STANFORD UNIVERSITY anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has managed to do what few other social scientists in academia dare do: explore how evangelical Christians relate with God.
In her latest book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf), Luhrmann analyzes how evangelicals come to personally know God through prayer, communal support, and even “dates” with God. As part of her field research, she spent 10 years attending worship services, small groups, and events at Vineyard churches in Chicago and California. Known for their trendy, seeker-friendly, tear-inducing services and intimate Bible studies, the Vineyard is home to millions of evangelicals in the U.S. and around the world.
Without pitting reason (too much) against faith, Luhrmann applies psychological and anthropological understanding to evangelical Christian belief. Not bad for an outsider looking in. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey spoke with Luhrmann in June.
Elaina Ramsey: What motivated you to study how evangelicals experience God?
T.M. Luhrmann: I’ve always been curious about how God became real for people. I knew that good, kind, wise people had different understandings of what was real, and that always fascinated me. While I was doing another research project, I was talking to this beach girl who told me that if I wanted to understand the God of her church, I should have a cup of coffee with him. I thought that was amazing. I decided then that I was going to figure out how people were able to experience God so vividly, so intimately, so dialogically.