ON A SUNDAY evening in Palo Alto, Calif., around 50 members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula gathered in a rented room above a popular coffee shop. Before the occasion got under way, the conversation was a friendly and exuberant mix of the mundane and the heady: the gorgeous weather, Christian writer C.S. Lewis, the lusciousness of the strawberries set out as a snack, someone's car trouble, the problem of demons. Lead pastor Alex Van Riesen, a tall, informal, open-faced man, got everyone settled and quiet.
"For those of you who haven't been to our church, this is the way it is," Van Riesen began cheerfully. "Everyone hangs outside eating, drinking coffee, and talking. Then, when you hear the voice of God, you come inside."
There was a burst of laughter: an evangelical joke for an evangelical Christian audience. Van Riesen then segued to the main event. "Have people been asking you about the book?" he asked the group. "I've been getting lots of email about it."
The book in question, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God, is about the people in this very room. On the makeshift stage next to Van Riesen sat its author, Tanya Luhrmann, who spent two years studying this Vineyard church and another two years at a Vineyard church in Chicago. She knows these believers well.
Luhrmann attended Sunday church where members danced, swayed, cried, and raised their hands as a sign of surrender to God. She attended weekly home prayer groups whose members reported hearing God communicate to them directly. She hung out, participated, took notes, recorded interviews, and "tried to understand as an outsider how an insider to this evangelical world was able to experience God as real and personal and intimate." Members told her about having coffee with God, seeing angel wings, and getting God's advice on everything from job choice to what shampoo to buy.
After being introduced jokingly by Van Riesen as Professor Luhrmann to people who have known her for so long as Tanya, she told the group her book does not weigh in on the actual existence of God. Rather, her research focuses on "theory of mind," how we conceptualize our minds and those of others. In this case, she investigated how the practice of prayer can train a person to hear what they determine to be God's voice.
"I do think that if God does speak to someone, God speaks through the human mind," she explained. "As an anthropologist, I feel I can say something about the social, cultural, and psychological features of what that person is experiencing. I came into this project wanting to understand the question: How are rational, sensible, educated people able to sustain faith in an invisible being in an environment of skepticism?"
Luhrmann's provocative theory is that the church teaches those who pray to use their minds differently than they do in everyday life. They begin by holding conversations with God in their heads, modeled on the kind of chummy conversations they'd have with their best friends. As they talk to Him, tell Him about their problems, and imagine His wise counsel and loving response, they are training their thoughts, much as people use weights to train their muscles. The church encourages them to tune in to sounds, images, and feelings that are louder or more intense or more unfamiliar or more powerful — and to interpret these internal cues as the external voice of God.
"I came in with a set of stereotypes of evangelicals — the kind that you'd expect from someone in the academy," she said. "I came out with more respect for the religious process...how private and precious the experience of God can be for people."
She read from her book's final chapter: "I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way, I have come to know God."
LUHRMANN'S WORK HAS roots deep in her intellectual and emotional past. She describes herself as an anthropologist with one foot in psychology. She could easily add that her other foot is in theology and both hands have a firm grasp on philosophy.
Her upbringing was that of a "spiritual mutt." In the book's preface and acknowledgments, she writes that she has been thinking about God ever since her maternal grandfather, a Baptist minister, "walked across the park with me when I was 6 and tried to explain who he thought God was." His daughter — Luhrmann's mother — took her children to the more free-form Unitarian church. Luhrmann's paternal grandfather was a Christian Scientist whose son — Luhrmann's father — became a medical doctor, a psychiatrist. The eldest of three children, Tanya was raised in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood, where she helped Orthodox Jewish neighbors as a shabbas goy, a gentile who assists with activities that are restricted on the Sabbath, such as turning on light switches. "I came from this background where I knew smart, good people whom I loved, but who came down on very different positions on the existence of God — not only on the yes-no dimension, but on who God was."
As a Harvard freshman, she had thoughts about Immanuel Kant that, in many ways, set the course of her career. She decided that the philosopher was "cheating" when he "explained away" the irrational. "I've always been intrigued by myths and stories and the way people construct their world. People live in the narrative, and that is more important than their logical sensibility in many ways. So I switched from philosophy to folklore....I was just so curious about people and about the way they come to hold their beliefs — even in the face of evidence to the contrary."
An academic mentor encouraged her to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago, but a chance encounter with a volume in the Harvard bookstore sent her in a different direction. "It was a book that told you how to be a witch," she recalls with a laugh. "I was amazed by this. You can learn that?"
She headed to Cambridge University for graduate studies, from whence she could go "hang out in London with all these pagans and magicians — for the most part educated and middle-class people — and plunge into this really batty dissertation on modern witches."
The goal was not to rule on the validity of magic. Luhrmann was more interested in the magical process, in what happened in the minds of the practitioners. "I was really taken by my observation that something does happen. I didn't quite know how to think about it, but they experienced something directly."
Luhrmann did "what anthropologists do" and participated in their world by joining their groups, reading their books, and performing rituals. For 30 minutes a day for nine months, she practiced seeing with her mind's eye, following instructions such as: Build up in imagination a journey from your physical plane home to your ideal room.
What startled her was that her witchcraft self-training worked. Her internal awareness seemed to shift; her senses felt more alive and alert. She had her own supernatural experience: One night, after she'd done some pleasurable and immersive reading about the early Celts, six druids appeared outside her window and just as suddenly vanished. "Had they been there in the flesh? I thought not," she writes in When God Talks Back, but the vivid, singular experience led her to wonder "for many years if something about the practice associated with magic made these supernatural experiences more common. When I encountered the same spiritual techniques in experiential evangelical Christianity, I was determined to find out."
In 2007, to better understand if and how spiritual practice impacts the mind, Luhrmann randomly divided Christian volunteers into groups: One listened on iPods for 30 minutes a day to lectures on the Gospels, while another participated in a more interactive, imagination-rich way, similar to the prayer style of Vineyard members. Their recordings invited them to see, hear, and touch God in the mind's eye, to carry on a dialogue with Jesus.
"I found that after a month of prayer practice, people reported more vivid mental imagery than those who listened to the lectures," she says. "They used mental imagery more readily and had somewhat better perceptual attention, and they reported more unusual sensory experience. In short, they attended to their inner experience more seriously, and that altered how real that experience became for them."
THE NIGHT BEFORE Luhrmann appeared at the Vineyard congregation, she read and answered questions at a Bay Area bookstore. She traced the modern history of the evangelical movement from its hippie, Jesus-freak roots of the 1960s to its current, mostly conservative, mostly middle-class state. She talked about the people whose stories give the book its narrative pull, people whose faith proved more complex than she had imagined.
This was an entirely different crowd. A couple of atheists ranted about how people who talk to God must be nuts. Another person in the audience, a little more measured, wanted Luhrmann to address the impact that conservative evangelicals are having on the country's political landscape.
It is not a small impact. Of the many baby boomers who once stopped going to churches, half have returned to religious practices, but not to the mainstream services of their childhood. They have flocked to churches similar to the Vineyard. A recent study found that nearly 40 percent of Americans said that the main reason they practice religion was "to forge a personal relationship with God." Some call this movement the country's fourth Great Awakening — a reference to other eras in American history in which religious fervor shaped the national agenda.
While Luhrmann intentionally avoided politics in the book, it comes up in interviews and reviews, as readers and critics wonder if the author "ever engaged her subjects in a lively conversation about gay marriage or evolution." Her answer is that conservative evangelicals and secular liberals are at such odds politically because they think about life very differently. If political progressives really want to stop scratching their heads over why evangelicals get so upset about same-sex marriage and health-care reform, they need to understand how evangelicals think about God.
"Secular liberals want to create the social conditions that allow everyday people, behaving the way ordinary people behave, to have fewer bad outcomes," she says. "When evangelicals vote, they think more immediately about what kind of person they are trying to become — what humans could and should be, rather than who they are. From this perspective, the problem with government is that it steps in when people fall short."
Hanging out with believers — whom she found "smarter and more varied than many liberals realize" — has given her some insight that could double as political advice. "If Democrats want to reach more evangelical voters, they should use a political language that evangelicals can hear. They should talk about the kind of people we are aiming to be and about the transformational journey that any choice will take us on."
Reprinted with permission from Stanford magazine, published by Stanford Alumni Association, Stanford University.