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