Elizabeth McAlister, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, has spent many years studying Afro-Caribbean religiosity, and has recently turned her interest to aggressive prayer and spiritual warfare in Haiti and the United States. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, McAlister discusses what these terms mean, how they have developed in recent years, and their influence in the American Evangelical community.
Prayer in Wider Perspective
William James, summarizing in 1902 the state of scientific research on prayer, noted its narrow focus on petitionary prayer—on whether prayer can, say, heal the sick, or sway the weather. “But petitional prayer is only one department of prayer,” James averred. On the other hand, he continued, if we take prayer “in the wider sense as meaning every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognized as divine, we can easily see that scientific criticism leaves it untouched… Prayer in this wide sense is the very soul and essence of religion.”
Leapfrogging a century, the narrowness that James identified persists: the full range of prayer practices, implications, and effects remains under-studied by scholars and under-covered by journalists. In this interview series, Steven Barrie-Anthony and Jennifer L. Hahn speak with scholars and journalists whose work demonstrates a more expansive understanding of prayer. Their research and writings, supported by the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, are not necessarily Jamesian in method, but by variously centralizing and remapping the category of prayer, they share James’ wider perspective.
Elizabeth Drescher, Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion & Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University, has spent the past several years learning about so-called “Nones”—the religiously unaffiliated who answer “none” when asked with what religion they identify. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Drescher discusses how her interest in this topic developed, the meaning of religious classifications, and the impact of new and social media on how people pray.
Anderson Blanton (anthropology), postdoctoral scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, has spent the past several years researching how religious experience is shaped by media technologies and devotional objects. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Blanton discusses how his interest in this topic developed, bureaucracy as a kind of faith, the sacralization of everyday objects, and the “quotidian robustness of religious practice.”
Ebenezer Obadare, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, is researching the emergence of what he terms “Charismatic Islam” in Nigeria. Despite the electricity going out just as he started discussing Pentecostal notions of power, Obadare reported from Lagos to Jennifer Lois Hahn on interfaith competition and exchange, political power shifts, and the role of the nation’s largest freeway in the spiritual marketplace there.
Sonja Luehrmann, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, heads a team of researchers exploring the role of the senses in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer in Russia, Greece, the United States, Egypt, India, and Romania. Here, she tells Jennifer Lois Hahn about her research on emerging rituals in Russia related to childbirth and abortion, strategies for ensuring that prayers “reach God faster,” and the productive tension between tradition and innovation at the heart of modern Orthodox prayer.
For the past two years, Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has been talking with adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse in an effort to understand survivors’ religious practices and experiences in the wake of the abuse. Here, Orsi speaks with Jennifer Lois Hahn about why sexual abuse by a priest is more than a matter of individual psychopathology; how survivors’ continued religious and spiritual engagement challenges functionalist theories of religion; and what he means when he describes survivors of clergy sexual abuse as existing at “ground zero of the post-secular.”
Mark Aveyard, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is using his knowledge of embodied cognition to study how the position and movement of the body during prayer relates to higher-level cognitive processes such as decision-making, language processing, and emotion. Aveyard, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the difficulties of experimental design, WEIRD research subjects, and the impact of culture on the way we think, use our bodies, and in some cases, use our bodies to think.
Savitri Medhatul is a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker whose latest film, “And All God’s People Said…”, follows the small, but rapidly growing population of Pentecostal-Charismatic converts in India. Medhatul, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the complexities these self-described “believers” face in a majority Hindu society, their innovative use of technology to spread the gospel, and the advantages and limitations of the medium of film for capturing their stories.
Jennifer Lois Hahn: One of the things I really liked about your proposal is how you talk about prayer as a desire for change, both personal and societal. Could tell me about how you came to conceive of it that way?
Savitri Medhatul: I started going to these churches because of my husband. He and his family belong to a believer church. My in-laws wanted me to get exposure to the church. In this church, giving testimony is a very big activity.
Rebekah A. Richert is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and director of the Childhood Cognition Lab, at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the cultural and social-cognitive dimensions of children’s understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Richert’s latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, examines how prayer practices and instruction shape children’s concepts of God and supernatural causality.
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.