T.J. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God has been getting a lot of attention lately. In case you have not heard, Luhrmann spent two years with a Vineyard congregation in Chicago and another two years with a Vineyard congregation in Palo Alto. She made no bones about the fact that she was an anthropologist who was there to study the congregation and it appears that she was accepted and welcomed in the process.
The editors of The New Republic have chosen Notre Dame’s Mark Noll to review the book. Here is a taste:
WHEN GOD TALKS BACK is so accomplished on so many levels that cavils seem a little ungrateful. But a few issues should be raised…
The responses to Luhrmann’s substantive explanation of what happens when God talks back will likely be mixed. From skeptics, Luhrmann’s research takes at least some of the steam out of Hume’s famous case against the reality of miracles. Hume argued that testimony concerning a miracle could never be persuasive in light of how impossible it was to accept violations of the natural order of causes and effects that defines ordinary human existence. But Luhrmann’s evidence shows that many people regularly have experiences that, if not exactly miraculous, still fall outside of what others would regard as strictly natural occurrences. Her research, in other words, has undercut Humean claims about what ordinary people experience ordinarily.
Other skeptics might accuse Luhrmann of giving more credibility to her informants than they deserve, owing to the warm personal relationships that she developed with them. Luhrmann could respond that, as recorded in the book, she herself has had at least one first-hand experience of “sensory override” (though not of a Christian sort). Moreover, her clinical trials offered many instances of entirely normal people, with whom she did not enjoy a personal relationship, who claimed “sensory overrides” of a Christian character. But the most serious skeptical rejoinder might come from evolutionary biology. If the human need for personal relationships—along with the whole range of religious phenomena—can be described as adaptive behaviors that increase the relative chance of survival for those who possess them, then the reason that so many people report tangible experiences of God concerns survival of the fittest and not the actual existence of a real God.