Tanya Luhrmann continues to set the pace for understanding and respecting the many ways that people are religious, as Steven Barrie-Anthony’s Reverberations interview with Luhrmann makes clear. I was first amazed by her work years ago in her book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. I was writing my own book, Not In Kansas Anymore, about the spread of magical ideas in America. I was interviewing people who call themselves Otherkin, and believe themselves to be elves and werewolves and fairies. I was struggling to understand young people who identify as vampires. Among these witches, pagans, and hoodoo docs were some of the smartest, most well-read people I’d ever met. They were dead serious about their religion, and a surprising number of their beliefs were being picked up by suburbanites all over the country, most of whom had no idea how far from their Christian roots they were venturing.
The stars of Not in Kansas Anymore were truly strange. Strange enough to delight a journalist’s heart. But I despaired of ever being able to do them full justice.
For much of my career as a reporter, we journalists simply set our pencils aside whenever a source started talking about religion. Nobody ever said so, but we knew that this kind of talk didn’t belong in the mainstream media. We would cover religion, sure, but only as an event. If the Pope came to town, we’d make a big, reverential fuss. If a tent revival came to town, we’d treat it like a freak show. But if a mother whose child had died told us that Jesus came to comfort her, we did her the favor of not letting the rest of the world know that she was so unhinged as to be talking like that.
I’d helped start a religion section at the Dallas Morning News, which won all sorts of awards for helping change those practices and was copied by newspapers across the country. So, I was not a newbie. But I was also lost and way too far into my book to back off. Luhrmann rescued me with a phrase. She called magic the “technology of the sacred.” Just that phrase was enough for me to be able to link my subjects with the rest of us.
I’m happy to see that Luhrmann’s up to her old tricks in When God Talks Back, still coming at religious experience in ways that nobody else seems to have thought of and bringing back understandings that penetrate deeply into what’s common among us. This time she made me gasp with her lovely idea that walking and talking with God is “a process through which the loneliest of conscious creatures can come to experience themselves as awash with love.”
I’ve often interviewed people who say that God has told them such and such. I like to ask, “How did you know it was God?”
People outside evangelical circles think it’s rude to ask such pointed questions about religious experience, which is a kind of paternalism that substitutes politeness for respect. But the evangelicals I’ve talked to are never offended. Or surprised. As Luhrmann points out in another wonderful insight, they also question, but questioning and doubting are not necessarily the same. To question is to examine, to scrutinize, to refine, to test. They question because they believe that what they’re experiencing is real enough and important enough to stand the weight of curiosity.
If it isn’t God talking, they’d want to be the first to know. The notion that what they’re saying might seem crazy isn’t foreign to them at all. In fact, even true believers sometimes preface their most intimate and important spiritual stories with, “I know this may sound crazy but…”. They know they’re out there beyond where the rest of us go.
I’m reminded of a Spiritualist reverend and medium I met during research for my book Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, which is about a 130-year-old Spiritualist town in Western New York. I was in the reverend’s class of would-be mediums as she tried to show them how to be open to spirit and willing to hear it. Hour after hour she told of extraordinary experiences—miracles, visions, messages, all the phenomena that Spiritualists offer up as proof of life beyond death. She talked of tables tipping in response to questions and of real roses manifesting from thin air. She was as true a believer as can be found. She urged that her students have faith too, and then she said, “Of course there are limits. You don’t want to find yourself talking to the toaster.”