For the past several weeks, Iâ€™ve been reading T.M. Luhrmannâ€™sÂ When God Talks Back:Â Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.Â The book addresses a simple, but profound, question from the perspective of a nonbeliever: how can seemingly rational, otherwise normal people claim to discern God’s will, to hear Godâ€™s voice, and, sometimes, to even see or feel spiritual beings? Luhrmann asks this with genuine curiosity, both personal and professional. A psychological anthropologist who has written previous books about modern witches, Zoroastrian Parsis, and American psychiatry, Luhrmann spent four years attending Vineyard churches and participating in Bible studies, prayer groups, and church seminars in preparation for the book. In addition to her own observations, Luhrmann ran the Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment at Stanford to explore how spiritual practices like prayer and Bible study affected individualsâ€™ perception of spiritual things.Â When God Talks Back is the result of these observations, experiments, and Luhrmannâ€™s synthesis of the literature on Christianity and other religions.
Much of the book focuses on sensory perceptions of â€œunnaturalâ€ phenomena â€” voices, visions, physical sensations of people who are not there. Augustineâ€™s conversion storyÂ in his Confessions is a great example of this. While alone under a fig tree wrestling with whether to follow Christ, he hears a childâ€™s voice singing â€œTolle, lege, tolle, lege â€” â€take and readâ€œ in Latin â€” but he knows somehow that isnâ€™t just a childâ€™s voice. He picks up a Bible, reads the first verses that he finds (Rom. 13:13â€“15), and â€all the shadows of doubt were dispelled” (Confessions, Book VIII).
Luhrmann chooses to examine Vineyard churches because she notices that experiences like these, as well as the more common process of discerning Godâ€™s will through prayer, study, and community, are much more common and accepted as authentic spiritual encounters in evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecotal churches than in the mainline Protestant church in which she was raised. In her research, Luhrmann finds that sensory experiences like these are much more common than some might think. Between 10% and 15% of the population volunteer when asked that they have heard voices or seen people who they knew â€œwerenâ€™t there.â€ The number rises to nearly 50% when the question is accompanied by a prompting example. Â [Read more…] about When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann