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Monday, April 16, 2012

Belief in a God Who Talks Back

A very interesting story recently aired on National Public Radio's show "Fresh Air" about a study conducted by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann that explored how evangelicals understand prayer ("When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God"). In her study, Luhrmann examined the personal relationships people developed with God and explored how those relationships were solidified through the practice of prayer. One thing she found was that several individuals said that God had repeatedly spoken to them and that they had heard what God wanted them to do.

While the story is interesting (which can be heard and/or read here: "'When God Talks Back' to the Evangelical Community"), I couldn't help but get the feeling that Luhrmann (and her target audience) regards evangelicalism as something of a strange phenomenon in need of explanation. While this may be true for Luhrmann and perhaps "Fresh Air's" listeners, evangelicals are far more part of the mainstream than are academics such as Luhrmann. Indeed, for many, it is the academy, not evangelicalism, that is the phenomenon in need of explanation. As the sociologist Peter Berger observed back in 1996 (The National Interest, #46):

A few years ago the first volume coming out of the so-called Fundamentalism Project landed on my desk. The Fundamentalism Project was very generously funded by the MacArthur Foundation and chaired by Martin Marty, the distinguished church historian at the University of Chicago. A number of very reputable scholars took part in it, and the published results are of generally excellent quality. But my contemplation of this first volume gave me what has been called an "aha! experience." The book was very big, sitting there on my desk--a "book-weapon," the kind that could do serious injury. So I asked myself, why would the MacArthur Foundation shell out several million dollars to support an international study of religious fundamentalists?
Two answers came to mind. The first was obvious and not very interesting. The MacArthur Foundation is a very progressive outfit; it understood fundamentalists to be anti-progressive; the Project, then, was a matter of knowing one's enemies. 
But there was also a more interesting answer. "Fundamentalism" is considered a strange, hard-to-understand phenomenon; the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable. But to whom? Who finds this world strange? Well, the answer to that question was easy: people to whom the officials of the MacArthur Foundation normally talk, such as professors at elite American universities. And with this came the aha! experience. The concern that must have led to this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which "fundamentalism" (which, when all is said and done, usually refers to any sort of passionate religious movement) is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but knowledge of it. The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors--it might be worth a multi-million-dollar project to try to explain that!

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