July 18, 2014

Genre Interventions: Taming Lawmakers through Prayer, Poetry, and Song

 [Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.] 

Speaking in the tongue of Christianity in an age of pluralism, the praying citizens of Greece, New York knew enough to keep it vague when bringing their supplications to town council. Winnifred Sullivan’s reflections on the legal wrangling over public prayer in the town council of Greece included examples of how Christians prayed for their town leaders to be “filled with the spirit of wisdom” and asked that their neighbours would come to see the virtues of “interrelationship.” Though recognizably Christian, these prayers addressed to a “Heavenly Father” were nevertheless “tamed by the law,” as Sullivan puts it, in their avoidance of Jesus-language and their studied evasion of deity specificity (except in terms of their gendered language of kinship).

Heading northward across Lake Ontario to Toronto, home of an infamous mayor, the idea of turning to banal, or better yet prophetic, prayers to bring some order to the chambers of City Hall seems like an eminently sensible plan. At a time when many politicians converse with each other in a manner disrespectful, mocking, and even lewd—when they care more about how their words will translate to sound bites and celebrity than how their exchanges will forward the cause of deliberative democracy—perhaps the call to prayer in public could also be understood as a call for genre intervention and not only divine intervention.


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.