"When God Talks Back, Do You Feel Like a Heretic?"
One of the real frustrations of being a priest in the 21st century is that the press no longer understands what it is we religious people do and believe. In this respect, most religious reporting is akin to science reporting: the reporters usually don’t understand the story they’re writing. Religion and science, after all, are not the premiere beats. The only good stories you ever hear about the Episcopal Church come when we’re fighting each other.
Usually, theologically thoughtful people have to look elsewhere than the newspaper to find informed discussions of religious questions. But last Sunday, The New York Times Book Review disproved my theory by running two articles discussing books on religion. The first was a review of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God by T. M. Luhrmann. The second treated Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Together these new books provide a window into the American religious landscape usually invisible both to reporters and those of us who talk about God for a living.
The first book, When God Talks Back, is the result of a long study by T. M. Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford. Luhrmann studied Evangelical spirituality by joining two Megachurch congregations—one in California, one in Illinois. What she discovered was a world in which pastors encourage congregants to make dates with God—pouring an extra cup of coffee in the morning, walking down to the park and sitting with Jesus in the evening. Far from being dismissive of these practices, Luhrmann says (in the reviewer’s words) that Evangelicals “believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind. In these communities, religious belief is ‘more like learning to do something than to think something. . . . People train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.’” The review goes on,
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. [“A Great Awakening”by Molly Worthen, The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 2012]
When God Talks Back should be of interest to all of us attempting to develop an ongoing, deep relationship with God. While I’m not the kind of person likely to have coffee or a jog with Jesus, I do find something appealing about the straightforwardness of the Evangelical approach to conversations with God. We Prayer Book Episcopalians tend to think of prayer as our speaking (in very felicitous phrases, of course) and God listening. But prayer is as much about our listening as it is about God’s talking. It’s a relationship. My own relationship with God coheres around the liturgy and Bible reading (Eucharist and the Daily Office). I want to say “yes” to the Evangelical practice of personal intimacy with God, but I want to raise a yellow flag of caution: absent a disciplined liturgical, biblical structure, how do I know that the voice I hear talking back to me is really God’s?
The second book, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, treats a different set of questions. Two thirds of it is a cranky lament for the good old days when mainline (Christian) churches dominated the religious landscape. Those days are gone forever, and the picture Douthat paints of them is rather rosier than what obtained at the time. There never really was a mainline consensus. The reviewer reminds us that Reinhold Niebuhr snubbed Billy Graham’s crusades, that Billy Graham avoided Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and that for all his popularity in the 1950s, even Bishop Fulton J. Sheen couldn’t stop right-wing Protestants from expressing anti-Catholic sentiments when John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960. Nevertheless, Douthat is on to something when he laments the way spirituality has been personalized and “interiorized”. In the reviewer’s words:
The plunge into heresy, Douthat believes, can be traced to theological developments like the revisionist Jesus Seminar and the unlikely trinity of Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown. Douthat accuses them of discrediting Christian orthodoxy in the interests of remaking Jesus in their own image, often for political ends. Debunking the debunkers, Douthat concludes that “they speak the language of the conspiratorial pamphlet, the paranoid chain e-mail — or the paperback thriller.” The currency of these ideas has given rise to what the author calls the “God Within” movement. “A choose-your-own-Jesus mentality,” Douthat writes, “encourages spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New Testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial.” [“Breaking Faith” by Randall Balmer, The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 2012]
I disagree strongly with Douthat’s illusory picture of a happy, consensual bygone American religious landscape. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, you and I would have been considered “heretics” by most hyper-orthodox (Catholic and Evangelical) Christian establishments. So to call us a “nation of heretics” now seems more like revanchist name-calling than thoughtful analysis.
Nevertheless, these books remind us both of the breadth and depth of contemporary American religious experience and of the need we always have to ground our experience in openness to voices from outside ourselves. When I go for coffee with God, is it all about me, or do I hear anything about my need to love, care for, and forgive others? When I choose my own Jesus, do I hear him telling me to sit down at the table with lepers, prostitutes, and the outcasts of the world?
If all I hear in my personal prayer life is about me, then perhaps it’s time I picked up the Bible and the newspaper. The next time you make a date with God, bring more than a cup of coffee or your nostalgic dreams of a glorious Christian past. Open the Bible, open the newspaper, and open your heart to the One who speaks in and through the pains and joys of the world.