Imaginary Friends

December 20, 2012

Ever since looking into anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back a few months ago, I’ve wanted to post a few words on it. An op-ed of hers that appeared last week in the New York Times finally got me to sit down and do it.

Luhrmann has been studying the Vineyard Movement, an association of young and growing  Evangelical churches with a charismatic flavor. In particular she reports on a series of imaginative practices used by members of these churches to make God and specifically Jesus a real personal presence in their lives. She points out – in the book, not the op-ed – that these practices are strongly inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, one instance of how this new movement crosses traditional denominational barriers. Luhrmann insists that though the subjects of her study report encounters with Jesus that often sound hallucinatory to outsiders, there is really no delusion (self- or other) involved; they remain lucid throughout and in control of the process.

I find this quite fascinating; my only quibble is that she presents this set of practices as really widespread among Evengelicals generally, without any real evidence that it has spread much outside the Vineyard churches – still rather far-between compared with say the Southern Baptists, whose leading theologian Albert Mohler is quoted as a strong critic of the whole idea. (To him and many others, it is dangerous to add anything, even innocent-seeming imaginative detail, to the literal text of Scripture.) I accept tentatively, in the absence of further information, that in most if not all cases the thing is psychologically harmless, and may even be of some emotional value.

Nevertheless, I cannot help noting that since the effectiveness of the practice doesn’t seem to depend at all on the objective reality of the God or Jesus being invoked – at least I have never been persuaded of the existence of a person quite like the God described in the Bible as literally understood, and Luhrmann makes no such claim – it should work just as well with any canonical text, any work of vividly imagined fiction. I am aware of some parallels in Hindu and Buddhist practice; and I cannot help wonder what, say, the Objectivists might make of it. Could they imagine themselves sharing breakfast with Dagny Taggart or Dominique Francon, or make Howard Roark or John Galt a real personal presence in their lives? Maybe some of them already do? Let’s see, what literary character would I like to try it with…


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