What kind of God?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Annelin Eriksen and Ruy Blanes. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.018


What kind of God?

Eriksen ANNELIN, University of Bergen

Ruy BLANES, University of Bergen

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

The anthropologist reader of When God talks back does not need to open the book to begin to collect information about what it is trying to convey, and how. By looking at the cover, feeling the pages in your fingers and, especially, glancing through the back cover, one quickly understands that this book, despite being written by an anthropologist, is not written as an “anthropology book” nor is it intended for only a disciplinary academic audience: the endorsements from newspaper reviews and famous neuroscientists, the thin, soon-to-be-brown airport bestseller paper, the mainstream publisher…. All these sensorial acknowledgements easily confirm our suspicion.

In fact, as is stated very explicitly in Tanya Luhrmann’s introduction, When God talks back was written with a clear goal: to participate in the public, ongoing debates between Christian activists and “scientific atheists” concerning the existence of God, and simultaneously stand aside the equally popular evolutionary psychology explanations of religious belief (personified in the likes of Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, and others). This choice has an evident effect in the rest of the book: it is structured and written with specific literary devices that, while making the book more appealing for the so-called general audience (more specifically, a North American audience interested in religious issues), it consequently (and presumably consciously) moves away from the traditional anthropological genre. She opts for a broader audience and also, possibly, a more impacting influence on popular debates. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this option. Luhrmann has been, to say the least, brave in her attempt to use anthropological knowledge to participate in public debates—something most anthropologists agree is necessary and important, but hardly ever do. It would perhaps have been safer to opt for the more “internal anthropological” publication, which most of us do. Luhrmann should be applauded for bringing anthropological analyses onto a scene dominated by the evolutionary psychology.

This is an ethnographically grounded study of Evangelical Christians in the United States, more specifically it is a study of the way Vineyard congregants engage in prayer and how they learn to experience God; to hear God. Luhrmann shows us the techniques used to “recognize” God (how Christians can distinguish God’s voice from their own for instance). Her methodology is on the one hand traditionally anthropological. She has done periods of fieldwork in two different Vineyard churches, one in California and one in Chicago. She took part in prayer groups, in weekly church meetings, and interviewed congregants. On the other hand, she also draws on psychological methods, with tests and experiments. As Luhrmann points out in chapter eight: “To many people, hearing a voice when no one is there is not a sign of God but of mental illness” (2012: 227). Luhrmann shows us that this is not case. She shows us that hearing God is a social process; it is an ability one learns. When God talks back is thus an untraditional book in both its aim and in its methodology. For the broader audience, it has an important mission, and represents and a welcome contribution, on behalf, so to speak, of sociocultural anthropology.

However, what is the contribution of the book to the more narrow audience; to the field of anthropology and, more specifically, what has become known as the anthropology of Christianity? Here, we will claim, the book has a few shortcomings. For instance, Luhrmann talks about “Christians” as a general category (although “American Evangelical Christians” is implied). Within the Anthropology of Christianity, there are ongoing debates about the extent to which one can talk about “Christianity” as monolithic tradition and “Christians” as if they are a homogenous group (Cannell 2006; Robbins 2003; Hann 2007). Luhrmann does this rather unproblematically; she wants to convey the story about Christians and is less interested in detailing what makes these specific Christians different from other Christians both within and beyond the American context. For instance, when we read some generalizing assumptions such as the idea of the “personal and intimate” God (Luhrmann 2012: xxii) that participates the (North) American Evangelical experience, one cannot help but question: is that experience so common, homogeneous, and widespread among the myriad of churches, pastors, and theologies that abound in this country (ibid.: 13) as to be able to become representative of the “Christian experience”? What about the other psychological attributes of God that can be found? To what extent is this particular “God” representative and able to stand side by side with the other overarching arguments that stem from the other sides of the barricade (atheists, Evangelicals, religious specialists, politicians, pundits, and what not)? Another conundrum emerges when, in her point about the epistemological problem of divinity, Luhrmann states that “there is nothing physical that a Christian can pick up and show to a non-Christian as irrevocable material proof of the existence of the Christian God” (ibid.: xvii-xviii). This phrasing exemplifies how she is working with one specific modality of Christian faith in mind—as, in fact, many millions of Christian pilgrims throughout the world, for instance, would immediately disagree with her on this point.

Luhrmann is, we argue, describing and analyzing a specific kind of Christian, namely the Vineyard Christian. This is a growing movement, which also influences the style of worship in other denominations. Still, Luhrmann describes a very specific form of Christianity. Birgit Meyer (2012) has argued that we need to challenge the idea that religion as an “inner,” “private,” and “invisible” phenomenon, as opposed to “outward” and materially manifest phenomenon. The challenge for studies of religion is, according to Meyer, to get beyond these Western notions of where the religious can be observed and how it becomes manifest. Luhrmann is of course studying the very tradition where the inner and private aspects of belief is crucial, and she can thus not be blamed for not going beyond the mental versus the material divide. But, is it possible that she might have become too immersed in her informants’ self-presentation about their inner life and their personal relationship with God? Might there also be other, more social and even material dimensions, that are just as crucial, but which might not be part of the explicit rhetoric?

However, Luhrmann’s book is ethnographically solid, and also gives historical depth to the development of the Vineyard Church. She tells the story of a transformation in American Christianity that is quite dramatic, a transformation implying in many ways the deconstruction of a religious hierarchy and the development of what one might almost call an extreme form of religious egalitarianism; God becomes someone you can speak confidently to, someone who tells you jokes and supports your everyday little problem (like getting help from God to get a good haircut, Luhrmann 2012: 76). This “democratization of God” (ibid.: 35), is perhaps not described in such a detail before in anthropological literature, and is thus both welcome and important. Luhrmann gives us interesting portraits of people who live with this “down to earth” God. She shows us the way in which God is transformed from a Father to a friend, how people communicate with Him, how they discover Him in their everyday, mundane practices. However, she does not give us the analysis of how this transformation was socially and culturally possible; how this radical turn in American Christianity could take place. She gives interesting historical background connecting the Vineyard Church to the “Jesus movements” in the late 1960s. These genealogies give us a certain context but do not reveal for the reader the processes that lead to this egalitarian turn in American Christianity—a turn that is in itself an extremely relevant element for the understanding of contemporary North American politics and the influence of Evangelical Christianity in its current configuration. Perhaps, if her work had been more comparative in scope, setting this form of Christianity in relation to other places and forms, we might start to develop a broader picture of this process and address the “existence of God” problem as also a political one.

Furthermore, we find it puzzling that in a book about the most mobilizing Christian movements in the United States, there is a virtual absence of any discussion of charisma. We find mostly footnote references to charismatic spirituality as a wider, diffuse process of modern Christian history (Luhrmann 2012: 14, 332), but no serious reflection on the importance of charismatic gifts (see e.g., Coleman 2004) or the morphology of the Holy Spirit in the emergence of the Christian experience of God, especially considering the importance of the conversational dimension of prayer in Luhrmann’s argument and in the experience of the believers of the Vineyard movement on which she grounds her arguments. Re-stricting ourselves to the North American context in which the author situates herself, there is a strong enough body of anthropological and historical work that explains such anticessationist developments and their contemporary importance (see notably Csordas 1997). Instead, Luhrmann opts to focus (albeit momentarily) the debate on the idea of “presence” (following Engelke 2007) as a concept that reinforces the idea of immediacy and intimacy of the experience of God (Luhrmann 2012: 331).

Perhaps this absence has to do with the fact that the main Vineyard movement leaderships do not describe it as a charismatic, preferring the “Evangelical” ascription. Or that these specific interlocutors that she describes did not see themselves reflected in the so-called “Toronto Blessing” events of the mid-1990s (336).1 Or, finally, that Luhrmann is not so much interested in the mediation dimension of the Christian Evangelical experience but rather in the individual psychological mechanisms that allow for that experience, and the associated processes of learning, practicing, understanding. However, in doing so she risks neglecting the main protagonist of the experience of Christian divinity: the Holy Spirit and its charisma, and the interpersonal character of belief.

From this perspective, it soon becomes clear that Tanya Luhrmann’s final goal in this book is in fact a theory of mind. This is not a book about a social phenomenon nor a book about a religious movement, nor a book about a ritual practice. This book is an effort to give us an understanding of people’s spiritual experiences that can challenge the dominating theories of the mind. She wants to show that belief is not irrational and hearing God talk is not about being delusional, that these are all practices that become real in the minds of those who chose to be or become Christian. In other words, it is a book that sets out to explain not how this new form of Christianity is culturally and socially possible but how it is psychologically possible. Nevertheless, the book is more anthropological than psychological. It allows, in contrast to the mainstream cognitivist interpretations, for a contextual understanding of the content and mechanism of belief, with her concern with the narrative, conversational, negotiated aspects that make God “plausible” in the minds of the believers. However, it concurs with those interpretations in the individualization of experience, its reduction to mental processes (learning, pretending, recognizing, verbalizing) that underplay social heterogeneity, and historically dynamic layers that inform such experiences.

This brings us back to our initial concern that stemmed from our viewpoint as anthropologists: if her argument stemmed not from the research in the Vineyard Church in Chicago but from, say, the Catholic Church in Boston, the Mormon Church in Utah or the Baptist Church in the Appalachia (VA), would it reach the same conclusions? Would the same egalitarian, intimate God that “talks back” to the believers emerge? The point is obvious: the personal and intimate God is a culturally and historically specific figure; but the processes that give us an understanding of this is not outlined in this book. This is a book that takes its point of departure from the very rhetoric of the congregants; it is a book that goes deeply into the minds of the believers; it seeks out the voice in the heads of the spiritual seekers. Luhrmann’s book is thus a claim for a psychological theory of Christian experience that does a good job in the complexification and empiricization of the mental and cognitive dimensions of belief. This is perhaps its greatest contribution. And it is one we appreciate and find to be important. The book also does a good job at carving out a space in the public debate about religion for the anthropological “voice.” However, When God talks back raises more questions than answers in terms of conveying an anthropological understanding of the fundamental processes of transformation that is taking place on the religious scene in the United States, and in the much of the world at large where the charismatic, Christian movements are expanding. Luhrmann describes the intimate God in a very vivid and thorough way, but she does not show us where he comes from and why he might be American.


Cannell, Fenella. 2006. “The anthropology of Christianity.” In The anthropology of Christianity, edited by Fenella Cannell, 1–50. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Coleman, Simon. 2004. “The charismatic gift.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10 (2): 421–42.

Csordas, Thomas. 1997. The sacred self: A cultural phenomenology of charismatic healing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, Matthew. 2007. A problem of presence: Beyond scripture in an African church. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hann, Chris. 2007. “The anthropology of Christianity per se.” European Journal of Sociology 48 (3): 383–410.

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

Meyer, Birgit 2012. “Mediation and genesis of presence: Towards a material approach to religion.” Inaugural lecture, University of Utrecht.

Robbins, Joel. 2003. “What is a Christian? Notes toward an anthropology of Christianity.” Religion 33 (3): 191–99.



Annelin Eriksen
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Bergen
Fosswinckelsgate 6, Floor 8
5020 Bergen


Department of Social Anthropology
University of Bergen
Fosswinckelsgate 6, Floor 8
5020 Bergen


1. The Toronto Blessing refers to several revival events that took place in a Vineyard Church located in the Toronto airport area, in which several believers experienced strong charismatic experiences (healing, awareness, personal transformation). The events became notorious in Christian circles and influenced other movements in the United States and Europe (see Luhrmann 2012: 336).