May 5, 2014

When Prayers Become Things

In Orlando, Florida people pin prayers to a cross. The cross stands on the grounds of the Holy Land Experience (HLE), a fifteen-acre “living, biblical museum” that teaches Christian themes in a themed environment eleven miles northeast of the Walt Disney World Resort. HLE is a site on the American religious landscape where materiality flourishes: religious history and textual ideologies are re-presented in a way that fuses evangelical commitments with the logics of immersive entertainment.

HLE’s “Testimony Cross Garden” exemplifies this site’s ongoing effort to document the many diverse ways in which pray-ers pray and prayers are prayed. We can observe much in the way of constitutive material acts. We might begin with the writing itself. Like keeping a daily prayer journal or submitting a prayer card to Oral Roberts, a power is harnessed by putting pen to paper, externalizing human interiors. (This extends the associations between writing technologies and faith emphasized by other Christian performances, as when one sings the opening lines of the Gospel standard When God Dips His Love in My Heart: “When God dips His pen of love in my heart and writes my soul a message He wants me to know…”) Then there is the folding. Each prayer is bent; some loose and uneven, some tight and perfectly aligned. Folding eases a tension between the public quality of the cross and the secrecy of each paper’s contents (“this is just between me and God”). Once folded, there is the pinning, attaching, affixing; full of iconicity. The park map that each guest receives when entering prompts us to “nail your burdens (prayer requests) to the cross.” And, there are numerous bodily tactics at work: taking the paper, holding the pen, reaching up, kneeling down, stretching left or right, touching the cross.


October 23, 2013

Views on "Ritual Efficacy"

In their recent essay, “Connective Implications of the Material Holy,” Sarah A. Riccardi and Aaron Sokoll critique Sonja Luehrmann’s prayer portal, “Praying with the Senses,” for being overly invested in the question of efficacy and its relation to practices of Eastern Orthodox prayer:

In her curatorial introduction, Sonja Luehrmann acknowledges the importance of aesthetics and materiality, but she ultimately suggests that the most pressing issues requiring investigation are the efficacy of prayer and, possibly, the spontaneity of petitionary prayer…. Rather than seeing efficacy as a uniting principle among these fine essays, we see the materiality and visuality of prayer as the most vital part of this portal.

I find this critique extremely productive, not because Luehrmann’s portal actually neglects the question of materiality, but because it identifies the current re-conceptualization of the term “ritual efficacy” by scholars in the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Albeit implicitly, Riccardi and Sokoll’s “Material Holy” piece issues a call for scholars of religion to clearly articulate a new definition of “efficacy” in relation to prayer. Indeed, if we begin to conceive of the efficacy of prayer as an organization of sensory potential and attentive structures that is inextricably related to devotional objects, media technologies, built environments, bodily techniques, etc., then the two seemingly different approaches to Eastern Orthodox prayer appear to be more closely related. In this way, it is precisely efficacy that is the uniting principle between the compelling entries in the “Praying with the Senses” portal—that is, if we define the efficacy of prayer as a sensation of communicative presence with the ‘holy’ that is actively organized, inflected, attuned, and extended by the agency of the devotional object itself. Or to put this another way, we could define the efficacy of prayer as a sensation of presence that radiates or resounds at the interface of the pious body and the devotional object (see for instance, “There is No Distance in Prayer”).


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.