Last week Tanya Luhrmann, the psychological anthropologist from Stanford, gave back-to-back lectures at Harvard and Boston University. Luhrmann’s latest book, When God Talks Back, is getting a ton of publicity, so this was a bit of a rockstar tour. Except academics are always a bit more tame than rockstars. But it may be unfair to call Luhrmann tame when her past work has tackled modern witches and her current work tries to figure out how evangelical Christians come to perceive God as imminently real and close. In American culture, where taking God seriously is either a taboo or private matter, this sort of research is pretty edgy- maybe not St. Vincent edgy, but edgy nevertheless.
The entry point for Luhrmann’s research is prayer. Like any good academic, she starts by breaking her subject into different types. For Luhrmann there are four different types of prayer: adoration, supplication, thanksgiving, and confession. The writer Anne Lamott captured these categories a little more succinctly: Help, Thanks, Wow. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it captures some of the most typical ways in which people pray.