A friend in God
As mainstream U.S. Protestant sects
lost members over the past few decades, according to two 1993 reports,
more demanding faiths exploded. With so many converts, Tanya Luhrmann,
professor in the Committees on Human Development and the History
of Culture, wondered how God, a supernatural figure, became real
for adults who grew up without such an intimate religious life.
To study the process, Luhrmann and
Richard Madsen, a sociology professor at University of California–San
Diego, spent years at growing religious outlets: a calvary-style
evangelical church, an alternative black Catholic church, a New
Age Santeria house, a baal tschuva (newly Orthodox) shul,
and a Rajneeshi-style cult.
Luhrmann, who studied folklore and
mythology at Harvard and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Cambridge
(England), plans to write a book about “unusual religious
and psychiatric experiences.” She’s interested in how
“unusual phenomological experiences” were used in conjunction
with religious practice and the psychiatric experience of trauma
at the 20th century’s end.
In March Luhrmann gave a Divinity
School talk about Horizon Christian Fellowship, the Southern California
evangelical church where she and Madsen spent five months in 1999.
She found that learning and internalizing the church’s language,
its common phrases and their connotations, played an important role
in converts’ belief—a theory to which many sociologists
subscribe. But language, Luhrmann argued, was only part of the process.
Congregants also experienced “mind-body states”—moods
or specific moments they found difficult to describe yet viewed
as signs of God’s presence in their lives.
Horizon, an offshoot of a 1960s
church that courted the then-burgeoning Jesus movement, in which
hippie types sought revelation in Christianity rather than drugs,
was a Bible–based church with little hierarchy, where pastors
wore sneakers, congregants wore shorts, and teenagers sang Christian
rock at services. Most members were white, conservative, lower-middle-class
Converts attended weekend services,
held in a gym seating 1,400 people, and weekday home-study sessions,
each attended by 20 to 30 congregants. The church store offered
books such as Bruce and Stan’s Guide to God, a how-to
guide to prayer. In the store’s Christian–music section,
a chart paired religious selections with mainstream music so customers
could choose their favorite style, from folk to disco.
Phrases repeated in Horizon sermons
became part of new members’ speech. They’d use the phrase
“to walk with God,” for example, meaning to develop
a relationship with God and to manage everyday challenges: temptation,
frustration, disappointment. One parishioner used the phrase when
referring to a women’s Bible–study group she had started:
“From where God has put me I see myself as almost a mentor....
It’s really just interacting with them so that they can get
to a different level of their walk with God.”
Another common phrase was “the
word of God,” or the Bible as the ultimate authority. Congregants
also regularly said the outside world was “filled with rubbish,”
and Horizon members believed it was wise to shut themselves off
from that world. They read Christian novels, listened to Christian
music, attended Christian (often Horizon) schools, had Horizon friends.
But though Horizon offered an alternate world, Luhrmann noted, it
was not cultish. The church had no charismatic leader, and members
came and went freely.
As in an earlier project when Luhrmann
studied how “apparently reasonable” people came to believe
in magic and witchcraft, the Horizon study showed that unusual experiences
were “very important in shaping [congregants’] sense
of reality.” Members learned to incorporate those experiences
into the conversion stories they told, which had similar themes
involving a “wild ride” with sex and drugs, hitting
rock bottom, going to church on a whim, and quickly converting.
Horizon founder Mike MacIntosh had such a tale: “For two years,
he suffered a drug-induced hallucination, enslaved by the terrifying
conviction that he was dead,” reads the cover of MacIntosh’s
official biography. “Today he is free in Jesus Christ—and
his dynamic ministry symbolizes a dramatic change in America's church
In the same vein, a college student
told Luhrmann that he’d drifted from religion in high school.
In Las Vegas with his college fraternity, getting high, drinking,
watching television, he said, he “felt the presence of God.”
As he walked around the casinos, God pointed out the gamblers. “He
was like, ‘Do you see these people? Look at them.’ ...
I just saw so much corrupt in that place.” When he returned
he attended a campus crusade for Christ and accepted Jesus at the
altar call. His testimony—physically feeling God’s presence,
hearing Him speak—exemplified the mind-body states that Luhrmann
Another member told Luhrmann that
he heard God speak while driving and listening to an evangelical
tape. The tape’s evangelist said, “Dennis, slow down.
You are going too fast.” He did, “and immediately a
cop passed me and pulled over another guy who was also speeding.
... I thought, God is really doing something here.”
Converts’ visible moods also
changed. Members referred to “falling in love with Jesus,”
as if Jesus were a romantic partner. New converts, they’d
say, had “that goopy look on their face,” such as when
adolescents fall in love. Relating their altar calls—accepting
Jesus and approaching the altar to be saved—converts reported
other physical sensations. When the service leader asked if anyone
“felt the call of God,” they said, Jesus spoke to them
and carried them to the altar.
Acquiring the lexicon and experiencing
these mind-body states, converts came to believe in God as a person.
“It is a remarkable achievement that people without a religious
background should come not only to believe in divinity,” Luhrmann
said, “but to treat divinity as a personal friend.”
Like Horizon, the other growing
religions Luhrmann observed also valued intense experiences. Still
researching the trauma aspect of her book, Luhrmann hopes to understand
why unusual psychological experiences seem increasingly common in
the past few decades—religious or not.