T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, begins “When God Talks Back” by acknowledging this reality: In 21st-century America, there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of apparently well-adjusted people who believe not just that they can speak to God but that he hears and answers them. Though not herself a religious person, and certainly not an evangelical Christian, she aims neither to support nor to undermine the claims that evangelical Christians make about God and the Bible. Her intent, rather, is to suggest to an educated, nonbelieving audience that the religious conventions of evangelical Christians—particularly the practice of speaking to God in highly familiar ways and believing that they can discern his answers in their own thoughts—do not spring from mere ignorance or some aboriginal desire to imagine purpose where a rational person sees only chance. The God of evangelicals is more than just “a reaction to modernity,” she says; he is “an expression of what it means to be modern.”
Ms. Luhrmann is a widely read scholar and a capable writer, and she is both sympathetic and professional in her anthropological approach. For several years, first in Chicago and then in northern California, she attended churches attached to the Vineyard movement, a loose confederation of congregations sprung from the charismatic Christianity of 1960s America. She has attended hundreds of worship services and prayer-group meetings and interviewed scores of Vineyard believers.
The stories she records of spiritual practices and experiences are alternately fascinating, moving and ridiculous. Some of her subjects admit to asking God where to get a good haircut and pouring him his own cup of coffee at the breakfast table. Others speak of intense spiritual experiences in ways that are difficult to explain as self-delusion. One woman heard a “voice” tell her to “read James” before she knew James was a book of the Bible, and when she did, it changed her life. Another had resolved to murder her husband (at the intended moment, he was grooming himself in preparation for a date with his mistress) when she asked God to restrain her and suddenly found herself physically unable to get up off the bed where she lay.