August 27, 2015

And All God's People Said...: Languages of Prayer in a Global Mega City

The film And All God’s People Said… is an attempt to explore and understand the world of the Pentecostal church in India’s most culturally and linguistically diverse and cosmopolitan city, Mumbai. A significant dimension of Pentecostal practice revolves around the deliberate cultivation of multilingualism, stemming ultimately from the belief that God empowers true believers with the gift of tongues. The film focuses on speech, drawing implicit connections between prayer (speaking to God, often before a human audience) and evangelical efforts that seek to communicate across divisions of language, culture, and class.

In a land where identities are ideologically constructed in terms of place, Pentecostal practice unsettles received national and subnational nativist understandings. The Christian population in India is approximately 2.3 percent of the total population; Pentecostal Christians (or “believers” as they call themselves) are perhaps only 0.1 percent, but they are the fastest growing segment of Indian Christianity. Indeed, they are the only segment that is winning new converts, both from mainstream Christianity and from Hinduism, in any appreciable numbers.

In India, the Christian minority is attacked by Hindu nationalists who believe that Hinduism, as the majority religion, should also be treated as the national religion. Anti-conversion laws have been passed in several Indian states in an attempt to prevent the spread of Christianity and other “foreign” religions, like Islam. And All God’s People Said… tells the story of some of those who do not think in such terms. The film explores the lives of Gauri, Aruna, Raj and Shankar, four first generation Pentecostal Christians in Mumbai. All four of them are from different religious, cultural and economic backgrounds, and all have chosen to convert to Christianity, to be part of the Pentecostal church. During this film they share their life stories, the reasons behind their choices, and how these decisions have changed their lives. Through their stories we get an insight into the Pentecostal churches in the culturally and religiously diverse city of Mumbai.

While working on this film I gathered a substantial amount of audio-video footage which ultimately was not included in the film. I have therefore converted the audio-visual data into an online interactive archive. This archive has free access for those who are interested in knowing more about the believer community in Mumbai. The digital archive includes maps to give an idea of locations at which the footage was shot. The archive includes notes on the various locations and allows the researcher to view extended footage of interviews, prayer meetings, and various prayer activities.

This film was made possible through the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, with support from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this film are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Social Science Research Council or the John Templeton Foundation.

December 9, 2014

Announcing Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

The Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere announces Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer (February 6-7, 2015). This two-day gathering will showcase the work of over 30 scholars and journalists exploring what the study of prayer can tell us about a range of topics.

Please join us February 6-7, 2015, for panels and presentations on topics including religious technologies, embodiment, material culture, language, politics, and the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, the conference will also feature the Prayer Expo—a pop-up installation of multi-media presentations and material objects that call attention to the myriad representations of prayer shaping discourse and practice. On Saturday, two plenary events will highlight the multiple registers of engagement occasioned by new, transdisciplinary research on the practice of prayer.

For more information on the conference and how to register, please click here. Registration is free, but space is limited.

March 28, 2014

Take It to the Bridge: Jazz Prayers

“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.


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.


May 6, 2013

Dwelling Amid Absence

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

It was William James who described “religion” as that which enables us to gesture towards what we cannot articulate or describe fully, but in which we place diffuse hopes for being delivered from our confinements, which we invoke with the mere act of speaking. The problems of our subject, and the ambivalent institutionalization of our discipline, appeared regularly for me as I relished Robert Orsi’s writings on prayer, presence, and intersubjectivity (and the writings of other contributors to this project). Thinking through the resonance of sacred presence, and the near impossibility (even audacity) of writing about the religious experience of another person, it strikes me that one of the most valuable things about engaging these topics is how fundamentally they confront us with what we do in the study of religion. That is to say, the intellectual and authorial difficulties they pose demand so obviously a renewed freshness and frankness in our engagements that we might even think of them as the scholarly equivalent of the really real.

As a challenge for our descriptions and for the possibility of our understandings, prayer reveals things to and about us. It shows that the conversation about religious experience cannot turn on the question of either normativity or distance, either summary judgment or free-floating relativism. Unless we maintain a quasi-theological commitment to scholarship as a kind of sorting through or evaluation of epistemological claims (and who would pursue the study of religion for such blunt and unpoetic reasons?), reckoning with religious presence and intersubjectivity (in prayer and elsewhere) demands other things of us. I have been thinking about these issues over the last several years as I write about religion and sonic creation, and in so doing I have thought continually about the relational modes that Orsi’s writings bring up so suggestively. The reason I meditate on authorial position at the outset is because one of these modes is an academic one. That is, when writing about particular kinds of religiosity, we are bidden to cultivate a kind of aesthetics of empathy, receptivity, and imaginative openness. This does not entail that we adopt the simplistic sympathy of the chronicler but urges us to consider empathy in the sense that we are co-experiencers, that we share a condition that drives our inquiry as well as those we study. In other words, to write about religion is possibly to experience something that religious people themselves experience: the absence of language and the attempt to restore it.