Doin’ the Stuff: Reason , Belief, Modernity

A few years ago, during fieldwork I was conducting on an evangelically minded Christian charity in England, one of the managers told me about a peculiar issue the charity sometimes faced when it came ...

A few years ago, during fieldwork I was conducting on an evangelically minded Christian charity in England, one of the managers told me about a peculiar issue the charity sometimes faced when it came to hiring new staff: job applicants felt emboldened to enlist the Heavenly Father as a reference. “God told me I was right for this job,” the manager would occasionally hear during an interview. “He may have told you,” the manager would say to herself, “but He didn’t tell me.”

We may not live in a world where God coordinates his communications between his followers, but we certainly live in a world where he’s talking with more and more people, more frequently, about more and more things. God has often chimed in on matters of vocation; he’s been voluble about what people ought to do with their lives at least since the days of Moses. But God has also recently started to offer his opinion on what readers here—Christian or not—might be forgiven for thinking of as more mundane things: what color shirt to wear, what sandwich to order, what haircut to get. And when it comes to asking for something more than an opinion, He wants you to be specific. If you ask for a car (and that’s fine), make sure you say you want a red car. And two-door or four-door? This is God as a helpful guy, a friend, a lover, the biggest, bestest dude there is—not someone set apart, or aloof; not someone all high and mighty (or, at least, not someone who needs to act all high and mighty). This God makes the mid-twentieth-century Jesus portrayed in Protestant paintings as a perfectly lovely man—innocent, calm, and serene—look a bit uptight and distant.

these Christians do cry a lot …, and they pray a huge amount … Beyond that, and beyond what transpires in their minds, these Christians can lay claim to being ordinary Americans.

T. M. Luhrmann’s new book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, details this new Divine, drawing on more than six years of research in the Chicago and San Francisco Bay areas on the Vineyard, a charismatic, evangelical church started over thirty years ago by John Wimber, himself a dude and a founding member of the band that went on to become those purveyors of “blue-eyed soul” from southern California, the Righteous Brothers. The Vineyard has drawn on a range of cultural and spiritual influences, from first-wave Pentecostals, whose faith was defined by a curious mixture of social sobriety and spiritual intoxication, to Jesus-freak hippies, who, from the cities and beaches of California, were some of the first believers to make Jesus over into a dude. Vineyard fellowships today—there are over 550 in the United States—seem to be comprised, in the main, of upright (or longing to be upright) middle-class folks, who are neither as straitlaced as the early Pentecostals nor as hung-loose as the hippies. They take the MCATs and worry about where they’ll get their residencies. They also work with the homeless, and sometimes take them in, allowing them to sleep on the couch. Modernity is no problem for them; it is simply a world shaped by reason. They don’t reject that world, or worldliness. They don’t shy away from science or pop culture, and they are not prone to ramming home “the Truth” or master narratives. They don’t like boxing things up neatly. Often there isn’t a lot that can be used to tell these Christians from non-believers or those who don’t take God very seriously. They do cry a lot (not in public), and they pray a huge amount (sometimes in public, but not in ostentatious ways). Beyond that, and beyond what transpires in their minds, these Christians can lay claim to being ordinary Americans.

The mind is a key site here—both for the unfolding of this faith and, as it happens, for Luhrmann’s research. Above all, When God Talks Back is an ethnography of the mind, of mentalities, and of how Christians use their minds in the service of sensing God’s presence. This God is, like many gods, invisible, both here and not here. And the talk is silent, personal, private. Presence comes from within. Drawing on a range of classic ethnographic methods—participant observation, the interview, and above all time spent hanging out—as well as those of psychological anthropology and, most notably, cognitive science, Luhrmann takes us into the mechanics and metaphysics of prayer. We hear the words of prayers; we hear the language that evangelicals use to talk about those prayers; we are given in situ senses of prayer’s imponderabilia and affectual contours—clenched-closed eyes, hands in the air, hands on shoulders, the tears; and we are informed of the results of various experiments and exercises, some carried out by the evangelicals themselves, some by other researchers, and some by Luhrmann and her assistants.

The move to cognitive science and the mind is notable here; it’s not something most anthropologists do, or even think should be done. Anthropologists still talk more about culture than cognition. For Luhrmann, though, this turn to the mind is both a necessary and salutary step toward understanding when—and how—God talks back. What she does is combine long-term fieldwork with work done in the lab, and this approach allows her to show how these Christians learn to experience God.

There are precious few “shazaam,” Damascene moments of transformation in the Vineyard movement. These evangelicals don’t seem born again so much as birthed again.

For Luhrmann (and for her subjects) it is indeed crucial to emphasize how one must learn to be this kind of Christian. There are precious few “shazaam,” Damascene moments of transformation in the Vineyard movement. These evangelicals don’t seem born again so much as birthed again. It’s a messy and not always easy process. Indeed, “at the beginning,” writes Luhrmann, “they usually find both the skill and the very idea of the skill perplexing.” It doesn’t make sense—it’s not rational—to think that you can teach yourself to hear God talking back. It doesn’t make sense that practice can affect that kind of experience.

Two things in particular make it puzzling. The first and probably most important is the presence and even persuasiveness of secular modernity: Vineyard Christians get the Enlightenment. They get the points about reason and rationality and the material universe. They get science. They get that there is a physical world, and that it has laws, and that the divine relationship they’re striving for and the God to whom they’re talking doesn’t easily fit within that world. It’s true that Wimber—consistent with a line of thinking that extends back to Martin Luther, and even earlier—recognized reason as the “real enemy” of the Christian. However, for today’s evangelicals—and many, many other kinds of Christians—reason is an enemy within only when taken up to the exclusion of passion and faith. Certainly for Luther, reason was not to be discarded or discounted, and indeed several traditions of Reformed Christianity were central to the scientific revolution, to creating the conditions that made the problem of God’s presence all the more acute.

The world in which Vineyard Christians live is one that provides an unprecedented number of options (theist, deist, spiritualist, atheist, secuarlist, humanist, post-humanist—or maybe even nothing), one of which, not without merits or attractions, is that God himself is unbelievable. In the words of the celebrity science writer Richard Dawkins, this God stuff is even best described as a delusion. Dawkins and others associated with the “New Atheism,” such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, are important to the background story here. Not since the anthropologist E. B. Tylor published his monumental study, Primitive Culture, over 140 years ago now, have observers of religion done more to reinforce the idea that religion is about belief. What the New Atheists have accomplished, via such vehicles as Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2008) and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2007), is to give the average, otherwise unaware, reader the impression that religion is all about belief, namely, all about unbelievable and frankly silly propositional assents to someone rising from the dead and the world being created in six days.

It isn’t so. To be sure, one of the requisite footnotes in anthropology dissertations is that this word “belief” is terribly Western and terribly Protestant and won’t much do when it comes to making sense of the “Bongo-Bongo,” anthropology’s favorite fake tribe. (The citation in anthropology dissertations is usually to Talal Asad, sometimes Malcolm Ruel, or maybe the historian of religion J. Z. Smith.) Even more than this, though, an increasing number of scholars of religion have recognized that our understandings of belief have become too ideational, too removed not only from the day-to-day routines of lived religion, but also its material culture and expressions. To this mix, Luhrmann adds the case of her terribly Western and terribly Protestant Christians—precisely the people for whom belief has long been assumed to matter most. Belief is not absent here. (I daresay it’s not absent or useless for helping us make sense of the Bongo-Bongo, either.) But for Vineyard Christians, hearing God is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of experience, of skilling up to the job. Wimber called it “Doin’ the stuff.” And doing the stuff it is.

The best Vineyard Christian could give a monk a run for his money when it comes to spiritual discipline and exercises.

The second thing that makes this Christianity perplexing is precisely the amount of “doin’ the stuff” it demands. The best Vineyard Christian could give a monk a run for his money when it comes to spiritual discipline and exercises. Of course, not all of these Christians qualify for the “best” label. Some of them don’t hear God or don’t hear him very often. Sometimes that’s because they don’t try; not everyone has thirty minutes to devote to prayer every day, or, as in the case of one of the people Luhrmann got to know, head off to the desert without electronic devices. But for many Vineyard Christians, the point of faith itself lies in learning how to be Vineyard Christians.

Indeed, it’s in her discussions of skill and learning that Luhrmann advances her most promising, innovative, and insightful findings. For instance, in chapter 7 of the book—the heart of the study, titled “The Skill Of Prayer”—Luhrmann takes on the absorption hypothesis, first proposed by the psychologist Auke Tellegen. Absorption is for Tellegen, as noted by Luhrmann, “a character trait, a disposition for having moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one’s attentional resources.” “That is why absorption is central to spirituality,” Luhrmann adds. “The capacity to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows is the capacity at the heart of experience of God.” But if it is a character trait, it is a trait that needs to be cultivated through practice—again, one of the perplexing facets of skilling up to the task of hearing God. To test the hypothesis, Luhrmann designed and directed a year-long study in California involving over 120 people (mostly white and mostly women, Luhrmann acknowledges, although she does not say much more about this). The core of this study involved the participants listening to thirty minutes of Bible readings on Stanford-approved iPods, six days a week, set against a background of “pink noise” (particularly nice white noise), along with instructions from a Vineyard leader on how to perform Ignatian prayer, a tradition of prayer practice that aims in particular to cultivate an intimacy with God. What Luhrmann found is that this training mattered with regard to the quality of their prayerful experiences, especially for those who had been recognized in preliminary screenings as open to absorption.

It is in this experiment that Luhrmann really fleshes out her argument about the importance of skill, and further challenges the model of religion-as-belief:

People come to faith not just because they decide that the propositions are true, but because they experience God directly. They feel God’s presence. They hear God’s voice. Their hearts flood with an incandescent joy. Moreover, these feelings and sensations are patterned. Despite the deep idiosyncrasies of personality and life path, when people feel and sense the divine, they do so in ways that can be detailed like a naturalist’s observation on the flight of birds.

Luhrmann’s investment in mentalities means that she doesn’t spend much time on other aspects of this Christian life. This is not a study in which we learn much about any given congregation, or pastor, or meeting place, or set of social or theological issues. There is no real ethnographic setting in this book; the context is the mind. This study does not give us a sociology of the Vineyard, or tell us much about the politics and economics of the faith. What is left out we can learn from other students of the Vineyard, such as the specific ways in which their theological conservativism and social progressivism work, or don’t. Anthropologist Jon Bialecki, for example, another gifted observer of this world, writes of how the Vineyard Christians he got to know wrestled with the best ways in which to help others—in one specific case, the Karen population of Burma—as well as of how they wrestled with social and culture-war issues closer to home, such as sexuality.

Luhrmann’s prose is beautifully simple and fluid; she has one of the clearest and most confident voices in anthropology today. But her writing does not bring the people and places to life in what would normally (and normatively) pass for an anthropological context. We do hear about people, and often have them described: “I met Sarah at the Vineyard church in California. A short Asian woman, slightly plump, with a short chin and expressive eyes….” We end up hearing a lot about, and from, Sarah and many others: Elaine, Grace, David, Sam. And we do hear, in passing, about concern for the homeless in Chicago, if not the Karen. Yet paradoxically these particularities only further serve to minimize actually existing personalities. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with Luhrmann’s effort to anonymize her subjects, to respect their privacy. Another intention, though, is to render the anthropology generic, to give us a type and not just a token of a way of being. These decisions of style and representation are important ways in which Luhrmann reaches out to audiences beyond anthropology. On almost every page there is deft tacking between the heartfelt and hard-edged, between what any number of readers—anthropologist, informant, cognitive scientist—might find comforting and enlightening in equal measure.

Many anthropologists will be skeptical about the turn to the mind and a theory of the mind. They won’t like the experiments and lab-like conditions out of which some of the data come. They will demand background and circumstance. Many more eyebrows will be raised by Luhrmann’s admission that she has, on one occasion (not during this research project), seen six druids standing outside her window; or that she, too, has prayed and cried. They won’t like her fudginess when it comes to faith. Luhrmann is not a Christian, but “I find myself defending Christianity,” she writes. Vineyard Christians, on the other hand, might not be willing to accept the psychological and cognitive explanations on offer as to how their experience of hearing God is real. There is a substrate of social and psychological facts in Luhrmann’s analysis and it may be that, for them, “absorption” is no more acceptable than “delusion.” It might not do for the secular academic or Vineyard Christian (to say nothing of the Vineyard academic or secular Christian) to draws parallels here between flocks of people and flocks of birds. In terms of audience and public contributions, then, Luhrmann’s book stands in metonymic relation to the issue it sets out to present: how to reconcile faith and reason, which in its own ways colors the anthropological endeavor as much as the Vineyard’s. icon

Featured image: Cambridge Vineyard Christian Fellowship, December 25, 2005. Photograph by Steven Yeh / Flickr