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In When God Talks Back, the Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann focuses on the way that evangelicals talk to God. For her research she spent a number of years studying the personal spritual life of adherants in the Vineyard churches. Although some of this will seem foreign to traditional Adventism—both conservative and progressive—if one listens carefully to the language of the laity, one finds many parallels to the spiritual life of folk Adventism.

Consider the quick amens that surround any utterance of the nebulous, relative, and relatively contemporary phrase “relationship with God.”

According to a review in The New Yorker, “Her most recent book was the highly praised “Of Two Minds,” a study of psychiatric residents and their handling of patients who had visions, among other problems. Almost always, Luhrmann has written with sympathy, not scorn, for these convinced people. Nevertheless, she is a scientist, and believes in evidence. She spent two years as a full-time member of an evangelical church in Chicago, and another two years in a congregation in Palo Alto. NPR notes:

“I would be often sitting with people, and at some point in the interview they’d begin to cry, and when they cried, they would talk about the moment when they really got it that God loved them just as they were,” she says. “And then it would be gone. It was hard for people to hang onto. And I thought that many people were able to carry around in themselves this sense of being loved.”

The New York Times distills her thesis thusly:

Evangelicals believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind. In these communities, religious belief is “more like learning to do something than to think something. . . . People train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.”

Drawing some conclusions in The New Yorker, although with offering some mild critique, Joan Acocella writes:

Much of our culture is based on the teachings of people who had visions: Moses (God gave him the commandments personally), Muhammad (the Archangel Gabriel spoke to him in a cave), St. Francis, Joan of Arc. Whether or not we believe in visions, we often believe in the principles communicated via visions: do not kill, do not steal, love God’s creatures, kick invaders out of your country. Some historians have treated the visionaries as psychotic. That interpretation is less popular today, but, in my experience, the contemporary approach—that contact with the supernatural is merely the sort of thing that happened in the old days—is not very helpful, either. Modern writers also seem not to notice that many of these vatic souls belonged to sects that were far weirder (by our standards) than any modern evangelical congregation.

The full title is: When God talks back: understanding the American evangelical relationship with prayer. In the 4 min. clip, Luhrmann makes a very interesting point comparing how mainline Christians and evangelicals deal with doubt and belief in God. Both wrestle with the presence and absence of the divine, but perhaps evangelicals actually believe less. Luhrmann suggests that it is the experience-driven approach—relationship is God—that allows some contemporary believers to manage other intellectual tensions.

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