How One “Dechurched” Sees “Evangelicals”
This article is just too precious to gloss over, so I’m reproducing it in full here, just in case it disappears from the cloud later (I hope New Yorker magazine folks don’t mind.)
SEEING AND BELIEVING
Experiences with evangelical congregations.
by Joan Acocella
APRIL 2, 2012
One person reported without irony that if you slow down the sound of a cricket you can hear it sing Handelâ€™s â€œHallelujahâ€ chorus.
The United States, as we know, is a very religious country, but the figures still have the power to amaze. Since 1996, according to Gallup polls, between thirty-five and forty-seven per cent of Americans have described themselves as â€œevangelicalâ€ or â€œborn againâ€; two-thirds mostly or wholly believe that angels and devils are at work in the world. Given these figures, skeptics would do well to find out what is going on in evangelical churches, and that is what T. M. Luhrmann tries to explain in her new book, â€œWhen God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with Godâ€ (Knopf). Luhrmann is a well-qualified guide: an anthropologist specializing in esoteric faiths. Her dissertation was on witch-and-warlock cults in contemporary England. Later, she wrote a book on the Parsis, a Zoroastrian community in India. Her most recent book was the highly praised â€œOf Two Minds,â€ 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. (Those are the cities where she was teaching during that period, first at the University of Chicago, then at Stanford.) Both churches were part of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which came together in California in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and now has about fifteen hundred congregations around the world. One Vineyard parishioner described feeling â€œgoosebumps and just warm all over and just very peaceful, and I know that heâ€™s there.â€Most of the members of the churches that Luhrmann attended were white, middle class, college-educated, and centrist. They werenâ€™t Pentecostals (that is, most of them didnâ€™t speak in tongues or heal the sick). But neither were they just conservative Christians. In Luhrmannâ€™s words, they placed â€œa flamboyant emphasis on the direct experience of God.â€ If you made contact with him, they believed, he would become your intimate, someone â€œwho loves and cuddles you.â€
How do you find this God? First, you train yourself to recognize the evidence of his operation in your life. One Vineyard parishioner, Augusta, described feeling â€œgoosebumps and just warm all over and just very peaceful, and I know that heâ€™s there.â€ Or if a thought pops into your head thatâ€™s not the kind of thought you normally have, and, above all, if it strangely matches something else in your recent experience, that is likely to be God speaking. Sarah, a member of the Palo Alto congregation, told Luhrmann that one morning, when she had finished her prayers, she went on sitting in her prayer chair and let her mind wander. She kept seeing a picture with boats in it. Then the phone rang. It was the pastor. She asked him why he was calling. â€œAnd he said, â€˜I donâ€™t know. I just felt like I was supposed to call you.â€™ And it clicked then, that the picture I had seen wasnâ€™t a distraction from my prayers but was connected to my prayers, I told him about this picture that Iâ€™d gotten. And he told me . . . that several people had gotten the same picture, and that it was about Jesus with his hands on the wheel of a ship.
In the second step, worshippers, when they recognize that God is with them, must learn to treat him like an intimate. This injunction, probably more than anything else in Luhrmannâ€™s book, will puzzle readers who were raised in other religious traditions. The Vineyarders have no interest in God as a figure of majesty, or of judgment. They wear shorts and sneakers to church on Sunday. In Chicago, the service begins with â€œfree time,â€ during which you neednâ€™t sit down. You can dance or sway in the aisles, Luhrmann says, or have doughnuts and coffee from the snack table. Once you do sit down (you can bring your coffee with you), you hear a sermon augmented by a PowerPoint presentation.
This casualness carries over to conversations with God. The Vineyarders asked him â€œfor admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illnessâ€”even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.â€ Some Vineyard women had a regular â€œdate nightâ€ with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. He guided the Vineyarders every minute of the day. Sarah told Luhrmann how, one day, after a lunch at a restaurant with fellow-parishioners, she was feeling good about herself, whereupon, as she was crossing the parking lot, a bird shat on her blouse. Some Vineyard women had a regular â€œdate nightâ€ with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him.God, she explained to Luhrmann, was giving her a little slap on the wrist for her self-satisfaction. Some Vineyard women had a regular â€œdate nightâ€ with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. Sarah accepted the chastisement, but others donâ€™t. They may get furious with God. And, according to some evangelicals, he feels bad when this happens. In â€œDisappointment with Godâ€ (1988), the religious writer Philip Yancey claims that God canâ€™t bear for us to turn away from him. He longs for us to like him. It is hard to understand how evangelicals, most of whom are regular Bible readers, could come to this conclusion about the God of Abraham and Job.
So the third step is to â€œdevelop your heartâ€â€”that is, to cultivate the emotions that are appropriate to receiving Godâ€™s unconditional love. There are exercises for this, notably, what Luhrmann calls â€œcrying in the presence of God.â€ During sermons, the congregation weptâ€”sometimes the pastor wept, too. In the small weekly meetings called â€œhouse group,â€ people cried their eyes out. â€œAt one conference I attended,â€ Luhrmann writes, â€œfour men spoke, one after the other, and every last one of them wept by the time he was done.â€ Above all, the congregants cried when they were â€œprayed overâ€ by their fellows. At the end of the service, if they had troubles, they went over to the â€œprayer teamâ€ standing against a side wall, and the team huddled around them, touched them, and prayed over them, â€œasking God to make them feel safe, loved, and protectedâ€”wrapped in his arms, soothed by his embrace, washed by his forgiveness.â€ If, under such ministrations, you didnâ€™t cry, this was something you had to explain.
The one important fault of â€œWhen God Talks Back,â€ and yet the thing that makes it intriguingâ€”makes it more than an ethnographyâ€”is its wavering attitude toward its subject. From chapter to chapter, you canâ€™t quite figure out how Luhrmann feels about the Vineyardersâ€™ spiritual project. Occasionally, she allows herself sarcastic remarksâ€”for some of the congregants, she says, the product of prayer is a state of â€œfeel-good blurriesâ€â€”and she describes some scenes with unmistakably comic intent. At one point, she and another church member, Elaine, go to a Vineyard-sponsored conference called â€œThe Art of Hearing God.â€ Luhrmann writes, â€œThe leader explained to us that scientists had discovered that if you slow down the sounds a cricket makes, you will find that the cricket is actually singing the â€˜Hallelujahâ€™ chorus to Handelâ€™s Messiah. Elaine thought that this was really neat and repeated it to our house group without a trace of irony.â€ Luhrmann says that Elaine was â€œalmost wantonly uninterested in probabilistic logic.â€
Another odd thing about the Vineyarders, at least as described by Luhrmann, is that they seem to perform no social service. Unlike other serious evangelical groups, which are making headway as missionaries in Africa, there appears to be very little spreading of the faith, or even just of well-beingâ€”schools, hostels, soup kitchensâ€”on the part of the congregations Luhrmann joined. Maybe she left out their charitable projects on the ground that her book, as its title tells us, is about the Vineyardersâ€™ relationship with God. But I donâ€™t think so, because now and then she comments dryly on their self-concern. Her fellow-congregant Hannah, she says, got mad at God, â€œnot because he allowed genocide in Darfur, but because little things happened in her life that she did not like: The Vineyarders seem to have no theologyâ€”they never try to reconcile reason with faith, nor do they try to account for the existence of evil in a world that is, presumably, ruled by a good God.â€˜I was upset with him for making me a dorm counselor.â€™ â€ Vineyarders may implore God to help fellow-members of their church, but otherwise, in Luhrmannâ€™s account, pretty much everything seems to be about themselves.
Similarly, the book makes almost no mention of politics. To many secular observers, the trend toward conservatism is the most notable and disturbing thing about evangelicals, but I remember only one or two vague mentions of domestic politics in â€œWhen God Talks Back.â€ Forget politics, though. The Vineyarders seem to have no theologyâ€”they never try to reconcile reason with faith, nor do they try to account for the existence of evil in a world that is, presumably, ruled by a good God. Their solution to suffering, Luhrmann says, is to ignore it. One of her interviewees was crushed by the sudden death of a friend. Her pastor brought this up in the Sunday service. Luhrmann summarizes his response: â€œThatâ€™s the way it is. â€˜Creation is beautiful, but it is not safe.â€™ He called everyday reality â€˜broken.â€™ â€˜God is doing something about it. Thereâ€™s a fix in progress. It will be okay.â€™ What should you do? Get to know God. â€˜Learn to hang out with him now.â€™ â€
Not surprisingly, Luhrmann compares the Vineyardersâ€™ beliefs to childrenâ€™s thought processes. She discusses their views in relation to D. W. Winnicottâ€™s theories about transitional objects. For some evangelicals, she says, God is not unlike a stuffed Snoopy.
I believe that Luhrmann tried with all her heart to take the Vineyarders she knew seriously, and to get us to. She repeatedly reminds us that the majority of them are educated people. One is a medical student, one an economist, a few are lawyers. Most of them, Luhrmann says, donâ€™t have actual visions. They donâ€™t claim to have seen or heard somebody who wasnâ€™t there. If they do, they usually say that they had this experience only once or twice. And the content may be rather boring. One of Luhrmannâ€™s informants said that she saw Jesus on TV; another reported that God told him that the man standing next to him in a grocery store was a Mormon. Many Vineyarders are not fully convinced that God speaks to them even internally. As one congregant put it, â€œSometimes when we think itâ€™s the spirit moving, itâ€™s just our burrito from lunch.â€
Luhrmann warns us against calling the evangelicalsâ€™ visions and voices â€œhallucinationsâ€; that is a psychiatric and, hence, pathologizing term. In her vocabulary, such events are â€œsensory overridesâ€â€”sensory perceptions that override material evidence. She cites evidence that between ten and fifteen per cent of the general population has had such experiences. And she reports a vision of her own, which she had while working with the English witches. One morning, she woke up and saw six Druids looking at her through her window. (She lived on an upper floor.) In a moment, they were gone, and that was the only vision she ever had, but she has no doubt that she truly saw them.
The Vineyarders know that their â€œfaith practiceâ€â€”their date nights with God, their asking him for a red convertibleâ€”is, in some measure, playacting. At the same time, they see it as a way of encountering God.All this hinges on what is meant by â€œtruly,â€ which, since Luhrmann, who is fifty-three, was educated in the time of postmodern theory, is not a straightforward matter. She says that the Vineyarders know that their â€œfaith practiceâ€â€”their date nights with God, their asking him for a red convertibleâ€”is, in some measure, playacting. At the same time, they see it as a way of encountering God. She later adds, â€œThe playfulness and paradox of this new religiosity does for Christians what postmodernism, with its doubt-filled, self-aware, playful intellectual style, did for intellectuals. It allows them to waver between the metaphorical and the literal.â€
But Luhrmannâ€™s primary justification of the evangelicals is what she describes as the huge amount of work they do. â€œComing to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something,â€ she writes. If all these people had to do was believe something new, that would be easy. Instead, they have to teach their brains to work in a new way. Sunday service is only one training ground. They go to house group; they attend conferences and retreats. They read devotional books. They pray and pray. (Sometimes you wonder how they manage to hold down jobs.) Their progress is slow and halting. Luhrmann places great emphasis on the hours that they put in, and I think that is not only because this is important to them but because she expects that it will be important to the readerâ€™s view of them. Americans respect hard work.
Luhrmann says in her preface that she told both the Chicago and the Palo Alto congregations that she was an anthropologist writing a book about religious belief. And she participated fully in their activities. She attended the services, the conferences, the retreats, the house-group meetings. But, despite these signs of her commitment, I donâ€™t think the Vineyarders could have known how firm was her belief in the scientific method, or how closely she was observing their departures from logic. Sometimes, Iâ€™m not sure how much she knew. Her family, she tells us in the introduction, went to a Unitarian church. Her father is a psychiatrist. Add to this the fact that she is a social scientist, a professor of anthropology, and you have somebody who is likely to be a secular humanist. Indeed, she tells us at the end of the book that she cannot call herself a Christian, and that she doesnâ€™t believe in â€œa God who sits out there, as real as a door post.â€ At the same time, she repeatedly says, with no qualification, that she prayed with the Vineyarders and by herself under the guidance of a â€œspiritual director.â€ Like them, she kept a prayer journal, recording â€œwhat I said to God followed by what he said to me.â€ If she didnâ€™t believe in a God who sat out there, whom did she think she was saying things to? And who was saying things back to her?
Also, what about her attitude toward her fellow-congregantsâ€™ prayers? Elaine, her â€œprayer partnerâ€ (the woman who brought the news of the cricket that sang Handel), had terrible problems: she couldnâ€™t pay her rent, but neither could she get a job. She had interview after interview. Before each of them, she and Luhrmann prayed together vigorously, but she received no offer. Elaine said that she understood why: by refusing to grant her a job, Jesus was showing her that he wanted her to depend on him alone. About this, Luhrmann makes only a bland comment: reasoning such as Elaineâ€™s, she says, â€œallows people to reinterpret a disappointment as, in effect, a promotion.â€ In the end, Elaine decided that she was a prophet. (Some members of the church agreed with her.) What did Luhrmann think about that promotion? She doesnâ€™t say.
Jeremiah 1:11-19 was not about the history of the Jews but about Godâ€™s personality. â€œWe decided that God was a planner; that he used people to fulfill his aims.â€ We decided?At certain points, she gives us what might be called the Tolstoy formula: a description of how wrong she was to respond to things with â€œmy irrepressible scholarliness.â€ Once, she says, her house group was discussing Jeremiah 1:11-19, in which the prophet says that a calamity will break forth across the land from the north. Luhrmann was interested in this frightening passage, and she wanted to know who wrote it, when, and so on. (Some scholars think that it refers to the Babylonian conquest.) She was gently chided by the group. The passage was not about the history of the Jews, she was told, but about Godâ€™s personality. â€œWe decided that God was a planner; that he used people to fulfill his aims.â€ We decided? She agreed? And what about her â€œirrepressible scholarlinessâ€? Does she regret that quality of hers, or is she, on the contrary, proud of it? To achieve it, she studied for a long time at Harvard and Cambridge. To inculcate it, she has been teaching for more than twenty years.
It is hard to blame her, though, for these confusions. 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 Godâ€™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 approachâ€”that contact with the supernatural is merely the sort of thing that happened in the old daysâ€”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.
Luhrmann is one of the few lay writers who attempt to account for visions via modern scientific theories. If, in the end, she tries to resolve the question of her attitude toward evangelism by saying that she, too, came to know God, because she began to weep and pray at Vineyard gatheringsâ€”an experience that seems to me no different from crying at a sad movie (it wouldnâ€™t butter any parsnips with the Pope or, I would guess, many evangelical pastors)â€”it is wrong to make trouble over this. She has addressed a subject that most other people would never touch. We should thank her. â™¦
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