When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann

Way back in 1997 Jerome Gellman gave a lecture at YU on his then recent book on mysticism and religious experience. The subject of the talk was on the concept of the truth claims of mystical experiences of oneness and noetic insight. But when the questions started, he received questions about from the students about their conversations with God during prayer. I was surprised that for many of them kavvanah was about their daily conversation with God about their daily problems. They had developed a type of experience of God that was unlike prior Hasidut. There is a brand new book by a known scholar T. M. Luhrmann, who tries to explain this phenomena in her new book, “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.”

Luhrmann’s book was recently reviewed in the New Yorker. The article summarizes Luhrmann’s conclusions in her popular work. (for her technical papers- see below.) Talking to God is trained habitual activity and that one must learn to trust the experience. Americans who converse with God view god in very personal terms, not the majesty, awe or judgment of traditional accounts. The lack of probability logic among contemporary believers is widespread in Orthodox circles. Luhrman avoids pathological terminology for the phrase “sensory overloads.”

The United States, as we know, is a very religious country, but the figures still have the power to amaze. Since 1996, according to Gallup polls, between thirty-five and forty-seven per cent of Americans have described themselves as “evangelical” or “born again”; two-thirds mostly or wholly believe that angels and devils are at work in the world.

How do you find this God? First, you train yourself to recognize the evidence of his operation in your life. One Vineyard parishioner, Augusta, described feeling “goosebumps and just warm all over and just very peaceful, and I know that he’s there.” Or if a thought pops into your head that’s not the kind of thought you normally have, and, above all, if it strangely matches something else in your recent experience, that is likely to be God speaking..”

In the second step, worshippers, when they recognize that God is with them, must learn to treat him like an intimate. This injunction, probably more than anything else in Luhrmann’s book, will puzzle readers who were raised in other religious traditions. The Vineyarders have no interest in God as a figure of majesty, or of judgment. They wear shorts and sneakers to church on Sunday.
This casualness carries over to conversations with God. The Vineyarders asked him “for admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illness—even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.” Some Vineyard women had a regular “date night” with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. He guided the Vineyarders every minute of the day.
So the third step is to “develop your heart”—that is, to cultivate the emotions that are appropriate to receiving God’s unconditional love. There are exercises for this, notably, what Luhrmann calls “crying in the presence of God.”

Above all, the congregants cried when they were “prayed over” by their fellows. At the end of the service, if they had troubles, they went over to the “prayer team” standing against a side wall, and the team huddled around them, touched them, and prayed over them, “asking God to make them feel safe, loved, and protected—wrapped in his arms, soothed by his embrace, washed by his forgiveness.” If, under such ministrations, you didn’t cry, this was something you had to explain.

From chapter to chapter, you can’t quite figure out how Luhrmann feels about the Vineyarders’ spiritual project. Occasionally, she allows herself sarcastic remarks—for some of the congregants, she says, the product of prayer is a state of “feel-good blurries”—and she describes some scenes with unmistakably comic intent. At one point, she and another church member, Elaine, go to a Vineyard-sponsored conference called “The Art of Hearing God.” Luhrmann writes, “The leader explained to us that scientists had discovered that if you slow down the sounds a cricket makes, you will find that the cricket is actually singing the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus to Handel’s Messiah. Elaine thought that this was really neat and repeated it to our house group without a trace of irony.” Luhrmann says that Elaine was “almost wantonly uninterested in probabilistic logic.”

The Vineyarders seem to have no theology—they never try to reconcile reason with faith, nor do they try to account for the existence of evil in a world that is, presumably, ruled by a good God. Their solution to suffering, Luhrmann says, is to ignore it. One of her interviewees was crushed by the sudden death of a friend. Her pastor brought this up in the Sunday service. Luhrmann summarizes his response: “That’s the way it is. ‘Creation is beautiful, but it is not safe.’ He called everyday reality ‘broken.’ ‘God is doing something about it. There’s a fix in progress. It will be okay.’ What should you do? Get to know God. ‘Learn to hang out with him now.’”

Not surprisingly, Luhrmann compares the Vineyarders’ beliefs to children’s thought processes. She discusses their views in relation to D. W. Winnicott’s theories about transitional objects. For some evangelicals, she says, God is not unlike a stuffed Snoopy.

She repeatedly reminds us that the majority of them are educated people. One is a medical student, one an economist, a few are lawyers.

Luhrmann warns us against calling the evangelicals’ visions and voices “hallucinations”; that is a psychiatric and, hence, pathologizing term. In her vocabulary, such events are “sensory overrides”—sensory perceptions that override material evidence. She cites evidence that between ten and fifteen per cent of the general population has had such experiences.

She says that the Vineyarders know that their “faith practice”—their date nights with God, their asking him for a red convertible—is, in some measure, playacting. At the same time, they see it as a way of encountering God. She later adds, “The playfulness and paradox of this new religiosity does for Christians what postmodernism, with its doubt-filled, self-aware, playful intellectual style, did for intellectuals. It allows them to waver between the metaphorical and the literal.”

Luhrmann places great emphasis on the hours that they put in, and I think that is not only because this is important to them but because she expects that it will be important to the reader’s view of them. Americans respect hard work. Read the Rest Here.

An Anglican blog with more than a touch of anthropological knowledge responded to the New Yorker article by giving the more technical aspects of why we have sensory overrides, absorption, meditation. Her scientific article is here- download it.

In the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology, Luhrmann published a primer on sensory overrides or hallucinations. She begins by asking why hallucinations occur: What is happening in the mind? Although there is no firm consensus, most agree that hallucinations are tied to perception and what is known as “reality monitoring.” This perspective views the mind not as a passive recipient of direct stimuli (the Hume-like model), but as an active agent which filters, interprets, and constructs experience from stimuli (the Kant-like model).
…hallucination-like experiences occur not because there is necessarily something wrong with one’s mind, but because one interprets something imagined in the mind as being real in the world. The most plausible mechanism here is that we constantly experience perceptual “breaks,” which we repair below the level of our awareness, either by filling in a perceptual break from its surrounding perceptual field or by interpreting the break with prior knowledge (e.g., the way being told that strange sounds are English can change the way one hears them). Hallucinations probably occur in the process of repair, and the cause is likely more often perceptual bias than perceptual deficit.

Knowing this, Luhrmann identifies three patterns of hallucinations that appear in all societies. The first and most pervasive is Sensory Override, in which people “experience a sensation in the absence of a source to be sensed.” The paradigmatic example is the hearing of a voice even though no one is present or no one has spoken. Although the hearing of non-existent voices is common across cultures and has been attributed to all manner of spirits, gods, ghosts, and other imaginaries, in the US it is often reported by charismatic Christians who believe God is talking. Luhrmann’s research links this experience to an attentional state which dampens external stimuli and amplifies internal arousal:

Absorption is the capacity to become focused on the mind’s object — what humans imagine or see around them — and to allow that focus to increase while diminishing attention to the myriad of everyday distractions that accompany the management of normal life. It is the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and much other spiritual experience in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations.

It is also true that spiritual training may make sensory overrides more likely. Inner sense cultivation — and mental imagery cultivation, in particular — is at the heart of shamanism and is central to many spiritual traditions….[T]wo dominant forms of mental techniques in effect train the human mind to experience the supernatural: techniques that focus attention on the inner senses and those that train attention away from thought and sensation. Examples of the former include shamanism, Tibetan vision meditation, and the Ignatian spiritual exercises; examples of the latter are Zen meditation and Centering Prayer.- from here.

Her cultural observations are featured elsewhere in the science journalism. Americans are reticent to share their hallucinations, but other cultures are quite comfortable with it.

Elsewhere in the world, people openly discuss their hallucinatory experiences. In many non-Western cultures, such as Thailand’s Buddhist society, troubled minds are viewed as open to manipulation by ghosts and other forms of invisible, supernatural energy, Luhrmann says. In an upcoming issue of Religion and Society, Stanford anthropologist Julia Cassaniti and Luhrmann report that Thai college students and villagers often report having had waking nightmares, run-ins with ghosts and other supernatural encounters during periods of personal turmoil.- from here.

Finally, here is Luhrmann in her own voice on why Americans are turning to direct experience. It offers reassurance that their view is correct. This fits in well with the emotionalism and direct experience of the gap-year in Israel in its functional aspect to provide certainty through experience.

Millions and millions of Americans experience themselves as having a personal relationship with God that is as vivid and intimate as a child’s imaginary friend. They go for walks with God. They go on dates with God. Sometimes they set a place at the dinner table for God and sit down across from the place setting to talk things over with Him. Exactly how many Americans have so intimate a relationship is a little hard to determine, but that is the kind of relationship many evangelicals seek. Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life” — more than 25 million copies sold — says that God should be your “best friend.” Dallas Willard, a beloved evangelical author, explains that God’s face-to-face conversations with Moses are the “normal human life God intended for us.” In 2008, the Pew Foundation found that more than a quarter of all Americans said that God had given them a direct revelation.

Why has this way of imagining God become so popular for modern Americans? It is not the first time that God has inflamed the American senses. Over the course of our history, there have been periods when people have sought to experience God intensely and immediately. Historians have called them “great awakenings.” No doubt these yearnings are fueled by different motivations at different times. In this era, the yearning may be fueled by secular doubt. No Christian in America is unaware that there are other Americans who are not Christian, and are not even believers; and that may be unsettling, for the knowledge raises the possibility that one’s own beliefs are hollow. The quest to experience God with personal immediacy may arise out of this climate of doubt, for a God you can feel and hear and talk to can dispel the anxiety raised by a neighbor’s skeptical look.- from here.

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9 responses to “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann

  1. The line in The New Yorker piece that struck me when I read it yesterday, as it happens, was: “Vineyarders may implore God to help fellow-members of their church, but otherwise, in Luhrmann’s account, pretty much everything seems to be about themselves.”

    Are their analogues in Jewish religious segments?

  2. Indeed, but is this broadly understood and accepted as an issue? The story about the class of 19-year-old girls in Bnei Brak is a banal, but telling example.

    • Indeed, but is this broadly understood and accepted as an issue?

      What is your question?

      • I would ask:

        Is not Jewish teaching (CHareidi Orthodox) self/nation centered? Everything is about us. We don’t give a damn about the outside world And even within the community, we seem to approach God as our personal butler/doctor/accountant, etc.. God seems, for most orthodox jews, to exist only to serve us, not the other way around. Is this not a problem?
        Are we not very self-centered in our relationship with God? We treat God as if he were here to serve us and not the other way around.

  3. No question: just exploring how Luhrmann’s work can boost popular Jewish introspection in a less threatening and emotional way. In any case, the line struck a chord with me.

  4. In Braslever hisbodedus, I know the worshiper pours out his heart to God. Is God generally assumed to answer back?

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