Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

God Talk

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

God Talk

Article excerpt

Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann discusses the social science behind the evangelical relationship with God.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has managed to do what few other social scientists in academia dare do: explore how evangelical Christians relate with God.

In her latest book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf), Luhrmann analyzes how evangelicals come to personally know God through prayer, communal support, and even "dates" with God. As part of her field research, she spent 10 years attending worship services, small groups, and events at Vineyard churches in Chicago and California. Known for their trendy, seeker-friendly, tear-inducing services and intimate Bible studies, the Vineyard is home to millions of evangelicals in the U.S. and around the world.

Without pitting reason (too much) against faith, Luhrmann applies psychological and anthropological understanding to evangelical Christian belief. Not bad for an outsider looking in. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey spoke with Luhrmann in June.

Elaina Ramsey: What motivated you to study how evangelicals experience God?

T.M. Luhrmann: I've always been curious about how God became real for people. I knew that good, kind, wise people had dif-ferent understandings of what was real, and that always fascinated me. While I was doing another research project, I was talking to this beach girl who told me that if I wanted to understand the God of her church, I should have a cup of coffee with him. I thought that was amazing. I decided then that I was going to figure out how people were able to experience God so vividly, so intimately, so dialogically.

Did you have any preconceived notions about how evangelicals relate with God?

I had the kind of naive views that many people in the secular, liberal world have, which was that people weren't terribly thoughtful about their faith. I didn't think it was complicated and I didn't think about the experience of God as a relationship. What I found was that people, in fact, were often well-educated, sharp, and very thoughtful about faith. What I have been most humbled by in this research is how little we really understand about faith relationships and how different it is from person to person- how cognitively complicated it is.

And I was surprised by the thoughtful-ness with which people made judgments about whether God was really speaking. Secular folks are horrified by the idea that God speaks to people. Depending on your politics, God talked with George Bush and we ended up in this war. But it seems that as God becomes a more active presence in the mind, it's not lost on people that they might make mistakes [in understanding]. …

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