Required Reading: Learning to Hear Why Evangelical Christians Hear God

Guest Post by David Long

Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back

Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Adam Laats’s testimonial for his creation of I love you but you’re going to hell was one of the most refreshing perspectives I’ve read in a long time.  Laats’ roots in Boston—having, what those of us living in the “fly-over” states might skeptically be inclined to see as the judgment of a  limited, Northeastern Liberal metropolitan view—make for interesting reading given his apparent surprise at thoughts and tendencies of ‘Red State’ America. In short, the general tone sounds something like—”these creatures really still exist?!”  In fact, as I suppose Laats has encountered through reader feedback, such creatures not only exist but make up a good bit of the Union.Countering Laats, those of us raised where ‘olde-timey’ religion has never faded, and where it remains an assumed keystone of responsible civic participation, raise an eyebrow to what we see as shortsighted judgment of those disinclined to ever value living in the interior.  Calming our nervous eye, Laats is on the right track.  His earnestness rings true.  Try to figure these curious people out.  Know where people are coming from.  But then what?  Historians are great at drawing on the past to inform the present.  Often, due to the normal purview of their back-looking view, they’re not as good at analyzing the dynamics of here and now.

The American relationship to God has not been static as historians show well.  Unabashed liberal  theologians such as Marcus Borg and sociologists such as Robert Putnam and David Campbell show that the American response to the sacred has been changing.  As Putnam and Campbell show most clearly, the old “Mainline” Christianity of Laats’ and many other’s childhood has eroded.  Congregations reduced by half in many cases over the past half century, the “Mainline” is Main no longer.  American Protestantism has changed dramatically in recent decades, ever more and more defined by the new Evangelicalism featured in T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.

As Luhrmann sees it, “this is an important story because the rift between the believers and non-believers has grown so wide that it can be difficult for one side to respect the other.  Since evangelical Christianity emerged as a force in American culture, and especially since the younger George Bush rode a Christian wave into office, non-evangelical observers transfixed by the change in the American religious landscape.  Many have been horrified by what they take to be naïve and unthinking false beliefs, and alarmed by the nature of this modern God” (p. xv).

When God Talks Back follows the emergence of the rapidly growing neo charismatic evangelical movement in the U.S. through the lives, thoughts, and hopes of dozens of fellow church goers.  Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist, presents a salient answer to those ILYBYGTH readers who wonder not only how such people exist, but how such views are cultivated.  Luhrmann’s work is ethnographic—she became a congregant of the Vineyard Church in a number of U.S. cities over a few years.  Countering some of Laats’ personal narrative, and further deflating modernist hopes that science and theories of progress would dissolve American religious commitment in time, Luhrmann shows that neo charismatic Evangelicalism is spreading throughout the U.S.—including major urban areas.  “There are pockets of liberal Christianity left in America and Europe,  but Christianity around the world has exploded in its seemingly least liberal and most magical form—in charismatic Christianities that take Biblical miracles at face value and treat the Holy Spirit as if it had a voltage” (p. 302).

Underscoring Luhrmann’s work, and worth what is a sometimes lengthy and ranging ethnographic treatment of Vineyard Church members, is the strongly theorized, yet easily digestible insight about science, faith, and the near American future.  The neo-Evangelicalism explored in Luhrmann’s work points strongly to a theory of religious practice—of knowing from doing religion—rather than the usually scientistic efforts of explaining Evangelicalism through evaluation of epistemological pathways of coming to know.

As Luhrmann explains, “…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.  More precisely, … people learn specific ways of attending to their minds and their emotions to find evidence of God, and that both what they attend to and how they attend changes their experience of their minds, ad that as a result, they begin to experience a real, external, interacting living presence” (p. xxi).

What unfolds chapter by chapter is a unique and deeply insightful look into the social practice of being an Evangelical Christian in early 21st century America.  As Luhrmann sees it, and given my own experience working and talking with creationists, such views are much more saliently explainable once you come to acknowledge the social support evangelicals get from their churches, appended by the reality of time allocation.  As Luhrmann makes a convincing case, being an Evangelical in today’s charismatic style—through the many, emotionally exuberant hours of praise and worship—changes one’s style of thinking.  Like Aristotelian phronesis, one can become quite good—a master—at the virtues of evangelical worship regardless of whether liberal America thinks it’s silly, backward, or indicative of sloppy thinking.

“They seemed to think about sensing God more or less the way we think about sophisticated expertise in any field: that repeated exposure and attention, coupled with specific training, helps the expert see things that are really present but that the raw observer cannot, and that some experts are more expert than others.  A sonogram technician looks at the wavy grey blur on the screen and sees a healthy boy.  This is not a matter of taste or aesthetic judgment: there is, or is not, a boy in the woman’s womb, and the technician can see evidence for the fact in a picture that leaves the expectant mother bewildered.  And a very good technician sees details that a merely competent one cannot” (p. 60).

In fact Luhrmann’s work offers another compelling insight into the durability of evangelical christianity in the early 21st century American milieu.  Countering the shrillness of some “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, etc., Luhrmann repeatedly follows evangelicals through life trials for which their church homes offer not only a sense of purpose, but a foil to those who might critique religious practice as being an inadequate explanatory matrix to respond to the world.  As Luhrmann makes clear, “in some quite fundamental way, modern believers don’t need religion to explain anything at all.  They have plenty of scientific accounts for why the world is as it is and why some bodies rather than others fall ill.  What they want from faith is to feel better than they did without faith.  They want a sense of purpose; they want to know that what they do is not meaningless” (p. 295).

Luhrmann’s book then is an invitation to those willing to suspend their critique of Christian America’s current form in favor of a an exploration of how and why it currently comes to be.

 

DAVID LONG is an anthropologist who studies the American relationship towards science, particularly as it unfolds in schools and universities.  His work examines the role of religious faith, social class, ethnicity, and gender in people’s lives as they relate to science.   He is the author of Evolution and religion in American education: an ethnography (Springer 2011), where he followed a cohort of college students, many of whom were Creationists, documenting the rationales and anxieties they encountered while thinking and talking about evolution.  He is currently conducting longitudinal research on the administrative decision making in K-12 schools which does or does not support science teaching.  Dr. Long currently directs implementation research for the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement at George Mason University.  He can be reached at dlong9@gmu.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. David Long at the Smithsonian | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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