Walking through the library with a book called When God Talks Back wasn’t quite as embarrassing for me as buying condoms used to be, but it was a close second. I was sure everyone was watching, thinking, No doubt about that one.
I didn’t go looking for it. I was trying to find books on Native American belief systems, and my daughter, Amber, noticed it sitting face forward on a nearby shelf.
But when I got it home, I couldn’t make it past page 64.
It wasn’t the quality of the writing or the approach. The author, Tanya Luhrmann, is a psychological anthropologist who spent over four years with members of two Vineyard Christian Fellowship churches trying to understand what was happening when they claimed they were experiencing the presence of God.
It was when I reached “Chapter Two: Is That You, God?,” and Luhrmann shared a set guidelines called “discernment” that the group uses to determine whether or not the experience someone is reporting is real. Luhrmann explained that they have a couple of tests and the second one “…was whether it was the kind of thing that God would say…. This was often articulated as making sure that what you thought God had said did not contradict God’s word in the Bible.”  A book that Luhrmann picked up at a Vineyard-sponsored course, called Dialogue with God, stated “clearly (and repeatedly) that if the revelation violates either the letter of the Word or the spirit of the Word, it is to be rejected immediately.” 
I was reading the book because I’ve experienced events I can only attribute to God, and I’ve spent years trying to find people who are experiencing similar things, but I couldn’t apply that kind of rule to my experiences, so I didn’t feel like I could read any more of it.
A few weeks later, I thought about using the phrase, “The Voice of God,” as a focal point for some of my writing. If Luhrmann can use a gutsy title like that, I thought, so can I.
I wrote a couple of essays but felt like they’d be ignored like a lot of the work I’ve posted on my blog. I thought, I need something else. Confirmation? Substantiation? I didn’t know. All I knew was that Luhrmann had talked to a lot of people who said they had talked to God, and I needed to know what she found.
I went back to the library and checked out Luhrmann’s book again, painfully aware that the librarian wouldn’t make eye contact.
As I read more of When God Talks Back, I struggled to get past the majority of the claims the group was making like “prayer is…the only way to create a relationship with God…indeed the only way to reach God at all,” and a number of other supposedly helpful suggestions or requirements, from the belief that people need to learn to pray properly, practicing in the same manner someone would do to acquire any other skill, to changing the way we think, shifting our idea of God from the “author of creation” to seeing “Him” as a hero in it. 
But after trudging through a chapter on the history of the development of prayer techniques, I found something that completely surprised me, something that aligned with a discovery I made in 2014.
In “Chapter Seven: The Skill of Prayer,” Luhrmann shared the results of a series of studies she developed that enabled her to find information that explains at least why some people believe they are hearing or experiencing the voice of God.  Luhrmann’s core finding identified a personality trait that appears to be responsible for at least part of it. Some of the ways that personality traits impact belief systems is the focus of my book, Critical Revelations in the Realm of Contemporary Spirituality.
Prior to 2014 I couldn’t understand how people could have such radically different, often contradictory, “spiritual” beliefs, and I was led to information that showed me that people are actually developing belief systems around their personality traits, which they then claim are universal. Then people with similar personality traits follow them, and they begin to create a kind of “tribe.” Everyone in the tribe is surrounded by like-minded people who believe they know the absolute truth because everyone around them agrees with them, so it’s nearly impossible to reach them to share opposing or complimentary or new information.
I imagine, as that began to sink in, some of you are thinking, Did I just read that correctly? Did you say you were led to information?
I felt the same way as I started to read “Chapter Seven,” when Luhrmann said, “…I saw six druids standing at a window…, and they beckoned to me.”  The word, druid, hit me as if I’d stumbled into a forbidden zone and suddenly bright red signs were flashing, “Warning! Danger!”
But given everything I’ve experienced, I thought, What’s going on? How can I still be sitting here thinking her experience is crazy, beyond what even someone like me thinks is acceptable?
I realized it’s because it’s really hard to find our way out of those feelings. We hear the word, crazy, constantly. We’re told in so many ways that you’re crazy if you claim to experience anything beyond everyday experiences.
But Luhrmann doesn’t shy away. She shares the events that led to the experience with the druids, and she shares the path that enabled her to reach a conclusion about her beliefs.  But, even though she incorporated a wide range of examples in her efforts to understand what has been happening in her life and the lives of the members of the Vineyard church, and she used the best methods and processes she had available in her research, she knew some people would dismiss everything in her book by simply glancing at the title and saying, “Not going to read it. She’s crazy.”
For most of my life I’ve known that people can use that word to control any conversation about God, to stop anyone who tries to talk about aspects of God that fall outside of a particular belief system, sometimes before they even get started.
Every one of us can go to a dictionary to look up the definition of “crazy,” but instead, we choose to believe that we know.
Luhrmann decides to show us we don’t. She puts an end to the “crazy” accusations by devoting an entire chapter to explaining what it actually means and showing how it relates to the results of her research.
In “Chapter Eight: But Are They Crazy?,” Lurhmann says “there are clear differences between the unusual experiences described by congregants, and psychosis.”  She says “psychosis is the name we give to judgments and perceptions that seem so impaired as to no longer be within the bounds of normal reason.”  “People whom we call psychotic speak furiously to the empty air or talk incoherently. They may fear that they are being followed by the government, tell you they have radio transmitters planted in their teeth, or believe that they have been published in leading scientific journals.” 
In the studies Luhrmann directed, her team conducted interviews, and participants answered questions on psychological scales that included a broad-gauged screening scale for mental illness.  “At the end of (their) long interview, (they) asked subjects a series of questions about experiences related to psychosis.”  Luhrmann found that “only 14 of the 124 said yes to any one of nine questions in a way that made (them) wonder whether (the individual) might be reporting a psychotic experience.”  “Five out of every six people who reported hearing a voice when alone reported none of the other symptoms associated with psychosis.”  The closing comment of the chapter states that, yes, there were a couple of people who seriously worried out loud about being crazy, but Luhrmann suggests that they might have other personality traits that draw them deeply into their beliefs.
I wouldn’t suggest reading “Chapter Seven” or “Chapter Eight” without reading the rest of Luhrmann’s book. She does an excellent job of relating the genuine experiences of the Vineyard congregation, and she presents the rest of the information in a forthright manner. Luhrmann gives us a series of baselines that everyone should understand. She is remarkably balanced in the presentation of her findings and supportive of people who are sharing experiences about a truly challenging subject.
While I am concerned that the Christian church is continuing to try to control people’s interpretations of their experiences, I am glad to see that more and more people are recognizing that this is something everyone needs to understand better. We need to identify where the confusion is, to see that some aspects of these experiences are driven by the idiosyncrasies of human nature, but also recognize that some aspects are miraculous: they go beyond what we know is physically possible.
I believe there are many others who have spent years, like I have, living in fear of sharing their stories, worrying about what people will think. For the reader who is in that place, I hope Luhrmann’s book, and what I have to share, will give you encouragement to share things that you are trying to understand yourself.
1) Luhrmann, T. M. When God talks back. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 64.
2) Ibid; 45, 46, 64.
3) Ibid; 84, 133, 135.
4) Ibid; 157, 192.
5) Ibid; 191.
6) Ibid; 191, 235, 325.
7) Ibid; 227.
9) Ibid; 227, 228.
10) Ibid; 235.