Book Review: When God Talks Back
I read an interview with Luhrmann and was intrigued enough to pick up her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. I was really quite impressed in some ways. Luhrmann is obviously a very dedicated anthropologist, willing to drop herself into experiences that are quite foreign and do so with a critical but not criticizing eye. She is exceedingly open and respectful, trying to understand through a psychological perspective rather than discount out of hand these people’s behavior and experience.
My one major complaint with the book is that her experiences with primarily, perhaps even solely, with Vineyard churches, which she equates with Evangelicalism. I know many Evangelicals would be uncomfortable with this. While it may be the case that charismatic elements have become more mainstream within Evangelicalism, it seems too narrow to paint all of Evangelicalism with such a brush. Even she seems to recognize this at one point when she herself narrows her field with the term “Renewalist Evangelicals”, separating off those with whom she lived and prayed from the whole of Evangelicalism. Bearing this in mind, a mental substitution of “Vineyard” each time she uses the term, “Evangelical”, serves to ease her conflation of categories.
One of the particularly helpful aspects of the text comes from the fact that Luhrmann came into her experiences in these churches without any Christian language, and when she encountered it, which was frequent, her anthropological goal was to determine its meaning specifically, something that many Christians and even theological scholars, I find, fail to do. Given this, her writing of Vineyard experience and practice is generally free from vague or circular terminology. While Christians can at times use and hear language that is thought to be understood but may be nebulous or carry a certain lack of definition, Luhrmann speaks in concrete terminology that captures the intent and meaning in a way that should be clear to both Christians and non, perhaps even clarifying things to those that use such terms without, unawares, having a clear understanding of them.
Her anthropological technique and training likewise allowed her to look beneath the surface and dig into the layers of intention and technique. While Christians are often trained to dig into theological meaning, Luhrmann sought personal and corporate hopes and activity in a sociological and at times even psychological manner, which allowed her to come away from her experience with perhaps a better understanding of aspects of the Christian spiritual life than most Christians themselves possess. Once again, her clear language displays her understanding in a way that may be quite helpful to Evangelicals in their efforts to make sense of their own spirituality, other Christians in efforts to understand the quirks of their brothers and sisters and perhaps even find something worthwhile to work into their own spirituality, and non-Christians who may struggle to understand why Evangelicals, or at least those of a “Renewalist” sort, think and behave the way they do.
One thing that Luhrmann did not explicitly characterize in moral terms but did depict was the self focus that is somewhat inherent to the vineyard mentality and goals. Luhrmann characterized much of the potential underlying motivations as being grounded in what could be seen as psychological stability, which could be indicative of a sort of narcissistic or self-centered bent to the overall spiritual character, though there are also indications of subservience and obedience to God’s will and a drive toward service to others, which suggest that not everything is directed toward oneself. However, the primary dyad could be distilled to “me-and-Jesus, Jesus-and-me”, a potential weakness in the spiritual tenor that arises from her characterization of Vineyard mentality, but not one she addresses due to her position as anthropologist rather than teacher or theologian.
While Luhrmann did not end up becoming Christian through her years of experience with the Vineyard churches, she did come to accept the validity of spiritual realities and the value of spiritual direction. Her own journey has some indications of God’s drawing of her to Himself.
In the end, the book is, perhaps, one of the clearest explications of Vineyard spirituality in both its texture and goals, a surprising feat for having come from someone who disbelieves in the God behind everything.