How does God become and remain real for modern evangelicals? How are rational, sensible people of faith able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being and sustain that belief in an environment of overwhelming skepticism? T. M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist trained in psychology and the acclaimed author of Of Two Minds, explores the extraordinary process that leads some believers to a place where God is profoundly real and his voice can be heard amid the clutter of everyday thoughts.
While attending services and various small group meetings at her local branch of the Vineyard, an evangelical church with hundreds of congregations across the country, Luhrmann sought to understand how some members were able to communicate with God, not just through one-sided prayers but with discernable feedback. Some saw visions, while others claimed to hear the voice of God himself. For these congregants and many other Christians, God was intensely alive. After holding a series of honest, personal interviews with Vineyard members who claimed to have had isolated or ongoing supernatural experiences with God, Luhrmann hypothesized that the practice of prayer could train a person to hear God’s voice—to use one’s mind differently and focus on God’s voice until it became clear. A subsequent experiment conducted between people who were and weren’t practiced in prayer further illuminated her conclusion. For those who have trained themselves to concentrate on their inner experiences, God is experienced in the brain as an actual social relationship: his voice was identified, and that identification was trusted and regarded as real and interactive.
Astute, deeply intelligent, and sensitive, When God Talks Back is a remarkable approach to the intersection of religion, psychology, and science, and the effect it has on the daily practices of the faithful.
T. M. Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She received her education from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2007, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
From our Q&A with the author
Q: You are an anthropologist at Stanford and your last book, Of Two Minds, examined the world of psychiatry. What led you to study the evangelical relationship with God?
A: Both psychiatrists and Christians are making sense of the pain in the human condition. Both of them come up with abstract human concepts to interpret something they know to be more complicated than they can explain in words, and yet those words then shape the way they see and experience their world. In my book on psychiatry, I set out to understand how talking about emotions transformed them. Understanding the faith experience seemed like the next logical step.
Q: Were the people of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship hesitant to have an anthropologist attending their services and meetings? Did it take time for them to open up to you? How did they react to the conclusions that you have drawn?
A: The people at the churches where I spent time were remarkably gracious and open. I think they were sometimes a little startled by the questions I asked and the things I said, but that comes with having an anthropologist around. They really liked my conclusion that prayer was a skill, and that some people had more aptitude for the skill than others, because not everyone at a church like this really does feel that God speaks to them—and that makes them feel badly, as if they aren’t really worthy of being loved by God, even if they know theologically that that is silly. So my research observation that some people had more of a proclivity for these experiences than others was actually comforting to them.
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