September 4, 2015

Interview III: Jeanie Hoskin

Jeanie is an American housewife. Due to her husband Jeff’s job, they spent a few years in the United Kingdom. Jeff was transferred a few months ago to Mumbai, where he and Jennie have been attending Pastor Shekhar Kallianpur’s church in Juhu.

In this interview, Jeanie shares her churchgoing experiences in the United States, the United Kingdom, and now in Mumbai. She draws comparisons between the fellowship in the United Kingdom and in Mumbai, and describes her experience of living in a city where Christians are a minority.

For more details, a complete transcript can be downloaded here.

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.

August 17, 2015

A Machine for the Production of Gods

Blanton_ImageAnderson Blanton (anthropology), postdoctoral scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, has spent the past several years researching how religious experience is shaped by media technologies and devotional objects. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Blanton discusses how his interest in this topic developed, bureaucracy as a kind of faith, the sacralization of everyday objects, and the “quotidian robustness of religious practice.”


Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did you first become interested in the materiality of prayer? 

Anderson Blanton: I was conducting research on gospel radio: small independent radio stations broadcasting Pentecostal preaching and worship styles on the AM and FM dial. You can still hear it when you drive all over the country. I was also going out into the community, doing fieldwork in several different Christian and Pentecostal communities in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. This object called “the prayer cloth” kept coming up. It’s usually a small snippet of cloth, a piece of a rag, or even a handkerchief that’s been prayed upon. The Charismatic faithful perform what they call “the anointing,” which is either laying hands on the object during communal prayer, and/or the actual application of oil upon the fabric. After this communal consecration, the materialized prayer is distributed throughout the community for divine protection and to bring blessings—sometimes in the form of miraculous financial accumulation.

The prayer cloth kept popping up in all of these communities, and I realized it was much more important than the scanty references I’d come across in the literature. I began looking back into the early history of Pentecostalism, and I found that the prayer cloth was a crucial material relay in and thorough which communities of faith were formed and sustained. A chapter in my most recent book, Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South, is dedicated to an exploration of this consecrated rag.

OR: In your writing, you’ve tied the prayer cloth more broadly to this idea that we’ve historically overlooked the role of materiality in prayer. Before I called you, I looked up the definition for prayer in Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “an address, as a petition to God (or a god), in word or thought.” So there’s no reference to the object. What do you think we miss when we look at prayer primarily as an internal or intellectual behavior?

AB: That definition is based upon a very Protestant idea about “proper” prayer which imagined the practice of divine communication, whether it be word or thought, to be a spontaneous and improvisatory outpouring of the heart. While I think this is certainly a legitimate way in which one might approach the phenomenon of prayer, there are all kinds of political motives operating behind this definition. For example, this particular description of prayer was often mobilized as an implicit critique of Catholic recitational practice and the use of devotional objects such as prayer beads. So from the very get-go, Webster’s seemingly straightforward and taken for granted definition excludes all of the vibrant traditions that mobilize bodily techniques (breath, posture, manual gesture), colorful images, structures of repetition, and devotional objects in order to open a communicative space between the sacred and the everyday.

In many ways the history of Protestantism has been sustained by a struggle with materiality and the particular ways in which the spirit would manifest itself in the world. The definition for prayer that you mention had a very important impact when the academic disciplines of anthropology and religious studies were formulating categories to think about “religion,” both in terms of its history and its future. During this formation, these academic fields were trying to differentiate between older, more “primitive” forms of magic, and supposedly more abstract and modern forms of what they were calling “religion.” What is important to note in this historical sketch is the way in which prayer, as a category, became a crucial pivot upon which the academic study of religion turned.   More specifically, much ink was spilled in an attempt to demarcate a clear boundary between magical incantation—with all its associated material objects and fixed bodily gestures—and the contingent act of prayer to an abstract and intellectualized deity. This formative demarcation was heavily politicized and animated by a specific Protestant idea of prayer. But it ended up, as so often happens, that these early formations and their political contexts faded into the background. Our average everyday understanding of prayer, both in the academy and on the street, is thus sustained by a repression that allows Webster’s definition of prayer as a spiritual act of vocal articulation or interior thought to persist.

The power and intellectual sedimentation of this definition is clearly demonstrated through the work of contemporary scholars of religion who take as their methodological starting point the idea that prayer is about an immaterial act of volition. While many of these studies are promising, it is interesting to note how they reproduce the Protestant narrative of prayer as a progressive abstraction from the magical material thing—be it the body, the object, or the technological apparatus—until it ends up being a kind of silent dialogue with an interior God. The Materiality of Prayer collection focuses on the material underbelly of prayer, demonstrating how the repressed thing not only animates pious practices in many religious traditions (including Protestantism!), but also how the renunciation of the object has fundamentally enlivened the academic study of religion.

OR: What happens when we expand the definition of prayer to make space for materiality? Do you then see prayer as a more broadly manifested thing? Can we see evidence of prayer in more secular or non-religious contexts?

AB: This is a wonderful question. When it comes to technology, we can see a kind of post-secular moment of prayer in the popular genres of horror and the uncanny. So many horror films nowadays feature a moment where there’s a premonition of something monstrous about to appear. I’m fascinated with how this presaging of terrible things to come is often registered by media technologies such as the camera or the cellular phone. So, for instance, in The Ring, the camera itself begins to register an anamorphotic distortion of the face that presages death. As an extension of our sensory faculties, technology itself begins to register the horrific presence of that which persists outside or beyond our ‘natural’ sensory capacities. Our contemporary fascination with genres of the uncanny can be seen as a kind of monstrous un-placeable prayer that is ‘voiced’ through the agency of a technological interface. In many contemporary horror films, the process of technological mediation opens a communicative relay between the everyday and an excessive beyond. In this way, to be frightened in a theatre is to be immersed in the terrible narrative progression of a post-secular prayer. As scholars of religion, I think we should attend closely to these uncanny technological presences and the unspeakable demands that they voice upon us from a spectral elsewhere just beyond the frame.

OR: Speaking of horror movies, I was reading your post on early, wind-up prayer dolls using Edison cylinders. They had a tendency to wind down and sound very monstrous towards the end of the recitation of prayers. But in the post, you write something very interesting: “[T]he object is not merely a praying doll, but a doll who prays.” What’s that line between an object as a conduit versus it becoming a sort of idolatrous object?

AB: I mobilize this kind of language about a doll who prays in order to trouble the typical and taken for granted locus of human agency in relation to prayer. This is precisely the anxiety that is hidden within Webster’s definition, which is all about the interiority of a speaking subject who would then exteriorize the prayer out into the world through structures of thought and spoken word. But the minute we see a praying doll and children who are reacting to it—or allowing it to pray for them—we’ve already displaced, or profaned, these established Protestant definitions of prayer. In a surrealist mode, the praying doll reveals how the agency of prayer is dispersed into rotating gears, wind-up springs, doll factories, and the recorded voice of an anonymous woman cut into the grooves of a phonograph disk.

The multiple authors who have contributed to the Materiality of Prayer collection gesture to the way in which the social and sensorial power of prayer is generated through displacements “outside” the subject. Little surrealist acts such as the film of the praying doll mobilize a critique against the established narratives of prayer we have previously discussed. To take seriously the claim that dolls pray is to open a new direction in the study of prayer. In this sense you’re exactly right: the Materiality of Prayer is an act of idolatrous fetishism that attempts to destabilize our established, everyday understandings of prayer, both on the street and in the academy.

OR: It’s a kind of rupturing of the mold.

AB: This narrative of prayer as a history of progressive abstraction from the material and technical realm is still so entrenched. We need these “shock-acts,” these surrealist skits, in order to jolt us out of over-determined understandings of prayer. This critical method in the study of prayer is not only a reassessment of what prayer is and what it might become; it’s a way to describe human agency in a world of thinking machines and ever-expanding surfaces of memory storage. In terms of our contemporary setting and the “return” of religion, the praying doll helps us to theorize tele-technology and data storage as generative of an unanticipated excess that could be termed a divine calling in a post-secular world.

OR: You addressed how prayer cloths become holy through a ritual, but I’m curious about other “holy” objects. Say, for instance, Jesus appearing on toast. How do everyday objects become holy?

AB: I’m fascinated by this process of transformation within the religious field: How can a mere rag, a piece of detritus, a fragment which even has an association with bodily fluids, become a receptacle of Holy Ghost power? There’s an established anthropological tradition that describes how the ritual process of consecration transforms everyday objects, secreting them away from the profane touch of everyday life. Émile Durkheim, for example, devoted many pages of his influential work on religion to explain how it was that certain objects—rocks, worms, ants, seemingly trivial things on the landscape—could become enlivened with a sacred power to kill, heal, and structure thought itself.

In a very Durkheimian way, the Pentecostal prayer cloth, that mere piece of detritus ripped from an old sheet, is consecrated through the force of religious community. Within the space of the church, multiple participants place their hands upon the cloths and begin praying together in loud, passionate voices. This moment of extreme emotional feeling, what Durkheim beautifully termed “collective effervescence,” generates a space of sensory and subjective excess that pushes the religious participant beyond the established boundaries of the self. After the intensity of the prayer yields to silence, the anointed prayer cloth appears as a materialized residue of tangled hands and boisterous noise. Through this moment of communal excess, the prayer cloth is metamorphosed into a sacred object that, through devotional manipulation and exchange of hand, has the capacity to recall the ecstatic performance of communal prayer.

In terms of the miraculous appearance on toast, there would probably be a great deal of tradition and perceptual training that allowed the subject to discern a divine apparition upon a charred surface of bread. This is not to denigrate this miraculous moment, but to point to the powerful ways in which religion structures perceptual capacity and generates an expectancy that is constantly clothing the contingencies of the everyday in sacred garments. Again in a Durkheimian mode, religion can be seen as a system of consecration that takes everyday objects such as toast out of the profane mouth and into a climate controlled glass case. What’s important to note here are the ways in which the forces of religious tradition and discipline allow a seemingly trivial object to become isolated within a religious system of classification that dictates how the object should be handled, displayed and consumed. As a media anthropologist, I also find these moments of “holy” toast interesting for what they tell us about human agency and perception in relation to everyday technology. In this way, the holy toast could be read as a revelation or desublimation of the infrastructures of everyday life—electricity for instance—that are forgotten or repressed, yet return to us with strange and monstrous potential in moments of technological breakdown.

OR: When it comes to new technologies, I’m curious about the role of suspension of disbelief in experiences of the miraculous. So for instance, with Oral Roberts and his TV appearances, he’s pressing his hand against a clear surface, and telling viewers to make contact. How does that translate today? Is it simply a matter of how much faith one brings to the process? Or, now that there’s a clearer understanding of how television works, is there a decrease in the efficacy of the experience?

AB: The phenomenon of putting your hand on the television to facilitate miraculous healing prayer is still widely practiced, in fact we see it going on with Pentecostal faith healers all over the world. This charismatic prayer gesture is a good example of what Hent de Vries calls the “interfacing” between the technological and the miraculous. I find this concept extremely useful because it recasts the old question of “(dis)belief” and its relation to religious experience in a new light. In these moments of technically mediated religious performance, belief itself is organized within a ritual environment that is inextricably related to a specific media technology. Prayer and its miraculous effects in these mass mediated circumstances are organized through an apparatus of belief that interfaces bodily capacities and effects that are specific to certain media such as television.

Take for example Oral Roberts, who pioneered this “put your hand upon the apparatus” type of healing prayer. During the early days of his ministry in the late 1940’s, this faith healer would instruct the dispersed members of the listening audience to “put your hand upon your radio cabinet as a point of contact” to facilitate the communication of miraculous healing power. The “radio cabinets” to which Roberts referred resembled pieces of large household furniture, and their glass vacuum tubes generated a warm auratic presence that could be felt in addition to the loudspeaker vibrations. The “special effect” of the radio and its transductions allowed the religious subject to literally feel the healing prayer as a series of warm vibrations registered through the hand. This new gesture of charismatic prayer allowed the hand to become an organ of audition.

Yet when Roberts tried to replicate the structure of the radio broadcast on his early television programs, it simply didn’t work; he was unable to cultivate the same belief over the new visual medium of television. Just a few years later, he reorganized the television program and developed a new technique of prayer. During this new “TV Prayer,” Roberts would press his right hand of discernment upon a translucent glass plate strategically placed in front of the camera lens and instruct: “Those in the television audience, won’t you come up here and put your hand upon mine.”

During this portion of the TV prayer, he craftily puts his hand on this glass plate, which you can’t see—it’s a kind of special effect—and it’s as if the flesh of his hand has been pressed against the glass tube of the television. I recently realized that, several years before, there were deodorant commercials involving a process of squirting and rubbing different kinds of deodorant substances on a glass surface for the TV viewing audience so they could see that “our deodorant is less messy” and will be more effective for the control of those evil and excessive body odors.

OR: I love this idea of Oral Roberts having an “aha!” moment while watching a deodorant commercial.

AB: Yes, instances such as the translucent glass plate challenge us to think beyond the old story of faith healers “duping” credulous audiences with sleight of hand and technical artifice. As an anthropologist, I want to push into these moments to see what they reveal—not only about technology and the way it structures certain environments and capacities—but to take seriously this idea that many people who pressed their hands against the TV during the healing prayer did in fact experience a radical reorientation of their ailment and its symptoms. These profound transformations, and the vivid testimonies recounted by the patient, suggest the ways in which an experience of the miraculous is generated within a specific media environment that interfaces older forms of ritual healing with new media technologies. Oral Roberts famous phrase “Get a point of contact and turn your faith loose!” and its specific intimacies with media technologies such as radio and television reveal that the experiential force of the faith cure is engendered not so much in the “suspension of disbelief,” but that the very sensation of belief itself is generated through a specific process of technological mediation. Belief appears at that strange interface between body and material medium, and this particular structuring of prayer through a technological or objectile interface is what I call the apparatus of belief: it’s not you who believe, but the apparatus that believes in you.

OR: And you write about how the presence of the camera actually altered the way Roberts conducted his healings.

AB: Yes. During the formative years of their healing revival, Oral Roberts and his ministry team became more and more adept with the mechanical eye of the camera; they used its “zooming” capacity to bring the distanced viewer into the ecstatic and tactile performance of the healing line. Just as you mentioned, the presence of the camera within the revival tent altered the healing line and its serialized movement of ailing bodies across the tent stage. In order to create a kind of warmth and visual intimacy for the displaced television audience, Oral became much more chatty with patients in the healing line. Ironically, the high speed Kodak camera slowed down the healing line. Again, this visual intimacy was wrapped up in the technical capacities of the camera itself, whether it be a close-up of Roberts as he vigorously pressed his hand upon the forehead of the patient, or the moment when the ritual of the laying on of hands was performed for the displaced TV audience through the “special effect” of the hidden glass plate.

OR: We were chuckling at the idea of Roberts getting this great idea from a deodorant commercial, but clearly his goal was to try to create as authentic an experience for the viewer as possible.

AB: Exactly, and these moments of “special effect” aren’t merely about tricking an audience, but what kinds of sensory environments are structured through the televisual medium. These performances of technologically mediated religious presence are not only revealing for what they tell us about charismatic Christianity, but perhaps more broadly about certain somatic effects and environments that are organized through technology—and this outside a specifically religious context.

Take, for example, the deodorant ad just mentioned. Historically, deodorant has always been wrapped up not just in smells, or the body and its potential excesses, but with a moralization that cathects hygienic practices and the disciplining of proper subjective boundaries with religious undertones. And this is where advertising, what Raymond Williams calls “the magic system,” comes in. Its not mere coincidence that the special effect of Oral Roberts’ TV prayer presses close to the advertising techniques used to sell deodorant; both performances invoke a miraculously quickened body full of divine health, supernatural mojo and charisma. In this way, the landscape of popular culture is absolutely saturated with advertising effects that bare a striking similarity to charismatic prayer and its promise of miraculous accumulation and divine blessing. Whether we’re talking about selling deodorant or building an evangelical empire, prayer and advertising are intimately related.

You’ll never put on roll-on deodorant the same way!

OR: In one of your posts, you discuss tent revivals, and the whole process behind it is surprisingly bureaucratic. It doesn’t sound dissimilar from taking a trip to the doctor or a hospital.

AB: We tend to think about prayer as a kind of spontaneous moment where a subject converses with the divine. But if we look at the techniques for crowd control and regulation within the huge space of the charismatic revival tent, we see that practices of prayer can be regulated within rigid bureaucratic systems. The thousands of bodies waiting in the prayer line of the Oral Roberts crusades, for instance, were issued color-coded numerical prayer cards dictating when they were allowed to enter the line. These cards were stamped just like a factory ticket or hospital triage system, including space for the patient to fill out information about the nature of the illness. Once again, to bring attention to prayer and its underlying structures is not to meant to detract from the ‘authenticity’ of the form—this, after all, would be another Webster move—but to demonstrate the way in which a powerful experience of healing prayer is inextricably related to sorting machines, material objects, and bureaucratic systems.

OR: I was fascinated by the way you discussed it. For me, it brought to mind the process of surrendering to the force of a bureaucracy, and how that act can almost be a kind of faith. So, for instance, in a visit to the doctor, you fill out all this paper work, and there’s almost always a wait time, which heightens the sense that you’re about to see an authority figure. There are the doctors’ white coats that set them apart from us. And, in most cases, they have more knowledge than you about certain things, so you end up putting your faith in them.

AB: Focusing in on prayer reveals other structures and lines of social and technological force that, at first glance, are seemingly outside the confines of religion. And as you so aptly point out, the prayer card is a kind of mirror of western-bio-medicine and its medical bureaucracies. The grotesque and unanticipated product of this medical system is Oral Roberts, who sits above you on the raised dais underneath the massive revival tent and says, “Oh, here you are, Mr. So-and-So from Smalltown, USA, and you have a goiter,” and he’s reading off a card in a dry and clipped cadence, and after the technique of healing prayer, the symptoms of illness miraculously disappear. In many ways, the specific techniques of Oral Roberts’ healing prayer become a kind of ritual parody that reveals sociological insight into media technology, popular culture, and a history of the senses.

OR: You often discuss prayer as this bridge between the sacred and the everyday. Does that approach frame your sense of how materiality is entangled with prayer?

AB: I don’t just want to think about religion or “the sacred” as this profound moment you have in a church with candles flickering and organs playing. Instead I want to think about the quotidian robustness of religious practice: a man fingering his beads and muttering a prayer to the staccato rhythm of a packed subway car headed into Manhattan. I want to think about the way religion circulates in everyday life: a cashier passing out anointed prayer cloths during her long shift on the Wal-Mart checkout line. To focus upon prayer and its relation to material objects is to gesture toward the lived vibrancy of what ethnologist Michael Leiris called “the sacred in everyday life.”

OR: You write that, “It remains to be seen if this process of suturing the academic description of prayer to its repressed technical and material residues will be an act of religion—or that of profanation.” Can you say more about this idea that it might be both?

AB: To take a sacred object out of its isolated religious environment and put it back into everyday circulation or use is an act of profanation. It has been said that the first ball games originated when children pulled down the sacred orb of the sun and began playing with it—an act of profanation par excellence. The Materiality of Prayer describes how religion is enlivened through the everyday circulations of mere rags, worn wooden beads, and burnt toast, and in this way can be seen as a critical profanation of established academic conceptions of what prayer is and how it should be practiced. Yet to suggest that things and media environments, as extensions that bind us to a particular phenomenal world, are voicing a call to prayer outside or beyond particular religious contexts is to claim that technology is constantly re-enchanting the world with an unplaceable appearance of excess—and this is a machine for the production of gods.

July 22, 2015

Not Your Grandmother's Islam

Ebenezer ObadareEbenezer Obadare, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, is researching the emergence of what he terms “Charismatic Islam” in Nigeria. Despite the electricity going out just as he started discussing Pentecostal notions of power, Obadare reported from Lagos to Jennifer Lois Hahn on interfaith competition and exchange, political power shifts, and the role of the nation’s largest freeway in the spiritual marketplace there.


Jennifer Lois Hahn: Can you give readers who might be unfamiliar with Nigeria a brief picture of the religious landscape there at the moment?

EO: Nigeria is the most populous African country. One in every 5 or 6 Africans is a Nigerian. The population is about 175 million. There are three broad Ethno-language regions: the Hausa land in the north, the Yoruba in the south, and the Igbo in the east. There are hundreds of other minority groups. In terms of religion, there is a more or less clean divide between the Muslim north and the Christian south, with Catholicism being the predominant denomination in the southeast and Pentecostalism being the dominant form in the southwest. Perhaps because of this, the history of the country has always unfolded along the lines of tension between the two contending religions.

JLH: Where do traditional African religions fit into this picture?

EO: So that is a very interesting question, and I’m glad you asked because it usually doesn’t feature in most analyses. It’s there in the sense that you still find people who identify themselves as traditional worshipers. But it’s also an intangible presence in both Islamic and Christian practice and ideology. It almost becomes this “other” against which the “global” religions constantly measure themselves, an other that they really can’t do without. It’s the other that they deny, that they need to demonize in order to establish themselves.

JLH: How would you explain the growth of Pentecostalism in Nigeria?

EO: There are so many reasons for it. One is the fact that it succeeds, in the sense that people can point to concrete milestones and say, “This was my life before I became a born again Christian and this is my life now.” Those milestones are usually material milestones. The spiritual is also there. One can say, “I’m spiritually overhauled, I’m refurbished, I’m a different person.” A much more important reason why Pentecostalism has been a success is that it has been able to give people a source of stability and meaning in a general context in which meaning remains elusive and the state remains distant from people’s everyday lives. It’s become a site of solidarity for people otherwise left behind among the rough and tumble of everyday life. For many people, it has provided a concrete community. You have friends, you have associates, you have fellow professionals who you can say are also Pentecostals. For many people that is ground, almost literally, to stand upon, in a context in which global, economic, cultural, and material forces are trying to pull the rug out from under your feet. That ground becomes something very tangible and very real for many people. I think the other thing is, in a context in which the state has failed for many people, Pentecostalism provides an alternative horizon. It provides an explanation. It tells you, “Oh, the reason the state has failed is because we’ve been derelict in ethical respect. There are things we ought to be doing as a nation that we are not doing.” So it provides a framework for people to make sense of the world around them in terms of the everyday community in which they live, but also the global community in which they find themselves. For example, if you talk to many Pentecostals about the crisis of education in the country, they will say many of these things are punishment for the sins of our leaders.

JLH: In one of your papers, you write about how Pentecostalism gives people access to power, that through the Holy Spirit people find this line to power that they wouldn’t normally have. Someone of a more Marxist-functionalist bent might question if that is real power.

EO: When we think about power in this context, we’re talking about power in at least two senses. One is the power behind all powers that every Pentecostal assumes is there. Meaning behind what you see right now–

Can you see me right now? The electricity, the power is gone so just give me a second. Hey, this is Nigeria! I think it’s actually very interesting that we’re talking about power now and the power just left. [Laughs]

So for Pentecostals, the assumption is that behind everything we see, everything that is tangible, there is a different, ultimate source of power that sustains, produces, undergirds, and authorizes every other power—political power, material power, economic power. In order to fully understand that you have to go the African cultural worldview, particularly the Yoruba cultural worldview. Agbara is Yoruba for power. Without that power, you can’t do anything. You need power in order to be able to achieve anything in life. J. D. Y. Peel has written extensively about this. So that’s the first and most important sense in which power can be understood. The other type of power, in terms of understanding Pentecostal notions of power, is political power of course. In the Nigerian context, it’s not just political power as political power. It’s political power in a context in which there is a struggle for political supremacy between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. In the perception of many people, the Muslim North has held on to power for so long. Those in the south feel marginalized. Part of the discussion leading to the birth of the Fourth Republic in 1999 was a demand for what was called a power-shift. It was a power-shift in two senses: from the Muslims to the Christians and from the north to the south. So those are the two senses in which power features in the Pentecostal imaginary.

The suspicion that spiritual power doesn’t always translate into economic or political gains is basically correct. But the empirical data complicates things. Take for instance the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which is easily the most prominent and successful Pentecostal denomination in Nigeria, if not in Africa, right now. So if you go with the argument that spiritual power doesn’t really translate into economic power, you’d be denying the reality that this church has come from very humble beginnings to become an economic behemoth. It’s got one of the biggest church spaces in the entire world. The church has universities. It employs thousands of people. So for those people, the disparity that a secularist interpretation might assume between spiritual power and economic power does not exist. What actually exists is a translation from one to the other in which if you mobilize spiritual power, economic power is most likely to follow.

JLH: Let’s talk about Charismatic Islam. I’d never heard the term before reading your work. Is that a term that you coined?

EO: I did.

JLH: Very cool! Can you talk about the ways in which Muslims are borrowing, reinterpreting, or appropriating Pentecostal ways of worship?

EO: I came up with Charismatic Islam to describe the reality I saw on the ground of Muslims increasingly relying on the same repertoires and devotional strategies of Pentecostals. So I could have called it Pentecostal Islam, but that would have been very problematic. But there was no way to get around the fact that certain Pentecostal practices were showing up in the Islamic context. And Charismatic Islam was a way for me to make sense of that and to name that phenomenon. To say, “This is what I’m looking at. This is not your grandmother’s Islam.” This is a new formation of Islam—contemporary, current, and modern, getting all its signals and suggestions from Pentecostalism. But here is the issue, and I think it’s important to underscore this: what I’m trying to describe is not a one-way affair. It’s an economy. In this part of the world, spatially, culturally, and in every other regard, Islam and Christianity have been very contiguous. When two great religions have lived in close quarters, when their practitioners have drunk from the same cultural water, it becomes almost impossible to have very strict denominational boundaries. I guess that’s a very roundabout way of saying that, in the past, Christianity has borrowed from Islam and Islam has borrowed from Christianity. And in the more distant past, both Christianity and Islam have borrowed from traditional religion. So Charismatic Islam then becomes the latest iteration of this process of mutual convergence, appropriation, and borrowing that takes place in a context of very fierce and intense interfaith competition. But this also takes place within a cultural framework in which people take it for granted that, “My cousin can become a Muslim. I can become a Christian.” For many people it’s not a big deal to have a Christian dad and Muslim mom, or vice versa.

JLH: Can you talk about some specific ways in which Muslims are appropriating Pentecostal practices?

EO: One good example is Muslims holding Sunday services. Globally, Sunday is the day of prayer for Christians. But increasingly in this part of the world because of this intense competition, Muslims are now saying, “If we can’t beat you, we can at least join you. We can make sure that you don’t poach all our kids, you don’t take them away to Christianity. At the national level, where political contestation goes on, we’re also able to match you.”

JLH: Have Muslims adopted the Pentecostal practice of spiritual warfare?

EO: The emphasis on the devil, on evil forces, on the evil eye, on witchcraft, on a particular construction of a demonology, a world-view in which there is always a negative “other”, either ambushing you, waylaying you, or something there that is frustrating your plans, and that doesn’t want you to succeed—that imagination, that demonology, has become part and parcel of Islamic prayer and devotional practices. This also takes us back to what I said earlier about the way in which African traditional metaphysics is almost always at the background of Christianity. Whether you are a Muslim or a Christian in this part of the world, you are first and foremost something else—and that is an African. You are born into a particular cultural habitus. There is no running away from that habitus, in that it catches you off guard when you are not even thinking about it. It’s pre-theoretical, it’s there before you even know it. It’s something that structures the way you see the world. For Christianity and Islam, it becomes something against which they continually battle, especially in the context of what Pentecostals and increasingly Muslims call spiritual warfare. I was listening on the radio yesterday, and a popular local musician, a Muslim by identification and practice, was signing a live song. And it came to this solemn moment where he started describing himself as a new person, and he used the term “born again.” We all know that usually when you say you are born again, it means that you were already a Christian, and that you became a new kind of Christian. But that word has now migrated from a Christian context into a Muslim context.

JLH: Before we forget, let’s talk about the Lagos Expressway. I was so taken by what you have written about what’s going on there religiously. Can you describe that for our readers?

NASFAT Islamic Center | Photo by Ebenezer ObadareEO: So the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is easily the most lively, traveled, and busy highway in Nigeria. Over time, because of Nigeria’s traditional problems with maintenance, it fell into disrepair. But it is still the artery that takes you from Lagos, which is a port city, to other parts of the country. So you have to travel on that road. The road is being fixed now, sort of. But that’s beside the point. The point is that at some point it became clear to everybody that in order to be able to establish a presence, you needed a spot on that Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. The first church to do that was the Redeemed Church of Christian God, which established a redemption camp somewhere on the expressway. Part of why the church did that—this has been acknowledged in the literature—was not just to have a physical space that was away from the hustle and bustle of Lagos, but also to signal its own capacity to build a city, a space, that was morally and ethically different from the rest of the country. Initially it was a camp where you would basically go to do the work of spiritual overhauling: you would commune with god, keep in touch with yourself, and undergo the [spiritual?] bath. Over time, the camp became, slowly and then very rapidly after a while, a city by itself. It has its own banks, its own schools. It’s extensive up in there. It’s huge! The centerpiece is the worship center. It’s almost like a Pentecostal Vatican if you will. So the redemption camp became very famous. Every year, they have the Holy Ghost Conference, and people come from every part of the world. I’m talking millions of people. But don’t forget, we’re talking about an expressway that is slowly falling into disrepair. Meaning that every time the Redeemed Christian Church holds a service, things just go crazy on the expressway. Drivers have been caught up in the ensuing anarchy, sometimes for twelve or even 16 hours of absolutely no motion. They can’t go anywhere. It didn’t take the Muslims too long to realize that something was going on here, that this expressway had been claimed by Christians, represented in this case by the Redeemed Church. What they needed to do was not just to contest that space, physically and metaphysically, but to say, “We too can bring traffic to a halt. Look at us. We’re big. We’re mighty! There are millions of us.” So at some point the Muslims decided that the only way they could match what the Christians were doing was to also have their own prayer camp on the expressway. Lo and behold, the Muslim prayer group Nasirul-Lahi-L-Fatih Society of Nigeria (NASFAT) bought a piece of land on the expressway and established their own prayer camp. One of the most symbolic things they did was to engineer their own traffic snarl. It wasn’t an accident. The secretary who I spoke to in the course of my research said, “We did it deliberately.” I asked why and he said, “We wanted them to know that they are not the only ones who can block the highway.” And they did! And a lesson was learned. I recently needed to drive on that road again, and there are tens if not hundreds of churches and mosques on that expressway, on both sides. I’m talking real estate that would blow your mind. There are massive billboards. It’s become a space for every church or mosque to say, “This is who we are. We’re taking a stand. We’re present.” The political battle is carried out here in a special sense with people basically saying the expressway belongs to us, in the same way that they are fighting a battle for the possession of political supremacy in the country.

JLH: It seems the members of NASFAT are largely professional, urban types of people. To what extent does the use of Pentecostal forms exist in other Muslim groups and demographics? Are more conservative Muslims adopting Pentecostal practices in the same way?

EO: NASFAT is not the only autonomous Charismatic Islamic group in this part of the country. There are actually tens if not hundreds of groups. It’s an Islamic resurgence in itself, motivated partly by struggles within the faith—contentions, disputations, and all kinds of arguments happening among Muslims. At the same time, it is definitely a response to the stimulus provided by the success of Pentecostalism. As popular as NASFAT is, and as definite as the larger resurgence is, there are still elements within the faith that are not comfortable with many of these changes. But there is also an acknowledgement that if you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to do some of these things. It’s a catch-22 situation. You want to remain competitive in a religious marketplace, but you want to do that while holding on to your soul, to your identity that you think fundamentally constitutes you. So that’s the kind of struggle that is going on.

JLH: I’m curious about the church/state situation there, with both Pentecostals and Muslims. Are religious groups trying to vie for the government being officially one way or the other?

EO: Absolutely. That is part of what I was talking about when I mentioned the power-shift argument. There is a perception that not just northerners, but Muslim northerners, have been in charge of the levers of power for too long, and that power needs to shift to the South, geographically but also religiously. It has been a constant trope in Nigerian politics. So if you look at the last election where the then-incumbent was a southern minority Christian matched up against a northern Muslim, the religious factor became quite prominent. So there were Pentecostals who thought then-President Jonathan, the Christian, wasn’t quite up to par, but supported him anyway because he’s a Christian and because under him they received significant concessions, access to power, and so many other things that you get from proximity to power. But there were other Pentecostals who were willing to support a Muslim candidate. Yesterday I asked a pastor, “Who did you support?” and he said, “I supported [now-president] Buhari”. I said, “Even though he’s a Muslim?” and he said, “Yeah, I supported him because even though he’s a Muslim, I think he was the better of the two candidates.”

JLH: You know how in the United States there is often so much rhetoric about separation of church and state, and that if a President is religious he should keep that separate from his governing. I’m wondering if there is a similar rhetoric there? For instance, if someone is a Pentecostal president, do people think they should keep that out of governance?

EO: A tiny group of intelligentsia and academics does—though of course not all academics. I count myself among that tribe, people who believe that you should keep church and state separate. Because once you don’t do that, you are creating room for the emergence of all kinds of problems. But most people don’t buy that argument. Most people think that there is nothing wrong with a Christian showing that he is a Christian. And there is nothing wrong with a Muslim showing that he is a Muslim. Now this is where it gets interesting: Muslims may resent the open, pornographic display of Christianity in the enactment of power, the same way that Christians might resent what they call Islamization of the state. So I guess, when a Christian is in power and I’m a Christian, everything is fine. And when you are a Muslim and a Muslim is in power, it’s fantastic. Right now we have a new president who is trying to find his feet. Expect Christians in the next few months to start saying, “There are too many Muslims in power anyway. Oh, he’s going to Saudi Arabia again? When a Christian was in power, it wasn’t this bad.” So that’s part of the background noise that I guess you are always going to expect.

JLH: You’ve written about the emergence of women in leadership positions in Nigerian Muslim groups. Is that also something that is a mirroring of Pentecostalism?

EO: I don’t know the extent to which it’s a mirroring of Pentecostalism, but part of the unwitting outcome of the development of Charismatic Islam is the fact that suddenly women are also becoming very prominent players within the Islamic faith. Two of the people I had the opportunity to interview are female Muslim preachers, who are married to men, but who have a degree of independence from their men. They are basically in their own individual camps by themselves. One is building a whole mosque. The other actually has a school. So a new spirit of entrepreneurship and individual assertiveness seems to have broken out among women as a result of the development of what I call Charismatic Islam. I don’t think it was intended. Men never intend for women to be free. But it’s clear that when you look back, this is why this has happened. I spoke to a conservative Islamic scholar in Ibadan and an Islamic theologian at the University and both of them kind of agreed and said, “Look, we get modernization and doing things differently, adjusting to new practical realities, but, hey, women shouldn’t lead prayers.” As a result of this development, there are also now very interesting debates among Muslims: “What did Khadijah do? What did the wives of the Prophet do? How much leeway did they have?” And the women leaders say, “You know, I’m sorry but your reading of the Koran is not my reading.” Which at the end of the day, I think is a very, very positive development. Having said that, within both Pentecostal and Islamic groups, you can say without fear of contradiction that we still live in a strictly male-dominated and very hierarchical system. I don’t want anyone to walk away thinking that Nigeria has become this avant-garde bastion for female liberation. No, it’s still a male-dominated world and I think it’s going to take a lot of time before that will change. Part of the interesting development within Pentecostalism is also the emergence of women-preachers, but many of them are preachers to the extent that they are identified as wives of pastors.

JLH: One last question. You’ve said before that Islam in Africa is understudied. Why do you think that is?

EO: Ever since I discovered that, I’ve been trying to find an answer myself. It’s not as if Islam is not interesting to study, right? Now I’m basically thinking on my feet, so I don’t know if this is the right answer, but perhaps the association of Christianity with western modernity has played a role. I don’t know the extent to which that helped in the development of literature around Christianity and sort of left Islam more or less under-appreciated. That and the initial reluctance by Muslims to send their children to missionary schools for fear of having them converted. But I think that it is beginning to change. Muslims themselves are writing more and more about the faith. And I think the fact that people notice all the exchanges between Christianity and Islam is working in favor of Islam. It was my interest in religion that took me to study Pentecostalism, but you can’t study Pentecostalism in Nigeria these days without talking about Islam. So the explosion of Pentecostalism, in the end, becomes something positive and beneficial for the study of Islam.

September 11, 2014

Pentecostalism in the Global South—New Film Captures Stories of Indian Converts

Savitri Medhatul is a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker whose latest film, “And All God’s People Said…”, follows the small, but rapidly growing population of Pentecostal-Charismatic converts in India. Medhatul, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the complexities these self-described “believers” face in a majority Hindu society, their innovative use of technology to spread the gospel, and the advantages and limitations of the medium of film for capturing their stories. 


Jennifer Lois Hahn: One of the things I really liked about your proposal is how you talk about prayer as a desire for change, both personal and societal. Could tell me about how you came to conceive of it that way?

Savitri Medhatul: I started going to these churches because of my husband. He and his family belong to a believer church. My in-laws wanted me to get exposure to the church. In this church, giving testimony is a very big activity. I would listen to people’s testimonies and what they were sharing in the church meetings. In India, a huge percentage of people are first generation converts. They’re not from Christian families, they’re not from believer families, but at some point in their lives they have made a choice to become a believer. Going from a majority religion to a minority religion is always a very interesting choice. They would say in their testimonies, “Since I have started going to church, this has happened and that has happened and in this way my life has changed.” So those testimonies actually got me interested in knowing a little more behind the story and how people perceive change in their lives. Would it have just happened anyways? Was it really because they started coming to church? It does happen, because you start believing in a certain values system, your perspective changes.

JLH: What are some of the problems that people bring to the church? What is motivating them to want to change?

SM: Church almost works like an alternative to going to a psychiatrist many times. People who are depressed, people who are suicidal, people who have issues with their business, in their marriage, people who are just looking for certain spiritual answers which they are not able to get in other ways of praying or other beliefs. Illness is a big reason, because healing is very important in Pentecostal and believer churches. Many times, people who come to church have been brought by their neighbor, friend, or relative who is already a member. That person will tell them, “You have tried everything. Why don’t you come to my church? I promise you that in Jesus’s name you will be healed.” 

JLH: Why do you think converts feel they cannot find this kind of support and healing in the Hindu tradition?

SM: Most of the people that I spoke to had at some time in their life reached a stage where they were depressed, where they were not getting the outputs they expected from life. They were searching for an answer to “Why is everything going wrong?” And they were not able to find it in a temple and whatever pujas (Hindu prayer rituals) they were doing were not effective. The Pentecostal practices are completely different from Hindu religious practice. There is no idol worship. There are no elaborate rituals. It feels a lot more spiritual. They needed an extremely drastic change. If you go from one temple to another things don’t change as much. Sometimes you need that jolt of extreme contrast in your life.

Also these believer churches are actively involved in helping the poor denomination of the society with infrastructure such as education, work, and food, for which the state is not able to match the need. These churches are able to fill smaller gaps, maybe not at the very wide scale, but in their own small ways. When basic needs are fulfilled people see it as a kind of blessing from a god and that also motivates them into believing in this god. The fact is that the god that gives me answers and the god that provides for me is the god that I choose.

Another difference is that there is a lot of physical contact and direct person-to-person connection in Pentecostal prayers that is not present in Hindu prayers where the connection is with the idol or the middleman who is the priest. Whereas in a believer church I am actually feeling you. I’m either holding your hands or putting my hands on your head or your shoulder. I’m holding you and I’m actually looking at you. There is no middleman. There are no other kinds of representation or symbols. It is directly between two people or you and god the almighty, which is an abstract space. You’re not praying in front of a cross, statue, or photograph of Jesus. So I think that this extremely personalized experience might be attracting people. There’s also definitely a certain kind of break in the whole formality of prayer. In believer church when there is praise and worship people are singing and jumping and dancing. I think it’s a very liberating experience for people to express their bodies like that.

JLH: Can you tell me a little bit more about the relationship between Pentecostal-Charismatics and other religions in Mumbai?

India is a secular country, but some of the states in India have issued anti-conversion acts. Some say no one should be given any incentive for conversion, that there should not be any force, that you can only convert if you feel the need from internally. Many church activities can be interpreted as forceful conversions. So those acts are used in many states to prosecute church members and there are certain incidences of violence against believer churches in these states. But the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is, does not have an anti-conversion act. The church population there is in such minority.

Another interesting thing is that in India many people live in joint families and many times only one or two members of the family have joined the church and other members of the family are still following their old religion, still doing the pujas and everything regularly. You can’t just pick up Hindu idols and throw them out because for all you know your mother and father are still praying. So in that given space what does one do? That I found very interesting, how people find solutions to these kinds of problems. Some say, “Ok fine, if you want to do your puja then you do it in your room and don’t ask me to participate in it. And you will do your thing and I will do my thing. And if you want to do any big ritualistic puja in the house, please excuse me, I will be out of the house that day.” These kinds of territories and borders are negotiated within a family because not everybody is a believer and there are two different kinds of beliefs and rather drastically contrasted ways of praying among the family members.

JLH: I want to switch gears a little bit and have you tell me more about your choice to work in the medium of film. In the U.S., at least, we have a tendency to think of prayer as a private, internal thing that would be difficult to capture on camera.

 SM: It was a little difficult because even in India when people are praying many times it is done in their room alone. But thankfully in believer church the prayers are very vocal. Even if they are praying alone in their rooms, they are speaking out the words of the prayer. So the way these people pray helped me to do my filming. There is a lot of speaking in tongues. There are a lot of gestures. There is a lot of energy. You can feel that energy in the room. So these are the aspects which I think can be captured with an audiovisual medium, because then you actually get to see what is happening rather than just somebody narrating a scene.

At the same time film as a format has its own limitations. It has its own structure. You have to develop characters in a certain pattern. I can’t make a four hour film—it would just be too much to watch. There is only so much information you can give. Also, information given in film is more experiential than analytic, especially the kind of films that I make. There is a lot of sharing of experience rather than some expert discussing how these things are. The way I see it is that my film could be a starting point for a discussion where you watch things, you experience them along with the characters and then maybe go read more analytical and detailed stuff on it. Also, in a film there is a lot of information which is given just in the visual sense. Either you get it or you don’t get it. Right now in this film, I have a lot of footage of Mumbai and there is a lot of visual imagery and icons that just pass by you while you’re watching the film. Now if you’ve not been to Mumbai you might miss these cues. So the experience and the understanding that each member of the audience would get from a film differs depending on their previous exposure. I can’t sit and explain every shot in the film because that’s just the limitation of the format. Ideally I see my film as a collaborative work with those doing academic research, such as my friend Nate Roberts who works with Max Planck Institute right now doing research on a Tamil speaking believer community in Mumbai.

JLH: Can you talk about how your subjects interact with media and technology and other aspects of modern life?

It’s very interesting. The believer churches do not accept people going to pubs or restaurants or watching certain shows on TV or certain films and the whole cultural exchange that takes place through these channels. They’d like to stay in a much more closed community, keeping you away from evil influences. At the same time, believer churches are one of the most modern in terms of use of technology in order to spread the message. At every church, even the smallest, you see a basic sound system or a screen on which something is shown. One of the characters in my film is a pastor in a Banjara church. Banjaras are a nomadic tribe in India. Most of the members of the Banjara church are illiterate and daily wage laborers, so reading the bible is not possible for them. The pastor uses a film made on the life of Jesus that’s available online and has been translated in hundreds of languages including the Banjara dialect to tell them the stories of the bible. I find that an extremely interesting use of modern technology. They use these films to spread the message and at the same time, they are asking them to watch the Jesus film but not watch something else. So they are using the same technology, but kind of censoring the content. Also they have something called MegaVoice, which is a device like the iPod that runs on solar power. They have recorded the entire New Testament translated in the Banjara language and a few Banjara believer songs. These devices are being distributed free of cost to people. In India, because people are converted from other religions there is a lot of cultural baggage that also comes with it. When you become a believer you don’t leave your culture completely outside the door. So there’s a very, very thin line between what is accepted and what is not, and what becomes a part of Hindu religion and what becomes a part of Indian culture. What things you leave outside of church and what things you take in with you becomes a very interesting question.

JLH: Can you tell me more about your personal experience with religion?

Honestly, I grew up in a very non-religious family. My parents are atheists. So whatever Hindu religious practices I followed were at my grandparents’ house because they used to have all these pujas (Hindu prayer rituals). At that time it was more about having fun and eating good food rather than the rituals because we were never really expected to do those things. And in my own house, we didn’t have a single idol because my parents didn’t really believe in any kind of god or any kind of ritualistic practices. I did have exposure to church because I went to a Christian college, so I was quite open towards this idea of going to church. I really enjoy the music, and I like that atmosphere. I would not say that I’m an atheist, but I still don’t follow a particular religious belief either. I like to pray. We all say, “Oh my god, please no traffic today.” [Laughs] That’s the space that I personally operate in.

March 13, 2014

Praise, Pentecostalism, and the Political: Renewing the Public Square III

My two previous blogs on Pentecostalism and the political have approached this intersection through consideration of prayer and the prophetic. Even if a stretch, careful observers of the religious life know well that Christians are called to pray for their governments and political leaders even as there may be occasions for civil disobedience; what the scriptural tradition calls “prophetic resistance” in response to what happens in the polis. But if prayer and the prophetic might be tied in with the public square in this way, isn’t the activity of praise altogether only religious and without public or political consequences? What does the liturgical life of believing communities, especially Pentecostal ones with their extended singing, shouting, clapping, and dancing, have to do with the public area?


January 21, 2014

Pentecostalism, Politics, and the Prophetic: Renewing the Public Square II

In my previous post on “Prayer, Pentecostalism, and the Political,” I suggested that the anticipated growth of global pentecostal-charismatic Christianity in the twenty-first century had the potential to impact, even transform, the public square as these Christians take their faith from out of their private and ecclesial lives into the political domain, broadly considered. Here I want to reflect further on how such convergence might unfold, and how pentecostal-charismatic spirituality might register its commitments within a public arena that is both post-secular on the one hand and yet post-Christendom on the other. In particular, I wonder if pentecostals’ prayer might move them to a more prophetic form of interface with the sociopolitical?

What does “prophetic” mean in this context? In the biblical and Christian theological traditions, prophecy can involve either the fore-telling of a future otherwise unknown to human beings or the forth-telling of a divine message for a specific place, time, and situation. Pentecostals presume both to be achieved under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Whereas pentecostal-charismatic prophecy has more often proceeded in ecclesial contexts and thus been between individuals, New Testament texts like the book of Revelation purport to be about an otherwise obscure future. While such apocalyptic passages also existed in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, more prominent there is that the prophets of ancient Israel warned kings and governments, questioned existing sociopolitical developments, and advocated for the poor, women, and other oppressed groups, often challenging the status quo.


November 6, 2013

Objects, Anti-Objects, and Efficacious Interpretations of Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This post is part of the ongoing conversation in response to “Praying with the Senses,” Sonja Luehrmann’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Partly in response to the prayer portal “Praying with the senses,” Anderson Blanton and Sarah Riccardi and Aaron Sokoll have started an interesting discussion of how to theorize the role of material objects as “media for connectivity” (Riccardi and Sokoll) or bodily “interface” (Blanton) for prayer. I agree with most of what the three authors say, but would like to use an example from my previous research on Pentecostal Christians in Russia to explain what is pushing me away from making the connective properties of sacred objects the sole focus of our exploration of the sensory workings of Eastern Christian prayer. In short, I think  that the “wow-effect” that an emphasis on materiality brings to studies of Pentecostalism and other branches of Protestant Christianity isn’t there for Eastern Orthodoxy. In Eastern Orthodoxy, as Riccardi and Sokoll point out, the significance of the material holy goes “back to key councils and writings of … saints and theologians.”


September 20, 2013

Prayer, Pentecostalism, and the Political: Renewing the Public Square?

What does Pentecostalism have to do with the public square or the political? One might think, initially, perhaps not much: classical Pentecostals have by and large been apolitical, although more often than not such postures have been nurtured less by pentecostal spirituality and commitments than by eschatological ideas derived from dispensationalist theologies otherwise inimical, ironically, to the idea that the Holy Spirit’s charismatic and miraculous work has continued unabated after the age of the apostles. But as people of the book, Pentecostals do adhere to the New Testament injunctions to pray for their governments and political leaders. In political environments in which they are a minority, often this takes on the form of urging divine intervention that makes possible ongoing pentecostal mission and especially local evangelism. In liberal democratic societies, however, especially those which at least in theory support the freedom of religion, pentecostal growth has precipitated other political possibilities and aspirations and hence also nurtured other types of prayer regarding the public domain.


September 13, 2013


[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.]

This is an excerpt from a recent recording of The Jackson Memorial Hour, a live gospel radio program broadcast each Sunday from a station in Virginia (thanks to Sister Dorothy and Brother Aldie Allen for providing me with recordings of their broadcast).This station’s transmission reaches into portions of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Although it may come to some as a surprise, small AM/FM radio stations such as this broadcast live Pentecostal and charismatic Christian worship services to millions of listeners throughout the United States.


June 13, 2013

Faith on Film

[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.]

Underneath the massive cloth architecture of Oral Roberts’ canvas cathedral, the “world’s first healing film” was screened for a crusade audience of over 10,000 on September 29th, 1952. Venture Into Faith is a compilation of actual archival footage shot earlier that year during a healing crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, woven seamlessly into highly produced scenes recorded in a Hollywood studio. The climax of the film, for example, features the miraculous cure of a tubercular boy named David through a performance of prayer. Although the actual performance of this healing prayer was performed by Oral Roberts and a group of professional actors, the final edited version of this spectacle of divine communication oscillates between “live” archival footage shot during a healing campaign and rehearsed “acting” recorded under the careful orchestration of a Hollywood director (1:23:39 in film).


May 20, 2013

There is No Distance in 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 woman seriously ill in Norway heard my voice over Radio Luxembourg, the most powerful station in Europe. She couldn’t understand a word of English. Two words stuck in her mind: my name, Oral Roberts. However, she later testified, that there was a power in my voice. Suddenly she sensed I was praying. She felt impelled to rush over to her radio and place her hands upon it. As my voice continued to utter prayer, she felt the surging of God’s power enter her body, and in the flash of a second—she was healed!…I prayed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This prayer was put on Radio Luxembourg in Europe. A woman in Norway, who couldn’t understand a word I was saying, felt God’s power in my voice and was instantly and completely healed. There is no distance in prayer. God was with me in Tulsa when I prayed, was in Luxembourg in Europe when the program was released, was in Norway with the woman who couldn’t understand English. God is everywhere; therefore, there is no distance in prayer. (America’s Healing Magazine, Jan. 1955, Page 2)

Pentecostals often invoke the saying “there is no distance in prayer” to describe the collapsing of physical distance through the performance of prayer. Oral Roberts popularized this phrase on a mass scale during the 1950’s to explain the way that patients could be cured through his performances of healing prayer despite the fact that his actual physical presence remained unavailable to the dispersed magazine, radio, and television audience. On the one hand, this key descriptive phrase is based on the idea that “God is everywhere; therefore, there is no distance in prayer.” This overt theological claim, however, elides the specific circumstances of technological mediation from which this descriptive phrase emerged.

As described by many practitioners of Pentecostal prayer, this negation of physical space between two distanced religious subjects and the concomitant unleashing of healing power is actuated by faith. During these performances of prayer, it is faith that bridges the distance between both the sacred and the everyday, and the patient and healer. This faith, in turn, requires a physical point of contact to enliven the efficacy of the prayer—what Roberts called “turning your faith loose.” This key component to the technique of healing prayer, however, reinscribes the material supplement in the selfsame moment it claims no distance in prayer. 


May 2, 2013

Sensing the Unseen

[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.]


This recent field recording was made on the grounds of a Pentecostal church in Virginia (4/21/13). Early in the recording, the crunching sound of pea-gravel can be heard as cars pull out of the church parking lot after the Sunday service. Because this popular Pentecostal song foregrounds the question of spiritual presence in relation to the perceptual capacities of the religious subject, it announces crucial themes for the Materiality of Prayer collection. The lyrics of the song evince the way pious techniques of the body-in-prayer organize a specific perceptive faculty in excess of the assumed everyday capacities of the body: “I can feel the evidence of things not seen, his precious spirit when I fall down on my knees.” The spiritual exercise of genuflection augments the sensorium with a “feeling” that not only subsists within the more visceral sensations of tactility or proprioception, but opens the body to a gift of discernment capable of registering presences that resonate outside the enframements of the everyday sensorium. Once again, Marcel Mauss’ description of the doubling that characterizes the body-as technical-object is a useful point of departure for a thinking of prayer as a spiritual exercise that attunes the sensory capacities of the body (see for example, Clapping as Prayer). 

Yet the question of sensing the unseen is not only a matter of doubling within the experiential frames of the subject, what has more recently been described by Thomas Csordas as the “somatic mode of attention.” A new direction in the study of charismatic Christian prayer would take into account the way actual physical objects and tele-technologies become the “apparatus of belief,” allowing the religious subject to sense the excessive presence of the sacred through the mediation of the object. Or more precisely, the object itself senses the unseen, and produces in the subject an experience of excessive presence that subsists outside the everyday structures of awareness. In this way, it is not mere coincidence that the performers who sang this rendition of “I Can Feel the Evidence” learned this song while listening to the radio, and continue to perform this favorite from the Pentecostal songbook on their weekly gospel radio broadcast.

April 30, 2013

Vehicular Religiosities: Importuning God Behind (and Concerning) the Automobile

Fueled by Faith: Driven by Prayer

The General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, once told his congregation about an extraordinary event that happened to him while on a road trip in Nigeria. He had left the city of Onitsha in the eastern Nigerian state of Anambra, and, as is frequently the case these days, the region and the rest of the country was in the grip of an acute petrol shortage. Because of this, he was unable to buy petrol for the car he was traveling in, as was his intention, in the adjoining city of Asaba, a short six miles away. By the time he arrived in Ore, about 134 miles from Asaba, his fuel indicator was firmly leaning toward “empty,” meaning that he had to get petrol for the car immediately. But then, something out of this world happened. According to Pastor Adeboye, it was at that juncture (junction?) that God, apparently seeing his dilemma, instructed him to proceed without looking at his fuel gauge. From that point onward, pastor Adeboye, so the account went, drove his car straight on to his residence in Surulere, Lagos (an additional 103 miles), without bothering to stop for—and apparently not needing—petrol.

Some will argue, and correctly too, that this account strains credulity. But in the context of comparable testimonies of super-ordinary “divine interventions” (the gold standard here being the Sorcery-to-Salvation accounts of Emmanuel Eni and Kaniaki Mukendi respectively), the truth is that it is by no means unique. In the world of African Pentecostals in fact, there is actually a correlation between the spectacularity of the specific “tribulation” that a believer, often through prayer and fasting, purports to have “overcome,’ and his or her perceived spiritual bona fides. Pastor Adeboye’s testimony did his halo no harm at all. Yet, while a Waoh!-eliciting testimony certainly benefits the testimonier, it would seem to benefit their congregation or church even more. At the very least, it is a certificate of apostolic authenticity; proof that the congregation—if not the pastor who is in charge of it—is on good terms with God. In West Africa, certainly in Ghana and Nigeria, testimonies are thus powerful drivers of inter-congregational mobility.


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.”


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

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

Prayer Practices of First Generation Neo-Charismatic Christians in India (A Documentary Film on Their Prayer Practices and the Significance of Prayer in Their Lives)

My project proposes to use the tools of visual ethnography (documentary film) to explore the ritual life and everyday prayer practices of the hugely diverse and rapidly expanding Pentecostal-Charismatic Christian (P/c) congregations in the Indian city of Mumbai. Scholars have noted the dramatic expansion in recent decades of P/c churches across the globe – particularly in the so-called “global south,” where the movement has been particularly dynamic, accounting for the lion’s share of an estimated 9 million new converts every year. Since everyday prayer practices are intertwined in complex ways with the socio-economic, cultural, and geographic contexts within which people live their lives, the event of conversion, which involves a change in prayer practices, has implications not only for religious life, but for nearly every other aspect of daily life as well. My project will explore the remarkable expansion (through conversion) of P/c congregations in Mumbai in this context, using documentary film to look at how new and varied forms of prayer practices are transforming the everyday lives of “Mumbaikars.”

While the terms “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” are popularly used to refer to a wide variety of Christian traditions, following Robbins (2004), I use the term P/c to refer to churches that share a doctrinal emphasis on the individual, ecstatic experience of receiving the “gift of the spirit”—sometimes called being “born again.” Since this experience is believed to be available to everyone, even non-Christians, evangelism and conversion (through ecstatic experience of receiving the Spirit) are central components of P/c prayer experience and practice. Building on this idea, my project will focus on these two related aspects of P/c practice: the ecstatic experience of worship and prayer that is so central to the everyday P/c life, and the evangelism and conversion that happen by means of—and are an integral aspects of—prayer.

As a Mumbai-based film maker, my interest in pursuing these questions is both intellectual as well as civic—seeking to contribute to public life both in my own city as well as internationally. The spread and proliferation of P/c Christianity in Mumbai over the past two decades have paralleled the rapid and dramatic changes comprising “globalization”—changes that are not only economic or technological, but that have also had enormous impacts on social and cultural lives of Mumbaikars. Does the spread of P/c Christianity in Mumbai represent a homogenization of cultural or religious practice accompanying globalization? Or rather do varied forms of P/c prayer evidence culturally embedded, “indigenous” ways in which modernity is articulated? That is, how does the rapid spread of P/c prayer practice relate to (or articulate) ways of navigating, engaging in, or making sense of the tectonic shifts that have accompanied globalization? Despite the rapid growth of P/c Christianity in Mumbai (a city that remains overwhelmingly Hindu), it is still a little-understood phenomenon, barely registering in the city’s intellectual and cultural life.

The intellectual impetus of the research is to explore prayer not only as a reflection or instantiation of particular beliefs, but rather to probe at the ways in which prayer works as a social technique: how do prayer practices become embedded in and mediate other aspects of social and everyday life? How does prayer re-configure people’s moral world? How do everyday prayer activities impact people’s ideas about the future, reorienting (and perhaps straining) relations with families and communities? To what extent, and in what ways, do new prayer activities generate a changing sense of responsibility about whether and how to engage in public life? And finally, how do the various activities comprising “prayer” produce new ideas about people’s hope for future—for themselves, their communities, their city, or the world?