June 4, 2013

The Ivory Tower in Cyberspace

When I went back to graduate school in my 40s, I took with me years of having produced films, network TV programs, and a mass-market book. I thought the theological faculty would be impressed. They were not, except for my advisor who saw the potential for mass-media religious education. My qualifications and publishing record was enough to get me into a Master of Arts program at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, but I quickly discovered that academia and mass-media didn’t relate very well with each other.

Also against me was that I was “a believer.” I soon learned that the worship department stood on its own; it didn’t interface much with the academic lines. I found that odd. I still don’t understand why departments of religion and divinity schools separate faith and analytics. Is faith and worship too soft? Certainly a subject for some research.

Then again, everyone I knew at the time warned me not to go to graduate school to study theology. As a matter of fact, the founder of a major mass-market spirituality magazine told me bluntly, “don’t study religion or you’ll lose your faith!” I actually had the opposite experience.  Studying ancient writings in asceticism, and in doctrine, and mystical practices served to increase my faith. Now, I’m able to add what I learned in historical-critical context.


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 26, 2013

Prayer Cloths, or, the Materiality of Divine Communication

Small remnants of sacred fabric known as prayer cloths are among the most important devotional objects in the Pentecostal tradition. Despite the widespread use of these healing and apotropaic objects, however, there is a remarkable lack of published scholarship on this phenomenon within the fields of religious studies, folklore, and anthropology. Articulating the relationship between oral performances of group prayer and individual sensations of tactility, Prayer Cloths, or, the Materiality of Divine Communication will track the manufacture and exchange of these prayer-objects as they circulate among four independent Pentecostal church communities in northwestern Virginia. Situated within the “Prayer in Social and Institutional Contexts” research theme, my ethnographic work describes and theorizes the relationship between the performance of group prayer and the solidification and maintenance of the communal fabric through the circulation and manipulation of devotional objects. Focusing on the role of the materially mediating object in experiences of divine communication, my work will yield new models of a religiosity typically associated with interiority, spirituality, and individuality. Against such associations, whether religious self-definitions or anthropological theories, I will demonstrate just how profoundly inextricable are these performances of prayer from the exterior objects within which believers sense the opening of communicative relays between the everyday and the sacred. Tracking the movements of these materialized prayers, my research will articulate the way these devotional fabrics link the individual to more expansive networks of communal prayer and sensations of divine presence. During the early twentieth century, classic accounts of prayer in the fields of ethnology and religious studies predicted that the communal performance of prayer would undergo a progressive interiorization until it became a purely intellectual act within the silent recesses of the religious subject. Marking a significant departure from assumptions organizing the academic study of prayer, my exploration into the materiality of religious presence articulates the history and contemporary practice of Pentecostal and charismatic Christian prayer through its progressive exteriorizations enabled by material objects and media technologies. Describing the prostheses of prayer in the late modern world, my project makes explicit the way material objects and technologies enable specific sensations of sacred immediacy, and in so doing marks a new contribution to a growing body of scholarship on sensory formation in experiences of healing, conversion, and transcendence. Like the discernment of an excessive presence that subsists just beyond the boundaries of everyday perception, my project describes the production of ecstatic sensations at the interface of the assumed everyday capacities of the body and its technological extensions and material supplementations.

February 26, 2013

Hammering the Devil with Prayer (Prayer to Relieve Affliction from Evil Spirits)

This project is a comparative ethnographic study of Roman Catholic prayer for exorcism, a form of ritual healing prayer performed by a priest and the aim of which is relief from affliction by evil spirits. Insofar as exorcism is an institutionally sanctioned form of prayer practiced in culturally diverse settings throughout the Catholic world, the project addresses the nature prayer in social and institutional contexts and comparative perspectives on prayer. Insofar as it is a form of prayer concerned with counteracting the debilitating force of evil understood as an obstacle to spiritual life, the project also addresses the contribution of prayer to virtue, human flourishing, moral development, and ethical formation. 

The study begins with the observation that exorcism is not only a form of religious practice but also a dynamic social phenomenon. My approach is defined by explicit attention to the intimately intertwined relation between the concrete experiences of social actors and the broader cultural processes and social forces in which they are embedded. Specifically, exorcism prayer can be understood both experientially in terms of the therapeutic process put into play by the practice of ritual healing as an attempt to promote flourishing, and institutionally in terms of the religio-political stance established in the face of global cultural processes in social context. This approach is the basis for two interrelated propositions: 1) Exorcism prayer articulates a conservative world view and a discourse of evil at large in contemporary society framed by processes of globalization including migration, mobility, missionization, and mediatization; 2) Exorcism prayer can be genuinely therapeutic if it fulfills all four criteria of a rhetorical model of therapeutic process in ritual healing including disposition, experience of the sacred, elaboration of alternatives, and actualization of change.

The research centers on ethnographic comparison of exorcism prayer in the United States and Italy. Italy is the center of the Catholic world and the United States is the home of a globally influential Catholic community, with vivid social and cultural contrasts between them. My methods include ethnographic interviews and observations with exorcists, their clinical mental health consultants, and persons for whom they pray, as well as observations of training methods in exorcism prayer and examination of relevant published literature.

The intellectual merit of the study lies in its contribution to the social science literature on two primary areas: 1) the nature of experience and trajectory of therapeutic process in healing prayer, and 2) the manner in which prayer articulates the relation of religion and globalization in contemporary society. The study’s broader impact will be 1) in providing an example of the intertwined relation between two levels of analysis, namely the concrete experience of social actors and the broader cultural processes and social forces in which they are embedded, and 2) in contributing to understanding the social implications and consequences of the discourse of evil in contemporary society.

February 26, 2013

An Ethnography of Religious Labor in an Indian Muslim Community

This project is an ethnographic exploration of Muslim prayer (namaz), the central practice in formal worship (salah or salat), and its relation to other religious and secular labor in a suburban community in Ahmedabad, India. It explores prayer, specifically, as exemplary religious labor embedded in a range of religious practices, and religious labor, generally, as it relates to secular labor practices. It focuses on a single community, Juhapura, home to a diverse array of Muslim communities, most recently relocated from villages, with pronounced class and caste differences, rural-urban divides, and sectarian divisions between reformist and conservative establishments. It concentrates on prayer in a particular class segment of Juhapura society: unskilled laborers employed in the informal sector.

In addition to ethnographically rigorous research on a little studied community, this research contributes conceptually to the understanding of prayer comparatively by opening up several questions: 1) How do Muslims move into and out of prayer and, how do particular occupations contribute to irregular or “non-normative” prayer? How do these practices contribute to self-understandings and influence locations within Juhapura Muslim society? 2) How is the Koranic style of learning (memorization and recitation of text) embedded in a wider Gujarati cultural context of learning, where interactions are always inflected by politico-cultural movements (such as Hindu nationalism)? What effect do these contexts have on the consolidation of religious practices by minority Muslims and the reception of majoritarian (Hindu) concepts of hierarchy, caste, devotion, pollution, and ahimsa? 3) How is prayer invoked to mediate the dynamics of segmentation, class, and religious differentiation? 4) Islamic practices in Ahmedabad are informed by the diverse community and caste relations with non-Muslims (e.g., Hindu-Jain-Sikh) of the rural villages of birth of most Juhapura residents. How do rural syncretic religious practices change and differentiate in the suburban environment? 3) In what way do changing concepts of communal and individual prayer (both namaz and dua) influence the understanding of other forms of religious labor, such as sermons and lecture series (kusbo) in mosques, naming practices, divine invocations, gift exchanges, spirit possession/exorcisms, conversion and intermarriage, alms giving and financial services, and embodied practices in comportment, clothing styles, and diet? 5) What are the mutual effects of recent transformations in the organization of the informal economy on specifically religious practices? In what way do everyday demands of organizing life through informal work reflect or change understandings of religious labor, and specifically prayer?

The intellectual merit of the project is to document ethnographically a specific case of the social and institutional dynamics of Muslim prayer in a changing political-economic context (Gujarat, India), which can then be used to theorize in what way prayer and secular activities are mutually imbricated in the same context, rather than positing them as oppositional philosophical-historical tenets. The broader impact of this research will be to provide an empirical case study of prayer, with a more nuanced understanding of contexts in which such activity becomes meaningful. More specifically, it will inform scholars across disciplines about the mutual effects of changes in the international organization of service labor on Muslim prayer and religious activities generally in India.

February 26, 2013

T'ongsŏng Kido and the Culture of Prayerful Sociality in South Korean Christianity

Across Protestant denominations and congregations in South Korea, instances of t’ongsǒng kido, or “group prayer,” share a common feature: synchronous but unsynchronized individual prayers carried out in groups. In these groups, a cacophony of voices hinders the interpretability of any single voice. Some extol this form of prayer as the optimal way to share personal secrets with God while participating in a Christian community. This ethnographic study links this widespread prayer genre to other forms of meaningful social behavior organized around intimacy, privacy, and secrecy in South Korea.

For three quarters of a century, state surveillance was a fact of Korean life—from a Japanese colonial regime that restricted speech and attempted to control people’s everyday lives, to a military dictatorship that practiced deep and pervasive monitoring and manipulation of its citizens in the name of modernization, stability, economic growth, and anti-communism. While these authoritarian regimes have given way to representative democracy, privacy still remains a concern, because forms of surveillance are still carried formally by the state, as well as, crucially, by family, friends, and acquaintances in the form of social surveillance.

To link prayer and reflections on it to individuals’ ongoing attempts to find spaces of intimacy and privacy, I study ethnographically the various forms of masking and hiding that are mobilized in response to surveillance. One dimension of the research is focused on prayer itself—its structures and formal features, the contexts of its practice, and reflections on its purpose and efficacy. The other dimension looks at different areas of contemporary social life in Seoul that also operate around privacy, intimacy, and secrecy, such as social factions, Internet discourse and slang, and the use of hidden quarters of the city.

This research uses the analytical and methodological tools of linguistic anthropology and semiotic anthropology, which attempt to link semiotic structure, social practice, and cultural ideology through ethnography. This research will further our understanding of the social and institutional dynamics of prayer by viewing a culturally specific, socially significant, institutionalized, highly ritualized form of prayer in relation to other socially significant forms of behavior beyond the church. At a more general level, this research speaks to longstanding concerns in the social sciences with the way private, secret, or esoteric knowledge and practices emerge and are formalized in specific kinds of social relations. Linking secrecy in prayer to practices of intimacy- and privacy-making in broader Korean urban society will demonstrate the ability of prayer both to reflect deep and pervasive concerns of members of a society, as well as to generate practical ways of managing these concerns while reproducing other values of a society, such as collective group sociality and publically performable morality.

February 26, 2013

Moving Heaven and Earth: Prayer as Political Praxis in Global Pentecostalism

This project explores the empirical and theoretical implications of the Pentecostal claim that prayer is the “weapon of our warfare.” Focusing on African Pentecostals who see themselves as a new global vanguard with a redemptive mission, I ask what it means to speak of prayer as a weapon, and what are the ethical, political, and theological implications of Pentecostal conceptions of warfare. Prayer is central to a redemptive spiritual life based on a break with the past and conducted according to an ethics of submission to the Holy Spirit, but a politics of resistance to the devil and his works. Prayer is the performative mode in which both submission and resistance are enacted, and through which a political ontology of antagonistic spiritual forces takes specific historical shape and form. For Pentecostals, prayer is thus not merely a technique for communicating with God, constructing the self or the community, but a direct form of action that transforms the world. When practiced collectively in the struggle against the “demonic”, prayer so imagined can make a significant contribution to the construction and transformation of political life. Through extensive ethnographic research and discursive analysis, I explore how prayer is construed and collectively enacted as a form of political praxis, and analyze the political consequences of the increasing influence of African prayer practices on both local and national contexts and the global Pentecostal community. Beyond its empirical findings, my research will make an original contribution to theories of political action and the relationship between religion and politics, arguing that Pentecostal practices of prayer must be understood as forms of political practice in and of themselves.

The project will be based on ethnographic field work and extensive data collection, focusing on the prayer discourses and practices of four Nigerian global ministries and their leaders – Enoch Adeboye’s Redeemed Christian Church of God, Tunde Bakare’s Latter Rain Assembly, Tony Rapu’s This Present House, Matthew Ashimolowo’s Kingsway International Christian Centre—as well as the impact of Nigerian voices in global evangelical organizations like the Lausanne Movement and the US-based World Prayer Centre and their associated prayer networks. Building on my extensive past and current research and considerable expertise on Nigerian Pentecostalism in Nigeria and North America, I will study practices and discourses of what Pentecostals call “warfare prayer,” particularly in its public, collective forms. These practices range from general forms of intercessory prayer seeking the wellbeing of a given collectivity (congregation, city, nation, global community) and its protection against spiritual, economic, political, and social ills, to much more specific techniques of individual and collective intercessory and imprecatory prayer, targeting specific forms of evil and their spatial, cultural or territorial manifestations or implantations, such as the technique of “spiritual mapping” or “territorial warfare” prayers. Empirical methods will include participant observation, interviews, surveys; recordings of services and revival meetings; collection of both print and electronic media products; surveys of mainstream and Christian news media.

The originality of my work lies in its marriage of extensive empirical research and original inter-disciplinary theorizing. This new empirical research will contribute to my ongoing critical theoretical project which attempts to take religious faith seriously, clearing a new analytical and theoretical space in which to address in a non-reductive fashion a phenomenon which directly and explicitly challenges the “secular” forms of thought and knowledge underwriting social scientific understandings of politics and democratic life. My project thus undertakes not only a necessary political critique of religion, but explores the ways in which religious practices of faith may provide a critique of politics.

February 26, 2013

From the Lords Prayer to Invoking Slavery through Prayers: Religious Practices and Dalits in Kerala, India

The proposed research project wishes to study prayers and practices related to prayers of selected Dalit communities (formerly untouchable) of Kerala, India, who joined the missionary societies such as the Church Missionary Society as well as the London Missionary Society from the mid-nineteenth century onward. These two missionary organizations were part of the Anglican Church and they were active among the Dalit communities from 1850s onward—winning thousands of ‘converts’ by the first decade of the twentieth century. It was the same missionary organizations that campaigned in the late 1840s against caste slavery of the Dalit communities of Kerala until its abolition in 1855. Caste slavery refers to the control that upper caste landlords—both Hindu and Christian—had on lower caste slaves who were bought and sold.

The presence of Kerala’s traditional upper caste Syrian Christians in the Anglican Church and their efforts at perpetuating caste domination within the Church led to the genesis of several oppositional movements of Dalits from the early twentieth century onward. One of the oppositional movements, namely the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha (Church of God of Visible Salvation) that was founded in the small town of Thiruvalla in 1910 by Poikayil Yohannan (1879-1939) is very important in this regard. This movement had developed its congregational practices and liturgy although in a Christian way, but different from the dominant Churches. In the proposed research we intend to study the distinct prayers of Dalit congregations of the Anglican missions as well as the oppositional social and religious movement, Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha.

In the proposed research project I wish to analyze the prayers as they had a substantial effect on the people. For example the in the mid-nineteenth century when Dalits joined the missions they found it as a new experience. Till then their social life was determined by the rigorous schedule of work in the land lord’s fields. By contrast, now they were supposed come for the prayers and worship in the Slave Schools set up for them by the missionaries. This introduced new notions of community among them. Prayers played a crucial role in their coming together. Some of the missionaries who worked among Dalits observed that they showed great enthusiasm in learning the prayers. They also refer to how the prayers were received emotionally by Dalits. For example when the Lord’s Prayer was taught the missionary found tears rolling down from the eyes of some of the slaves. On enquiry they told the missionary that it was for the first time that they could address some one as their father. The prayers and other practices related to them provided new notions of time to the slave caste people and they looked forward to the prayer time as a reprieve from the burden of the work in the fields of the landlords. In the most recent fieldwork that I conducted in September 2012, the elderly Dalits shared with me the sense of redemption they felt while praying. In the case of the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha, the memorialization of slavery during ritual occasions continues to be important even today. The fieldwork that I had conducted in June 2012, attending night-long prayers on the occasion of the memorial service of the founder of the movement I could observe the continued significance of the slave narratives and metaphors drawn from slavery in their prayers. These observations show that prayers continue to be significant in generating meanings that are essential for negotiating the everyday lives of marginalized communities by providing them new worldviews.

February 26, 2013

Prayers of Healing and Supplication: Islam and the struggle for "pure" faith

This study is a comparative project on prayer among poor and working-class Muslim women in India and France. Specifically, it will examine the following two dimensions of prayer: supplications (duas) and prayers for healing from jinn afflictions (ruqya). The communities of women whose prayers will be studied belong to sectarian, reformist traditions that seek to purify Islam of external influences and more precisely, seemingly polytheistic (shirk) practices. However, the collective articulation of informal duas and performances of ruqya occupy ambiguous spaces in Islam, because both carry the danger of engaging in polytheism.

France and India are chosen cases despite their many differences, as Islamic reformist movements have grown significantly in certain areas of both countries, with women actively involved in these and other Islamic revival activities. More broadly, they are secular democracies where Muslims comprise the largest minority populations and are amongst the poorest and most marginalized sections of society. Explaining similarities and differences across societies of the global North and South can provide a sharper understanding of the degree to which reformist Islam is truly global. Further, the effects on prayer of India and France’s divergent policies toward religious and ethnic minorities can be brought to light through this comparative design.

The research objectives are: to provide a richer account of the prayer practices of Muslim women who are popularly dismissed as “fundamentalist” or Wahhabi; to complicate and challenge the dichotomy between traditional (ritualistic) Islam and  reformist Islam, which is often viewed as homogenous; and to show precisely how debates over Islam’s internal reform are being constructed and brought to life on the terrain of everyday prayers.

To pursue these objectives and specific research questions related to duas and ruqya, I will conduct participant observation (6 months each) in Hyderabad, India, and Lyon, France. During this field work I will participate in women’s Islamic study circles and hear collective duas as well as observe prayers of ruqya among women in those same communities. The ethnography would be supplemented with interviews with women who receive ruqya prayers and those who perform them. Additional research methods include: constructing a trajectory of local reformist teachings and the most commonly cited sheikhs; and examining and coding the wide discussions about ruqya taking place in online forums (France) and the Urdu Muslim press (India).

The intellectual merit of the proposed research is distinctly sociological and structural perspective on Islamic prayer that incorporates multiple axes: gender, class, minority status, sectarian tradition, and nation. An in-depth look at supplication will demonstrate the social role it plays among women who lack access to formal leadership and the relationship to the divine that it forges. Examining ruqya as a prayer practice that is defined as distinct from rituals of spirit interaction and that is shaped by institutional context will refine existing understandings of the meaning of spirit and healing in lived Islam. Finally, the project’s broader impact is a reconstructed and deepened understanding of the so-called problem of “neo-fundamentalist” Islam. This would be gained by examining the meaning of reform for communities of women, its transnational dimension, and its expression and contestation through prayer—as an individual and collective means of struggle toward perfect faith.