You don’t have to read much of Tanya Luhrmann to feel like a fan. Today’s editorial in the New York Times ought to be enough. If this tickles your appetite and you like more academic prose, which she also does well, I recommend “A Hyper-real God and Modern Belief” in the journal Current Anthropology in August of this year.
Luhrmann is an anthropologist at Stanford. She studies evangelicals the way the first generation of anthropologists studied Polynesians. She is not an advocate; she describes. But she describes things that ought not be there. That is troublesome. And when the question arises of whether “it” is “really” there or not, she asks you to enter into the mindset of the people who claim to experience “it” and ask the question that way.
As an anthropologist, she is inclined to talk to “informants.” One such is “a man from Horizon Christian Fellowship” in San Diego. “The Bible is a love story,” he told her, “and it is written to me.” Wow. Another such is Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “My first concern,” Mohler told her on his radio show, “is not with the God we are looking for, but the God who is.” Luhrmann says his practical concern is that “imagination drifts quickly away” from what [what he would call] the truth. And there it is. The man from Horizon Christian Fellowship or the man from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary?
That is the dilemma, she says, of Christianity in the modern West.
Which position you take depends on whether you are more worried about heresy or atheism. The pope and Albert Mohler are concerned that Christians get God right. They fear that congregants in these experientially oriented churches will imagine God in a way that inadvertently violates Scripture and leads them astray (God might become wholly loving, for example, and not at all judgmental).
Are we more in danger of heresy or atheism? Actually, that isn’t the way I would put it. Atheism is a commitment to the notion that God does not exist. I think the other pole—the non-heretical pole—is that the question of God and of being a part of what God is doing in the world becomes a kind coffeehouse debate. Everyone is “tolerant” because no one really believes that any one of them is more nearly right than any other and, in fact, the notion of “being right” about things like that violates the spirit of the game. It is this idle recreational treatment of God that I think is the true alternative to the God of everyday intention and sensation and emotional chumminess. I’m sure there is a website somewhere where visitors are asked to “like” God.
On the other hand: “Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own.” Yes they do. And Earth Sea and Star Trek and the Game of Thrones. There is no clear end to our ability to invest in “fictional” or “nearly fictional” realities, provided that we have made them. Realities that have made us, on the other hand, can scarcely be trusted.
I am inclined to resist this dilemma. As Phaedrus says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you don’t have to choose the left horn of the dilemma or the right horn. You can try to distract the bull—the practical and immediate bearer of the “horns” of the dilemma—or you can throw dirt in his eyes and head for the exit. I think it is really possible care deeply about the biblical texts and to refuse to ask them questions that are not a part of their authors’ worlds.
This is deeply anthropological, so Luhrmann ought to like it. You can ask about Luke or the Deuteronomic school or the Pauline school, “How did they see the world? Within the meanings they could possibly have had in mind, which of them gives the best guide to what a text really means?” And you can refuse to ask of them questions that arise in your world but that have no place in theirs.
Luhrmann wants us to adopt the anthropology of Robin Horton on what is real.
He [Horton] was saying that it was a theory and that the correct question to ask about such seemingly strange ideas as water spirits was not whether they were sensible in the abstract but how and why they were used.
Those are the questions we might as of the Deuteronomist . When you described God as saying, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts…” what kind of law and what kinds of hearts and what kind of “writing” did you have in mind?
Now the Pope maintains, according to Luhrmann, that Roman Catholics should not be distracted from the gospel accounts we have—neither to the right (popular myth) nor to the left (historical scholarship). But for some modern Christians, the historical scholarship is the way we can get inside the worlds inhabited by the authors of scripture. This gives us a chance to ask the kinds of questions Horton is asking, not, in other words, “Did Jesus really walk on the water?” but, “What is Luke trying to tell us by passing that story along?” Luke does not want to consider the possibility that the water was particularly dense at that particular place on the lake. It’s of no interest to him. We should ask him the questions that belong in his world and therefore in his account.
It is in my hope for biblical scholarship that I differ from the Pope’s remarks and that’s really closer to the Pope than an Anabaptist boy should be. And it is that third way—inhabiting the world of your informants, as Luhrmann does—that is my hope of escaping the dilemma Luhrmann offers us.