Rachel on Luhrmann, Jenkins, Seeman and Seeman

Rachel Wrenn

October 19, 2016



T.M. Luhrmann conducted an extended study of two Vineyard evangelical Christian churches over the course of several years. Out of her research came a book that attempts to “take an outsider’s perspective into the heart of faith” (ix), “explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real” (xv), and explain how they can retain that faith even in the face of adverse situations. With these stated goals, Luhrmann unfolds the results of her research in ten chapters.

In the first 6 chapters, Luhrmann sets the foundation for how to understand the practice of prayer utilized in Vineyard churches. The breadth of her reach is impressive, ranging everywhere from Augustine to the Beatles, from the Gospel of John to John Wimber. She utilizes history, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology to powerful effect, laying careful groundwork for the aims of her prologue. Timothy Jenkins, in his article “Theology’s Contribution to Anthropology’s Understanding in T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back,” identifies chapter 6 as the fulcrum of the book’s argument; his opinion is that Luhrmann’s use of contemporary Christian materials as well as older tracts opens a new door for anthropologists who perhaps in the past spurned or shied away from studying this material. Methodologically, he is correct; however, I think he missed the true fulcrum of Luhrmann’s argument, Chapter 7.

In chapters 1-6, Luhrmann shows the practice of how people maintain their belief in God; in chapter 7, her approach shifts to wondering if this practice is actually transformative on people’s lives. She lays out, with detail and clarity, a study that she and her assistants performed on volunteers in California. The results of the study argue for the effectiveness of the prayer practice, especially kataphatic prayer, in actually having a change in people’s lives and experiences of the divine. Her method is painstaking and her argument effective. However, my impression, seconded by Jenkins, is that she neglected to account for how much of the similarities people describe in their experiences are empirical and how much might they be due to language conditioning from their environment—or, as Jenkins puts it, “There are real difficulties with any empirical reliance on the notion of experience…what is experienced is constructed prospectively and retrospectively using shared categories” (371).

Luhrmann finishes the reporting of her results with a sympathetic view toward the beliefs of the Vineyard evangelical Christians. She believes that rather than denying modernity, they approach their faith fully immersed in modernity. The intimate relationship they seek with God is both mediated by the community and constantly under their awareness that the relationship takes place in the realm of the imagined, the supra-mental, and thus will always be accompanied by doubt. Ultimately, for these Vineyard evangelical Christians, Luhrmann finds that “religion is not about explaining reality, but about transforming it” (295) through a series of committed prayer practices, the goal of which is an intimate personal relationship with God.


Luhrmann states on p. xi that she is taking “an outsider’s perspective into the heart of faith through an anthropological exploration of American evangelical Christianity.” In my opinion, this was a main hinge upon which the whole book swung. I have read enough defensive Christian apology and antagonistic secular “debunking” to feel strongly that the motives of the writer do more to shape a study of Christianity than any other mitigating factor. As I continued to read, I could not shake the feeling that I was not reading the research of an uninterested observer, but of a believer—really, a convert. Quotes like “[God] is no longer the benign but distant sovereign of the old mainstream church; nor is he the harsh tyrant of the Hebrew Bible” (xvi) seemed to suggest a distinct, strong bias against certain forms of Christianity. In addition, the claims Luhrmann made about the beliefs and practices of mainline Christians were never supported with study or anthropological “lived experience;” “[In] a mainstream Protestant church … hymns aren’t so much individual prayers as collective assertions in which the congregation stands up as a group to affirm to each other that they are there” (4). If Tricia had a moment of personal crisis in discussing women’s health a few weeks ago, I had a moment of self-awareness when I had to compartmentalize my identity as a mainline Christian with the treatment of those traditions in Luhrmann’s book. And yet, I do not think this negates the critique; if Luhrmann takes issue with one branch of Christianity, should that not be disclosed at the fore of the book? Further, the last page of the book discloses the fact that throughout this process, Luhrmann came to a certain understanding, experience of, or belief in God. Knowledge of this would have been much more useful at the beginning of the book, as Maya Deren did in Divine Horsemen. It brings up an interesting question; when studying communities out of which we have been formed, what needs to be disclosed before reporting the results?

I also felt there was a lack of clarity around the theology that Luhrmann was drawing on, what was encompassed in the word “evangelical,” and her use of the Bible throughout the book. Biblical scholarship has had a long and deep history, and often Luhrmann would make point-blank statements about the meaning of a text, without engaging in any of the careful historical, contextual, or literary scholarship that has been developed in the discipline over the years. I’m sure this surprises no one that this is one of my critiques (and I have several examples which I don’t need to list here), and it led me to ruminate on an interesting question; if attempting to do an ethnography on a community with whose sacred texts we are already familiar, what precautions do we need to take against our own familiarity?

Content-wise and methodologically, I found much in the book to be admired. I appreciated how Luhrmann approached the religious experience of Vineyard evangelical Christians neither as if it were a phenomenon to be explained or a farce to be debunked. This is one of the first studies I have read that has attempted to approach Christian religious experience on its own terms and examine what the results of it might be. Her compassionate and thoughtful representation of the Vineyard evangelical Christians as people who both have faith and wrestle with it with a blessed middle ground in the popular portrayal of Christians on either side of the debate. Luhrmann also consistently brought up Christian history and tradition throughout the book and showed how the Vineyard movement grows directly out of this continuous history; in my mind, this historical treatment was a thoughtful and respectful treatment of a religious tradition in its entirety, instead of cherry-picking as is often wont to happen.



Seeman’s two articles deepen the conversation around mind, spirit, and body in Luhrmann’s book. A central point in When God Talks is the fact that experiences of God in the Vineyard evangelical community are consistently sensory, involving all five of the sense excluding taste, interestingly enough. Seeman outlines how the Jewish Hasidic tradition takes very seriously the material nature of the world, even seeing it as all having an undeniable and vital link to the divine. This is not the same as the idea of transcending the world as found in Buddhism, but instead the goal is to, over a period of intentional practice, transform one’s vision and understanding of the world; the world is not something to be transcended to reach the divine, but rather it is the “expression of divine glory” itself (4).

In the context of contemporary research into brain activity around prayer and spirituality, this is an important point. If there is that clear of a connection between the body and the experience of spirituality, should that connection not be taken more into account in the medical community? Brain studies occur with regularity in anthropological and psychological research, and are often taken as authoritative. Seeman raises the point that correct interpretation of scientific scans is reliant on or at least related to interpretation of the lived context in which prayer actually happens.


For this section, I am hoping to draw from the expertise of our class to guide our discussion for Wednesday, especially because this is a topic which would benefit from a fair amount of context. I’ve come up with a *suggested* question for each person in the class to think about and perhaps share with us to help inform our discussion—these aren’t meant to force you into a certain type of reply for your precis, more just topics for you to ruminate on before Wednesday.

  • Cara, the founders of The Vineyard churches were Quakers before they left to start their own church. Based on your reading of this book, what would it be important for us to know about the Quaker tradition, theology, and piety and the possible connections to The Vineyard churches that could help us better understand this context?
  • Emmy, I was wondering if you could speak in some way to your experience working in a church these past 3 years and the ways you saw people in your church pray or experience God v. the way Luhrmann describes prayer or experiences of God by Vineyard evangelical Christians: what were the similarities and what were the differences?. Or if the book isn’t bringing up anything about that for you, do you have any thoughts on the topic of agency and the way the discussion is implied in the text?
  • Patricia, you have expertise in sociology, especially around areas of health, and this book mentions spiritual healings several times. What gets triggered for you when you hear that phrase? What would be helpful for us to know about the discussion around health, healing, and spiritual healing in sociology that would be helpful for us to know?
  • Keenan, you are our resident science dude and also a person of Jewish faith. With Seeman’s article on Prayer and Medical Materialism, could you see the suggestion for a “model of contingent materiality” being helpful for the scientific field? Why or why not? And if so, how would it be employed?
  • Nick, as our resident Big Black Man, you would read the race discussions or lack thereof in this book best of all of us. What were your impressions of the claims Luhrmann makes about evangelicals based on this one tradition? What else popped up for you, or would be especially helpful for us to know?
  • Rebekah, I was wondering if you could speak to the issue of control that you so nicely lifted up from Lienhardt’s book; what connections, if any, do you see in the issue of controlling their world and the way Luhrmann depicts evangelicals from The Vineyard praying specific prayers
  • Don: Though this wasn’t an obviously named topic in the book, I have been struggling to understand the way “moral” and “moral experience” are precisely defined in these conversations. Could you shed some light on this?

6 thoughts on “Rachel on Luhrmann, Jenkins, Seeman and Seeman

  1. Thank you, Rachel, for giving so much thought and care into this précis and formulating questions for us to consider based on our interest. Because Luhrmann frames her inquiry for a non-believing audience, the nature of her observations seem to me, at least, woefully limited. Luhrmann does an amazing job at describing the particular rituals and practices of the Vineyard communities she’s observed and explaining how those communities make meaning of God and their religious experience. Where the work struggles, is its myopic focus on communicating those observations a non-believing audience. To me, trying to speak to this audience, might have been better served by discerning the fringes of the Vineyard community. Luhrmann’s interest in the center-core of the community actually flattens tensions that diversity and difference create. I am not sure I am articulating that in the clearest way -but I would have liked to see how people how the fringe, the out-group within the community navigates the practices of the community and in that space explore how God is understood and discerned. In general, the analysis does lack strong attention to diversity, but it does so in a way that makes it seem as if diversity is a non-issue or not essential to how people conceive of God and their faith…

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you so much for this detailed precis! To address your specific question about spiritual healing – I don’t think I can really speak to it from a sociological perspective or even a public health perspective. In my research, I study religiosity or religious attendance and health, which has more to do with social capital and social control – how being a part of a group influences health and health behaviors. I can discuss what the (quantitative) research says about that, but spiritual healing seems to be something more experiential, something to be described in an annecdotal sense. Lucky for me, I have plenty of anecdotes to share about that topic 😉 Having grown up in a religious group that highly valued both physical and spiritual health, there were many norms and even rituals surrounding healing that I would be happy to describe to the class. Actually, reading through Luhrman’s book brought up a lot of memories from services I’ve attended similar to the Vineyard. It was an interesting experience feeling like this ethnography was written about my own experiences, as if I was the ‘subject’, the one being studied.

  3. Rachel,

    Thanks very much for this, and for calling us out individually. We can talk about this more in class tomorrow, but I think I use the term moral experience to indicate that the kind of experience I am focused on is not merely an inner state or “happening” but a way of being in the world in which something is at stake for people. Experience includes value judgements, thought-feelings and responses to perceptions of loss, injury or gain because that is how we live the world. It is also irreducible social, in the sense that no one lives the world alone (though they may be lonely). Moral experience is not “ineffable” but can be contextualized and understood (at least asymptotically) through empathetic understanding of the contexts in which it take place. The experience of eating ice cream may not be inherently moral, but then it also becomes bound up with experiences, memories or associations with health and illness, with body image and weight control, with associations of childhood or with feelings of guilt and reward these ARE components of moral experience in the sense that they matter, that something is at stake there, and that the moral evaluation of those stakes is intrinsic to the experience itself.

  4. Hey Rachel,

    This is a great precis with some really thoughtful questions! [Fair warning: long rant] I’m not sure how helpful a model of “contingent materiality” would be for the scientific field itself, meaning from the perspective of a scientist (in most cases they’ll get the same data points either way), but I am of the opinion that it’s necessary, if only for humility’s sake. I think the thoroughgoing materialism embraced by adherents of Scientism tends to ignore this underlying contingency at multiple levels, epistemological and ontological.

    Some, in following the so-called New Atheists, tend to downplay or completely ignore the “leap of faith” that is required in grounding any system of knowledge (in philosophy, a “transcendental argument”). Even when it comes to the scientific method, one has to assume certain premises, e.g. that we can and should trust our observations, that simplest explanations are to be privileged, etc. A radical skeptic (or even just a normal one) can play dumb against any or all of these givens. This is a foundational source of contingency that needs to at least be acknowledged (here’s the humility I’m looking for). Unfortunately, most physicists aren’t also metaphysicists.

    Along similar lines, the model of “contingent materiality” can also help us resist the temptation of scientism toward what C.S. Lewis called “nothing-buttery,” the notion that concepts like love, happiness, and consciousness are “nothing but” the operations of our nervous and endocrine systems. I think this has also been referred to as the Materialist Fallacy. It is as if a word like “traffic” could be entirely defined in terms of the mechanics of a car or a beautiful painting were nothing but some brush strokes on a canvas. Plenty of orthodox believers recognize that the brain is the primary substrate through which religious experience is organized and understood, but that doesn’t mean we can be simply dismissed by showing us an fMRI scan with particular brain modules lighting up. To try using the Chabad terminology, the brain is the “garment” that clothes the conscious experience. I’ll just summarize: reductionism bad, emergentism good.

    Oh, and also that higher-order properties and phenomena often “emerge” in light of an evaluative/motivated observer, yet another possible source of contingency (especially against those who think we can fully separate facts from values, descriptive from prescriptive). We can get into really fun and trippy physics talking about Schrodinger’s cat and the collapsing of wave-functions (it’s a lot easier to acknowledge contingent materiality at the quantum level), or we could even just look at what Luhrmann is demonstrating—that our trained habitus shapes the way we perceive the facts with which we’re presented (remind me to tell you about my 9th grade Leaf Project). And not just perceive, but also evaluate, so there are normative implications too!
    [Levinas might be interesting to tie in here—our ontological facts and categories, even as understood from the scientific perspective, are themselves constituted at least in part by normative (ethical?) motivations and concepts.]

    Sorry for the rant, but “medical materialists” are wrong.

  5. Rachel,
    Thanks for this helpful, clear analysis of Lurhrmann! You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll ponder prayer in my own church context over the past three years and have more for you tomorrow. Since Nick is fresh from pastoring a church in Harrisburg, he may have more wisdom than I! I also think your question about the treatment of race (or lack therof) is an excellent one for all of us. Vineyard churches (and others like it) tend to be fairly diverse from what I’ve heard and from what Luhrmann articulates. Guess what isn’t? Most mainline Protestant churches! I think about this a lot. The two things the Episcopal church always claims to want in their congregations are (1) “diversity” and (2) young people. I mean they realllllly want young people. If we spend a little bit of time thinking about this together as a class and figure out why Vineyard churches are attracting young people, we could make a lot of money as consultants for mainline Protestant denominations.
    Speaking of Protestant comparisons, I’m also curious about what makes the evangelical communities in Luhrmann’s book different than most mainline denominations. I mean, obviously, there are a lot of things. But then, when she writes about the emphasis on “living in the tensions,” I’m less certain that there are marked differences (321). And last, but not least, the hippie origins of the evangelical movement blow my mind. But then again…

  6. Hi Rachel, thanks for your thorough and illuminating response! I found myself with several of the same questions as you: I too wondered about Luhrmann’s use of “evangelical,” and whether Vinyard members should be automatically taken to stand in for all evangelicals–there is a fair amount of diversity in theology that Luhrmann doesn’t exactly touch on (though again, maybe this is my “academic” brain talking, and people on the ground in churches wouldn’t be as concerned about distinguishing between themselves and other evangelical denominations–I don’t know).

    I also wondered about form: this book is written very accessibly, even though it’s long, and that has to have been an intentional choice on Luhrmann’s part–she is an academic, after all. Why do we think she chose to write this book this way? What audiences or agendas was she after? I think, Rachel, this question may tie into some of your points early on about wondering to what degree Luhrmann had a somewhat apologetic agenda–not necessarily a bad thing, but also not explicitly stated.

    I’ll keep thinking on your question about the Quaker connection! Even though there are some major distinctions, there are also some theological affinities (e.g emphasizing experience over doctrine) that might be relevant. I can say more in class if that would be helpful.

    Finally–I second the question to Don on “moral experience”! I have also secretly been struggling to figure out what that means. Maybe I should have asked earlier, but thanks for bringing it up now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *