Two or three things that I know about talking to the invisible

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Aparecida Vilaca. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.015


Two or three things that I know about talking to the invisible*

Aparecida VILACA, Museu Nacional / Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Comment on LUHRMANN, Tanya. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God. New York: Alfred E. Knopf.

When God talks back is a book about how intimacy is produced between members of Vineyard, an American neo-Pentecostal Evangelical church, and God, who they learn to experience as a friend, indeed their best friend (Luhrmann 2012: 5), someone with whom they go out walking, have dinner, and chat. The presentation of an enormous wealth of data—the outcome of long-term, intensive field research— in the form of dialogues, statements, and testimonies from these believers, combined with the decision to leave the more arid aspects of anthropological discussion to the footnotes, produces a clear and agile text, allowing readers, whatever their background, to immerse themselves in the presented universe.

As she discusses her material, Luhrmann repeatedly asks the following questions: how can people so similar to ourselves, including liberal middle-class professionals from California or Chicago, claim—sometimes serenely, sometimes with heightened emotion—that they can hear the voice of God replying to their questions, even the most mundane and everyday, like what they should wear or what color to paint their kitchen? How can they claim that “God really showed up today” (6), or that God has “a particular presence and a specific voice” (6) if “it is the essential nature of divinity that divinity is nonmaterial” (xvii)?

The paths taken by the author in reply to these questions lead us to the hippie movement and the 1960s counterculture, a period when Jesus was reclaimed as a human and revolutionary figure (Chapter 1), and to neurological and psychological studies (Chapter 3) that reveal the importance of perceptual training as a means to augment auditory and visual capacities. The Vineyard members have a variety of manuals and books at their disposal, which, combined with the church sermons, provide guidance on how to perceive the presence of God concretely. They train themselves to become attentive to every sign, sound, and movement (see for example Luhrmann 2012: 74–75) until they learn to recognize a presence that was in fact there the whole time, someone with whom they can enter into an intimate, intense, enduring, and fulfilling relationship (xxiv, 39, 46).

Such a rich ethnographic inquiry is bound to generate many different potential commentaries. Here I have opted to explore the parallels between some of the book’s key questions and those elicited by my own experience among the Wari‘, an indigenous people of Amazonia. First, though, I wish to pose an apparently unrelated question, intriguing for a person like myself unfamiliar with the world of urban American evangelicalism. Although the figures of God and Jesus are both mentioned as partners over the course of the book, especially in the Vineyard members’ testimonies concerning their personal encounters (including those called “dating”), sometimes switching between one name and the other as though equivalent (see Luhrmann 2012: 177, final paragraph and 178, 183), the much larger number of references to God suggests a preference toward the latter. If one of the important conditions of experiencing this relation with the divine is precisely the capacity to produce an embodied and sensory image of the divinity, it would seem to me logical that Jesus, rather than God, would predominate in these encounters, given his human qualities (37). Would it not be simpler to imagine Jesus as a partner, a person of flesh and bone, a figure of whom so many pictorial representations exist? If my question as an outsider has any substance, a reply can perhaps be found in the work of Maya Mayblin (one of the participants in this symposium) where she describes the relation between Catholics from the Brazilian northeast and their saints. According to Mayblin (2013: 18), the crucial problem in this relation is one of “optimal distance.” In other words, the excess humanity of the saints (in particular their gender attributes) hinders the efficacy of the relationship, especially in terms of the benefits and powers that can be extracted from it (Mayblin 2013: 4). Could this be the same for Jesus and the Vineyard Church members? Too human?

I turn now abruptly to another sphere of questions. At a certain point in her book, Luhrmann suggests a comparison between the perceptual training of her American friends and shamanic initiation (2012: 184–85). I pick up on her remark to introduce my own experience with people who saw and talked to invisible entities in order to show, though, the radical difference between these different contexts. I use the past tense since shamans no longer exist among the Wari’ today, a result of their conversion to Evangelical Christianity. In this new context, God can be neither seen nor heard.

At the start of my field research in 1986, the Wari’ were intensely involved in shamanic activities. In the Rio Negro-Ocaia Village, where I lived for most of the time, there were four shamans who would work in pairs whenever they were called to cure children and adults, which was often. Since the Wari’ considered many kinds of animals to be human—that is, beings who perceived themselves as human and could attack the Wari’ with arrows—especially those species most valued as prey, one of the shaman’s activities was to examine hunted game and remove attributes of humanity from them including body paintings and feather adornments, so they could be safely eaten without risk of revenge.

Neither the experience of the wari’ nor that of the vineyard members can be understood as psychotic hallucination (Luhrmann 2012: 231), since both cases involve people with an absolutely normal life in terms of their wider familial and social contexts. Unlike the Vineyard Christians the Wari’ shamans did not undergo perceptual training. Like them, though, they made no use of tobacco or any other drug, so we cannot speak of trance as commonly found in anthropological depictions of shamanism.

I turn then to the account of an experience that can, i think, be usefully compared to those recounted in When God talks back. One day in 2003 I asked the jaguar-shaman Orowam, whom I call grandfather, whether I could film a conversation with him about jaguars and their world. He sat on a wooden trunk close to his house and i positioned myself in front of him with my video camera on a tripod next to me. several people sat around orowam to hear him speak. After a long silence, orowam began to look to his left and talk in a low voice, and immediately all of those on that side ran away, especially the children, shooed away by their parents. From the comments, I understood that the jaguars were present, arriving from that direction. Not knowing what to do, i remained seated looking toward orowam until he turned toward me and began to tell me what the jaguars were saying. They asked him who I was. He replied that I was his granddaughter. Again he looked to his left, listened and turned back to me, saying that they wanted to know what I would give as a present for filming. I answered. Turning to the jaguars, he repeated my response in a loud voice: “a shirt,” she said. Both the dialogues were spoken in the Wari’ language. The three of us (or more, since a groups of jaguars was involved) talked like this for about fifteen minutes, after which the jaguars left. The others then drew near again, surrounding Orowam and remarking on what had happened. Nobody, as far as I could tell, doubted the presence of the jaguars.

The similarity between the two contexts of conversation with invisible entities is, however, just an appearance. In contrast to the founding difference between humans and the Christian God, the difference between shamans and animals is merely a question of perception since the shamans were themselves animals, perceiving them and being perceived by them as an equal, that is, as a human. They left together to hunt, took their prey to be roasted in their houses, talked to one another, and shared their meals.

Though the animals, qua humans, were invisible to most people, everyone shared the perception of the shaman’s animal body, especially during the curing sessions when their actions would involve gestures characteristic of their animal companions. so a wolf-fish-shaman, for example, would lie on top of the sick person, moving his body like a fish, a peccary-shaman would make the animal’s distinctive sounds, and a jaguar-shaman would act like the predator, removing objects from the sick person’s body with his mouth, spitting out blood. This was not only the case for shamans since anyone who became sick would acquire an animal double visible to the shamans. In this sense, every Wari’ was a double being, or a dividual, with an animal potency eclipsed in everyday contexts but made evident whenever a direct relationship with animals was established. The work of the shamans, and that of kin as a whole, was to ensure the person was fixed at the human pole, constantly separating him or her from the animal universe by living and eating together and through affection.

Shamans were the only people able to control their own duplicity: they could pass without difficulty from one body to another and from one set of relations to another. During my early field research I was talking once to the same Orowam about the jaguars, this time in the company of my Wari’ brother Abrâo, Orowam’s classificatory grandson. Suddenly, I perceived a change in his behavior. Orowam fell silent and began to rub his eyes. When he opened them again, he looked at us as though we were strangers. Abrâo immediately began to speak to him, saying repeatedly: “grandfather, grandfather, it is us, your grandchildren.” After a while Orowam recognized us again. As we left, Abrâo observed my stunned expression and explained that Orowam had been seeing us from a jaguar perspective and could have attacked us had he not intervened and forced him to recognize our kinship ties.

An even clearer example of this process of entering and leaving worlds was made apparent to me while watching a young woman being cured by the late peccary-shaman Wan’e, who I called father. Various people, including his wife and me, were observing him. His gestures and sounds were those of a peccary. At a certain moment, his wife looked at him and said loudly: “I’m going home.” He immediately turned to her and replied, “I’ll be there soon,” before turning back to the patient, acting as a peccary. I had just begun my research and was imbued with the notion of trance as an explanation for this type of situation, so I was perplexed by the naturalness of the couple’s dialogue.

It seems to me, then, that questions of the kind posed by Luhrmann vis-à-vis her material only make sense within a cultural frame informed by a very specific notion of personhood, as in the case of the American middle-class youths and adults making up the Vineyard Church’s membership. Only the self-contained individual as a starting point enables us to ask questions such as “Is the intimate relation with God a hallucination (God is just mind) or a real dialogue (God is a real exterior being)?”

As dividual persons, the Wari‘—as some other Amazonian peoples—were themselves the “invisible.” Only when they became Christians did they begin to ask questions about God’s presence. From the viewpoint of shamanistic culture, the Christian God is a very strange kind of being. As one woman asked me more than a decade ago: “Our shamans search and search and yet they have never seen God. They even went to the sky but could not locate God’s house. Does God exist, Aparecida?”


Luhrmann, Tanya. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Mayblin, Maya. 2013. “‘People like us’: Intimacy, distance, and the androgyny of saints.” Paper presented at the Wenner-Gren Symposium #147, “The anthropology of Christianity: Unity, diversity and new directions” (draft version quoted with the author’s consent).

Sahlins, Marshall. 1999. “Two or three things that I know about culture.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5 (3): 399–421.



Aparecida Vilaça
Programa de Pós-Graduacào em Antropologia Social
Museu Nacional
Quinta da Boa Vista s/n° - Sào Cristóvào
Rio de Janeiro-RJ
Brasil, CEP 20940–040


* Title adapted from Marshall Sahlins (1999).