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?