Luhrmann, When God Talks Back/Seeman-Kristin Kimberlain

T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back is an insightful anthropological investigation into contemporary American evangelical Christianity. In her book, Luhrmann attempts to answer questions about the nature of congregants’ relationships with an invisible God who, for them, is made real through the cultivation of prayer practices. In other words, Luhrmann seeks to explain to nonbelievers how conservative evangelicals are able to experience God as real, which is admittedly a monumental task to take on. Throughout the book, she highlights various practices which she identifies as central to the task of cultivating a relationship with God: a central theme in her work is that this type of relationship is highly desired and is enhanced by the practitioner’s willingness to work at being able to sense a God which is simultaneously an element of their imagination and an element of the “real” world. Through her study at the Vineyard church, Luhrmann recognizes that the first task as a worshipper is to “be able to recognize when God is present and when he responds.” (39) This, according to Luhrmann, is a difficult task known as discernment which is actualized through prayer. After the ability to recognize God’s voice is developed, the next important step according to Luhrmann is to be able to “pretend” that God is a being who can be interacted with like one interacts with another person. She argues, “The crucial part of play in a Christian context is that the play claim that God is an imaginary companion is also a real claim about the nature of the world, a claim about the objective reality of the Holy Spirit and God’s supernatural presence.” (100) Once someone has learned to hear and interact with God, they should learn that they are ultimately deserving of God’s unconditional love. This notion is difficult to grasp according to Luhrmann, and is developed through a series of spiritual disciplines or “emotional practices”. Newer Christians model their prayer lives after those which Luhrmann recognizes as “experts”, or people who are particularly adept at hearing God’s voice. Ultimately, Luhrmann argues that prayer is a mechanism which “trains people to ignore the distracting world and to focus on their inner experience” and that “these practices alter spiritual experiences.”(189) Luhrmann argues in her seventh chapter that prayer actually has the ability to act as a technology which alters the ways in which people perceive what is real. The believer is able to maintain their relationship with a God who is, for them, real despite the evidence because their God is one who adapts to skepticism.

In order to make these claims, Luhrmann employs methods of both anthropology and psychology. Her study is undertaken at the Vineyard church in Chicago, where she becomes a participant observer. In her opening chapter, Luhrmann recounts the history of evangelicalism in America in order to contextualize the tradition and congregation she is studying. She attends weekly worship services, house groups, and interviews congregants in order to collect her data. From her ethnographic study she draws conclusions about the nature and structure of prayer practices. In order to answer questions about whether prayer has “consequences”, Luhrmann turns to psychology. She conducts an experiment measuring “absorption”, or the capacity that evangelicals have to experience God. She trained people in spiritual disciplines and found that the more adept participants became at the disciplines, the higher their absorption rates became. Luhrmann concludes from this experiment that there is much to be learned from spiritual experience about the ways in which people encounter and make their worlds real. At the end of the book, Luhrmann turns back to ethnography and history as method.

Don Seeman’s work “To Pray with the Tables and the Chairs”, like Luhrmann’s book, deals with prayer and materiality. Through his study of Chabad contemplative practices, Seeman argues that these practices allow insight into the divine nature of reality. By focusing on the material, tables and chairs, the truth is revealed that zimzum(divine absence) is illusory and that there is more present there than simply the material.

In reading Luhrmann’s work, I found that many questions came up for me that remained unanswered. I agreed with Jenkins’s review in that I thought Luhrmann’s ethnography could have dug deeper into the particularities of peoples’ lifeworlds. After reading the other ethnographies in this course I have come to wonder what is at stake in the lives of interlocutors. Through Luhrmann’s work, I came to understand what happens when people pray, but not necessarily why they need to pray or what happens if they don’t. I did, however, enjoy her historical approaches and wish that she had elaborated further at some points. My main critique of Luhrmann’s work may has to do with the fact that she seemed to incorporate psychological inquiry at the expense of anthropological inquiry that could have led, for me at least, to more interesting insights. She surely accomplished her “thick description” of evangelical prayer, and the conclusions that she drew from her psychological study were compelling. What I do not believe she accomplished, however, was much valuable “thick descriptions” of evangelicals themselves at all. If part of her task was to make evangelicals more understandable to “nonbelievers”, then her task should have been to humanize her interlocutors instead of treating their practices as something to be explained away by psychology.


Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you think that Luhrmann’s cross-disciplinary approach was effective? Why or why not?
  2. Were Luhrmann’s insights about the nature of materiality useful for you?
  3. How could we put this work in to conversation with Seeman’s work?


8 Replies to “Luhrmann, When God Talks Back/Seeman-Kristin Kimberlain”

  1. This week’s reading was particularly interesting to me. I have experience with a vineyard church plant here in Atlanta. My ex-wife had a job interview with the congregation and as such attended a Sunday morning service. As Kristin highlighted from this week’s reading there is a huge emphasis on hearing from and interacting with God. The service makes a special place for testimony for those who have heard from God to speak. As someone who grew up as a conservative evangelical in the South their practices were a little off putting, but definitely interesting.

  2. Thank you Kristen for the insightful Precis. Your summary of the method and content of the book, as well as your questions are sure to stimulate further discussion in class.
    I found myself intrigued by Luhrmann’s cross-disciplinary approach. I think she is trying to walk a middle line between science and religion (while trying to bring them together), as well as humanizing the American Evangelicals for those who study Christianity and are critical of it, while also explaining to the skeptics why even if they try to psychologize the Evangelical experience, they cannot diminish it, reduce it to, or explain it away with psychosis ( she even tries to distinguish between Evangelicals and individuals suffering from schizophrenia.) I appreciate your final critique that she herself explains it away with psychology, and I actually found myself thinking the same thing at certain points while reading the book. And , I do wonder how William James would respond to this book and her critique of him in Chapter 7.
    To answer your first question, I think Luhrmann’s approach was especially effective in showing how religious practices such as prayer help shape the way Evangelical Christians encounter their world. I think she explains this point well in her discussion of pain and transforming the suffering through their understanding of God as real. And so while at times Luhrmann seemed to psychologize, I also felt that her aim was not to explain the practices away with psychology as much as to show the complexity of our senses and thoughts, and argue that there is validity, health benefits, and practicality in the Evangelical belief in a loving real God. And thus ask, so why not believe? Of course this does not necessarily mean or guarantee that the audience will read her account as humanizing.
    Where I also think she succeeds is that her style of writing did not read to me as judgmental of American Evangelicals. In fact she seems sympathetic and at the end of the book she even wants to defend Christianity.
    That being said, while the title emphasizes American Evangelicals, some descriptions in certain chapters seemed to describe religion and religious individuals, not only American Evangelicals, and it made me wonder, how is the American Evangelical relationship with God different from other forms of Christianity or from the experience of believers in other religions? I think where Luhrmann sometimes fell short is not showing the particularity of the American Evangelicals and vineyard church.

  3. Kristin, your précis of Luhrmann’s work is comprehensive and insightful. Out of curiosity and from what I’ve been able to glean from trying to understand the work of ethnography throughout the semester, I decided to find out a little more about Luhrmann herself. What was most interesting to me was her TedTalk on When God Talks.

    I agree with you that Luhrmann did not engage her interlocutors as much as she could have; the psychological component of her study does seem to sanitize her efforts and places a barrier between the act of prayer and the person engaged in prayer. On the other hand, her TedTalk demonstrates a commitment to communicating with sensitivity what she was able to learn about prayer and materiality from the congregation at Vineyard. Also, as she shared in her concluding chapter, she found acceptance and an appreciation for the practice and benefits of prayer. I wonder if there was an alternative to her psychological study that would have been just as compelling in conveying the changes in the mind as a result of incorporating spiritual practices. Also, I think that because Luhrmann is attempting to bridge the communication gap between Christians and non-Christians the study provides empirical data that is important to skeptics.

    On page 323 (kindle version), Luhrmann highlights reading novels as a leisurely activity and a way through which people “choose what to believe and … imagine…” I think that she could also include storytelling as a way to expand her point more broadly and critically. I think the quest to “know God” and “make God real” is not a new quest. By including storytelling, Luhrmann further engages her historical engagements, particularly with the progress of evangelicalism.

    I also appreciate the author’s phenomenological approach to understanding prayer and making God real. She states on page 236, “we anthropologists learn, or at least we try to learn from the inside out. We observe, we participate, and we converse, for hours and hours on end.” I believe that this is an effective way to conduct ethnographies. However, I do not think that most anthropologists would agree, or at least they do not approach their work from this perspective.

  4. Thank you, Kristen, for your precis and for starting a conversation for us. I’m also intrigued by Luhrmann’s mixed method of ethnography, psychology, and history as a means of humanizing the contemporary American Evangelical Christian. As Tala has mentioned, I think that her desire to defend Christianity (p. 325) is present throughout the work. Especially in chapter eight (“But Are They Crazy?”), where she explicitly attempts defend her informants against the accusation of psychosis. But I especially wonder if her move towards psychology and the experiment she outlines in chapter seven is, albeit also emerging out of her own interests and early research in covens, is also an attempt to humanize. That is, her explanation of the immediacy of the divine in prayer as a function of the human mind is a means of rationalizing an otherwise untenable (by the standards of modern society) appeal to the supernatural. What is common is the materiality of the body that allows the mind to be shaped through practices, such as apophatic and kataphatic prayer. What I wonder, after reading Luhrmann and Seeman’s, “Prayer and Medical Materialism,” is whether or not a primary focus on materiality provides for an adequate accounting of prayer. Of course, I think Luhrmann also hints at the limitations of her method in accounting for experiences of the supernatural/the divine in both her preface (xv) and conclusion (325). While it is no doubt true that the reality of God cannot be demonstrated, I still wonder if prayer is best explained by psychology or if that method misses any significant aspects of the religious experience of prayer. With Tala, I also wonder how her findings might compare with other religious practices of prayer and other versions of Christianity (especially since the theological tradition Luhrmann draws on is not confined to Evangelicalism as experience in the Vineyard church.

  5. Kristin, thank you for a thoughtful response! I think that there is a lot to discuss in whether or not Luhrmann’s project ultimately attempts to “explain away” Evangelical encounters with God through psychological explanations. In some ways, the intersecting conversations of these articles and this book all come down to that central question:

    Does psychological explanation invalidate experience?

    Anthropology has a long history, half covered under glosses of neutrality, of confusing explanation and disproof. If you read enough ethnographies (or, alternatively, talk with one anthropology student), you might detect a certain occasional sense of glee when a particular social structure or behavior is explained to be a construct. I know I felt the same way in my first anthropology classes–finally, I had some symbolic key to understanding sporting events as rituals, Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas as par of an American ritual cycle, college as a rite of passage, etc. etc. You can feel as if you have the code that explains what all of these social phenomena are *really* about.

    In this sense, you can feel as if you don’t just explain phenomena, but explain them *away.* While I think that this kind of counter-cultural jouissance endures in some anthropologists new and old, I don’t think it’s ever particularly well-established why having a cultural explanation for something makes it somehow valueless. For example, one could perhaps construct a compelling case about the cultural legacy of a free market–ways it’s been wrapped up in ideas of society as a collection of autonomous and competing individuals with discrete freedoms not to be limited; ways it structurally disadvantages certain groups of people; ways it only exists due to social intervention to make space, such that a free market really comes with a cost. All of this is probably true. But at the end of explaining the social origins and function of a free market, do we have an argument why or why not we should value the idea of a free market?

    I don’t think we do. Explanation is not dismissal, no matter how often it is treated as such.

    This is true outside our ability to explain things with culture. It can feel as if psychologists can approach religious experience with an intent to debunk it. I have to admit that while I agree with you and Jenkins that perhaps more work could have been done in outlining some particularities of Vineyard churchgoers’ experience, I did not get the feeling from Luhrmann’s work that she was seeking to use psychology to debunk religious experiences. She in fact used psychology to show the capacity to *have* religious experiences.

    Now, one could say that this does injustice to the beliefs of those she studied. If their capacity to have religious experiences is determined by some psychological, neurological, or somehow “material” factors of the brain, doesn’t that dismiss the possibility that they are authentic religious encounters, and fail to take seriously local accounts of experience?

    That is only the case if material explanation is opposed to authentic religious experience. As Seeman outlines in “Prayer and Medical Materialism,” there is good reason to question this opposition. If God is involved in the material world, a common belief among the Christians with whom Luhrmann worked, then it makes perfect sense to think that there may be ways to find synchronicity between scientific findings and religious experiences.

    There is no doubt that psychological evaluation can be used rhetorically to attempt to invalidate religious experience. But whether it can actually do so seems like a much trickier question. In this case, I don’t think Luhrmann attempted to make this rhetorical move, and I think that instead the experiential landscapes of the people she worked with indicates a world in which no amount of psychological research could disprove these experiences–for good or bad.

  6. Kristen, thank you for your insightful précis on Luhrmann’s book. Before I comment on your précis, I do have a question for you and the class. As I read her book, I was wondering about her claim of “understanding the American evangelical relationship with God” based on one congregation in Chicago? Is this a valid academic claim? Can one make a broad categorization of a religious movement based on a two year observation and participation in one church within one new and relatively small denomination? As for your précis, I really appreciate you summation of Luhrmann’s observation of the Chicago Vineyard Church in a way to make it reasonable to “nonbelievers”. At the end of her preface, she makes a found analyses of her own methodology. She writes, “ An anthropologist can describe only (italics mine) the human side of that relationship, the way humans reach for God . . .But my methods cannot distinguish between sensory deception and the movement when God may be reaching back to communicate through an ordinary human mind” (xxiv-xxv). Given the previous comment and her methodological engagement with evolutionary psychology, what do you consider the strengths and limitations of psychology and the religious experience with this particular congregation?

  7. I think a discussion of the methods Luhrmann uses and the analytic choices she makes in this book will be an interesting issue for us to explore in class. Thank you for raising this point, Kristin. What tools in general do academics have to present and assess reality and people’s experiences? Different disciplines use different methods and often take for granted their validity. When a scholar attempts to do an interdisciplinary project, she will no doubt get critique from each side, which we see in Jenkins review. Jenkins presents Luhrmann’s methodology clearly, namely that she uses historical, ethnographic, psychological and textual approaches. He is not impressed by the scope and depth of her ethnographic work, but I think it is more important to think about if her methods were able to accurately address her original project. Kristin, you were able to present that clearly as the attempt to explain to nonbelievers how conservative evangelicals are able to experience God as real, which I agree is a difficult and complicated task. I found her use of psychological tools compelling in this regard. Although her aim, as Tala noted, wasn’t to undermine religious belief, I think this method is so tied to modern secular ideologies that it is hard to separate out those overtones. Also, her experiment is far from being ‘experience-near’ in most regards. On the other hand, she chanced upon an interesting correlation which she then explored in a way that gave her thesis about prayer as a learn technique a certain amount of “objective” backing. Although I want to be careful to create some sort of hierarchy in methods as though a controlled experiment is somehow able to get closer to the truth. I’m not sure that is true.

    Her historical gloss of Evangelicalism was very helpful and informative. As an outsider to Christianity, there were still some things I found baffling, but I understand that she is speaking to a certain audience where some more basic aspects of this religion are probably taken for granted. I wonder if these parts of the book- I am thinking about the beginning and the last chapter- were part of it being more of a popular non-fiction book rather than an academic anthropological book. We haven’t seen that sort of larger historical sketch in any of our other readings. Do you think it fits in with the ethnographic aspects or simply her explanatory project?

  8. Thank you Kristen for your precis. It was interesting to read a book that utilizes ethnography, history, and psychology and it was not difficult to see her attempt to explain Christian practices to non-Christians. However, I need to say that her use of Evangelicalism was ambiguous and limited.(xix) Does only Evangelicals among many Christian traditions deals with prayer, healing, and materiality? Are they the only group of people attempt to hear and interact with God? Can the Vineyard evangelical community represent American Evangelicals?
    Introducing the understanding and practices of the Vineyard Christians by an outsider is also an issue. Jenkins writes, “there are real difficulties with any empirical reliance on the notion of experience, despite its accepted status in so much psychology of religion, because experience is a thoroughly elusive notion, not least in the puzzle of whether experience is ever present to the person who claims to have it: what is experienced is constructed prospectively and retrospectively using shared categories.” We discussed about this issue in class before and describing the experience of others is never easy and we know that it is difficult to describe in our language. The understanding of the vineyard Christians and Luhrmann may have been different and this is serious when a researcher does not come from the tradition like Luhrmonn. But it is true that most ethnography research is done be a person from outside. Then, how should I deal with this issue? Should we just accept this as a limitation? or can we overcome this limitation?

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