Book review: When God Talks Back, by TM Luhrmann

Around a quarter of the world’s two billion Christians now sign up to the Pentecostalist or neo-Pentecostalist belief that God talks to them. That includes some educated people like, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. How is this possible, in an era of rising education and living standards? Is the world going mental? One social scientist who has looked into the question deeply is Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who brought out an excellent book last year called When God Talks Back.

Members of the Vineyard Church bless the new Archbishop of Canterbury

Luhrmann spent two years among the members of Vineyard churches in Chicago and California. Vineyard is one of a new breed of charismatic Protestant churches, like Calvery Chapel, Saddleback, and HTB in the UK. This ‘neo-Pentecostalist’ sort of Christianity emerged in the 1960s, as baby-boomers raised on rock & roll and LSD returned to Christianity and sought a more intense, personal and supernatural relationship with God.

At the heart of this type of Christianity is the idea that we can build a close and loving relationship with God. The Almighty, Luhrmann suggests, has evolved in the last forty years from a distant and forbidding Father to a best friend, even a boyfriend, who loves us unconditionally, and to whom we can pour out our every thought (should I move to San Francisco, is that girl interested in me, does my bum look big in this?) God will talk back and tell us what to do, through words, images, dreams, signs and intense emotional experiences.

But how does God talk back? And isn’t hearing a Divine Voice a classic sign of psychosis? Luhrmann says that talking with God takes practice, and she follows some of the stages of training that charismatic Christians go through. Initially, for new Christians, it feels weird to pray to a God we can’t see or hear. Christian teachers encourage an attitude of ‘make-believe’, or what Luhrmann calls ‘adult play’. She quotes CS Lewis, who says of prayer: ‘Let us pretend in order to make the pretence a reality.’

One of the stunning paintings on the walls of San Marco in Florence, by Fra Angelico

Visualization exercises are a very good way of making the pretence a reality. The early Christians spoke of ‘painting the soul’ with images, and that idea inspired Christian art like the convent of San Marco in Florence, where in each room a mural depicts a scene from Christ’s life. It also inspired the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which Luhrmann tried out and which had a profound effect on her (she writes ‘Even now I can remember the weeks we spent en route to Bethlehem’).

She traces the emotional components of prayer – above all, learning to accept the idea that God loves you unconditionally. She reflects that charismatic churches offer their congregants a form of free therapy, ‘and whereas the human therapist takes the client’s money and goes away, God sticks around for all eternity. It is a remarkably effective system, if you can take it seriously.’

Charismatic Christians believe some people are naturally better at prayer than others, but that we can all ‘improve’ at prayer. Luhrmann suggests prayer-skill is correlated with the psychological state known as ‘absorption’, which means the capacity to have ‘moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one’s attentional resources’, giving people ‘a heightened sense of the reality of the attentional object…and an altered sense of reality in general’. She suggests that expert ‘prayer-warriors’ have naturally high levels of absorption, but we can all develop this skill though practices like imaginative prayer.

She tested out this out via an experiment. She found 128 Christians, and gave them one of three recordings to listen to each day, for a month. One involved listening to Psalms and imagining a conversation with Jesus; the second involved trying to empty one’s mind of any thoughts; and the third involved listening to an academic lecture on the Gospels. Those participants who followed the first exercise had, by the end of the month, much more vivid images of God, more of a sense of God speaking to them, and more peace. The daily practice of imaginative prayer increased their sense of God’s reality and presence, until they really felt that God was talking to them. (Listening to the academic lectures, by contrast, made participants feel more stressed!)

The fruits of prayer, Luhrmann suggests, are emotional – peace, gratitude, joy, hope and so on – but they’re also experiential. Charismatic Christians report ‘break throughs’ after practice, where they think God talks back to them. They begin to discern certain words or images in their stream of consciousness, which they take as divine messages. They then need to test the message out by asking others in their community their opinion, or checking the Scriptures, or perhaps by asking God for further confirmations or signs.

Luhrmann’s subjects are aware that this will sound insane to most people, and they preface their descriptions of God talking back with phrases like ‘I know this sounds weird but…’ She suggests that charismatic Christians’ need for a direct connection to God comes not from some primitive rejection of modernity but from a modern, Skeptical need to really feel God’s presence in their thoughts, feelings and life, rather than trusting in the testimony of Scripture. We are all doubting Thomases these days.

Does Luhrmann herself believe Someone is Out There? She seems to be a sort of postmodernist, or magical realist, believing that we make Gods almost-real by the daily practice of imaginative prayer. In an earlier study, she lived among neo-Pagans in the UK, and participated in their visualisation exercises for several months, until one morning she saw six druids standing outside her window!

She suggests a multiple worlds theory of reality, in which different cultures create different worlds through their imaginative practices, like programmers and players co-creating World of Warcraft or Second Life. And she seems to think, by the end of the book, that you could do a lot worse than joining and co-creating a virtual world filled with compassionate people, ruled by a God who loves you unconditionally. Building a vivid and loving ‘God-concept’ is, Luhrmann suggests, good for you.

At least, it is most of the time. If you believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God who cares about us all, you have to explain why the world is in such a mess and so many lives are blighted. Evangelical Christians do this, often, by having an equally vivid sense of the Devil’s agency. And believing in devils too vividly can mess you up. One of Luhrmann’s principle subjects, a lady called Sarah who prays for three or four hours a day, slides into mental illness when she sees an ‘imp’ run across her bed and becomes convinced she is possessed. She is ultimately hospitalized, released, and then becomes adamant that God has chosen her to be an evangelist about mental illness.

The Anglican Cathedral in Second Life