A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. As I mentioned then, please read Mark Noll’s review, which is much better than what I could have written. This week, I’d like to share a few things that I learned from Luhrmann about engaging and talking with non-evangelicals. Next week, I’ll have a few thoughts about how we evangelicals can talk amongst ourselves.
1. Encourage good scholars and thinkers, whatever their beliefs. Maybe this just applies to me (though I suspect it isn’t). After I became a Christian, as a junior English major at the University of Louisville, I started checking up on the religious beliefs of poets and novelists before I had a word they had written. I went through a period where I had a very difficult time appreciating any writers whose religious beliefs didn’t square with my own.
Perhaps this is an appropriate stage for a new Christian — taking time to learn more about the faith from those in the faith — but it shouldn’t be the end stage for Christians. “All truth is God’s truth,” as the late Arthur Holmes said, and we should be willing to learn that truth from anyone. At the end of When God Talks Back, Luhrmann writes that she doesn’t consider herself a Christian, yet I was able to learn a great deal from her about how Christians think and how prayer works from a psychological perspective.
2. Work on my language. Luhrmann spent years of research working to understand common evangelical language about hearing God — and still felt the need to include an entire chapter defusing concerns about mental illness. Most people, academics or not, won’t take that time or make that effort to understand language that is confusing or offensive. I don’t think that the “right language” will magically make someone accept the Gospel or even agree with me about where to eat lunch, but I owe it to them to make sure that they are responding to the ideas behind my words, and not my mangled efforts at communication.
Further, as Luhrmann explores, there are concepts and practices within Christianity that are not easy for beginners. When I can, I need to recognize those and adjust my language accordingly.
3. Embrace our diversity. When God Talks Back primarily deals with one particular tradition within evangelicalism — the Vineyard — and a quick read of the book (or a quick read of a book review) could leave someone with a mistaken impression of evangelicalism as a whole. Evangelicals often refer to ourselves as “Christians” — sometimes out of theological conviction that others aren’t Christian, but usually (I think) out of simple laziness. We tend to work with a united front among non-evangelicals, and when we do discuss theological differences, it’s usually about who’s right (us) and who’s wrong (them).
There’s another way of doing it, though, as exemplified by places like Regent College and organizations like InterVarsity. (Full disclosure: I’m an alumnus/former employee and alumnus/employee, respectively.) Part of what I love about both institutions is that they value the diverse theological traditions within evangelical Christianity. I’ve learned and worked alongside Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Methodists, “just Christians,” Calvinists, Arminians, egalitarians, complementarians, and just about every other kind of evangelical one could imagine. And that’s pretty cool.
Next week, some thoughts about engaging fellow evangelicals based on When God Talks Back. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on this topic?
About the author:
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.
Andy Walsh says
Interesting thoughts. I find the first point to be particularly worthwhile. Beyond even the notion that all truth is God’s truth, there is also the need to be familiar with what other people are thinking and saying. We can’t begin to know how to adjust our language without that familiarity.
eliezer silva says
I think we should embrace the full spectra of Christianity. There’s a lot of bridges and common points to emphasize between evangelicals, roman, orthodox, eastern Catholics for example. I think we evangelicals have a poor understandings of what it means to be united, and the role of the unity in the Mission we share we our Lord.
greetings from Brazil
I was once an evangelical Christian who listened for God to speak to me. He never did. God never spoke to me in a still, small voice. God never “moved” me or “led” me. I blamed myself and left the Church. Now that I am older, I have had time to look at the evidence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was never me…it was always God. Here is the evidence I found:
Disease and Illness: Christians have the same rates of disease and illness as non-Christians. Jesus doesn’t seem to answer prayers for healing. The percentage of non-Christians, including atheists, who recover from illness is the same as that of Christians. Christians who claim that they were healed due to prayer cannot prove that their healing was not due to some other factor, such as the medication that their doctor was giving them or pure coincidence. If Jesus really heals people due to prayer, Christians should have a much higher healing rate. They don’t.
Death rates: The average life span of Christians is no better than that of non-Christians, including atheists.
Accident rates: Christians have just as many accidents as non-Christians. There is no evidence that Jesus provides any better protection for Christians behind the wheel than non-Christians, including atheists. So asking Jesus to keep you and your family safe on your road trip doesn’t seem to be of any benefit.
Job promotion: Is there any evidence that Christians are promoted in their jobs more often than non-Christians? I doubt it. Praying to Jesus to give you that promotion or that raise that your family really and truly needs doesn’t seem to work.
Food poisoning: Most Christians pray before every meal for God to bless their food. However, no study I am aware of indicates that Christians have fewer incidences of food poisoning or that Christians are healthier than non-Christians. Jesus doesn’t seem to respond to prayers for “blessing” food.
Child Safety: This is a big one for most Christian parents. We pray to Jesus to keep our children safe. Studies, however, demonstrate that the rate of accidents, injuries, disease, and death among the children of Christians is no different than the rates for the children of non-Christians. Praying to Jesus to keep your children safe is not effective.
Now, maybe it isn’t God’s will for Christians to have lower disease rates, lower death rates, lower accident rates, lower food poisoning rates, lower child injury rates, and higher job promotion rates. But get this: Christians, and even evangelical Christians, have the same divorce rate as non-Christians! So either evangelical Christians are not praying to Jesus regarding their selection of a life partner (which I don’t believe for a second) or Jesus isn’t listening.
Or…Jesus isn’t there.