In When God Talks Back, Tanya Luhrmann writes about the Vineyard movement, a relatively small denomination of evangelicals, sometimes called neo-charismatic, which means that it shares a number of beliefs and practices with Pentecostalism. Pentecostal-lite is my impression, but individual churches vary.
The problem, for Luhrmann, is how to make sense of a church which is not so much Bible-based as it is based on personal experiences of God. She concludes that it survives in the modern world because it caters to the needs of individuals for a personal relationship with God, one in which God cares about what I wear and who I date.
Vineyard churches seem remarkably unconcerned with religious issues that have troubled other denominations, such as the justice of God: why do the good suffer and the bad prosper? Neither is it concerned with charity for others. It is almost wholly concerned with supporting its members in their search for a personal relationship with God, one in which God responds in words and signs.
How in this rationalized day and age can Christians know that God is there? Because he speaks to them about everyday things.
These churches that treat God like a cozy confidant and call a near-tangible Holy Spirit into their presence on Sunday morning exist in great numbers in the United States. (p 15)
I find this almost impossible to comprehend. There’s nothing cozy about God. It trivializes God; it removes the awe and mystery when God becomes a buddy. But like most groups, not every member buys into all its beliefs. One told Luhrmann how to fake glossolalia (speaking in tongues). Just repeat “She bought a Honda” over and over again, faster and faster (p 25). He was joking, while making a serious point. The group exerts subtle pressure on its members to have exotic experiences of God.
An American God
The goal seems to be to make God a big brother, a best friend. He is
a deeply human, even vulnerable God who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend, our best friend, as loving and personal and responsive as a best friend in America should be. (p 35)
Luhrmann calls this the “democratization of God,” but I’m not quite sure what this means. God was always democratic if this means available to any believer. For members of the Vineyard churches, it seems to mean that God is not so different from you and me.
“It really felt like relief to have a conversation with him.” The permission was to break free of the restrictive, formal bonds imposed by what she had understood about the proper relationship between a distant, holy God and his worshipful subject. (p 95)
Vineyard members are encouraged to have a cup of coffee with God (many set out an extra cup), or go on dates with God. About one member who was particularly enthusiastic about her dates with God, Luhrmann writes that
imagining her relationship with God as like her relationship with a boyfriend cut through the awkwardness and difficulty of understanding who or what God was in the first place. (p 82)
Never has the God of the Old Testament seemed more attractive. Nor was Jesus anybody’s buddy or pal. He was strange, different, not readily approachable. His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well was an exception, not the rule (John 4:4-26). Even then it’s not exactly a conversation when the person you are talking with declares himself to be the Messiah. A little daunting for a first date.
A God for the self-centered
The Vineyard movement seems to make little distinction between God and Christ. I suppose going on a date with absolute otherness could be a little intimidating. In any case, the Vineyard God is a God for the self-centered. The God who is a buddy doesn’t seem concerned about the suffering of others. The widow, the orphan, and the stranger have no place in the Vineyard (Matthew 25: 34-40). It’s all about presence: can the church member experience the presence of God, either through his voice, his touch, or an overwhelming sense of his immediacy.
Some actually hear the word of God, or feel his touch, what Luhrmann calls “sensory override.” More common is the experience of hearing his voice in one’s mind.
“God puts the word into your mind. He just says no.” It was as if the word just appeared in her mind, and she knew — she just knew — that it wasn’t her own but came from God. (p 68)
Curiously, the Bible is not particularly important. Nor are heaven and hell.
“This new American Christ is just as raw, both concretely present and curiously untheologized. His churches emphasize intimacy, not historical understanding.” (p 38)
Heresy becomes almost impossible. In all the churches Luhrmann attended, and whose members she came to know, never did she encounter a concern that someone would imagine God falsely (p 84). Because the purpose of religion is to experience God up close and personal, it becomes almost impossible to say that someone had the wrong experience of God.
At play in the fields of the Lord
What makes the Vineyard God modern is the way in which members handle disbelief. Most seem to know that they are pretending to talk to God. Or at least that they are pretending that God talks back. “Yet congregants also insist that the daydream-like prayer is a way of encountering God. It is play but not play, the place where the distinction between belief and make-believe breaks down.” (p 321)
Johan Huizinga, a medieval historian and author of Homo Ludens (Man the Player), writes that all sacred ritual shares the quality of play/not play. “But modern evangelical practice takes the ambiguity and accentuates it.” (p 321) The church member plays at talking with God, while understanding that this play is serious. It’s in the realm of transitional space, where one no longer asks “is it real?” because the question is no longer relevant. The experience just is. Luhrmann calls the experience “hyperreal,” so real that one can understand that one is fooling oneself while being at the same time content to do so. Content not even to ask “am I fooling myself?”
This is a thoroughly modern form of belief. While one might be tempted to call it ironic detachment, in which one distances oneself from one’s own belief, it could more correctly be called “ironic attachment,” in which one knows one is creating the God who tells me what to wear and who to date, and values this God all the more since he is so personal. Whatever this is, it is not faith as it has been traditionally understood. It’s not Kierkegaard’s either/or . It comes closer to this/and: I know it’s true because I made it; but for this to work I have to forget the “I made it” part.
Conclusion: belief in disbelief
A key reason the Vineyard God is a modern God is because of the way he lessens isolation.
The closely held sense of a personal relationship with God, always there, always listening, always responsive, and always with you, diminishes isolation. (p 324)
Church attendance takes on a less traditional function. It is not the body of Christ, but a group you go to when you feel your confidence in belief waning. The presence of others is not Holy Communion, but acts more like AA: individuals coming together with little shared but a common problem, in this case how to maintain belief in disbelief—that is, belief in the disbelief that I made it.
This conclusion is my own. Luhrmann is more sympathetic, perhaps because she spent so much time with members of Vineyard churches. Or, perhaps because she is an anthropologist, more interested in understanding how Vineyard members experience God than in judging it.* Ordinarily this is a good thing. I, however, am going to judge. Getting close to God as they do is a terrible trivialization of Him.
* More on Luhrmann’s anthropological perspective in my next post on her new book, How God Becomes Real.
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, translated by Alastair Hannay. Penguin, 1992.
Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back. Knopf, 2012.
Tanya M. Luhrmann, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. Princeton University Press, 2020.