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John Wilson


Men, Women, and Imagination

A response to Tanya Luhrmann.

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Tanya Luhrmann's book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God has already generated a good deal of discussion and will continue to do so for a long time to come. (Keep an eye out for a review in the July/August issue of Books & Culture.) It was a pleasure to see a brief piece by Luhrmann posted recently on CT, "Why Women Hear God More Than Men Do." I'd like to respond to that piece here.

Luhrmann's thesis is neatly summarized in the deck for the piece: "To pray, you need to use your imagination. And men of this generation are given few tools to do so." I'm responding because I have a longstanding interest in "imagination": what it is and how we talk about it. I don't know why women pray more than men do, and I am not offering an alternative explanation. But I question Luhrmann's comments about men and imagination.

Luhrmann writes, "I have been researching the way evangelical Christians talk with God and experience prayer as a dialogue in which they talk to God and God talks back." This research is discussed at length in her book. I should mention that only very rarely have I experienced God "talking back" in the way she describes. I don't assume that, because I have not routinely experienced this, the accounts of the believers she has studied are somehow inauthentic; neither do I assume that something is wrong with me. A lifetime in the church has taught me that even within a single stream of the faith—the world of American evangelicalism—there is a wide variety of experience. This is true, in fact, even within a single congregation!

Luhrmann notes that, among the evangelicals she studied, "some people said that they never heard God in this way. They asked people to pray for them in a house group so that they would be able to speak. They made depressed little comments about how they were different from other people. Most of these people were men."

That mention of "depressed little comments" is typical of the human touch that Luhrmann brings to her work. It is good to see such a sensibility joined to a powerful scholarly mind. But her explanation of why these men aren't hearing God in this way strikes me as unsatisfactory.

Luhrmann asserts that "men of our time are—generally speaking—less comfortable with their imaginations than women are." She bases this assessment in part on a psychological test that "measures a person's capacity and interest in being caught up in the imagination." She adds that "[o]ur culture raises men to take less joy in the imagination. Men read fewer novels. They play with children less than women do." She suggests that this has something to do with "the way our culture teaches [men] how to use their minds," concluding that "Christians should nurture men's imaginations, and that this nurturance will help them to pray more readily, and to know God more intimately as God the Father desires."

It seems to me that Luhrmann is operating here with a narrow understanding of "imagination." Imagination is vital to the way human beings, men and women alike, make sense of the world. The work of cognitive psychologists who study the "story-making" proclivities of the mind emphasizes the powerful everyday role of the imagination in our lives.

And of course imagination takes many forms. True, women read a lot more fiction than men do. I happen to be a man who reads a lot of fiction (as well as "nonfiction"). But many other activities in which men participate demand the use of imagination. I do not like to hunt, and I have rarely been hunting. But from my limited experience of hunting, combined with hearing men talking ABOUT hunting and reading some of the literature of hunting, it is clear that hunting is saturated with imagination. Likewise, the appeal of video games depends on imaginative absorption.

And so on. We could go for quite a while in this vein. But apart from enumerating activities in which men routinely exercise imagination, we should acknowledge that imagination is neutral, so to speak: it can be used for benign purposes, and it can just as easily be used for ill. And certainly, while some significant exercise of imagination is fundamental to human nature, it can be cramped or stunted, on the one hand, or encouraged to flourish, on the other.

It is no doubt true that contemporary American culture encourages men and women to use imagination in different ways, apart from differences that may be hard-wired and apart from the basic—and vital—function of imagination for men and women alike. It may also be true that men who were encouraged to cultivate a particular kind of imaginative activity would be more likely to experience God "talking back" to them. (Of course, it would also be possible to remind those men that no one variety of communication is normative for all believers; some speak in tongues, for instance, while many do not.) But it doesn't seem true that, in general, men of this generation are given few tools with which to use their imagination.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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