February 7, 2014

Praying According to the Law

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]

In response to Winni Sullivan’s astute analysis of Town of Greece v. Galloway, I want to probe her claim that “prayers are tamed by law,” before looking in a little more detail at the content of these public prayers. On one level, the claim is straightforward enough. Scholars of law and religion use “law’s words and law’s aesthetics” to “describe and judge” the prayers. Public prayers come under the jurisdiction of legal terminology in an analysis that is highly textual. But the more fascinating and challenging claim is that, prior to this academic surveillance operation, the pray-ers/prayers themselves have already spontaneously become law. This sounds like a contemporary Foucauldian story about the internalisation of law’s discipline. But there are also echoes of an older story, told by (for example) Aristotle, Seneca, and Paul. Law is not the real thing, the thing in itself, but an eikon (image) of the good society. The good person, the god-like person, becomes living law.


November 19, 2013

Harlan Matthews, “Avenue of Prayer” and “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer” (n.d.)

Harlan Matthews was born in Mount Airy, NC in 1927. He recorded this album at Alexander’s Studio in Dry Run, Pennsylvania. As the liner notes to Songs of the Family Bible attest, Matthews took up residence along the mighty Susquehanna River after having “MET A MAN who would become the master of his life . . . . Harley’s advice to young people of today is  this: ‘Don’t set sail on the BLOODY SEA OF LIFE but find the AVENUE OF PRAYER which is just ACROSS THE BRIDGE; and then HOLD FAST TO THE RIGHT no matter what.’”

In “Avenue of Prayer,” Matthews puts the steel guitar to work and makes a classic (definitional) plea to the listener—prayer is the sole means of salvation; prayer is the mark of one’s deliberate concentration; prayer is both spur to one’s own faith and a way to catalyze the faith of others; prayer is the key to eternal life.

Immediately following “Avenue” on side 1 is “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” about his mother’s anxious prayers for “her boy to be just what he ought to be.”

November 19, 2013

The Prodigals (Choir of the Missouri Medium Security Prison), “This is the Way I Pray” (n.d.)

Prisoners at Prayer (Nu-Sound Records) was arranged and produced under the auspices of Chaplain Earl-Clayton Grandstaff. Grandstaff was an ordained Baptist minister and the author of A Study of Correctional Chaplaincy Service (1966). His was a mixture of benevolent reform, faith in redemption, and spectacle. The novelty of reformed criminals is quite palpable on this album. As deviant peculiarity gives way to choral coordination in your ears and in front of your eyes, you cannot help but think of the Foucauldian framing, perhaps only through it.

Album Insert“Prisoners are people . . . yet visitors never cease to marvel at the personality and performance of prisoners,” says Superintendent Ed Haynes of the Missouri Medium Security Prison in Moberly, Missouri. Liberal conscience is emboldened here, swayed by the righteousness of its cause, its knowledge of being in the right. As reported in the liner notes, Haynes “welcomes students and serious visitors to what has been called a ‘bold venture of faith about the inherent goodness within every man . . . Truly NO MAN IS AN ISLAND when prisoners are at prayer.”

As the unattributed blurb on the sleeve attests, we have here “a really unique choir, performing a public service for the listener and for the participant alike, whether incarcerated or a member of the ‘free society’ …”  The scare quotes seem to offer a rebuke of sorts, a reminder, a stinging criticism of the way in which members of the free society casually hold their assumptions.


November 19, 2013

Re-Creation, “I Believe in Music” (n.d.)

Re-Creation is a non-profit organization founded in 1976 by Hugh Brooks in State College, Pennsylvania. As Re-Creation’s website exclaims, its “main service is to America’s Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and State Veterans Homes. For 30 years, Re-Creation has provided the only continuing, live, therapeutic entertainment presence in our nation’s VA Medical Centers!” Re-Creation is a band with a revolving cast. And it sees itself as answering both a religious and patriotic call.

The strangeness of this particular Re-Creation album (The 5th Edition) goes beyond the costumes and the bypass of the separation clause. It even goes beyond their pious/profane mix—“Olivia Newton-John Medley of Hits” subtitled “Verve and Velvet.”


October 28, 2013

Odd to Each Other

Cross-posted at The Immanent Frame.—ed.

It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.


August 2, 2013

The Apparatus of Belief

[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 key element in the practice of charismatic Christian healing prayer is the operation of a “spiritual gift” (charism) that allows the pray-er to discern the presence of illness-causing demons. Practitioners of faith healing often describe this “gift of discernment” specifically in terms of a divinely augmented sense of touch that allows the healer to detect the presence of unseen agents of illness within the body of the patient. Through this gift of the spirit, the sensory capacities of the mortal flesh are quickened with a preternatural capacity to sense the presence of that which, under everyday sensory regimes, persists undetected. Prominent faith healers such as William Branham, A. A. Allen, and Oral Roberts described this haptic quickening as a special sensation of “pressure,” “heat,” “electricity,” and “vibration” registered through the hand. The gift of discernment, therefore, is a divine prosthesis that allows the human hand to detect the spirit during the therapeutic performance of prayer.

The divinely attuned capacities of the body, however, are not the only media for the detection of the spirit. Artificial devices and material objects have also played a crucial role in the discernment of sacred presence, and reveal striking homologies with the specifically somatic gift previously described. Take for example the sensitive capacities of the camera’s mechanical eye, simultaneously revealing sacred structures and organizing particular experiences of “belief” for the viewer. More specifically, mass circulated Pentecostal magazines included photographs that were described as having registered sacred presences unavailable to the naked eye (see illustration from A. A. Allen’s Miracle Magazine). As an influential precursor to Pentecostalism, the “spirit photography” of nineteenth century American Spiritualism also relied heavily upon the camera and the photographic plate to reveal spectral forces circulating beyond the capacities of everyday sensation.


June 13, 2013

Faith on Film

[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).


April 8, 2013

Tanya Luhrmann in The New York Times

During the month of April, NDSP Grantee Tanya Luhrmann will be a weekly guest columnist for the Op-Ed section of The New York Times.

In her first column, Luhrmann explores the difficulties that believers in God and skeptics face in connecting with each other. The escalation of this opposition, which Luhrmann calls “schismogenesis,” is pervasive—and yet Luhrmann nonetheless sees possibilities for optimism:

[B]elievers and nonbelievers are not so different from one another, news that is sometimes a surprise to both. When I arrived at one church I had come to study, I thought that I would stick out like a sore thumb. I did not. Instead, I saw my own doubts, anxieties and yearnings reflected in those around me. People were willing to utter sentences — like “I believe in God” — that I was not, but many of those I met spoke openly and comfortably about times of uncertainty, even doubt. Many of my skeptical friends think of themselves as secular, sometimes profoundly so. Yet these secular friends often hover on the edge of faith. They meditate. They keep journals. They go on retreats. They just don’t know what to do with their spiritual yearnings.

Read the full piece here. And check out Reverberations’ interview with Luhrmann.

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

Intercessory Prayer as Powerful, or Pointless?

Substituting “good thoughts” for intercessory prayer has become a common practice among friends looking for a way to comfort the sick and bereaved. I recently published a short meditation on the how and why of this new practice, and some thoughts on whether it measures up to the more old-fashioned ways of consolation:

 “To my mind, the most wince-worthy consolation our new prayer-shy world offers up is “I’ll be sending you good energy.” Pleez. If you’re a Buddhist, go for it. Otherwise, just say sorry and move on.

My usual choice isn’t a lot better. “I’ll keep you in my thoughts,” is not only wonky and weak-kneed but it makes entirely too much of me. Each time I write it, I grimace at an image of my recipients, puff-eyed with grief or chill with fear, being so startled by that little sparkler of egotism that their only honest response would: “Big whup.”

Read the rest of my post at Religion Dispatches.

February 21, 2013

Electric Votive

[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.]

The introduction of the electric votive machine into Catholic churches during the early twentieth century organized a new devotional environment within the space of the side altar. The steady glow of the electric bulb chased away the chiaroscuro play of shadow upon the forms of the saints. The sound of falling coinage as it actuated the electronic switch mechanism of this new technology of illumination marked the disappearance of wax and soot accretions—the residual traces of prayer—from the votive space.

On a basic sensory level, the performance of prayer was no longer accompanied by the feeling of warmth radiating from the votive stand, or the thick smell of smoke, sulfur matches, and melting wax. The act of striking a match or of igniting an elongated wooden stick to illuminate the votive candle collapsed into the single action of dropping a coin or pressing a switch; votive prayer became a moment of electric shock and mechanized coincidence. The very form of automaticity itself shifted from the irregular holocausts of an ensemble of cotton filament and beeswax to the precise temporal mechanisms of the time switch.

Through the introduction of the electric votive, a crucial sensation of divine presence retreated into the inner machinations of the apparatus. The flicker and intensity of the naked flame no longer registered the presence of the sacred or the efficacy of the prayer for the devotee. Some votive machines were not automatically actuated by a coin in the slot, but by the pressing of switch-buttons surrounding the donation box: the apparatus believes in you.

February 20, 2013

The Materiality of Prayer: A Curatorial Introduction

[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.]

Patent illustration, electric votive

Citing literary references from the fourteenth century, a folklorist lecturing on the history of the Rosary provocatively stated, “the word ‘bead’ (Anglo-Saxon beade or bede) meant originally ‘a prayer.’” Despite such early etymological gestures toward an inextricable relation between prayer and the material object, however, formative debates within anthropology and religious studies can be seen as precisely an attempt to isolate the practice of prayer from its material conduits. More specifically, participants in these formative debates have often described the history of prayer (and concomitantly the evolution of religion) as a progressive movement of abstraction from the mechanical efficacy of the thing itself (incantation, object, and gesture) toward an increasingly intellectual endeavor beholden to the contingent demands of “faith.” Such narrations of prayer as a developmental history of interiorization into the cognitive recesses of the modern subject have had lasting consequences for the academic study of religion.

Scholars have tended to describe prayer as a predominantly intellectual act oriented by the exercise of volition, generally neglecting the way these imagined inner experiences are intimately related to bodily techniques, material objects, technologies and built environments which subsist and circulate “outside” the cognitive interiorities of the religious subject. In short, the academic theorization of prayer itself mimics a crucial performative moment in the history of Protestant faith healing: at the very moment when the patient must make tactile contact with a material supplement to open a communicative relay between the sacred and the everyday, the proscriptions of the curative technique simultaneously renounce the objectile through the phrase, “Only Believe!” (see for instance: The Radio as Prosthesis of Prayer).

Against this foundational narrative of prayer as a history of abstraction, this collection of objects seeks to recuperate the old etymological resonances of prayer as a “bead,” as a gloss for both materiality and mechanized rhythms or repetitions (see for instance: Electric Votive). In so doing, this exhibition explores the ways in which prayer is intimately intertwined with material objects that actively organize performative techniques and embodied experiences within the practice of prayer.  A new definition of prayer emerges from this focus on materiality. Unencumbered by a long history of scholarship that conceives of prayer strictly in terms of articulations of the voice and an interior circuitry of will and representation, the materiality of prayer collection describes prayer as a particular sensory attunement emerging at the interface between the assumed everyday capacities of the body and its technological extensions and material supplementations. Articulating the shifting sensorial registers organized in different religious traditions and technological environments, this collection will demonstrate that the social and experiential force of prayer often subsists within sensations that reverberate before or beneath the clearly demarcated intellectual categories of “belief.” This collection will concretely describe a new history of prayer, not as a retreat into the silent recesses of the religious subject, but as a progressive exteriorization through media technologies and material objects into the “apparatus of belief.”