of insights, theoretical and methodological perspectives to bear on her object of study. The result is not only a rich and fascinating account of contemporary Evangelical Christianity in the US, but also a fresh perspective on the subject, which stands to open and develop new theoretical horizons and thematic preoccupation for the anthropology of Christianity as a growing field of study. When God Talks Back also achieves the difficult task of simultaneously being scholarly rigorous and broadly accessible to non-academic audiences. The fact that in the aftermath of the book’s publication Luhrmann has managed to establish herself as a public intellectual (see her recent series of opinion pieces at the New York Times), is credit not only to the strength of her argument, or the book’s remarkably lucid and engaging prose, but is also an indication that When God Talks Back succeeds in capturing something of experiential import to contemporary Evangelical Christianity in the US.

Bialecki, Jon. 2012. “Virtual Christianity in an age of nominalist anthropology” Anthropological Theory 12: 295

Boyer, Pascal. 2001.  Religion Explained. New York: Basic Book.

Csordas, Thomas. 1993. “Somatic Modes of Attention” Cultural Anthropology 8(2): 135-156.

Csordas, Thomas. 1994. The Sacred self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, Matthew. 2007. The Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gauchet, Marcel. 1997. The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. 1989. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007.  A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2011. “Western Secularity” in Rethinking Secularism. Calhoun, C., Juergensmeyer, M. and Vanantwerpen J. (eds.). pp: 31-53. New York: Oxford University Press

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