For whom is this evocative, often brilliant, curiously polite book written? Stanford anthropologist T.M Luhrmann’s, “When God Talks Back,’’ with its promise of a conversation, was sufficient to provoke my seatmate on a recent flight to make several attempts at establishing Christian fellowship with me, so certain was he that the book was a how-to for hearing such divine replies. But the subtitle speaks to a different demographic: “Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.’’ Another kind of how-to, then, aimed at the amiable middle, those who neither believe as deeply as my seatmate nor reject faith so completely that understanding it begins and ends with one word: “false.’’ T. M. Luhrmann’s popularized anthropological study is intended for the rest of us.
Or so, I suspect, her publisher would have us believe. The subtitle is one of the very few misleading lines in “When God Talks Back,’’ a book that is at almost every turn more subtle than its packaging. It’s not, in fact, about anything so vast and diverse as “the American Evangelical Relationship with God.’’ It’s mostly about Luhrmann’s experience as an anthropologist in two outlets of the Vineyard church franchise, a charismatic offshoot of the 1960s and ’70s “Jesus People’’ movement of hippies for Christ. They’re not hippies anymore, but they remain a far cry from the ethos of the largest evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God. The over-grand subtitle erases such nuances. Fortunately, Luhrmann’s study itself doesn’t. The best parts of her book tease out the contradictions of prayer in churches that see the Bible as a book in which they are main characters.
Luhrmann is often such a fine writer that you may begin to see them in a similar light, even as “When God Talks Back’’ will likely appear as a funhouse mirror to the near-majority of Americans for whom an “evangelical relationship with God’’ is simply a fact of life, not an oddity requiring explanation. “ ‘Words, words, words,’ ’’ Alice, an evangelical engineering student declares, apparently in response to Luhrmann’s too-scholarly questions. “ ‘It’s the relationship that counts.’ ’’ For the committed atheists who define themselves against that relationship, meanwhile, the most salient line of the book comes in a discussion of “practicing the experience of feeling loved by God’’: “It is a remarkably effective system,’’ writes Luhr mann, eyebrow arched, “if you can take it seriously.’’
Usually Luhrmann does, and she seems confident that she will find readers outside of evangelicalism who will do so as well. Her goal, she writes, is “simply to help readers understand the problem of presence’’ - God’s, that is - “and to explain how, in this day and age, people are nonetheless able to identify that presence and to experience it as real.’’ Her method might be best described as gently anthropological, strong on narrative and light on theory. It is gentle, too, in the sense of what’s withheld. She describes her subjects, most of whom we encounter not as characters but as respectfully interviewed informants, as theologically conservative. She’s not interested in political conservatism, though she notes that it’s often one of the fruits of such a perspective. This book isn’t about that.
“Intimate’’ is the term Luhrmann uses most often to describe the religious lives of her subjects, most of whom would probably prefer “spiritual’’ to “religious,’’ a term they associate with rituals and rules, not “vivid, silly intimacy,’’ a God who wants “to be intimate with each of us, as if he were a buddy,’’ through churches that “emphasize intimacy, not historical understanding.’’ They crave a more liberated, looser, more personal relationship with the divine. “It’s a love story,’’ one of Luhrmann’s informants says of her relationship to God. They go on “date nights’’ with Him, snuggle with Him, ask Him if they look fat, and giggle at His jokes.
The jokes are the kind you’d have to be there for. God, according to Lurhmann’s informants, teases his “friends’’ by tripping them, pushing them down on the ice, and encouraging birds to defecate on them. God’s sense of humor, Luhrmann notes, is like that of a schoolboy.
The greatest accomplishment of Luhrmann’s book is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Her subjects are ordinary Christians, and yet to the uninitiated the personal intimacy - that really is the word for it - with which they encounter their God will, on the page, come off at times as, in the terms of one believer, “wacky.’’ At the same time, evangelicalism, too often understood by those outside it as a monolithic faith defined by intrusive politics, is recast here in the instantly recognizable terms of everyday anxieties and common-sense responses. Self-help? Absolutely. Call it crazy only if you’ve never been to a shrink.
As with politics, Luhrmann leaves aside the question of the reality of God. The most intriguing chapter is called “Let’s Pretend,’’ and it proceeds from the assumption that the God her subjects talk to on a daily basis about the most mundane of matters (several informants tell her they ask God for advice about their hair) is not that different from an imaginary friend - but that doesn’t mean He isn’t real. Luhrmann borrows the title from a chapter in C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,’’ and takes as the subject of her investigation his proposal that believers should “pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality.’’ An informant named Hannah regularly meets God for heart-to-hearts (she brings a sandwich for herself, but not one for Him, Luhrmann notes). Hannah understands the idea that God is sitting next to her, chatting about her friends, is “artifice,’’ as Luhrmann puts it, but she keeps up the practice anyway because “imagining her relationship with God as like her relationship with a boyfriend cut through the awkwardness and difficulty of understanding who or what God was in the first place.’’
Luhrmann calls her subjects’ experience of this God “not-real-but-more-than-real,’’ akin to the deepest kind of play. She cites best-selling evangelical authors Brent Curtis and John Eldredge’s book “The Sacred Romance,’’ in which they write that “[t]he crisis of hope that afflicts the church today is a crisis of imagination.’’ (Emphasis theirs.) Luhrmann is fascinated by her subjects’ response to this perceived crisis, but the one weakness of “When God Talks Back’’ is her seemingly uncritical acceptance of the terms through which they understand that crisis. Eldredge, for instance, has sold millions of books by presenting “The Sacred Romance’’ as a political rallying cry, calling for manly men to seize control of their families and their societies from women and sissies. Meanwhile, even as Luhrmann’s subjects struggle to be kind and caring in their immediate lives, they blind themselves to social systems. Hannah gets angry with God “not because he allowed genocide in Darfur’’ but because he makes her a dorm counselor. A crisis of imagination? Certainly, if one allows that imagination means more than imaginary friends. That’s not to dismiss the God of Luhrmann’s believers. Is he real? Perhaps. But so is the world in which these believers struggle to know him.Jeff Sharlet’s most recent book is “Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between.’’