November 12, 2013

Prayer Card

[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.]

One of the most important biblical references in the history of charismatic faith healing, the story of the woman with an “issue of blood” (Mark 5: 25-34), is often recounted to help explain the communication of curative efficacy from patient to healer. In this classic account of contagion, a woman with a seemingly incurable discharge of blood boldly makes her way through the dense throng following Jesus, reaching out her expectant hand to touch Jesus, the healer. Immediately upon contact with the “hem of his garment,” a healing virtue, or power, is communicated into the woman’s body. Both patient and healer simultaneously register this tactile contact: as the woman experiences a newfound sensation of somatic wellbeing, Jesus feels power leaving his body (see the above illustration from Oral Roberts’ famous 1950 treatise, If You Need Healing Do These Things). Given the significant place that this account holds in the theology and technique of charismatic faith healing, I would like to briefly explore this question: If the woman with an “issue” were to seek healing in the late modern context, how would she negotiate her way through the crowd to make contact with the healer?


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.”


March 6, 2013

What Prayer Can and Cannot Do

My interest in prayer has to do with what prayer can or cannot do. Mine is the quest of the doubter who would believe. I want to know what efficacy there is in prayer.

Can our prayers change the outer world? I suspect not, but I’m interested in stories that claim otherwise. Once a woman, whose beliefs I’d challenged, told me that she needed a swimsuit so that she could go into a medicinal spring that would help ease her back pain. She told me that she would pray for a swimsuit, and God would provide one that was within her rather meager budget. We were on a trip and in a hotel. So off she went to the hotel gift store. They had swimsuits, but all were far too expensive. A woman had overheard us talking, however, and followed my friend to the store. She offered to lend my friend a swimsuit and did. My friend returned to me triumphant. I protested that the woman had eavesdropped and thus her offer couldn’t be counted as an act of God. But my friend only laughed and said that I couldn’t restrict how God answered.

Many people in my family believe that God hears their prayers and intervenes to heal minor illnesses and to remedy daily difficulties in their lives. They find such a God reassuring. I find a God who would heal my sprained ankle while doing nothing to stop rape, torture, and starvation to be horrifying. But I don’t tell them that. I like it that they can believe. It helps them. And we all need help.

I’m more inclined to believe that prayer can change us. I’m interested in how. And why. And whether some forms of prayer change us more deeply than other forms.


February 25, 2013

The Radio as Prosthesis of 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.]

“Many lay their hands upon the radio as a point of contact during our Healing Waters broadcast. Through this means they release their faith and through faith they are healed during the ‘prayer time’ of the broadcast.”

Oral Roberts

The new definition of prayer laid forth in this portal could be used to articulate key techniques of Pentecostal and charismatic Christian healing prayer such as the “point of contact.” Now a ubiquitous term in the performance of Pentecostal prayer, Oral Roberts developed this technique specifically in relation to the radio apparatus. As millions of listeners tuned in to the “prayer time” of his Healing Waters Broadcast in the early 1950s, audiences began to experience distanced voice-in-prayer in a radically new way. The machinations of radio loudspeakers translated a praying voice into a series of warm vibrations that were haptically registered as listeners were exhorted to “lay their hands upon the radio” as “the point of contact.” Technical reproduction allowed for a new tactile sensation of the voice through the hand, signaling a profound shift in the experience and practice of prayer.

Prayer in the age of mechanical reproduction thus marks an inversion of the rite of manual imposition: it is no longer the healer who lays hands upon the sick, but the patient who reaches out to make tactile contact with the apparatus. The radio as point of contact organized a new “apparatus of belief” that no longer subsisted upon earlier modes of temporal articulation. Instead of articulating belief through the temporal deferrals and delays characteristic of the exchange and circulation of objects (see for instance, Prayer Cloths), for example, the radio apparatus produced the sensation of belief through sensory displacements and disjunctures attuned through the medium itself.