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When God Talks Back - A Book Review by Sutton

When God Talks Back: 
Understanding the American Evangelical   
Relationship with God


     T.M. Luhrmann

Reviewed by 

     Geoffrey W. Sutton

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes.
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking;
So Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest.
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way that He loves us:
John Mark McMillan (2005)

I quoted a portion of the McMillan song because it is one of those subgenres of Christian music dubbed "Jesus is my boyfriend." If you observe Pentecostal youth singing with eyes closed and arms raised and swaying you get a real sense of a love relationship between a young woman and a personified God. The idea of a relationship with God is not new, but the focus on a present intensely personal speaking relationship with God as a widespread Christian movement is distinctive. 

In When God Talks Back, Lurhmann takes on a journey to the Vineyard, which is an international Christian group. John and Carol Wimber became international leaders of the Vineyard movement. Wimber was a talented Missouri musician who experienced a dramatic conversion. Wimber is credited with opening evangelicals to God's presence through his spirit as experienced in Pentecostal and charismatic congregations.

Tanya Lurhmann is an anthropologist at Stanford University. The book, published in 2012, is the result of her field study of the Vineyard movement. She presents a faith-friendly stance as she reports the results of numerous interviews, survey questions, and observations based on participation in church groups and services.

Overview of When God Talks Back

Her first chapter invites readers to join her as she frames her Vineyard experience in the history of the evangelical movement, the rise of Pentecostalism, and the emergence of The Vineyard Fellowship. Through her eyes we view a people who love God in a deeply personal way and seek to hear his personal guidance in every nook and cranny of the Bible. Learning what God “said” is Luhrmann’s puzzle. In addition to learning how to study the Bible, she finds people struggling to learn the discipline of prayer as a conversation. Given practice and examples, believers learn to trust the thoughts that enter their minds as God’s voice and not their own thoughts. Prayer journals are pathways to focus on the interactions between God and believer. Highlighted Bibles full of notes reflect God’s interpretation of his own text. And life situations unfold in nonrandom ways as God speaks into lives. As one man said, “God is always talking to you (59).”

After believers learn to converse with God and recognize his voice, they must learn to interact with him as a person. She draws on evangelical favorite, C.S. Lewis’s chapter in Mere Christianity titled “Let’s Pretend” to illustrate how these believers develop a sense of God’s presence. People ask God what to wear and they speak to God as if he were occupying an empty chair at their table. Experiencing God as real is a marker of spiritual maturity.

Learning that God is love is a process. Luhrmann again reminds readers that this love doctrine is new in the context of a history of fear and worry about the wrath of the Almighty. A part of spiritual development is a reworking of a person’s God-concept so that people learn to trust God. She emphasizes the important role that emotions play in this process of a heart-felt faith experience. Not surprisingly, not all members find their way to God through these local-group led experiences. Many find it hard to pray. Yet encouragement comes from local experts-- people who share their testimonies of what God is doing in their lives.

Luhrmann wonders what people are doing when they pray. Eventually she reaches a conclusion that the intense prayers of the mature charismatic believers are close to the psychological state of absorption. Those high on absorption are highly focused with attentional processes that screen out life’s distractions. People learn to relate to reality from a different perspective. She wonders, are they crazy? She gives us a sense that in the moment people are in the world but not of the world. This absorption experience is close to the clinically challenging world of those who lose contact with a part of experience as in a dissociative state. We also find some reporting what sounds like hallucinations and delusions. People hear God speak in an audible voice. Others share their confrontations with evil spirits. Luhrmann rejects the notion of craziness in favor of transformative experiences that temporarily override the senses.

Perhaps no study would be complete without an examination of theodicy. Luhrmann finds these believers do indeed confront doubts in their faith journey. Some prayers do not lead to expected answers. Bad things happen. But rather than seeking logical answers, they eventually find a satisfactory response in their spiritual experiences and their relationship with God in the context of a faith community. As Luhrmann observes, “Their faith is practical, not philosophical (299).” 

 Luhrmann presents the Evangelical worldview as a third type of epistemology. These Christians do not castigate science but when it comes to faith they do not insist on an evidence-based logical narrative. There is no formal sense of a systematic theology that organizes belief into tidy structures that may be called upon to bolster faith or resist heresy. Neither do these Christians behave like children embracing a fictional narrative utterly divorced from reality. Instead, these Christians have embraced a story of a living God. And they have a worldview that blends the supernatural with everyday experience. This way of knowing is about a relationship. And the relationship is one between an individual believer and God. If you have an interest in the nexus of behavioral science and Christianity, you will find were work interesting.

I think Lurhmann has made a useful contribution to understanding a movement within 20th century Christianity. She actually provides a reasonably good example of how to conduct and report participant-observer research. 

I included Lurhmann's study in my book, Counseling and Psychotherapy with Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians because she addressed many facets of charismatic culture and wellbeing in her study.

On a technical note, the subtitle referring to "Evangelical" is a bit misleading because The Vineyard is not representative of contemporary evangelical churches. The Vineyard's embrace of many Pentecostal and charismatic beliefs and practices has led to the classification "neocharismatic evangelical Christian." They are considered to be a part of the Third Wave Movement (Stetzer). To clarify, the First Wave is the Pentecostal movement (Stetzer), which garnered attention in the early 1900s when groups of conservative Christians began speaking in tongues and reported instances of healing. Early American leaders were Charles Parham and William Joseph Seymour.  The Second Wave refers to the interdenominational spiritual renewal also known as the Charismatic Movement with origins attributed to Dennis Bennett's Spirit Baptism (Stetzer, 2013).


Lurhmann, T. M. (2012). 
When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God . New York: Vintage.

Sutton, G.W. (2014). [Review of the book When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann]. Encounter. Accepted June 16, 2014. ResearchGate Link Academia Link


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