[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.]
Underneath the massive cloth architecture of Oral Roberts’ canvas cathedral, the “world’s first healing film” was screened for a crusade audience of over 10,000 on September 29th, 1952. Venture Into Faith is a compilation of actual archival footage shot earlier that year during a healing crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, woven seamlessly into highly produced scenes recorded in a Hollywood studio. The climax of the film, for example, features the miraculous cure of a tubercular boy named David through a performance of prayer. Although the actual performance of this healing prayer was performed by Oral Roberts and a group of professional actors, the final edited version of this spectacle of divine communication oscillates between “live” archival footage shot during a healing campaign and rehearsed “acting” recorded under the careful orchestration of a Hollywood director (1:23:39 in film).
Note for instance the cut to the archival footage of the synchronized movement of the crowd underneath the tent made to directly coincide with the lifting of the patient onto the healing platform, as if the expectant crowd were following the movement of the sick child into intimate proximity to the healer. Through the zooming capacities of the camera and the editing process, the film attempts to collapse the distance between the simultaneous movements of the crowd and the ritual positioning between the patient and the healer. With these cinematic techniques, the audience members viewing the film are themselves solicited to participate in this spectacle of prayer.
In addition to this effervescent sympathy with the movements of the crowd, the cinematic audience is also called into a mimetic participation with the bodily contact during the performance of prayer. While Roberts commands the “foul tuberculosis” to “come out” in an importunate tone of voice, his right “hand of discernment” presses aggressively against the chest of the patient. As the quickened hand of the healer extirpates the illness from the chest cavity (it is important to keep in mind that the etiology of illness in these days of the charismatic revival was explicitly associated with the presence of demons) the sensitive capacities of the microphone amplifies the visceral thumping sounds of Roberts hand so that it resounds within the chests of the cinematic viewers as well. Through the prosthetic organs of the cinema environment, the audience is able to enter into a tactile participation with the performance of prayer.
Among other things, the mimetic sympathies organized through these techniques of cinema invites a new analysis of prayer that moves beyond questions about whether or not those engaged in the performance of prayer are “faking it.” More specifically, the clear, upfront, and never concealed cinematic blurring of the boundaries between mere acting and sincere performance in Venture Into Faith challenges us to describe and theorize the efficacy of prayer in terms of sensory attunements and experiential organizations that subsist and circulate well beyond the interiorities either of “belief” or intention. After its premiere in 1952, Venture Into Faith became one of the most important instruments of missionization for the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association. The world’s “first healing film” has been screened for millions of spectators throughout the globe, and continues to generate testimonies of conversion and miraculous healing. Its challenge for us as theorists of the materialities of religious phenomena is to articulate the film’s proliferation of a performance and experience of healing prayer which is, already in the film, clearly portrayed as being both “real” and “acted.”