Sunday, April 29, 2012

Too much 'Heart over Head' in Luhrmann's new book on Evangelicals

by Salman Hameed

A few weeks ago I had a post about T.M. Luhrmann's book When God Talks Back. The book is a study of Vineyard Church, an experiential Evangelical church. After listening to her Fresh Air interview, I could not figure the exact thing that troubled me about the author. I think the book is valuable and it is on my reading list - but what's the issue. Well, today's review of the book in NYT answered that question. The review is mostly positive, but then the review aptly points out that Luhrmann doesn't really address the reasons why such Evangelical groups also have problematic stance on numerous social issues. This is where Terry Gross also had to push her on the same issue in the Fresh Air interview:

The skeptic, however, might wonder how all this gushing to God and pouring coffee for Christ shapes evangelicals’ ideas and values. There is nothing inherently conservative in a dynamic prayer life. Why, then, does evangelicals’ vivid relationship with God so often go hand in hand with conservative opinions on social issues and an uncompromising view of the Bible’s commands? Luhrmann implies that asking this question is a distraction. She says that for evangelicals, “the practices through which one knows God become more important than the abstract question of belief.” At the Vineyard, “people just did not worry about heresy. They worried about making God come alive for them.” She passes over most evangelicals’ affirmation of the Bible’s infallibility as if it were of no concern to outsiders, a tradition comparable to avoiding shellfish. One wonders if she ever engaged her subjects in a lively conversation about gay marriage or ­evolution.
And I think this is the key:
All religion is an affair of both the head and the heart. Luhrmann goes too far in suggesting that evangelicalism is all feeling and no dogma: in her telling, the heart has wholly conquered the head. We cannot account for evangelicals’ history or their role in politics without paying attention to the substance of their beliefs and the social and scientific lessons their communities teach them to draw from the Bible — lessons reinforced, perhaps, by the sound of God’s voice that they discern in their own ears. But Luhrmann has helped to explain something else: why the carefully reasoned arguments that the “new atheist” writers mount against religion often fall flat. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.        
Read the full review here. Hmm...may be we can cross Dawkins and Luhramann to find a reasonable explanation of the contemporary expression of religion. 

By the way, how do Muslims experience God? I know people use the language that indicates a physical presence of God. But I'm not familiar of any practice that is equivalent to - say - 'speaking in tongues'. What about the experience of having tea or coffee with God? (I'm not referring to Sufi Islam here). Here is another excerpt from the review of Luhrmann's book: 
 Evangelical prayer is much more than mumbled grace at dinnertime. As Luhrmann writes, “God wants to be your friend; you develop that relationship through prayer; prayer is hard work and requires effort and training; and when you develop that relationship, God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images he places in your mind, and through sensations he causes in your body.” Evangelicals have drawn on the insights of modern psychotherapy and ancient traditions of spiritual formation to learn to pray in a way that transforms their minds and — they believe — has astonishing power in real life. (One of Luhrmann’s subjects supposes that her failure to pray properly caused another church member to suffer a miscarriage.) 
Though everyone has the ability “to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows,” honing this skill requires practice. Luhrmann compares the “sophisticated expertise” required to hear God’s voice to the training that a sonogram technician needs in order to distinguish the outline of a fetus from a fuzzy black-and-white haze: it is a matter of “training perception.” The Vineyard helps members cultivate mental “absorption” by encouraging them to visualize the events of the Bible, and to imagine God’s physical presence: one pastor suggests pouring the Lord his own cup of coffee each morning.
I'll curious to know of any Muslim responses to such Evangelical churches. These might exist in sub-Saharan Africa, where Muslims are competing with various Evangelical Christian groups. Let me know if you have such examples in the Muslim communities.


Amina said...

I'm interested in reading this book, too. Luhrmann's earlier work on witchcraft/magic in 1980s UK addressed the "why do they believe/think this stuff?" question, especially interesting because many of her subjects were in technology related fields. Her conclusion in that book was that there is a slow cognitive process by which beliefs, however illogical, unscientific, or irrational, become convincing. It sounds like she's moved on to the emotional side in this project.

Salman Hameed said...

Okay - it is on the summer reading list, along with Heaven on Earth.

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