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JUNE 2003
Volume 95, Issue 5

GRAPHIC:  ResearchInvestigations
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 baby boomers.

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 life.”

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 noted.

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.




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