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When God Talks Back

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
by T.M. Luhrmann
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
434 pages
Reviewed by Kathleen D. Clark

I was driving when Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio’s newsmagazine Fresh Air, interviewed the author of When God Talks Back. I pulled my car over to the side of the road to listen, riveted by psychological anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s account of six years of ethnographic study of Christian Vineyard congregations in the United States in and around Chicago, Illinois, and in California. She notes in her preface that as a social scientist, she is not trying to answer the question of whether God exists or “whether God is truly present when someone experiences God as present,” but based on her research she thinks she can “explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real” (xv). Her central argument is that “people learn specific ways of attending to their minds and their emotions to find evidence of God, and that both what they attend to and how they attend changes their experience of their minds, and that as a result, they begin to experience a real, external, interacting living presence. In effect, people train their mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God” (xxi).

Luhrmann writes as a curious and appreciative outsider observing the ways that leaders of Vineyard churches teach people to practice experiencing God as intimately present to them in all aspects of life. She begins with a fascinating historical overview of Vineyard churches and their emergence during the shift in American spirituality of the past forty years toward a God who is “more intimate, personal, and supernaturally present” (13). In subsequent chapters she focuses on various aspects of learning to practice being in intimate dialogue with God, and she brings knowledge from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, theology, and history to help consider and interpret what is happening in the mind of a person who cultivates the habits of thought that lead to such intimacy.

An engaging writer, Luhrmann presents her research and discusses her emerging insights in lively and accessible language. She uses extended excerpts from interviews with congregants and leaders of Vineyard churches to illustrate her points so that I felt as though I was hearing both her interpretation and the perspective of the person describing what he or she was doing with his or her mind. Although I would not describe myself as being an American Evangelical, as a contemplative Christian I could identify with many of the experiences described in the accounts told by people she interviewed. At the same time, I considered what this wonderful researcher was saying about that experience, so that I learned something new and helpful about my own mind and its role in my experience of God.

This book will help spiritual directors identify and clarify a range of experiences of God, which may be helpful in working with diverse spiritual directees. For spiritual directors who companion American evangelicals, this book will provide invaluable insight into the common practices currently practiced in churches such as the Vineyard.

Kathleen D. (Kate) Clark is an associate professor in the School of Communication at the University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, USA, and leads spiritual direction in the Akron area.

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