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.


November 19, 2013

The Highway QC’s, “Pray” (1968)

In 1945, Lee Richardson, Gus Treadwell, Creedell Copeland, Marvin Jones, and Charles “Jake” Richardson formed The Teenage Highway QC’s, named after Quincy College High School of Chicago. Various line-ups of the Highway QC’s performed into the 1990’s. Spin off stars include Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor. In “Pray,” personal and global apocalypses merge harmoniously. The stakes of one are intimately bound up with the other. Consequently, doo-wop directives oblige you to pray, or rather, not to “forget to pray,” for the sake of humanity.

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.