Earlier this week, on the NPR show Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Tanya Luhrmann who has just published When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.
It was a fascinating interview. Unlike many who set out to study evangelical Christians, Luhrmann really does seem to be able to stay objective and not turn condemning. She meets people with a wide range of beliefs, from the many people she meets who have a second cup of coffee with God, to those who claim they hear a larger music (Handel) in the chirping of crickets to the woman who feels inhabited by demons but unhelped by an exorcism.
She wants to do more to understand the different end results of people who pray and people who listen to lectures or use other self-improvement techniques. So she fashioned an experiment: "At one point I ran an experiment because people had told me that prayer was hard, you had to work hard to pray and practice, some people would be better than others and that people who are good and who practice would change. And one of the things they would sometimes say was that their mental imagery would get sharper. That didn't sound like theology. That sounded like psychology. And so I ran this experiment in which I randomized people into prayer and lectures on the Gospels and I made sort of an equivalent of imagination-rich prayer, Bible study. On the iPods they came in, they did a bunch of questionnaires, computer exercises, we interviewed them. We sent them out with a brown envelope that contained one of these iPods and the rule was they had to listen for a half an hour a day, six days a week for four weeks. When they came back, the people in the prayer group were more likely to say that they experienced their mental imagery vividly. They were more likely to use mental imagery. They were more likely to say that they experienced the near tangible presence of God. They were more likely to say they experienced God as a person, and they also had some additional kind of objective cognitive advantages. They had a better sustained attention. They could solve little problems a little more easily."
Terry Gross asked if they could have gotten similar results if they'd substituted a meditation tape or some other kind of deep relaxation experience, and they go on to have an interesting discussion.
And that's only one of the interesting discussions. They talk about 1965 as a turning point, when God becomes kinder, more supportive, more loving. They talk about Rick Warren's mega blockbuster, The Purpose Driven Life. They talk about the different varieties of evangelical belief in the U.S.
I'd have loved to have heard more about her thoughts on the mainstream church, but perhaps that's a different book. Or maybe I need to read the whole book to get the whole picture that she presents.
It sounds like a fascinating book, and it's now on my evergrowing reading list. In the meantime, I'm grateful for these kind of interviews, which keep me feeling fed. It's not the full-blown nourishment of a good book or a good class, but it is the nourishment of the kind of soup you can get if you've got a can of beans, a can of tomatoes, and some bags of frozen veggies. It'll keep me going until the day that I can stay home stirring the stew pot as it simmers all day long.
To listen to the interview or to read the transcript, go here.