Nation & World

When talking with God

4 min read

Q&A with anthropologist who studies evangelism in varied nations

In her book “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God,” T.M. Luhrmann ’81, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, explores the evangelical experience in the United States, Ghana, and India through an anthropological and psychological lens. Luhrmann will deliver the William James Lecture on Thursday at Harvard Divinity School at 5:15 p.m. She spoke with the Gazette about her work and the ways that members of evangelical communities worship and pray.

GAZETTE: You studied folklore and mythology at Radcliffe. What sparked your interest in those topics, and what inspired you to go on to study social anthropology at Cambridge University?

LUHRMANN: I was always interested in the way the stories we told ourselves shaped us in fundamental ways. I wanted to know more, so I went to graduate school. And I loved the presence of the past in Cambridge. I ended up living in John Harvard’s rooms in Emmanuel College.

GAZETTE: You have studied modern-day witches and delved into psychiatry with your book “Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry.” What drew you to your work on Christianity and the evangelical movement chronicled in your recent book, “When God Talks Back”?

LUHRMANN: I have always wanted to know how things became real for people. God and suffering are two intangible but oh-so-powerful phenomena. What makes them feel real, as if they are there? How do we learn to see them as facts in the world? Because we imagine God as different, in different times and places, as we imagine pain. Which is not to say that the pain is not always real. But it is real in different ways to different people.

GAZETTE: Was there anything that drew you to the Evangelical community in particular?

LUHRMANN: When I was visiting an evangelical church, someone told me that if I wanted to understand who she worshipped, I should have coffee with God. I thought that was pretty interesting.

GAZETTE: In “When God Talks Back,” your fieldwork involves research in California, Illinois, Ghana, and India. What led you to those particular locations?

LUHRMANN: Well, I was there, in the United States. When I went to Ghana, and also to Chennai (India), I wanted to understand how the experience of God might be shaped by local ideas about the mind. In Ghana, broadly speaking, the supernatural and the mental and the material are understood to be co-mingled in a way more intimate than in the U.S. And in Chennai, the supernatural is in some ways marked as separate from, and more real than, the world before us. And the experience of God in the U.S. takes place in a secular surrounding. I wondered what those orientations might do to shape spiritual experience.

GAZETTE: With your work, you explore how local theories about the mind alter spiritual experience. What was the biggest difference you found between the way evangelicals in U.S. churches approach their spiritual lives and interactions with God versus the way evangelicals you studied in Ghana or India approach their interactions with God?

LUHRMANN: In general, it is the Americans who embrace a more playful or even frivolous involvement with God. They do so, I think, because of the more secular setting. Christians in Accra (Ghana) and Chennai need to work less hard to prove that God is there.

GAZETTE: Do you have examples of how Americans embrace a more playful engagement with God?

LUHRMANN: They have coffee with God. They go on dates with God. They pretend in various ways that God is present.

GAZETTE: Can you tell me what you are currently working on?

LUHRMANN: A comparison between the way people in charismatic Christian churches experience God in the Bay Area, Accra, and Chennai, and the ways in which persons with psychoses in those settings experience distressing voices.

GAZETTE: Do you think there are lessons that can be learned about the type of mind management used by the evangelicals when interacting with God on an intimate level: i.e., having a conversion with God in their minds, when it comes to treating things like depression or other disorders?

LUHRMANN: A good question. Yes: I think that the skills people use in prayer are in fact the skills people seek to use when dealing with depression, and that recognizing these similarities would help us to be more effective at helping those in pain.