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?