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When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Mar 27 2012

5.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st Edition edition (March 27 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307264793
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307264794
  • Product Dimensions: 16.7 x 3.6 x 24.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 816 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #378,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"Evocative, often brilliant." —The Boston Globe

“Tanya Luhrmann is a very sensitive participant-observer and a beautiful writer, with a deep background in her subject, and her exploration of evangelical religion in America is at once empathetic and objective, as all good anthropology must be. When God Talks Back is one of the most provocative and enlightening books I have read this year.” —Oliver Sacks

"When God Talks Back is remarkable for combining creative psychological analysis with a commitment to understanding evangelicals not merely as scholarly specimens, but on their own terms. The result is the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years." —The New York Times Book Review

"Luhrmann is a well-qualified guide: an anthropologist specializing in esoteric faiths . . . She has addressed a subject that most other people would never touch. We should thank her."  —The New Yorker

"A refreshing approach to this polarizing subject . . . [a] scholarly but deeply personal investigation." —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"The basic theme of the book is that one comes to know God in a learning process . . . an insightful, sensitive, and compassionate study." —The New York Journal of Books

"Fascinating . . . On the merits of its sharp analysis alone, When God Talks Back deserves the highest praise . . . This book is here to stay, and every scholar, church leader, and pudit who cares about American evangelical culture is the better for it. It will reshape the study of American spirituality for years to come." —Books & Culture

"It's the William James study of our time." —Religion News

"Every so often, a truly great book comes along . . . When God Talks Back is certainly one of these." —The Huffington Post

"Luhrmann's goal is ambitious, even audacious . . . An industrious undertaking [that] produced fascinating results . . . We can thank Luhrmann for for describing evangelicalism as it has always been: a potent means for awakening a personal sense of the reality, power and mercy of God." —San Francisco Chronicle

"A simultaneously scholarly and deeply personal analysis of evangelical communities in America . . . [When God Talks Back] is an erudite discussion both profoundly sympathetic and richly analytical." —Kirkus (starred review) 
"Resistant to the scornful stereotypes of the New Atheists, evangelicals who shared their spiritual lives with [Luhrmann] come across as complex men and women whose faith reflects intense emotional and mental commitment . . . In this sympathetic yet probing analysis, the evangelical spiritual dialogue with the deity emerges as the consequence of a surprisingly self-conscious strategy for finding meaning in a whirlwind of postmodern uncertainty. Much here for curious skeptics to ponder." —Booklist (starred review) 

“Yet again T. M. Luhrmann investigates a puzzling phenomenon and illuminates it brilliantly. Whether you are a determined rationalist or a dedicated evangelical, you’ll be enlightened by Luhrmann’s synthesis—a worthy successor to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.” —Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University
“T. M. Luhrmann’s gift is the ability to observe and report with the eyes of both an anthropologist and a novelist.  This alchemy is so evident as she makes this most extraordinary narrative exploration of faith and its manifestations in everyday American life. A lovely book and a wonderful read.”  —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
Prayer is not an aberration. As part of the daily life of literally billions of people, it must be regarded as well within the normal repertory of human behaviors. Yet anthropology—ready enough to discourse about religion—has never managed a thick description of prayer. This is the ground that T. M. Luhrmann breaks with a deeply engrossing, first-ever, thick anthropological description of prayer in two American evangelical congregations.  A remarkable intellectual venture. —Jack Miles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography                                                                                            
“What if nonbelievers could understand how people come to experience God? What if believers could come to understand just how difficult the process of coming to experience God is for all of us, here at the end of modernity?  When God Talks Back is a chance for our divided nation to stop talking past each other about our national preoccupation: God.” —Ken Wilson, senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and author of Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer
“Not since Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart a quarter century ago has there been so readable, so informing, so scholarly, and yet so winsome a report about any group of American believers as Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. This is religion writing at its best—a masterful examination that is a candid, humble, clear-eyed, and affirming record of what faith looks like and how it operates.” —Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence and founding editor of Publishers Weekly’s Religion Department
“Rarely have I encountered a book that succeeds so admirably in exploring the interior lives of America's evangelicals. What makes this book so remarkable is not only the author's exhaustive and empathetic fieldwork but that her conclusions emerge from a deep understanding of the history of evangelicalism.” —Randall Balmer, author of The Making of Evangelicalism
“How can one live a life at once wholly modern and fully engaged with the supernatural realm?  Many books aim to explain how American evangelicals pull this off, but this is the one that will actually change the way you think about religion going forward.  Writing elegantly and sympathetically about evangelical lives while at the same time developing a profound theory of the learning processes by which human beings come to inhabit religious worlds, Lurhmann has produced the book all of us – believers and nonbelievers alike - need to put our debates about religion and contemporary society on a truly productive footing.  People will be learning from When God Talks Back for a very long time to come.” —Joel Robbins, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego

"This amazing book provides a compelling account of how evangelical Christians come to experience God as intimately and lovingly present in their lives. Drawing on two years of field work, supplemented by extensive knowledge of evangelical literature and innovative scientific field experiments, Luhrmann's demonstration of the role of both training and individual abilities in the shaping of religious experience breaks important new ground in the cognitive science of religion." —Ann Taves, author of Religious Experience Reconsidered

About the Author

TANYA LUHRMANN is a psychological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She received her education from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2007, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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Format: Hardcover
I don't have much to add beyond what the critics state above, as they capture pretty well all of my sentiments about this book. It's unlike anything I've encountered that tries to do something similar. I think this is a great read for Christians seeking to better understand and deepen their faith journey, and for non-Christians and Atheists seeking to better understand how many Christians live out their religion/spirituality in a post-modern world with all of its advances in technology, science, sociology, psychology, etc. I really enjoyed how the author wove history, psychology, her research experiments, and personal stories from the people she encountered. It gave me a lot of insight regarding questions I've been asking for years. I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a must read for anyone who is trying to 'unpack' their experiences in charismatic Christianity. A brilliant read, and an ambitious research undertaking, Dr. Luhrmann's work is at once intellectual and relevant. I cannot say enough good things about this book and how it has helped me understand the experiences I had as a believer.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One of the most brilliant pieces of research I have read. Luhrmann details the prayer practices of a Pentecostal sect, how they train themselves to speak to and hear the voice of their god, and answers the obvious objections (are they just neurotics, or insane, or delusional?) beautifully. I have applied lessons from her book in the Wiccan Temple I am involved with - excellent techniques for deepening connection to the divine.
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This book is very interesting if you would like to know more about evangelicals in 21st century.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa07d3270) out of 5 stars 84 reviews
154 of 159 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0700348) out of 5 stars A Great Source for Discussion April 10 2012
By Alex Van Riesen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I am the current Lead Pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula (VCFP), which is one of the two churches Mrs. Luhrmann attended while researching and experiencing what eventually became this book. I am grateful for the perspective of someone coming into our church, who does not identify themselves as a Christian, and sharing with us (VCFP) what they experienced. I think there is a lot for us as a church to discuss, in terms of what those who visit our churches experience and what it says to them both about our church and about God. I also find Mrs. Luhrmann's observations helpful in having a more robust conversation about what experiencing God is like, or can be, in our culture today. While I do not identify with everything she describes, nor would I always define things the same way, I find her observations and insights engaging and enlightening. I would love for every church in the Vineyard movement to discuss this book and how it either does or does not reflect their congregation, but then ask the bigger questions of why or why not. In that process we can all have a more clear understanding of why we do what we do, and possibly - hopefully - even have a better understanding of what those who do not follow Jesus experience when they visit our churches. I think that should matter a lot to us. Finally, I consider Mrs. Luhrmann a friend and enjoy my conversations with her. I appreciate most that she is asking questions and looking to learn and grow. This book displays her sensitivity, compassion and kindness - as well as her intellect - in very clear ways. I recommend this book highly.
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa082ab1c) out of 5 stars A Model of Christian Practice for both believers and nonbelievers May 24 2012
By Jeremy Garber - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
An excellent, sympathetic, yet well-researched and objective look at how "revivalist evangelicals" train their brains to literally experience God. Luhrmann, an anthropologist, spent years with Vineyard Christians as a participant-observer to explore how they maintained faith in a God that was not directly available to their ordinary senses. Luhrmann also devised a sophisticated experiment that connected various forms of prayer with the psychological tendency to "absorption," that is, becoming totally enveloped in a particular activity. She concludes that prayer in an evangelical sense is not centered on belief - especially not on unwavering belief - but rather on cognitive techniques that allow one to become "absorbed" in reconstructing a world in which God exists. The "kataphatic" tradition, or visualizing oneself in connection with Scripture and God, provided particularly striking results. Luhrmann's style is simultaneously intensely readable and intellectually rigorous. She lays out a way for both believers and nonbelievers to understand Christian practice in a 21st century world. A paradigmatic example of participant observation at its best.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0d54b58) out of 5 stars Deeply Insighful and Mind-Opening Study May 7 2012
By Tom Dylan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Even though I do not believe in a supernatural God, I am always fascinated by my religious friends' ability to have faith. This book gave me much more understanding how the human mind can make something unreal seem alive and real for these people. I always thought religious people are borderline insane. But so many supposedly very smart people (I have deeply religious friends who are physicians, even genetic biologists). This book also made me much more feeling sympathetic to these people. Because we are humans capable of rational (or irrational) thought, we all desire to be loved, to be cared, to have a social companion.

Some of the psychological studies are also interesting. Such as the test given to evaluate mental insanity conducted on these Vineyard specimens. The study seems to indicate these Vineyard religious people relate to God positively, when asked if they feel to have been followed or spied upon, they said no. But they always feel the presence of God not associated with negative, but with love and care. If a person feel some hostile force following them, they are likely to react violently, but if they feel a benevolent force following them, they feel much more at peace.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa06fee4c) out of 5 stars Evangelicals erhnographed May 21 2013
By T. Peter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Evangelicals Ethnographed

In her intriguing "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God," Stanford University cultural anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann sympathetically but objectively examines the religious psychology and practices of American evangelicals, in the spirit of William James' 1902 classic "Varieties of Religious Experience". In her previous books, Luhrmann presented fascinating ethnographic studies of modern witches and ceremonial magicians in contemporary England, the once prestigious and privileged Parsis in post-colonial India, and the training and ideological indoctrination of young American psychiatrists. In "When God Talks Back", her latest book, she analyzes the growing movement of evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christianity.

Luhrmann specifically examines how evangelicals come to experience God as a close, intimate, and invisible but very real friend and confidant with whom they can communicate on a daily basis through prayer and visualization, clearly recognizing His voice. She is not quite a believing evangelical herself, more a sincerely interested, warmly sympathetic student of an important human activity in the manner of William James. In the tradition of James, and before him of the 18th century German Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, she treats religion as a matter of psychology, feeling, and personal experience, rather than of dogma or doctrine, as emotionally and emotionally enriching rather than as rationally convincing. She addresses religion's educated modern potential sympathizers as Schleiermacher addressed its skeptical Enlightenment "cultured despisers."

Luhrmann investigated the new evangelical movement as a participant-observer. She attended services and small group meetings for several years at local branches of the Vineyard, an evangelical church with hundreds of congregations throughout the country and the world, and had hundreds of conversations with evangelicals, learning how they believed themselves able to communicate with God, not just through one-sided prayers but with discernible feedback--some seeing visions, others claiming to hear the voice of God Himself.

After countless interviews with Vineyard members reporting either isolated or on-going supernatural experiences with God, Luhrmann concluded that the practice of prayer could train a person to hear God's voice--to use their mind differently and focus on God's voice until it became clear. A subsequent experiment conducted between people who were and weren't practiced in prayer further confirmed and illuminated her conclusion. For those who have trained themselves on their inner experiences, she found, God is experienced in their brains as an actual personal social relationship: His voice was identified, and felt to be real and interactive.

In an autobiographical note, she asks if God is real or present, and how do we know. She grew up with those questions, she notes. Her mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister, her father (a doctor) the son of Christian Scientists. When she was young, they lived in a neighborhood with Orthodox Jews. She "grew up among many wise people who thought differently about the world," and she was curious about "how they made those decisions, and what an observer could say about the ways they used and experienced their minds in making those decisions." She notes:

She declares that "I am an anthropologist, and in all likelihood I chose my profession because I have lived these questions." She adds, <>

In her final chapter, "Bridging the Gap," Luhrmann concludes:

<<And there is another factor that shapes the way the individual experiences God. That is the real presence of the divine. I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity. I do not think of myself as believing in a God who sits out there, as real as a doorpost, but I have experienced what I believe the Gospels mean by joy. I watched people cry in services, and eventually I would cry in services too, and it seemed to me that I cried the way I sometimes wink back tears at children's books, at the promise of simple joy in a messy world. I began to pray regularly, under the tutelage of a spiritual director, and I began to understand parts of the church teaching not just as so many intellectual doctrinal commitments but as having an emotional logic of their own. I remember the morning it dawned on me that the concept of redemption from sin is important, for example, because we cannot really trust that we are loved until we know that we are loved even with our faults. >>
The God of the Vineyard churches, groups, and members she has known, Luhrmann repeatedly reiterates, is an unconditionally, infinitely loving and forgiving God. The Vineyarders' God is "not only vividly present but deeply kind," "no longer the benign but distant sovereign of the old mainstream church; nor...the harsh tyrant of the Hebrew Bible" but "personal and intimate" (p. xvi). The Vineyard, she emphasizes, does not go in for the graphic, terrifying hellfire and brimstone sermons of Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" or Stephen Dedalus' retreat in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man." Sin is "understood not as forbidden behavior but as an inner state of being separated from God." That "may be caused by doing something of which God disapproves, but the problem is not that *God* has withdrawn" but "that the sinner cannot be close to God."

The Vineyard, as portrayed by Luhrmann, also does not seem to engage in political campaigns against abortion, pornography, homosexuality, or Darwinism, and not to have produced any figures comparable to Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Many readers, however, may fault her for ignoring or downplaying evangelical political activism, by the "Religious Right" but also by liberal evangelical groups and figures like the "Sojourners," former President Jimmy Carter, and the late Senator Mark Hatfield. Ignoring passionately Bible-quoting evangelical campaigns against evolution and gay marriage, she seems to consider their fervent belief in Biblical inerrancy as something of little concern for outsiders, like fasting at Lent or avoiding pork and shellfish.

Nevertheless, given this caveat, Luhrmann's approach offers a hopeful alternative to our bitterly polarized religious-political "culture wars." Along with other recent and contemporary heirs if Schleiermacher and William James like Aldous Huxley, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Huston Smith, Ninian Smart, and Karen Armstrong, she expresses an irenic "third force" between the militant secularists and the shrill fundamentalists, pro-religious and pro-spiritual but non-sectarian and non-dogmatic.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa07bdd80) out of 5 stars An anthropological case study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship May 6 2014
By Carolyn Kost - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Before buying this book, do read the other reviews. The subtitle overreaches. This is not a sweeping, insightful study of American Evangelicals, but rather bears more semblance to an academic case study--an exploratory study of a particular group--of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. In that latter effort, the book is successful.

This is NOT intended to be a how-to guide for spirituality, which is what many readers appear to be seeking. If the reader intends to learn more about how to have a personal relationship with the divine, she or he would do well to focus on the results of one of the studies that Luhrmann conducts. Individuals were paid to engage in a certain type of prayer (imaginative, centering, or study) for 30 minutes per day, six days per week for several weeks. She found that individuals who engaged in the imaginative type of prayer, like that in Ignatian spirituality, in which one envisions oneself an active participant in the gospels, for example, personally witnessing the activities, developed more vivid imagery (and, one might infer, "a closer walk") than the other two. Centering prayer, focusing on a single word, for example, yielded "second best" results, and the intellectual study the least.

Among others, this method can assist in training oneself to be an active listener to/imaginer of (depending on one's perspective) the movement of the divine within. Life then becomes an ongoing conversation with God, not as a transcendent being, but rather as an immanent friend, who experiences pain along with the individual, who gives meaning to him or her, and who supports resilience.

If, on the other hand, one is seeking an academic perspective on one kind of the exceptionally diverse evangelical expressions of Christianity, this is helpful and it certainly merits a place on the shelf beside other works in the anthropology and psychology of religion.

Recommended for academic libraries. An optional purchase for public libraries.