9 Following

Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God - T. M. Luhrmann T.M. Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist, and in this book she examines the growing movement of evangelical and charismatic Christianity, and specifically how practitioners come to experience God as someone with whom they can communicate on a daily basis through prayer and visualization. The information in this book is based upon observations made over a four year period during which the author was fully immersed in their prayer and worship activities at a very emotional and heart felt level. In a NPR interview she states:"... I would say that I experienced God when I was at that church. What does that mean? I don't think I know. I don't think I can put words to that. I wouldn't call myself a Christian, but I did — through this practice of praying and thinking about the stories that were told in church."The first six chapters describe how she entered into the activities of the churches, their histories, the people she met, the history of various types of meditation and prayer, and her many experiences and observations of the congregates with whom she associated.

I found Chapter Seven to be particularly interesting because in it the author subjects her field observations to controlled analytical tests to determine the relationship between personality and ability to be a "prayer warrior." These tests were performed after the four year period of her embedded involvement with the groups. However, while she was still participating with the groups she gave various psychological tests to participants of the prayer groups. Of the tests, the one she found most interesting was the Tellegen Aborption test. She used the results from that test to determine differing levels of absorption of the individuals in the group (i.e. their propensity to become absorbed in his/her mental imagery). These results were compared with how these subjects said they experienced prayer. It turned out that the more absorption statements they endorsed, the more likely they were to say that they experienced God "as a person" along with other extrasensory spiritual experiences.

(It's interesting to note that the Tellegen Absorption Scale was developed originally to determine a person's hypnotic susceptibility. It's also interesting to note that absorption is a character trait or disposition for having moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one's attentional resources--perceptual, imaginative, conceptual, even the way one holds and moves one's body.)

From these observations about absorption scores, she developed a hypothesis for an experiment: "... that when people believe that God will speak to them through their senses, when they have a propensity for absorption, and when they are trained in absorption by the practice of prayer, these people will report what prayer experts report: internal sensory experiences with sharper mental imagery and more sensory override (sensory experience in the absence of sensory stimuli)." In order to test her hypothesis she advertised publicly for volunteers (they were paid a small stipend for participation) to be test subjects in what she called the Spiritual Disciplines Project. The test subjects were randomly assigned to one of three spiritual disciplines: centering prayer (an apophatic condition); guided imagination of the Gospels (a kataphatic condition); and an intellectual exploration of the Gospels (the study condition). The volunteers (128 individuals) were given various psychological tests before and after the 30 day test period.

At the end of the test period those who had done the kataphatic practices had scores on the subjective measurers of mental imagery vividness that were significantly higher, compared to their initial scores, than those in the study group. Those in the apophatic group also increased their scores more than the study group, but not nearly as much as the kataphatic group. (She notes that apophatic meditation is a difficult skill, and thirty days is probably not enough time to develop the skill.) In general the test results supported her hypothesis. The author refers to the use of this relationship between training/practice and the learning to hear God speak as "new theory of mind" which I guess is the label given by a psychologist to what some religious people call spiritual growth.

On the issue of the reality of God:
"None of these observations explains the ultimate cause of the voice someone hears ... . This account of absorption training is fully compatible with both secular and supernaturalist understandings of God. To a believer, this account of absorption speaks to the problem of why, if God is always speaking, not everyone can hear, and it suggests what the church might do to help those who struggle. To a skeptic, it explains why the believer heard a thought in the mind as if it were external. But the emphasis on skill--on the way we train our attention--should change the way both Christians and non-Christians think about what makes them different from one another." (p.223)
Chapter 8 explores the relationship between spirituality and mental illness. The sensory override (i.e. hearing/feeling/seeing God) often reported by the deeply spiritual people has some symptoms in common with the hallucinations that define a diagnosis of psychosis. However, the author points out there are usually many differences, and generally speaking most who experience spiritual encounters cannot be diagnosed as mentally ill. The author sites studies that indicate that seeing visions or hearing voices from no apparent source and not necessarily in any religious context is more common in the general public than is commonly thought. However, she goes on to discuss some situations she observed where mental illness and spiritualism did overlap. One story that I found deplorable was that of a woman diagnosed as bipolar being exorcized to remove demons. (The exorcism did not lead to a successful result.)

Chapter 9 discusses how this charismatic faith community deals with the issue of theodicy (i.e. why bad things happen). It would appear to an outside observer that it should be a problem for them because they emphasize that God answers prayers. They even go so far as to say that prayer requests should be specific (i.e. don't just ask for a car, ask for a red car). Needless to say, many of these prayers do not result in delivery of the requested items. Against all logic, this cognitive dissidence results in increased faithfulness to the belief system. The author dedicates over thirty pages of the book trying to explain why. I'll try to summarize it with these two reasons: (1) Their relationship with God is an emotional comfort, not a logical construct, and (2) If they reject God they'll be rejecting the emotionally supportive faith community, (i.e. their closest friends).

Chapter 10 summarizes the book by discussing the dilemma faced by these believers when talking to non-believers about their being able to have conversations with God. They know they are perceived by others as fooling themselves by talking to themselves and calling it talking to God. But they perceive this as part of the tension of living their faith, of "bridging the gap" between the world that is imagined and the world of what is real.

The description of the observed and studied congregates provided by the author makes them appear completely apolitical. There is no mention of any interest on their part in secular politics. When the news media uses the term "Christian Evangelicals" the stereotype that comes to the minds of most people is that this is a group that generally identifies with politically conservative causes. (I know there are exceptions; I'm talking generalities here.) If this group that was studied by the author is indeed apolitical, then they do not match this stereotypical image. But the author doesn't address this point at all, so it may be that she's ignoring the issue. If the term "American Evangelical" is going to be included in the subtitle of the book, it seems the author could have either addressed the issue or explained why she didn't.

The group that was studied by the author goes by the name "Vineyard Christian Fellowship." Its origins seem to have come out of the hippie Jesus freak movement of the 60s. They emphasize a charismatic and emotional style of worship that is generally associated with the Pentecostal Church. It is possible that they don't match the previously mentioned stereotype of American Evangelicals because of their history and roots.

The end of the book includes 37 pages of Notes, 21 pages of Bibliographic Notes, 26 pages of Bibliography, and 17 pages of Index. I guess that qualifies it as academic literature. However, it was easy to read (unlike some academic writing), and it should hold the interests of readers who are interested in the subject. Others will find the narrative verbose and containing too many anecdotal stories.

This is the author's fourth book. T.M. Luhrmann has previously written books about modern-day witches, psychiatrists and the Parsis community in India. She is now a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University.

Here's a link to an article by T.M. Luhrmann that was published in "The American Scholar" magazine:

Some other reviews of this book are listed below:

NPR's Fresh Air interview:
This interview was originally broadcast on Fresh Air on March 26, 2012:

The New Yorker review:
Seeing and BelievingExperiences with evangelical congregations.by Joan Acocella April 2, 2012

NYT's Review By MOLLY WORTHEN Published: April 27, 2012

When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann, Review by Caleb Maskell
Published in Books and Culture (July-August 2012)