What Do Academics Think of Evangelicals?

When God Talks Back book cover

When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann

During the past few weeks, one of the darlings of the book review circuit has been T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford, spent several years attending Vineyard Churches around the country — not out of spiritual interest, but as an anthropological study. Here she is on NPR, describing a key part of her thesis: that evangelicals train themselves to perceive God:

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind,” she says. “They’re also invited to pretend that God is present. I take that verb from C.S. Lewis — he has a chapter of Mere Christianity entitled ‘Let’s Pretend.’ … These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God, they prayed to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they are sitting on a bench in the park with God’s arms around their shoulders and they’re talking about their respective days.

I have heard and read many reviews and interviews with Luhrmann — more than I can gather together here in this post. Sometimes, it sounds like she is on to something, while at other times, I think she may be reading too much into her experience with the Vineyard, which is, after all, only one slice of the large evangelical pie.

There seems to be an increase in academic interest in evangelicals — by which I truly mean an academic interest, applying the same qualities of analysis, consideration, and detachment to evangelicals that academics apply to their other subjects, as opposed to polemical or apologetic interest. I’m starting a new reading project, which I hope will result in some kind of writing project, to review recent academic writing about evangelicals by academics, whether Christian or not. And I’d like your help in choosing my reading list.

What books and articles would you recommend that I include in this project? I’m primarily interested in serious, thoughtful books by academics looking at the contemporary world of evangelicalism, both inside and outside the academy. Authors who disagree with evangelicals are fine, but I’m not at all interested in anti-Christian apologetics that happens to written by academics. Since my interest in contemporary attitudes, that would exclude most history, as well – which is too bad, since that’s where much of the best writing about evangelicals can be found.

So, with all these qualifications, what would you recommend?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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  • rachel.maxson@gmail.com'
    Rachel commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    Check out Catherine (Kate) Bowler’s work on the prosperity gospel, including “Blessed Bodies: Healing within the African-American Faith Movement,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (OUP 2011). Especially since most of my academically-inclined evangelical friends tend to want to distance themselves from the corners of our movement that promote a prosperity gospel, I find Kate’s sensitive investigations of this significant piece of popular American Christianity to be illuminating.

  • Kevin Birth commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    Tanya’s work exemplifies the benefits and difficulties of doing good ethnographic work. I’ve known her for about 20 years and its been a pleasure to see her tackle very different topics. This may sound like an odd recommendation to start out with, but I recommend her first book, “Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft” to help put Tanya’s current ethnographic approach and voice in her recent book into some perspective, and maybe her book on American psychotherapy and psychiatry, “Of Two Minds.”

    There is a burgeoning field in the anthropology of Christianity. I highly recommend a book by my colleague, Omri Elisha, MORAL AMBITION. Joel Robbins has done very interesting work on Christianity in New Guinea. It also might be worth looking at Susan Harding’s “The Book of Jerry Falwell”, although I’m not as wild about Harding as I am about Omri or Joel. Also check out the Anthropology of Christianity series that Joel edits for University of California Press http://www.ucpress.edu/series.php?ser=antch. Finally, I love Rebecca Lester’s “Jesus in our Wombs” about a convent in Mexico. Rebecca is another old friend, and a student of Tanya.

  • andycole35@hotmail.com'
    Andy Cole commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    Are you thinking primarily about American/North American/Western/Anglophone evangelicalism, or do you want sources with more of a global focus? Most of what I know deals with historical works on American evangelicalism, but here are two more contemporary ones in case they help you in your search,…

    Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (my copy is of the fourth edition) compiles observations Balmer has made of many different sectors of the American evangelical world, including a charismatic healing service, a Bible college, and a Jars of Clay concert. A bit light on the footnotes, but Balmer’s tone is both compassionate enough and critical enough to make for an engaging read.

    Christian Smith has done quite a bit of sociological work on American evangelicals, if you want sociology. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, which he co-wrote with Michael O. Emerson, is probably one of his more widely-read books.

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 18, 2012 Reply

      Andy, I’m primarily thinking about the North American context. My goal with the project is to see what might help ESN members (who are mostly evangelical) navigate the North American academy. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • bethgawlik@gmail.com'
    Beth Gawlik commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    I recommend THE CHURCH ON THE WORLD’S TURF by Paul Bramadat. The author, a cultural anthropologist, spent a year with an InterVarsity chapter at a Canadian university. He attended large group regularly, participated in a small group, and even went on a short term global project to (I think) Estonia. What emerges is a fascinating picture of what evangelicalism looks like to a friendly, but ultimately unconvinced, outsider. When I went on Amazon to doublecheck the author and title, I noticed it’s extremely expensive, which presumably means it’s out of print. If you decide you want to read it and can’t find it at the library or for a good price, let me know. I can dig it out and we can use it as an excuse to finally get our families together in Cincinnati :).

  • pschuurm@uwaterloo.ca'
    Peter Schuurman commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    I’m doing ethnographic work on a Canadian megachurch and just cracking open Luhrmann’s book. I would also highly recommend Paul Brammadat’s study. He’s a Unitarian himself but I think does a fair job of analyzing how evangelicals form both bridges and walls in the midst of a secular environment. James Bielo’s two books are also golden material: _Words Upon the Word_ (2007) and _Emerging Evangelicals_ (2011). He’s an emerging Christian of sorts himself and he published under NYU.

  • Studentofthetruth@yahoo.com'
    Daniel McGregor commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    Would it be too obvious to suggest Hunter’s book To Change the World? Regardless I would love to see the completed list.

  • Cookj3@mac.com'
    Jim Cook commented on April 17, 2012 Reply

    I would suggest an article I have used and am using with faculty, which explicitly studied and reported on what academics thought (think) of evangelicals.


  • joshua.pucci@gmail.com'
    Joshua Pucci commented on April 18, 2012 Reply

    How about Kevin Roose’s ‘The Unlikely Disciple’? It’s probably better classified as Investigative Journalism than strictly ‘academic’, but sincere and insightful.

  • brenda.hey@gmail.com'
    Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink commented on April 18, 2012 Reply

    A recent dissertation at the VU University in Amsterdam by D.T. Koning entitled “Importing God” discussed immigrant churches in the Netherlands from an anthropological perspective. It’s a bit obscure, but seeing as many “import” churches are very evangelical (or charismatic), it is an interesting study and very readable. I think you could find it online at: http://dare.ubvu.vu.nl/handle/1871/24512.

  • ggoldsm@emory.edu'
    Glenn Goldsmith commented on April 18, 2012 Reply

    I think Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible, is especially interesting as an analysis of one major facet of evangelical identity, along with sympathetic criticism from a post-evangelical Catholic.

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