Wolf Blitzer's Nervous Laughter: Prayer and Secularism in America

By Michael J. Altman

It's been over a year since Stanford anthroplogist Tanya Luhrmann published When God Talks Back, her study of prayer among American evangelicals. More recently, Luhrmann has been contributing a series of articles to the New York Times that offer small tastes of what she does in the book. I have yet to read When God Talks Back, but I did catch Luhrmann on Fresh Air with "middling minded" host Terry Gross. Luhrmann's work is part of a larger wave of research into prayer funded by the SSRC's New Directions in the Study of Prayer project. If you haven't checked out the NDSP's website, Reverberations, you should. It includes posts from friend of the blog Jason Bivins, Bob Orsi, Anne Taves, John Modern, and Sarah Pike.

Reverberations  is a rabbit hole of prayer. It's a twisting winding digital collection of experiences, theories, research projects, and musings about prayer. Everything from discussions of presence in Catholic prayer to a Muslim machine for learning the habitus of prayer. I encourage you to dive in.

Back to Lurhmann. I ended up falling down the SSRC's rabbit hole of prayer through a couple of recent pieces regarding her work. First, her most recent NYT's piece titled "Belief is the Least Part of Faith." In the piece, Lurhmann makes the argument that belief is not the central element of evangelical religious culture. Drawing on Emile Durkheim she makes a case for the importance of religious practice over religious belief for evangelicals"Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church."

It is an interesting argument about evangelicals that pushes back against the usual assumptions that Protestants love orthodoxy and belief above all else. And I'm all for more Durkheim in the news. But, as a colleague commented when I posted the article to Facebook, the article is "a pretty hilarious argument that evangelicals -- like Russ McCutcheon -- believe the sacred is the profane, that religion is not a separate sphere of existence, etc." Indeed, my Facebook friend is quite right. In her final paragraphs Lurhmann seeks to de-exoticize evangelicals for her assumed secularist audience by secularizing evangelicalism:
To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first. 
And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold. 
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.
Belief is the reach for joy. Just like all that stuff you secularists do in search of joy. Sex, sports, childrearing, work, beer, ping-pong, it's all about joy. So is church. There's nothing to fear here, my NYT reading secularist friends. Oh, and the politics that arise from various beliefs--don't let those distract you from the joy.

Back over at Reverberations, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins has offered an overview of Lurhmann's earlier columns and, I believe (pun intended), he asks some important questions:
In keeping with her other columns, Luhrmann’s efforts here are intended to correct a secular bias or misunderstanding of Evangelicals. Luhrmann’s efforts might appear to be rather one-sided; some of her critics have suggested she is too sympathetic to Evangelicals. This raises the question, If secularists can benefit from understanding the faith of Evangelicals, what should Evangelicals find attractive about the practices of their fellow unbelievers? Are there Evangelicals interested in pursuing a project like Luhrmann’s? Perhaps this would require an Evangelical to write an anthropological study of American secularism with the attempt to adjudicate which secular placebos are deemed useful for their own tradition.
What might such a project look like? Better yet, outside of the pages of the Old Gray Lady, what does the encounter between evangelical prayer and secularism look like? Might it look like this?:

Lurhmann has attempted to render evangelicals normal and safe for a secularist audience, fulfilling J. Z. Smith's vision of a religious studies that makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange. But rather than a shared reach for joy, maybe secularists and evangelicals share something else: Wolf Blitzer's nervous laughter.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Wonderful post, Mike! Thanks for all this material, especially the links to Reverberations.

All this "search for joy" business strikes me more as a tender-minded William James than it does Durkheim. Do you find Lurhmann consistent in her theorizing?
John G. Turner said…
I really enjoyed reading Luhrmann's book last fall.

The brief op-ed doesn't do it justice. What the book is really about (in my recollection) is how God becomes real to people. People (evangelicals, Catholics, etc.) who regularly act as if God is real tend to experience God as real. If they engage in certain kinds of prayer, they tend to hear God talk back. Thus, there are psychological explanations for the fact that many Americans report such experiences of God or the supernatural, and because those experiences are not uncommon and because they are often beneficial, other Americans should find them less off-putting.
Charlie McCrary said…
I think Mark is right about the Jamesian influence, and I suspect it comes by way of Taves. Luhrmann's book is very good in many ways, but ultimately I think this is a book about religious experience, not about evangelicals as historical actors. (In other words, she's talking about nouns; see McCutcheon, A Tale of Nouns and Verbs in the JAAR last year.)
Thanks for the comments. I don't think Luhrmann is inconsistent in her theorizing, though I need to read the book and not just the op-Ed pieces. I do think the connection to Taves in terms of religious experience makes a lot of sense. A wise old historian once told me, "you can never outrun your people." Based on the liberal Protestant vignette in the opening of Luhrmann's column, perhaps James is her people.
David Hollinget FTW: