Essays & Exchanges

October 9, 2013

Connective Implications of the Material Holy

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Praying with the Senses,” Sonja Luehrmann’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

In the “Praying with the Senses” prayer portal, seven scholars investigating Eastern Orthodoxy offer essays on the sensory aspects of prayer and devotionalism, highlighting how the modalities of prayer affect its efficacy. This portal also allows for reflection and questioning about the role of haptic and visual encounters with the sacred during prayer, about the relational and communal ties between the socio-religious networks of Orthodox Christians—both living and celestial—and about how these encounters and bonds affect the identities of practitioners in corporate and individual ways.


September 30, 2013

To Pray with the Tables and with the Chairs

[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.]

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Part I in an ocasional series by Don Seeman on the materiality of Jewish prayer.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the so-called Alter Rebbe, or founding teacher of the Chabad movement, was once asked to explain to his students how he prays. He is said to have responded, “I pray with the table and with the chairs.” When I first heard this story many years ago, I assumed he meant merely to say that he prayed with great intensity, so that the tables and chairs shook with his fervor. Anyone who has seen Orthodox Jews engrossed in speaking to their Creator while bowing and shaking in constant motion—shuckling, as it is sometimes known in English— will know what I had in mind. I was more wrong than right though, because I underestimated the central importance of tables and chairs and the whole world of mundane materiality to Hasidic prayer. Far from being merely a backdrop or a disturbance to the pursuit of pure spirituality, it is precisely the material world that serves as the setting and telos of Hasidic prayer, whose ultimate agenda is to render—or better, to reveal—this mundane space we inhabit as a fitting habitation for divinity, or what they call dirah ba-tachtonim, “a home in the nether regions.” But what does all this have to do with tables and chairs?

The Chabad movement began to take hold in the Jewish communities of White Russia and Lithuania more than two hundred years ago and has developed today into an important global network of “emissaries” and spiritual entrepreneurs devoted to the promotion of Hasidic ideals and practice in every conceivable format and context. In its origins though, the movement was premised on intensive forms of contemplative study and prayer designed to transform human beings by focusing not on the emotions like other Hasidic groups, but on the intellect. The term Chabad itself is a Hebrew acronym for “wisdom, understanding, knowledge,” which represent the cognitive faculties targeted by these practices. Interesting comparisons with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have recently been advanced. Active contemplation of paradoxes like the coincidence of divine immanence and transcendence helped to fill the mind of the worshipper with divine light, which alone could offer lasting transformation of human affect and ultimately, it was to be hoped, of human practice and existential condition as well. (more…)

September 25, 2013

Wayside Crosses—Objects that Reveal and Conceal

[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.]

*   *   *

“I forget,” said Jean-Marc. He knit his eyebrows and thought, “Actually, now that you ask me…” I waited, expecting a clarification, a long-buried recollection“I never knew. I never thought to ask.”

There are about 3,000 croix de chemin (wayside crosses) along the byways of rural Quebec. People like Jean-Marc tend to them each summer: painting, restoring, cleaning, weeding and watering the gardens at their base. Like many caretakers, Jean-Marc refers to the cross he maintains as “his.” It was erected by his grandfather in 1948 and has been on the family land for three generations. It is the materialization of a prayer, the “tangible architecture,” as Anderson Blanton puts it, of a vow. It was in this context that I posed the question to which Jean-Marc responded above: Why did your grandfather put it up? What was the vow?

In general terms, most of Quebec’s wayside crosses were constructed to mark or commemorate an event, as a gathering place for families in a rang, to fulfill a vow or to secure future protection. (A rang, literally “a row,” is a rural grouping of houses strung out in a line, usually a few kilometers long, based on the seigneurial system.) The details can be hard to come by. In the 1970s, a survey of over 2,500 crosses found that in at least 62% of cases no one knew why a cross had been erected, though it was quite recent, usually within a generation. In many other cases, the reason was vague (“a vow, I think”) with no defining details. Jean-Marc’s response, in other words, is typical. While the object is carefully maintained and recreated, the stories that cling to it, the original prayer-stories that impelled its construction, are often lost.


September 24, 2013

Prayer as Resistance

Historically, prayer has been used as an effective weapon to resist oppression. Here I wish to share two examples of Dalits using prayer as resistance against caste oppression in Kerala, India.

The first case in point took place on February 10, 1937, in the village Thurithikkara, located in the Quilon district of Kerala where the Salvation Army was actively working among the Dalits. In this village, the Dalits were not allowed to take water from either the common water supply sources or from the landlords’ wells. The Dalits in the village had just one well, which had dried up in the summer.

It was in this context that one Dalit family faced a serious problem of water scarcity on the occasion of the marriage of their son. A person had dug a well in a nearby paddy field, and this Dalit family requested permission to use his water. He allowed the Dalit family to draw water from his well for the wedding. However, they had to walk through property owned by another upper caste landlord, a Nair, to reach the well in the paddy field. Seeing Dalits crossing his property for water, the landlord rushed to the spot with his men and drove the Dalits off his property, depriving them of easy access to water. The disheartened and sorrow-stricken people then approached their empty, dried up well, and began to pray.


September 20, 2013

Prayer, Pentecostalism, and the Political: Renewing the Public Square?

What does Pentecostalism have to do with the public square or the political? One might think, initially, perhaps not much: classical Pentecostals have by and large been apolitical, although more often than not such postures have been nurtured less by pentecostal spirituality and commitments than by eschatological ideas derived from dispensationalist theologies otherwise inimical, ironically, to the idea that the Holy Spirit’s charismatic and miraculous work has continued unabated after the age of the apostles. But as people of the book, Pentecostals do adhere to the New Testament injunctions to pray for their governments and political leaders. In political environments in which they are a minority, often this takes on the form of urging divine intervention that makes possible ongoing pentecostal mission and especially local evangelism. In liberal democratic societies, however, especially those which at least in theory support the freedom of religion, pentecostal growth has precipitated other political possibilities and aspirations and hence also nurtured other types of prayer regarding the public domain.


September 18, 2013

Master Yang’s Lingering Power

This summer I visited Mianning County (Liangshan Yizu Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, S.W. China, only 80 kilometers outside of Xichang, the capital of the Prefecture). On a beautiful mountain, called Lingshan (灵山 or Magic Mountain), one finds a huge temple visited by tens of thousands of devotees during the pilgrimage season. To get to the temple one has to climb the mountain or travel on a mule. As is typical in China, during the climb one passes several temples in a row. The first displays a huge statue of the fat, laughing Budai; there are several other Buddhist temples until one comes to the highest level where there is only a simple shrine with a little statue and the portrait of a Daoist Saint who lived there in the eighteenth century. This is Master Yang (杨祖师爷) who was born in 1748 and died in 1804, and whose body was once kept there in a mummified state until Red Guards removed and destroyed it during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. According to the abbot, Master Yang’s ashes and bones are kept somewhere else, but it is unclear when they will be brought to the temple as relic. There is a huge investment in the temple, running into millions of dollars, which according to the abbot comes entirely from devotees. The remarkable thing, however, is that the investment is going into building a Buddhist temple, while devotees come only for the shrine of Master Yang who will fulfill all wishes. They bring huge incense josh sticks and burn them in rows.


September 12, 2013

Lost in Translation

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

One difference between my prayer research and other lines of research I do is the audience I have for the work, even as it is being completed. Because the prayer work is funded through the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, I share it with my NDSP working group which includes people from many disciplines, with the strongest representation being anthropologists. Because I am collaborating with my former mentor on the work, I discuss all the findings with him. Finally, because the things that I am finding are so intriguing and out of my comfort zone, I am also seeking the council of my religious leader.

You would think that talking to my Rabbi about my research would be the most stressful and odd conversation, but it is not. Hands down, the most stressful and odd conversations are within the SSRC working group.

Why? I am not completely sure, but I am guessing it is due to how completely and fundamentally different our disciplines are. This is odd considering how much we appear to share on the surface. You might think, “Well, you both study the interaction of people and culture, surely that couldn’t be more similar?” Ah, I once thought that myself. Then I engaged in conversations with anthropologists about my work (and theirs). If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then psychologists are from the entire universe and anthropologists are from one small house, in one small village, with only one kind of person living there.


September 11, 2013

What Justifies Faith in Interdisciplinary Work?

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Imagine you feel that something is seriously wrong with your heart. Do you seek the help of a cardiovascular specialist or a general practitioner? In this situation nearly everyone chooses the specialist. When our lives are at stake, we don’t much care whether our physician knows a little bit about everything. We care mostly that they know a lot about what threatens our survival. If they can quote Shakespeare, we might invite them to our holiday parties. But we pay for their specialized knowledge.

In academia today, acquiring expertise in most disciplines requires years of specialization, a pursuit of deep knowledge that escapes generalism’s superficiality. The entangling curiosity some of us carry—an interest in anything and everything—is a curse on discovery, up to a point (or passed one). Broad interests are often fatal to the advancement of knowledge. The literature within most disciplines expands now at a pace much faster than the expansion of our life spans. Much of that work is barely worth a glance. But sifting through it to find the gems, or accumulating piles of wisdom from so many little nuggets—this takes so much time. Most disciplines pour out gigabytes of data every day, leaving little time for specialists to explore anything beyond the boundaries of familiar fields. (And as long as we continue pulling our old publication plows into a digital age, oblivious to new conditions, our work gets even more difficult.)


September 10, 2013

Transcending Universalism and Particularism

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Charles Hirschkind asks, “Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal attributes or faculties?” Like a good academic, I won’t directly answer this but will instead start by questioning the question itself.

We might first question the intellectualist stance that compels us to want to find universalisms or, on the contrary, to view all phenomena as results of particular historical traditions or “life-worlds.” This conversation is perhaps an exercise in examining our own theoretical stances, disciplinary assumptions, and social positionalities that compel us toward one of these two paths. But is there not a third way, a transcendent way, to understand our work? After all, both universalism and its opposite have been associated with dark periods in the histories of our disciplines (in other words, support for imperial and racializing projects and logic).

My own theoretical starting point leads me to insist that there’s always a latent politics behind what we study. Awareness of this is a crucial step. The problem is that it’s not at all clear whether our studies of prayer (and their approach to the question of universal attributes) will promote or undermine the political projects we seek. This complicates the question even further.


September 9, 2013

The Universal and the Particular

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Academic disciplines are not only about ways of thinking but are also about habits of the heart and mind. It is this existential dimension of our respective intellectual formations that seems to me to be most at stake in discussions between cognitive scientists, on the one hand, and humanists and social scientists on the other, at least in my brief experience of such discussions in the context of the New Dimensions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) project. Having been trained in one way of knowing it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. There is an analogy to prayer practice here. Many Southern Baptists, for instance, probably find it nearly impossible to think of the recitation of the Hail Mary as an authentic way of praying, just as older Catholics may say that addressing God conversationally in everyday speech is not praying. These are deeply embodied habits of heart and mind. Maybe the place to go for conceptual assistance in working through the seemingly intractable epistemological and methodological divide between cognitive scientists and humanists/social scientists is ecumenical theology.

But surely once we acknowledge the power of our respective academic formations, to return to the matter at hand, we can take a step back and acknowledge that whatever we are trying to understand about humans (probably all mammals, maybe all living beings, but I do not feel confident saying so) always involves both the universal and the particular. My discussions with Jonathan Lane in the NDSP meetings have greatly enriched the questions I ask about the relationships among survivors of clerical sexual abuse, their families, and God. Talking with Jonathan made me pay attention to the fact that the question of what is going on in other people’s—and in God’s—minds is a highly charged and often very painful one for survivors of clerical sexual abuse. Exploring this issue is a matter both of understanding the human mind at work on the world in this particular social and religious context. How is this inquiry not enriched by both social scientific/humanist and cognitive science perspectives?


September 6, 2013

Getting Knowledge Out of Disciplinary Silos

 [Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

The dialogue composed by Charles Hirschkind captures a key challenge for our New Directions in the Study of Prayer meetings and virtually all Social Science Research Council-type projects. In order to land a typical job in the academy, you need to have some sort of disciplinary home. But as any reader of Stephen King’s Misery can attest, a home can become a prison.

Sometimes the metaphor is shifted slightly and the challenge is referred to as a matter of “intellectual silos,” highlighting the tendency to gather and guard one’s disciplinary fodder in what is perceived to be a safely personal, private environment. While there are different kinds of silos with distinct purposes in the life of a farm (that’s for a different blog!), a commonality is that what is put into silos is generally meant to be taken out in a relatively short span of time. If you don’t follow this guideline you can end up with an amazingly pungent aroma that permeates clothing and skin more deeply than soap can cleanse. The situation is not so very different in the academy.


September 5, 2013

Does Prayer Have a History?

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Perhaps this is presumptuous to ask. But it’s an important question, which the interlocutors in Charles Hirschkind’s engaging dialogue broach only indirectly.

The representatives of Culture and Cognition worry about relativism: Does the study of prayer in a particular time and place allow us to say anything interesting about religion as a universal phenomenon? The actors in Hirschkind’s play fret over cultural differences. But just how far apart are the differences?

Not far enough, perhaps.

If measurements of brain function in two different cultural contexts are the same, do the measurements mean the same thing? Do identical measurements prove an identity between prayer in both contexts? Do they show that prayer is understood, practiced, or appreciated in the same ways? Or that it has the same significance? Do they teach us something important about religion? If so (to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre), whose religion? And which culture?


September 5, 2013

Cognition and Culture Addendum

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

And we pick up where the conversation about cognition and culture has seemingly reached an impasse . . .

Mr. Romantic Poet: This is madness, I say! Apples and oranges! Science is not a singular thing. A science of life should be neither instrumental nor disembodied. Whatever prayer is it is much more than cognitive mechanics. And it is much more than a cultural conceit. And science worth its name accounts for what lies between the observer and the prayers under observation.

Mr. C: OK, then. (Annoyed.) But please, please, stop with the loops.

Ms. S-C: Go on Mr. Romantic Poet. (A sense of relief and hue of hope in her tone.) You have been awfully quiet during this debate. It sounds like you have something important to say.

Mr. R-P: Maybe. But the whole discussion is making my headache worse. You are all talking as I sit here in pain. But I go on thinking. I have a body. I think. I think I have a body. It moves of its own accord. It rarely acknowledges me. It does not ask my permission. Its processes are largely obscure. And, of course, those processes will one day stop. I admit that my neuro-bio-physio normativity is severe. Indeed, one might call me falsely conscious! I never took the MCAT and I believe that a mother’s touch can work wonders. I feel better when I stretch. My head hurts when I drink too much the night before.


September 4, 2013

A Letter from Mr. and Mrs. Historian

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Dear Ms. Social-Cultural, dear Mr. Cognitive:

We were intrigued to learn about your quarrel, and it reminded us of arguments we’ve had since we got involved in a new pursuit called the “History of Emotions.” We have both become quite passionate about studying the fine art of blushing in Victorian Britain or the question whether or not Native Americans on their vision quests felt as abject as the texts of their songs suggest, or if the songs were just to make the spirits pity them. We love finding texts and images in archives and libraries and inferring structures of feeling from them.

But once in a while, one of us catches what we call the “cognition bug.” He or she asks why we bother to write about different regions and epochs when human emotions are all based in physiology and neurology, and best studied through brain scans and controlled clinical trials. Old married couple that we are, this bug alternates between us. Whichever one of us doesn’t have it at a given moment tries to cheer up the one who does. Lately, we have found solace in a 2013 book on the history of emotions by German historian Ute Frevert, entitled Vergängliche Gefühle (“Fleeting Feelings”). The main thesis of the book is that, though there may be a physiological basis to human emotions and their expression (Victorian ladies were not the only ones who expressed shame through blushing) different emotions are emphasized and elaborated upon in different times and places. Feminine modesty may be praised and valued in one historical milieu, ridiculed in another. As Frevert puts it: “It is one thing to localize feelings in particular regions of the brain and to measure them, another to experience them consciously. Experience requires naming and designating.” Emotion-terms, she points out, play their part in shaping the experience of being angry or happy, and they bring with them conventional ways of expressing the emotion and acting as someone who is delighted, angry, or afraid. Across times and cultures, people have been considered more prone to experience certain emotions based on their gender, age, class, orethnic origin.


September 3, 2013

Strange Bedfellows

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

In Charles Hirschkind’s clever and disarming piece, he gives most of the good lines to Mr. Cognitivist, who could well be one of my colleagues—or me. But oddly enough, I find myself siding with Ms. Social-Cultural.

Mr. C is right to insist on the reality of polio; my own favorite example in these sorts of realist vs. relativist debates (which often occur in my seminars, as they usually include several smart undergraduates from the humanities) is dinosaurs. Who would deny that dinosaurs once existed, and that their existence is a real discovery—not an invention!—by paleontologists? Of course, these paleontologists were influenced by cognitive and motivational biases—some innate, some cultural, some idiosyncratic. Of course, our understanding of the world is never direct; there are “normative interpretive grids,” paradigms, cognitive shortcuts, and so on. Maybe it’s even true that one’s science is affected by being a man or a woman (a popular view these days) or by being a Gentile or a Jew (less fashionable, for obvious reasons). But despite all of this, scientists do discover things; the methods of science can capture objective reality, and, outside the seminar room, every rational person accepts this. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.”

So I agree with Mr. C here. But it’s not clear who he is arguing against; it’s hardly obvious that Ms. S-C would deny this sort of common-sense realism. She never comes out and says that polio doesn’t exist, just that polio has been “constructed,” which can be charitably taken as a valid epistemological point, not a radical metaphysical one. Not all humanists are characters out of a David Lodge novel.


September 3, 2013

An Interjection from Ms. Socio-Cultural-Cognitive

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Thanks, Charles Hirschkind, for your clever approach to the complicated conversational thread running through the New Directions in the Study of Prayer group meetings. As a developmental psychologist who takes a socio-cultural approach to studying cognitive development, I’m not sure whether I should take the position of Ms. Socio-Cultural or Ms. Cognitive in your hypothetical conversation. But from my perspective there is common ground to be found if we start from the perspective of building and creating knowledge together from the strengths of different disciplinary methods. How boring if we all took the same approach. So I’ve added an additional scholar to your conversation:

Ms. Socio-Cultural-Cognitive (S-C-C): Now hold on the both of you. I think we can find some common ground here. The hypothesis that humans have universal processes at our disposal for engaging in and with the vast and complex social and cultural systems in which we grow up and exist can be either confirmed or disconfirmed through careful experimental research. Researchers are conducting these studies around the world as we speak. Mr. C’s research is a very fine example of this kind of experimental research.

Mr. C: Thank you. And I agree that my research is very interesting and important.


September 3, 2013

Cognition and Culture, at it Again!

[Editor’s Note: This essay inaugurates a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer.]

Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties? Some of the disagreements that have emerged among New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees in our group discussions would seem to pivot on how we answer this question. The dialogue, as I have heard it so far, goes something like this (I leave it to the grantees and other discussants to extend and/or correct it):

Ms. Social-Cultural: You cognitivists do not reflect sufficiently on the normative assumptions (drawn from American folk understandings) that inform your methodologies and theoretical models. In failing to do so, your work uncritically discovers and validates those norms.

Mr. Cognitive: Okay, let’s say you are right to some extent, that our work embeds certain cultural assumptions (a problem which your theoretical reflexivity, we have been told, exempts you from). Be that as it may, the patterns of thought, perception, and experience which our analyses reveal nonetheless tell us something about human cognition. It may be difficult to free our interpretations of that something from our cultural biases, but not intractably so. Indeed, the point of our experimental methodologies is to reveal patterns not recognizable within, or reducible to our normative interpretive grids, so as to better understand the structuring force of our human cognitive equipment.

S-C Chorus: There is no neutral interpretive standpoint from which you can vouchsafe your claims. Whatever you discover and describe, you do so in accord with the protocols, concepts, and moral norms of the specific field of inquiry you work within, a point made by Thomas Kuhn years ago and confirmed by every half sane scholar ever since!


August 29, 2013

The New Name? It’s a Prayer!

“Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, KJV).

In African Pentecostal circles, a lively and contentious debate about the meaning and ramifications of this passage persists. While there is general consensus on the spiritual renovation that a new member of the body of Christ is expected to undergo, understandings of and attitudes toward the ‘old’ traditions and ways of life vary. How should a ‘born-again’ dress, for instance? What kinds of places, or even food and drinks, must she avoid? What should be the attitude of the Christian towards non-Christians? Finally, how should a born-again Christian negotiate the ‘old’ cultural regimen to which Christianity is supposed to stand in normative opposition? In reality, the Nigerian Christian (and this is particularly true of the Yoruba Christian) is in continual negotiation with the two worlds, creatively balancing the desiderata of Christianity with the strictures of oro ile, or ‘traditional’ ritual.


August 27, 2013

Praying Angry

I discovered during my first conversation with adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse that the study of “prayer” in this context presents highly charged questions of language and definition. The group I was meeting with had been affiliated in the early 1990s with the Linkup, a national organization based in Chicago that offered spiritual support for survivors who were coming forward to tell their stories publicly. Many of the survivors at the first Linkup meetings were just beginning to acknowledge to themselves that they had been abused. The Linkup, which also worked with survivors’ families, was founded by two women, one whose son had been abused by a Chicago priest, the other a highly regarded director of religious education in the diocese who was permanently blacklisted for her efforts in having this priest removed from contact with children. (He was eventually convicted and imprisoned; she was unable ever to work again as a religious educator in the church.) The Linkup has since disbanded but the group has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years.


August 8, 2013

Punk Prayer and Passionate Friendship

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

The punk singer Patti Smith learned to say her prayers when she was a child, and she was still saying them forty years later, the night her friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe died in a hospital room in New York City. Smith was at home outside Detroit. “I drew the blanket over the baby in her crib, kissed my son as he slept, then lay down beside my husband and said my prayers,” she writes. “He is still alive, I remember whispering.” These are simple observations, but what Smith has to say about prayer in Just Kids, her memoir of Mapplethorpe and herself and their emergence together as artists in the late 60s, is anything but simple. A Jehovah’s Witness as a child, Smith is a famously blasphemous singer who declared in the first line of her first album “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” and punctuated a recitation of Psalm 23 in her song “Privilege (Set Me Free)” with “oh damn, goddamn, goddamn.” Yet she has written a book that is as much about prayer as about a passionate friendship—or, better, about passionate friendship conceived through prayer.


August 5, 2013

Street Prayer, Ramadan, and the Burqa: Secularism à la Française

France may have gone on holidays for the summer but public disquiet about laws banning street prayer by Muslims, and the full-face covering veil known as the niqab or burqa, has not abated.

On the eve of the traditional July vacation departure, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen received a burst of publicity as the European Union parliament voted to strip her legal immunity.

The decision paves the way for a long-awaited prosecution in France of the extremist politician, who is also a Member of the European Parliament, on charges of racial hatred.

In 2010 Le Pen notoriously compared Muslims praying in French streets—outlawed since 2011 under laws brought in by former president Nicolas Sarkozy—to the Nazi occupation.


July 24, 2013

Norman Corwin’s Radio Prayer

When Norman Corwin died two years ago this fall at the age of 101, we lost a man who not only was perhaps the most famous writer ever to be forgotten because of the medium he chose, but also an early practitioner of the oddest of modern artforms: the non-sectarian prayer.

For those of us who in the past twenty years have come to spend our waking lives with eyes fixed on glowing screens, it may be difficult to remember that there was an earlier refocusing of our culture’s collective attention that was no less revolutionary. A radio scribe who once was a household name, Corwin once described the technology he used with a phrase that today could be applied to any of the gadgets that make possible our digitally connected world: “the miracle, worn ordinary now.”

When he wrote those words, it had been just nine years since a majority of Americans began to welcome voices from beyond into their homes, less than twenty since the earliest regional “radio-phonic” transmissions, and already it seemed perfectly natural for families to sit for hours in their living rooms, ears titled toward the hearth of a talking wooden box.


July 10, 2013

Should Atheists Pray?

A recent Room for Debate discussion in The New York Times (to which I contributed, along with Hemant Mehta, Rev. Joy J. Moore, Hal Taussig, and Deepak Chopra) began with this question and it elicited the anticipated wide range of responses. Reading through the comments prompted some additional thoughts.

It is important to clarify that whether or not you think atheists should pray, the fact is that people who are atheists already say that they do pray. Other atheists say this is impossibly deviant behavior and chastise those praying atheists for being so unorthodox. What this reveals is the great diversity (and potential for internal conflict) inherent in claiming the label of “atheist” for oneself. Richard Dawkins noted this some time ago when he suggested just how diverse atheism can be based on the perceived probability of God’s existence.

Just what are these atheists actually doing by praying? From their comments, it appears that their prayers range anywhere from “God, if you’re actually there, then give me a sign” to simple moments of reflective silence. The former resemble typical prayers that have a theistic focus; the latter are closely related to non-theistic meditation. In other words, prayer practices – whether those of an atheist or a believer, have strong functional similarities. Since the prayer habits of theistic believers are so pervasively known and evident in the American context, it is not surprising that the pattern of expression could be adapted by non-theists.


July 9, 2013

#religion: Re-enchanting ourselves with the Intimate Infinite

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a collective force sprang into action. This group gathered to express their grief, to share their memories, and to discuss how to best respond to the tragedy. They sorted out who was missing and who had been found among the victims. They organized vigils, raised funds, and coordinated hospital visits to the injured.

Up until about 15 years ago, such a group would have gathered in a church or other religious space to perform all of those functions. The primary gathering node for communal coordination for the past three millennia has been religious spaces. But this particular group did not gather in a church. They gathered online—in many online locations but most prominently under a Twitter hashtag: #prayforboston.

Does our ability to come together online now make obsolete the space religion has traditionally provided for communal gathering?

Said differently, if I can #prayforboston, why would I need to pray for Boston?


July 8, 2013

Friendship Renders the Sacred Real

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

For many of the artists and intellectuals working in mid-twentieth-century Paris, there was no topic more captivating than that of sacred presence. The public lectures of Henri Bergson had awakened the idea that experiential contact with what he called l’Absolu was indeed possible, and despite the skepticism emanating from the nearby Sorbonne, this prospect was thrilling. Some went on to write about their own inner lives, like Raïssa Maritain whose extraordinary Journal recounts thirty years of locutions and visions, and eventually, a sense of actually incorporating the person of Christ into her own body and soul. Others, like the writer Charles Péguy and the theologian Henri de Lubac, perceived powerful spiritual experiences from ancient sources. So they transcribed, translated, and read them aloud to friends, over and over, hoping to recapture something of it for themselves.

Here in this portal and elsewhere, Robert Orsi’s writing on prayer as relationship turns our attention away from the familiar tools we rely on when we analyze sacred presence– familiar tools like interiority, or even the disciplining power of social norms. He helps us see how the sacred is made real only through the personal spheres of intimacy that happen always within, and alongside, the more diffuse networks of discursive and non-discursive power. This is a shift. We’re not trained to see personal bonds as having much scholarly weight. Constance Furey also writes about powerfully this: “For scholars of religion, things like friendship seem ‘not quaint exactly, but not essential either.’”


June 27, 2013

Thoughts on People, Spirits, and Things

Professor Ebenezer Obadare’s article provides a welcome addition to social science discussions on materiality, mobility, and religiosity. These discussions come in many forms, move in different directions, and weave their way through many recent concerns and theoretical turns. His proposal—vehicular religiosities—promises much, and usefully highlights one arena of material-religiosity-on-the-move that has received surprisingly little attention in Africa. Surprisingly, I say, because “vehicular religiosities” are some of the most striking features of African urbanity today. Obadare is clearly onto something, and not just in West Africa.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I have worked for many years, one cannot but be struck—seduced, actually—by the constant swarm of brightly-painted, smoke-billowing, decibel-generating minibuses called daladala. These vehicles are often adorned with religious icons inside and out; bear banners like “In God we Trust”; and are heavily-loaded not just with passengers and goods, but also with manifold spiritual rules and prayers that (hopefully) keep them on the road and turning a tidy profit. All the more so for long-haul buses, which move people and their stuff at breathtaking speeds between Tanzania’s urban centres and far-flung villages across the nation. These buses are marvelous, baroque creations, vested with hyper-excesses of air horns and flashing lights, blaring music and shimmering logos—”God Bless Us,” “Over the Top,” “Praise the Lord,” “Voice of Allah”—all exquisitely-painted, top to bottom, with everything from ocean scenery to Tanzanian shillings to Jesus.


June 24, 2013

The Catholic 17% and Modernity's Other Ways

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

One of the more fascinating findings of the huge “Catholics in America” survey—conducted in 2011 for the fifth time by Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio and his team—concerns the Roman doctrine of real presence.

Robert Orsi, in this artwork of a portal on prayer, and in Between Heaven and Earth (2006)—speaks of real presence, too. Orsi deals much less with the Roman doctrine and much more with the Catholic cosmos, woven of relationship between seen and unseen beings. But in his curation, the one gestures toward the other. Doctrine and cosmos become two more presences in relationship, like a rosary and hands.

Officially, real presence undergirds the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, asserting since a 1551 Council of Trent document that the “body and blood,” “soul and divinity” of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially contained” in the sacrament.

Unofficially, real Catholics vary in their knowledge and belief about real presence. The survey found that about half of U.S. Catholics know the official teaching, and half do not. Of the half who know it, about 90 percent believe it. So, that translates to about 46 percent of all survey respondents.


June 6, 2013

Walking Prayer

[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.]

Prayer Walk: Praying for the Heart of Hamilton

This Saturday from 12:00pm to 2:00pm, you’re invited to walk through the city to pray for renewal, reconciliation, and restoration to the glory of God. Folks will gather at Offerings Prayer Ministry on Main Street, go out in pairs or small groups to walk and pray, and then meet back up at Offerings to discuss the experience. For more details, check out the Facebook Event page.

 Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can serve our city, and it’s one of our core values. We’ve taught on prayer, its power, and specifically how you can be praying for one another, The Village, and all the people of Hamilton. If you’re available for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon, grab a friend or group of friends and head into the city to pray for God to move among his people.

I received this invitation in March 2011, the feature in an email newsletter. The invitation’s source was The Village, an evangelical church that began in October 2009 in the small post-industrial city of Hamilton, Ohio. The Village is a theologically conservative, non-denominational congregation affiliated with the church planting network, Acts 29. In step with the majority of the nearly 400 other Acts 29 churches, The Village seeks to be “city-focused.” Elsewhere, I have explored the emerging pattern of re-urbanizing evangelicals who are moving against the grain of 20th century evangelical suburbanization. One of The Village’s founding documents was their “Vision for the City of Hamilton” statement, which includes this imperative: “Love for the City. We want the residents of Hamilton to love this city, and we want the residents of other cities to know we love the city. This means that we’ll take on the burdens of the city and work for its good, because what’s good for Hamilton is good for us.”

As the newsletter invitation suggests, one strategy for loving Hamilton and taking on its burdens is to organize regular prayer walks throughout the city. In a secular liberal frame, this might not seem like any kind of actual strategy. As Kevin O’Neill observed of neo-Pentecostal citizenship in Guatemala, disappointment lurks when secularized expectations size up religious projects. Here, what can prayer do to combat the ravages of de-industrialization and urban disinvestment? Obviously, The Village operates in a different frame, one in which prayer is transformative. But, the power attributed to prayer is not the only thing to observe. We must also account for the kind of prayer we are dealing with. Namely, walking prayer is the kind of prayer that makes little sense outside of its materiality, and exemplifies the need to theorize prayer outside of “a history of abstraction.”


May 31, 2013

The Muslim Xbox

A machine that I’ve taken to calling “Pray Pray Revolution” stands out, among hundreds of other prayer systems and devices described in patent applications, due to its inventor’s precisian approach to ritual movement. In 2009 Wael Abouelsaadat, a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, filed an application for an interactive prayer system with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His system for “enhancing prayer” has three key components. First, it has a prayer rug equipped with force sensors and vibrating motors. This pressure-sensitive pad registers when and in precisely what order a user’s knees, hands and forehead touch the ground. Second, the system comes equipped with a camera that takes digital photographs of the user in motion. Through a posture detection technique involving the use of geometric modeling tools, a software program establishes a kinematic model of his or her bodily poses. Finally, this system also features a screen that coordinates the display of scriptural passages—in the original script of revelation or liturgy, as well as in transliteration and translation—with the performance of particular gestures of prayer.

Abouelsaadat’s invention may seem unremarkable to a generation of gamers and engineers familiar with Konami’s video game Dance Dance Revolution and, more pertinently, Microsoft’s innovative motion-sensing device for its Xbox 360 video-game console, Kinect. From a technological perspective, it is indeed a fairly straightforward application of recent innovations. What I find remarkable, however, is the fact that Abouelsaadat approaches ritualized prayer from an engineer’s perspective as a modern problem that can be solved by modern technology. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to schedule ritual,” he claims, “with the rapid life pace of the modern world.” Laypersons lack the knowledge and skills to perform prayer movements correctly and in perfect synchrony with the recitation of apt formulas derived from sacred texts. They want to “customize their ritual experience with minimum time spent in educating themselves.” His praying machine would in particular provide Muslims pressed for time but eager to learn how to pray perfectly with the necessary technological assistance.


May 20, 2013

There is No Distance in Prayer

[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. 


May 14, 2013

Prayer and Presence in Unexpected Places

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

When I was a doctoral student many years ago, Bob Orsi insisted I pay attention to sacred presences in the Pagan rituals I was studying. As a student trained in a field still coming to terms with its theological past, I had not been looking for real presence. Practices and gestures, social relationships and structures: I thought these were the important elements of ritual worthy of my consideration. But Bob has consistently made us aware of what historians of religion and other religious studies scholars have so pointedly ignored. His prayer portal, “Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity,” helped me to reconsider the ways in which prayer is transposed from religious traditions like Catholicism into the unexpected places that I study: backyards where Neopagans raised Catholic pray to statues of the Madonna, who is nestled next to images of Pan and Gaia; a protest site sprinkled with holy water by agnostic radical environmentalists; a temple for the dead at the Burning Man festival decorated with prayer flags by recent converts to Buddhism; and a New Age dance church where former Protestant evangelicals “sweat their prayers.”

I am curious about how presence adapts to and changes in unexpected places, the fluidity with which practices like prayer move across religious boundaries and identities and take on new meanings in new contexts. (Of course this happens within older traditions as well, as Bob’s work on religion in the streets and cities has taught us.)


May 6, 2013

Dwelling Amid Absence

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

It was William James who described “religion” as that which enables us to gesture towards what we cannot articulate or describe fully, but in which we place diffuse hopes for being delivered from our confinements, which we invoke with the mere act of speaking. The problems of our subject, and the ambivalent institutionalization of our discipline, appeared regularly for me as I relished Robert Orsi’s writings on prayer, presence, and intersubjectivity (and the writings of other contributors to this project). Thinking through the resonance of sacred presence, and the near impossibility (even audacity) of writing about the religious experience of another person, it strikes me that one of the most valuable things about engaging these topics is how fundamentally they confront us with what we do in the study of religion. That is to say, the intellectual and authorial difficulties they pose demand so obviously a renewed freshness and frankness in our engagements that we might even think of them as the scholarly equivalent of the really real.

As a challenge for our descriptions and for the possibility of our understandings, prayer reveals things to and about us. It shows that the conversation about religious experience cannot turn on the question of either normativity or distance, either summary judgment or free-floating relativism. Unless we maintain a quasi-theological commitment to scholarship as a kind of sorting through or evaluation of epistemological claims (and who would pursue the study of religion for such blunt and unpoetic reasons?), reckoning with religious presence and intersubjectivity (in prayer and elsewhere) demands other things of us. I have been thinking about these issues over the last several years as I write about religion and sonic creation, and in so doing I have thought continually about the relational modes that Orsi’s writings bring up so suggestively. The reason I meditate on authorial position at the outset is because one of these modes is an academic one. That is, when writing about particular kinds of religiosity, we are bidden to cultivate a kind of aesthetics of empathy, receptivity, and imaginative openness. This does not entail that we adopt the simplistic sympathy of the chronicler but urges us to consider empathy in the sense that we are co-experiencers, that we share a condition that drives our inquiry as well as those we study. In other words, to write about religion is possibly to experience something that religious people themselves experience: the absence of language and the attempt to restore it.


April 30, 2013

Vehicular Religiosities: Importuning God Behind (and Concerning) the Automobile

Fueled by Faith: Driven by Prayer

The General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, once told his congregation about an extraordinary event that happened to him while on a road trip in Nigeria. He had left the city of Onitsha in the eastern Nigerian state of Anambra, and, as is frequently the case these days, the region and the rest of the country was in the grip of an acute petrol shortage. Because of this, he was unable to buy petrol for the car he was traveling in, as was his intention, in the adjoining city of Asaba, a short six miles away. By the time he arrived in Ore, about 134 miles from Asaba, his fuel indicator was firmly leaning toward “empty,” meaning that he had to get petrol for the car immediately. But then, something out of this world happened. According to Pastor Adeboye, it was at that juncture (junction?) that God, apparently seeing his dilemma, instructed him to proceed without looking at his fuel gauge. From that point onward, pastor Adeboye, so the account went, drove his car straight on to his residence in Surulere, Lagos (an additional 103 miles), without bothering to stop for—and apparently not needing—petrol.

Some will argue, and correctly too, that this account strains credulity. But in the context of comparable testimonies of super-ordinary “divine interventions” (the gold standard here being the Sorcery-to-Salvation accounts of Emmanuel Eni and Kaniaki Mukendi respectively), the truth is that it is by no means unique. In the world of African Pentecostals in fact, there is actually a correlation between the spectacularity of the specific “tribulation” that a believer, often through prayer and fasting, purports to have “overcome,’ and his or her perceived spiritual bona fides. Pastor Adeboye’s testimony did his halo no harm at all. Yet, while a Waoh!-eliciting testimony certainly benefits the testimonier, it would seem to benefit their congregation or church even more. At the very least, it is a certificate of apostolic authenticity; proof that the congregation—if not the pastor who is in charge of it—is on good terms with God. In West Africa, certainly in Ghana and Nigeria, testimonies are thus powerful drivers of inter-congregational mobility.


April 10, 2013

TV Prayer

[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 pivotal moment in the technological history of prayer occurred when Oral Roberts introduced the motion picture camera into the charismatic atmosphere of his massive “tent cathedral.” Through the medium of television, millions of Americans experienced performances of Pentecostal healing prayer for the first time. More than this, however, the motion picture film significantly altered the enthusiastic environment of the healing tent while organizing new sensorial and performative possibilities within the practice of prayer itself. From the first telecast in 1955, it is as if the mechanical eye of the camera gradually insinuated itself into the actions of the prayer line, drawing ever-closer to the intimate tactile contact between the patient and the healer. Through the zooming capacities of the cinematic eye, members of the television audience got an intimate view of the performance of healing prayer, including the vigorous gesticulations, bodily contact, and ecstatic countenances enlivened through this curative technique.

Ironically, the rapid mechanical clicks of the new “fast film” cameras instituted a slow-down in the prayer line. In order to produce a compelling sensation of belief among the television audience, Roberts began taking more time to chat with each patient as they filed through the healing line. After several years of telecasts, Roberts began instructing especially compelling patients who were healed during prayer to look directly into the camera and deliver their testimony. The presence of the camera not only influenced the organization and movement of the prayer line, but necessitated the performance of a healing prayer explicitly directed toward the television audience. Oral Roberts termed this new technique of televisual healing the “TV prayer.”


April 8, 2013

Holy Cards

[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.]


Simple wood-block print holy cards existed as early as the mid-fifteenth century, but it was the introduction of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century along with advances in modern printing that made possible the mass reproduction of holy cards and their wide distribution throughout the Catholic world in the modern era. Holy cards were everywhere in Catholic culture; they were one of the essential media of Catholic piety and social life. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the cards shared a common devotional aesthetic. Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the saints were depicted in warm colors, rich blues, reds, and browns that heightened the drama and emotional intensity of the imagery. The holy figures looked out from the cards at human affairs with plangent sympathy and concern.

Catholicism is a culture of sacred presence. Relics of saints (pieces of their bodies or objects touched to their bodies); water, soil, or other matter associated with sites of miraculous events; statues, images and crucifixes are all media of presence. (This is not an exhaustive list!) Holy cards belonged to this culture of presence too. This was most obvious in the case of cards that came with a miniscule relic affixed to them and visible in a small transparent window cut into the paper. One of the most popular holy cards of the twentieth century showed the southern Italian stigmatic Padre (now Santo) Pio, saying mass, his bloody hands folded in prayer, and included a tiny piece of stained fabric that had been touched to his wounds. But all holy cards were media of presence. The devout kissed them; they held them while they prayed; the cards were exchanged from hand to hand; they were tucked into the frames of bedroom mirrors and taped to walls. They were used in the making of household shrines. Holy cards were carried into all the spaces of the modern world, onto battlefields in soldiers’ pockets, for example, into industrial and post-industrial workplaces, and especially into hospitals.


April 3, 2013

Presences: How Do We Know?

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

I love the portal that Robert Orsi has created.  He and I share a fascination with “real presences” in the Catholic (and other) traditions and in creating the portal he has highlighted some of my favorite books dealing with presence in the Catholic tradition. I also very much appreciate his essay locating the Catholic insistence on presence in relation to the history of the discipline and his continuing efforts to highlight the extent to which theories of religion mounted implicit or explicit critiques of Catholicism.

In keeping with our shared interest in exploring the wide range of issues the topic presents for the study of religion, I’ll add an angle that I find intriguing.

The main thing I’d point out is that this idea of perceiving supernatural presences is not limited to personal devotional practice, to those Catholics invested in apparitions of the Virgin Mary, or even to the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.  The very basic Christian claim that Jesus was the Messiah rests on the claim that he died and rose from the dead, which in turn rests on the claim that he appeared to Mary Magdalene, the apostles, and then to Paul after his death both as a human presence and then in the breaking of bread. Check out Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) to get a sense of how crucial the appearances were in the formation of the tradition.  More so than the empty tomb, accounts of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus established the core Christian claim of resurrection and, thus, the revelation that Jesus was the Christ.


March 19, 2013

Nones at Prayer

A new report from Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley confirms the uptick in religiously unaffiliated Americans—those who answer “none” when asked questions like, “What is your religious preference?” or “Of what religious group are you a member?”—that was marked by the “Nones on the Rise” report released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in late 2013. Drawing upon data from the General Social Survey (GSS), researchers Michael Hout, Claude S. Fischer, and Mark A. Chaves, showed the percentage of Nones in the U.S. population at twenty percent at the end of 2012, just slightly higher than the 19.6 percent reported in the Pew survey. Together, the two reports strongly challenge data released earlier this year by Gallup, which showed Nones at 17.8 percent of the population and suggested a plateauing in their growth.

As in the previous survey, the GSS data shows that, while engagement with institutional religions has been on a steep decline in recent decades, belief in God or a Higher Power (“Universal Spirit,” in the Pew survey) remains robust, and growth among Atheists has been minimal. America remains a nation of believers, though it’s less and less clear exactly what that means on a number of levels. Publically, in terms of national or cultural identity, for example, the idea of the United States as “a Christian nation,” however much this might be contested at one time or another, has of course had important practical implications for how we understand ourselves in relation to one another in local communities and in relation to other nations in the world. These various self-understandings, in turn, have much to do with what we understand as culturally appropriate ethical, moral, and civic action.

In terms of personal approaches to existential meaning-making, self-realization or self-fulfillment, and self-transcendence, the clear shift away from affiliation with institutional expressions of religion certainly says something about new configurations of personal and social self-identity and the life practices that support this. It is worth noting that the terms “religious affiliation” and “religious identity,” which are routinely conflated in the work of Hout, Fischer, and Chavez as well as in that of many other commentators on Nones, are not equivalent. A Roman Catholic who no longer belongs to or attends church, for instance, may answer the question, “What is your religious preference?” with “none.” But she might also answer the question, “With what religion or religious tradition do you most identify?” with “Catholic,” perhaps adding that she’s a “lapsed,” “former,” “cultural,” or “ethnic” Catholic.


March 11, 2013

Thinking Methodologically about Prayer as Practice

What does it mean to study prayer as practice? This question implies considering prayer as a certain type of object, or at least, that the object prayer can be seen to have a minimally analogous relation to the object practice. However, it can also be understood less a possible ontology of prayer—prayer ≈ practice (rather than say, cognition, or contemplation, or ideation) —than the question of how we should study this “thing” we’re calling prayer. Given the deeply comparative nature of our project, this methodological question is paramount. And the first problem a comparative methodology must grapple with is precisely the difficultly of thinking about what prayer is, across the many varied and disparate instances being studied by the scholars in the project.

Is it possible to assume that we all know what we’re talking about when we talk about prayer? I argue that unless we all study prayer as practice, the answer to this is no. But what do I mean by “studying prayer as practice,” if the as doesn’t imply anything fundamental about the nature of prayer as such? Simply put, I want to make a plea for a Foucauldian approach to our object of study, which is not to say a theory of it, or any substantive claim about it, but rather a mode of problematizing it. Such an approach rejects the existence of a transhistorical object “prayer,” as some kind of preexisting natural object of which the particular instance under scrutiny would be one projection. Prayer understood in this way is a pure abstraction, a metaphysical object. Objects such as “the State through the ages,” or “religion” do not exist as such—these are rather objectifications created through discursive practices. Moreover, despite certain social scientific pretensions to the contrary, there is nothing “pure” or “natural” about such objects. What is taken for a transhistorical object—such as religion, the state, or prayer—generally refers to a historically specific form passing itself off as a universal, as Daniel Boyarin and Tomoko Masuzawa have shown us with regard to the concept “religion.”


March 6, 2013

Prayer, Imagination, and the Voice of God—in Global Perspective

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.

* * *

Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?

Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.


February 28, 2013

Studying Prayer as Practice

No peeking  Jewish prayer

[Editors note: This essay is adapted from a talk the author gave at an October 2012 meeting of New Directions in the Study of Prayer grant recipients and advisory committee members. For more information about the projects referenced in this talk, visit our projects page. You’ll find more information about the New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative here.]

Reflecting on what it means to approach the study of prayer as a practice, I immediately asked myself, what does studying prayer as a practice NOT mean? It does not mean that we want to study the prescriptive, the orthodox laws and formal prayers written by religious authority, since we want to study the way prayer is practiced and not the way it is prescribed to be practiced. To keep the object of inquiry on the practice of prayer will change the way we think of prayer, since so much knowledge of prayer is really knowledge of prayer as text, and as orthodoxy.

Studying prayer as practice means that we are interested in doctrines of orthopraxy for the most part only insofar as they compare to lived praxis. Diane Winston raises the question, do orthodox Jews really say the berakhot prayers of thanksgiving 100 times a day? If not, it means studying the inevitable gap between prayer orthopraxis and prayer praxis.

Studying prayer as practice means taking a processual approach, and seeing prayer practices in historical context and also in the context of lives that include not praying.  Surely most lives consist of more time not praying than time praying.

Studying prayer as practice means we may be interested in linguistic analyses of prayer as it is actually practiced, spoken, sung, danced. Linguistic analysis might involve techniques of literary analysis—how often do actors use familial language, or romantic language, or images of geography, of supplication and submission, or desire and consumption? Are prayers formal and pre-scripted, or free verse and improvised? Tom Csordas asks us, what is the linguistic ideology of the prayer at hand?


February 27, 2013

What Can the Study of Prayer Tell Us?

Noguchi, Water Garden, NYC via flickr user lao_ren100 What can the study of prayer tell us – about social life, religious institutions and practices, shared and unique concepts of communication, and ethical self-formation? New Directions in the Study of Prayer supports research that seeks to better understand prayer, in its many forms, but that also considers how the varied practices (from the textual to the embodied) associated with prayer may influence broader questions about social and human concerns. This SSRC initiative is thus working to broaden the study of prayer beyond the relatively narrow range of questions that has recently shaped scholarly discourse and interest. Indeed, we have noted that the relatively limited scope of high profile research on prayer reinforces a widely (if implicitly) held view that prayer is of marginal interest to scholars whose work is focused on themes and issues generally deemed more consequential for modern life.

In so doing, the initiative has taken a broad approach to defining prayer, and likewise how it might be understood as an object of study. Prayer is, understandably, defined and described in many ways that impinge, productively, on the disciplines (and tools and theories) used to engage it. As we are well aware, prayer’s boundaries and its distinction from other kinds of activity (meditation, for example) are not always clear. What appears to be a clear and salient definition in the psychological laboratory, for example, may be quite different from the anthropological or legal definitions that are useful and uncontested in other social contexts. An exciting and central part of our program is to engage these linked definitional and disciplinary issues head-on. We thus believe that to produce a more expansive and nuanced body of research on prayer, scholars must develop an enlarged understanding of the variety of disciplinary approaches operative in the study of prayer throughout the academy, and of the distinctive questions, methodologies, commitments, and presuppositions that govern each.


February 27, 2013

A New Digital Forum on Prayer

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) is pleased to announce the launch of Reverberations. This new digital forum on prayer is produced in conjunction with the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, which aims to generate innovative research on practices of prayer and to build an interdisciplinary network of scholars engaged in the study of prayer. Through a grants program led by a multi-disciplinary advisory committee, New Directions in the Study of Prayer currently funds twenty-eight scholars and journalists conducting research on practices of prayer throughout the world. The initiative is situated within the SSRC’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere, and is supported with funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

We envision Reverberations as a digital hub for communication among participants in the New Directions in the Study of Prayer project, a platform for a broader set of academic and public engagements, and a space within which a wide range of resources and materials related to the practice of prayer will be compiled, curated, studied, and explored. You will find here detailed information about participants in the SSRC project and their funded research projects. The forum will also host a prayer blog, where a diverse group of scholars and journalists will regularly post contributions of various kinds. And we will publish original longer-form writing, interviews with researchers and journalists studying prayer, and a range of other essays and exchanges.

Last but not least, we encourage you to explore our experimental prayer “portals.” These curated collections of resources related to the study of prayer are intended to appeal to a wide range of academic and public readers. Each highly customized portal, designed and presented by one or more of our contributors, will introduce readers to a set of objects and ideas associated with a particular dimension or aspect of prayer. Visit our inaugural portal today, and check back frequently as we open new portals into an unfolding compendium of academic resources, everyday materials, and prayer paraphernalia.

Whether you are a scholar of prayer or are simply interested in the subject, please join us as we investigate a variety of new directions in the study of prayer. As you familiarize yourself with this new forum, we welcome your inquiries and suggestions at