[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
A woman seriously ill in Norway heard my voice over Radio Luxembourg, the most powerful station in Europe. She couldn’t understand a word of English. Two words stuck in her mind: my name, Oral Roberts. However, she later testified, that there was a power in my voice. Suddenly she sensed I was praying. She felt impelled to rush over to her radio and place her hands upon it. As my voice continued to utter prayer, she felt the surging of God’s power enter her body, and in the flash of a second—she was healed!…I prayed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This prayer was put on Radio Luxembourg in Europe. A woman in Norway, who couldn’t understand a word I was saying, felt God’s power in my voice and was instantly and completely healed. There is no distance in prayer. God was with me in Tulsa when I prayed, was in Luxembourg in Europe when the program was released, was in Norway with the woman who couldn’t understand English. God is everywhere; therefore, there is no distance in prayer. (America’s Healing Magazine, Jan. 1955, Page 2)
Pentecostals often invoke the saying “there is no distance in prayer” to describe the collapsing of physical distance through the performance of prayer. Oral Roberts popularized this phrase on a mass scale during the 1950’s to explain the way that patients could be cured through his performances of healing prayer despite the fact that his actual physical presence remained unavailable to the dispersed magazine, radio, and television audience. On the one hand, this key descriptive phrase is based on the idea that “God is everywhere; therefore, there is no distance in prayer.” This overt theological claim, however, elides the specific circumstances of technological mediation from which this descriptive phrase emerged.
As described by many practitioners of Pentecostal prayer, this negation of physical space between two distanced religious subjects and the concomitant unleashing of healing power is actuated by faith. During these performances of prayer, it is faith that bridges the distance between both the sacred and the everyday, and the patient and healer. This faith, in turn, requires a physical point of contact to enliven the efficacy of the prayer—what Roberts called “turning your faith loose.” This key component to the technique of healing prayer, however, reinscribes the material supplement in the selfsame moment it claims no distance in prayer.
At the very heart of the curative technique, this performance of revelation and concealment discloses the objectile dimension of prayer. The objectile of Pentecostal prayer connotes an irreducible materiality that is necessary for the appearance of faith, yet denied or disavowed during the ritual enactment of healing (hence the term objectile also resonates with the words projectile and abject). As the crucial performative and experiential dimension of prayer, the objectile can neither be attributed to a Pentecostal hypocrisy or anxiety in the face of “things of this world,” nor to an instrumental interpretation that describes the way credulous audience members are duped through the technological artifice of the healer. Instead of these typical explanations, the objectile of prayer suggests that the force or efficacy of the ritual hinges upon this simultaneous revelation and concealment of the material medium. In other words, the objectile is not some anxious appendage or qualification to the performance of prayer, but intrinsic to the organization of ritual efficacy itself.
The concept of ritual efficacy is here limited to a description of the opening or organization of specific experiential frameworks in-and-through the performance of prayer. In this way, the efficacy of prayer emerges from its specific attunements of the senses. This organization of somatic experience, in turn, “heals” or enframes bodily experience, the classification of suffering, and the structures of everyday life in a profoundly different register. The proscriptions that characterize the objectile of prayer “set-up” the religious subject to experience the ritual environment—an environment that emerges, or is structured by material objects and media technologies—in a particularly compelling, perhaps even shocking, way. To deny or dismiss the very medium that is structuring an appearance of sacred presence amplifies the basic sensory experience of technological mediation with an even greater immediacy or actuality. This is not simply a logic of oscillation between two poles, of explicit awareness of the material infrastructure of healing on the one hand, or forgetting on the other, but a doubled awareness, that, like the objectile itself, experiences an excessive presence through the material medium precisely because it is a reproduction. In this ritual milieu, presence becomes doubled—simultaneously immediate and actual within the private space of the home or automobile, yet emerging from a displaced space somewhere else. The objectile of prayer thematizes this doubled awareness of the material infrastructure, and through this ritual performance organizes new experiences of awareness and embodiment.
The ubiquitous phrase “there is no distance in prayer” is thus an implicit commentary on prayer and the production of presence in an age of tele-technology. More specifically, Roberts employed this phrase to describe the millions of written testimonies that claimed to have experienced the “presence” of Roberts himself in their private domestic spaces through the mediation of radio, television, and magazine. As in the account of the Norwegian woman healed through radio prayer, this experience of ritual presence often reverberates before or beneath the circuitry of representation. Here the radio is not merely a passive medium for the transmission of a discrete religious message, but an apparatus of faith that enlivens the voice with a presence in excess of any stable informational content. Even more than this, the machinations of the radio “loudspeaker” (truly speaking in tongues at this moment!) allows the religious subject to experience the vibrations of prayer entering through the hand and resounding throughout the body. As a crucial objectile in the technological history of prayer, the radio apparatus was interfaced with the healing performance and a new form of ritual efficacy was organized in the late modern world.