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This interview was originally broadcast on Fresh Air on March 26, 2012. When God Talks Back was released in paperback on Nov. 13.
While attending services and small group meetings at The Vineyard, an evangelical church with 600 branches across the country, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann noticed that several members of the congregation said God had repeatedly spoken to them and that they had heard what God wanted them to do.
In When God Talks Back, which is based on an anthropological study she did at The Vineyard, Luhrmann examines the personal relationships people developed with God and explores how those relationships were cemented through the practice of prayer.
"The way I think about it as an anthropologist, I don't have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or whether God is not real," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I don't feel like I have a horse in that race. I don't feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks to the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing."
On different thoughts people had at the evangelical church
"People didn't feel they had to save me at every opportunity. It is true that different people come with their own sense of what is required of a good Christian and what is required to be a good Christian with regards to homosexuality. There was actually a pretty wide range of opinion on that in the churches where I spent them — pretty wide range on evolution. In the Chicago church [I went to], somebody said, 'If God didn't want us to do stem-cell research, why did he make the scientists so darn smart?' Other people were really very committed to a Republican agenda and shocked when people seemed not to be. It's just hard to figure out where people are at. This is, I think, one of Robert Putnam's statistics, that 83 percent of evangelicals say that a good person not of their faith can go to heaven. And if you say 'suppose they're not Christian,' over 50 percent will say that that person can go to heaven. So I think there's a lot of variation."
On why she found herself moved to tears at church
"I found it immensely moving to commit to the sense that the world is good in the face of evidence to the contrary. I find it poignant that I saw people being able to make that commitment, and it didn't seem to me in talking to people that they were naive about the terrible things that happened in their lives and in the world. But they were asserting that this was nevertheless a wonderful place to be. It just wasn't just quite that way yet. And I don't know why I found that so moving, but I did. And I would say that I experienced God when I was at that church. What does that mean? I don't think I know. I don't think I can put words to that. I wouldn't call myself a Christian, but I did — through this practice of praying and thinking about the stories that were told in church. I love the Gospel of Mark because it's so ragged and contradictory, and Jesus is so intensely human and mysterious and paradoxical. I found it very moving. And I would have these moments of joy that I would call God. I'm not sure that the pastor would call that God."
On the spiritual shift in America since the 1960s
"American spirituality has shifted since the '60s toward a much more engaged, responsive, intimately experienced sense of the spiritual. Every church is different. Every person within a church has a somewhat different experience of God. But I thought this represented something really important about American spirituality."
On how she got interested in this topic
"I went to the home of one evangelical woman, and she told me that if I wanted to understand, I should have coffee with God. She had coffee with God all the time, she hung out with God, she chatted with God and talked with God as if he were a person. And I was blown away. I was so intrigued by what that meant and how she was able to do that."
On religion in her family
"My father's father was a Christian Scientist. My father became a doctor. My mother's father was a Baptist minister. She drifted away from the church. She still goes to church, it's still really important to her, but this belief commitment is a struggle for her. But she still goes to church. All three of my cousins are theologically very conservative Christians. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I was a Shabbos goy, which means that on Friday nights I would go over to people's houses and turn on and off the electrical switch so that they would have lights. So the perspective that I brought to this book was that I grew up knowing all these wise, good people who had different understandings of what was real. And that has always fascinated me ever since."