by Peter Menkin
“It’s really important to understand that God is not an impersonal force. Even though He is invisible, God is personal and He has all the characteristics of a person. He knows, he hears, he feels and he speaks.”
–Tanya Luhrmann from her presentation from
Bruce and Stan’s Pocketguide to Talking with God.
Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell is the coordinator of the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a $100,000 annual prize given jointly by Louisville Seminary and the University of Louisville for creative ideas that best illuminate the relationship between human beings and the divine. (www.grawemeyer.org)
Louisville Seminary and and Stanford University point out Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford University psychological anthropologist, will receive the prize for the ideas set forth in her 2012 book, “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.” As of this writing Professor Luhrmann says in an email to this Religion Writer regarding her remarks for April, 2014 on receipt of the award that those remarks are not yet ready. “I am delighted to receive the award and I will use it to fuel my further research.”
The Seminary and University of Louisville presents four Grawemeyer Awards each year for outstanding works in music composition, world order, psychology and education. The university and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary jointly give a fifth award in religion. This year’s awards are $100,000 each.
Luhrmann wrote her 2012 book after four years of fieldwork in Chicago and Northern California with Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a church whose members speak in tongues and pray for healing. She observed and interviewed church members and took part in prayer groups, Bible study and weekly worship.
After extensive research, she concluded that the evangelical experience of God involves a sophisticated use of mind cultivated through both individual practice and communal support.
Besides tracing the development of modern evangelical Christianity and showing how questions of belief have changed in contemporary times, Luhrmann applies important theories from psychology and anthropology to explain what happens when evangelicals pray, said award director Shannon Craigo-Snell, a theology professor at the seminary.
“Instead of asking ‘Is God real?’ she asks ‘How does God become real for people?” Craigo-Snell said. “She offers a compelling exploration of religious experience in evangelical communities and a captivating account of prayer as a way of training the mind to experience God.”
Another point made by Professor Luhrmann in her presentation on her book is this statement from the work where a subject describes the getting to know God process:
} “I will set aside times where I’ll have date night with God … Especially when the weather is really nice, and I can go to the park and I can take a subway sandwich with me and just sit there. It’s almost like a conversation then, where we’re talking about His children and we’re talking about what’s going on in my life and what He’s doing in the world, that sort of thing.”
The Professor writes in her notes of her book: Many evangelical Christians have such a personal experience of God that they chat to God about what to do that afternoon. They go for walks with him and cuddle with him. Skeptics find this preposterous. How do we make sense of their behavior?
Professor Shannon Crago-Snell says of Luhrmann’s work: “The book offers a portrayal of how religious practices in some American evangelical communities foster a way of experiencing God. Kind of trains the
human mind to experience God. The book is great fun to read. People who wouldnn’t pour a cup of coffee with God and have a chat with them, who would find this a way different from their own, would find it understandable. Luhrmann presents these practices as very sophisticated theology.
“It’s a really nuanced exploration of contemporary religious practices.”
Written by an anthropologist, this book begins by pointing out that faith is not automatic or hardwired by evolution—that doubt is natural and inevitable, especially in a pluralistic, science-minded society. This vivid God is actually a way of dealing with that doubt. Experiencing this kind of God requires a lot of work, and that work changes people. Evangelical prayer practice can enable those who pray to experience God as a person who interacts with them—and sometimes even speaks audibly. That’s not because they are crazy, but because the way they are learning to do to experience the invisible as real is so effective.
The anthropologist Luhrmann says of the evangelicals: At the same time, they are learning to experience God as real in a different way than tables and chairs. They emphasize paradox and mystery. God becomes “magically” real. That’s also a way of dealing with doubt and it is very, very modern, even though they draw on medieval prayer practices.
The coordinator for the prize is described this way: Craigo-Snell earned degrees (PhD, MPhil, MA, and MDiv) at Yale University and Yale Divinity School. From 2001 to 2011 she taught in the Religious Studies department at Yale University, where she also earned several Yale fellowships and professional research grants. Her students have included undergraduates with diverse religious backgrounds in the secular context of the University; denominationally diverse Divinity School students; and doctoral students in religious studies. These varied contexts have been part of her formation as a constructive theologian.
“My own calling is to be a theologian of, in, and for the church,” she states. “I am called to teach and write in service to the church, thus I am excited about teaching in the seminary setting. Louisville Seminary is a place where I can bring the interdisciplinary scholarship and attention to religious diversity that I have honed in the university into the work of preparing Christians for ministry.”
She adds, “Books are eligible for up to 8 years. It’s the idea for it (that counts).”
How we pick the winner: The prize is jointly administered by the Louisville Seminary, Kentucky and Univerisity of Louisville. This is the religion prize only. The founder believed that ideas can change the world. He had a lot of faith in non-scholars and ordinary people to have good judgment. Books are nominated, then the Univerisiy and Seminary hold a joint committee. Every book is read and books that are considered are read by faculty at each school.
“We will narrow contestants to ten semi-finalists and then invite a committee of three from across the country and they read the works and come to Louisville. We have them hash it out to three finalists. Once to three, the final committee is largely lay readers (librarian, real estate agent, and car salesman—for example). They get the final say.
“The work of the Grawermeyer award is to foster and promote ideas that might change the world.
“He was a member of the board of trustees and knew it well. He gave money for a number of things. Then he said, you know what changes the world: ideas. Why not just a library, or programs that exist. He was a chemical engineer went to U of L and was very frugal his whole life. Very involved in the Church. He and his wife went to Church, volunteered on committees, had a gift for investing, volunteered to do the financing. He decided he would give away all his money at 85. He lived simply. He did not live an extravagant lifestyle.”
The prize was $200,000 but due to the turndown in the economy it went to $100,000.
The announcement of the prize is made in December prior to the Spring when the prize is given in April at the Seminary. The winner will give an address and there is a banquet downtown.
Louisville is where the Banquet will be held.
The prize itself has this history: H. Charles Grawemeyer, industrialist, entrepreneur, astute investor and philanthropist, created the lucrative Grawemeyer Awards at the University of Louisville in 1984. An initial endowment of $9 million funded the awards, which have drawn nominations from around the world.
Grawemeyer distinguished the awards by honoring ideas rather than life-long or publicized personal achievement.
Although the University of Louisville graduate was a chemical engineer by schooling, Grawemeyer cherished the liberal arts and chose to honor powerful ideas in five fields in performing arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.
The first award, Music Composition, was presented in 1985. The award for Ideas Improving World Order was added in 1988 and Education in 1989. In 1990, a fourth award, Religion, was added as a joint prize with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Psychology was added in 2000, with the first award to be given in 2001.
Grawemeyer distinguished the awards by honoring ideas rather than life-long or publicized personal achievement. He also insisted that the selection process for each of the five awards–though dominated by professionals-include one step involving a lay committee knowledgeable in each field. As Grawemeyer saw it, great ideas should be understandable to someone with general knowledge and not be the private treasure of academics.
“To a remarkable extent, he put his personal stamp on the awards, which surely are his shining legacy. They are devoted to the beauty of creativity and the power of great ideas to change the world. The awards incorporate his simple conviction that the judgment of lay persons-not academic experts-ought to be decisive in the selection of award winners. From this day forward, we will honor his memory by doing what he wanted us to do most of all: exalt the life of the mind, consider great ideas, reward creativeness,” said U of L President Donald Swain at Grawemeyer’s funeral in 1993.