Tanya Marie Luhrmann

March 21, 2014

NDSP Grantees in Readers Digest

In the April Issue of Readers Digest, an essay on “How and Why We Pray” quotes two NDSP grantees, Elizabeth Drescher and Tanya Luhrmann. The article, which takes a closer look at prayer practices in various communities around the United States, examines the ways in which prayer practices have evolved more recently. 

Prayer is ubiquitous in America because it’s so flexible and customizable. Says religion scholar Elizabeth Drescher, a faculty member at Santa Clara University in California, “Among the traditional religious practices, prayer allows the most individual autonomy and authority. That’s especially resonant in our culture, which values personal choice”…”Recently, we’ve been seeing a shift toward more informal but also more imaginative prayer,” says Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Indeed, if they were alive today, pontiffs of the past would no doubt have been confused and amused by one of the first official actions of Pope Francis.

The author, Lise Funderberg, references the ways that media influence has changed prayer—from a congregation in San Francisco writing prayers in chalk on the sidewalk, to Pope Francis’ first tweets, days after ascending to the papacy, to what is perhaps most ubiquitous nowadays, people using Facebook to ask for prayers and to pray together. 

Read the full piece here

May 30, 2013

Post-Secularism and Prayer

This past April, Tanya Luhrmann—the Stanford anthropologist—was invited by the New York Times to contribute a series of Op-Ed guest columns based on the recent publication of her 2012 book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s work has been lauded for its unusually judicious and refreshing approach to understanding the nature of American Evangelicalism; unusual because Luhrmann does not succumb to the typical secular biases and downward-looking smugness that all to often skews academic work on the subject, and refreshing because Luhrmann genuinely hopes to understand Evangelicals not simply by observing them, but also by inscribing herself within the spiritual practices of evangelical communities.                                                    

Yet Luhrmann’s Op-Ed pieces offer something more substantial than simply a prosaic description of her Evangelical encounters. They suggest rather the possibility of mutual understanding and respect between Evangelicals and secularists. In her first column, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect” (April 5th), Luhrmann argues that despite the common punditry of an ever-growing political divide between believers and unbelievers, these groups are tied together by similar doubts, anxieties, and yearnings. Both deal with life’s uncertainty through meditation, keeping journals, and going on retreats. The human condition, Luhrmann argues, provides a point of overlap where secularists and believers can carry on a conversation and learn from one another about their common spiritual yearnings.


March 14, 2013

How do You Know God's Talking to You?

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.


March 6, 2013

Prayer, Imagination, and the Voice of God—in Global Perspective

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.

* * *

Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?

Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.