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.

December 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

January 29, 2014

Prayers of a Phonographic Doll

[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.]

Dolls and phonographs share an intimacy with prayer. One of the first commercially available cylinders from the Edison phonograph company, for example, was a component in the “Edison Talking Doll” (1888). Hidden within the sawdust-filled  recesses of this “Dollphone,” one of the interchangeable cylinders played upon the automatic phonograph was the ubiquitous bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” While Edison was busy manufacturing toy prayers, Emil Berliner, the pioneer of the flat “Gramophone” disc, was inscribing the first copies of “The Lord’s Prayer” in an old German doll factory (1889). Since the early days of phonography, praying dolls have been produced on a mass scale as a playful means to imprint pious attitudes upon the developing child.


January 13, 2014

ePrayer and Online Prayer Rituals

[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.]

Slave to Technology | by flicker user Erfi AnugrahGlobal televangelists, with their empires of technologically progressive media, are on the forefront of changes to evangelical prayer techniques and their implementations. People often seek out healing from big names in the international revivalist circuit, healers whom they believe they have witnessed (likely from television) serving as efficacious conduits of the Holy Spirit. Itinerant healer Benedictus Toufik Hinn—known around the globe as Pastor Benny Hinn—is a vanguard figure within these developments.

Hinn’s website serves as a hub of online prayer resources and simultaneously constitutes a new form of social prayer. “Amazing things happen when people come into agreement,” Hinn makes clear on the website. While cultural commentators make much about the fragmenting effects of social technologies on modern persons, Hinn underscores the unifying nature of the medium: “Benny Hinn Ministries is dedicated to praying in unity with people, just like you, who desire to see the Holy Spirit’s miracle-working power unleashed.” Prayer, extrapolating from Hinn’s description, is a coming into agreement with others, a facilitation of unity, and a focusing of concerted mental effort onto some entity, need, problem, or situation in need of address. Internet prayer centers such as Hinn’s supplement existing evangelical prayer rituals by bringing together physically distant, individual penitents. These new techniques do not intend to replace traditional practices—such as index-card sized prayer request forms, turned in physically at church services or revival events—but rather to add to an existing repertoire of methods.


November 19, 2013

Harlan Matthews, “Avenue of Prayer” and “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer” (n.d.)

Harlan Matthews was born in Mount Airy, NC in 1927. He recorded this album at Alexander’s Studio in Dry Run, Pennsylvania. As the liner notes to Songs of the Family Bible attest, Matthews took up residence along the mighty Susquehanna River after having “MET A MAN who would become the master of his life . . . . Harley’s advice to young people of today is  this: ‘Don’t set sail on the BLOODY SEA OF LIFE but find the AVENUE OF PRAYER which is just ACROSS THE BRIDGE; and then HOLD FAST TO THE RIGHT no matter what.’”

In “Avenue of Prayer,” Matthews puts the steel guitar to work and makes a classic (definitional) plea to the listener—prayer is the sole means of salvation; prayer is the mark of one’s deliberate concentration; prayer is both spur to one’s own faith and a way to catalyze the faith of others; prayer is the key to eternal life.

Immediately following “Avenue” on side 1 is “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” about his mother’s anxious prayers for “her boy to be just what he ought to be.”

November 19, 2013

Prayer—The Christian’s Chief Business (1959)

In what amounts to mnemonic therapy, the brain is strengthened and the will is chastened in Prayer—The Christian’s Chief Business (Sacred Records). Sacred Records was started by Earle E. Williams in 1944. He was the host of Sunday Sing (originally Highway to Heaven) on KCOP in Los Angeles, which premiered in October of 1956.

Williams was fond of the stentorian voice-over and it is readily apparent in this selection.

We need to know that our praying is well done. We need to know why and how we should pray. We must know the conditions of prayer which God has given in his word, the Bible. So we turn now to the script cards . . . you will need to have your purple pencil.

From start to finish, the narrator guides you through the necessary conditions of prayer and repeatedly assesses your learning outcome. Attention is incited for 20:57. And the stakes are high but never explicitly confirmed. For if you cannot recall, “promptly and accurately,” the conditions of prayerful propriety, well, then, you need to listen again. And again. And again.

Take out your purple pencil.

November 19, 2013

Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics (1966)

A self-conscious addition to the postwar surge in self-help discourse, Psycho-Cybernetics was published in 1960. Claiming to have sold over one million copies by the mid-1960s, Maxwell Maltz’s therapeutic program promised to “eradicate ‘emotional scars’ just as a plastic surgeon removes outer scars.” As cybernetics made its way into the laboratories, manufacturing centers, and imaginations of the populace, Maltz’s was a necessary update as Americans became more comfortable with their cyborg future.

The vinyl affect of Psycho-Cybernetics is palpable, as the program is peppered with common sense encomiums, references to Napoleon and Dugald Stewart, and the revelation that your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and an imaginary one.

So put your headphones on and give a listen to this heady treatise. Move beyond the merely human, past the “hypnotized” state of the masses. Receive instruction to take charge of your interactions with the representations of self that you have already generated. This is who you are, in charge and on top—the executive warding over the vast machinery of you. This is the imagination at work—you are not a machine but rather the engineer who, by way of one’s study course in psycho-cybernetics, has learned to manipulate the self from a distance, to massage one’s interactions with others, to write the code for complete happiness, sanity, and success.

Let your creative-success mechanism take over. Transcend space and time. Transgress the limitations of death.

November 19, 2013

Westinghouse Sixth Future Power Forum Players, “Power Flower” (1969)

“Power Flower” was performed in 1969 at the Westinghouse Sixth Future Power Forum.

The show, and the conference in which it was embedded, were prayerful in that they harnessed the themes of transgression and transcendence. “Utility Men Get Powerful Message” was the Business Week headline from January 1969. The conference brought together electrical utility executives for strategy sessions about maximizing electrical consumption in the coming decade, with the goal of creating a ‘total electric supermarket.’ This dream included “closed-circuit television in homes, to monitor indoor and outdoor areas; intercom systems; electrically heated sauna baths; and electric sewage units.”


November 19, 2013

The Lewis Family, “Turn Your Radio On” (1972)

Written by Albert E. Brumley, “Turn Your Radio On” is performed here by The Lewis Family, from Lincolnton, Georgia. This classic song delves underneath the circuits of prayer in a secular age. Prayer, here, is both technic and technology; a practice oriented to the world at-large and an intimate calibration; a tuning of self to some other presence and, of course, a translation of that presence into the idiom of self. As such, prayer is an impossible, perhaps even hubristic, thing.

In “Turn Your Radio On,” prayer may be thought of as the instantiation of self as medium, a radical expansion of the self that is promised by and premised upon indeterminate submission to the “master’s radio.” Your dial wide, your antenna out. Turn your radio on.

For the result of experiencing this mechanical interface is a world ordinarily unavailable, embodied here in the physical form of The Lewis Family. The liner notes to Just Us (Canaan Records) testify to the realness of The Lewis Family, or rather, the realness of your capacity to “appreciate sincerity, Christian love, excellent gospel singing . . . It’s ‘JUST US’ . . . The same courteous, genial people you see and enjoy on TV and the platform is a true picture of them whenever they appear, off or on stage.” There is a windedness to these claims of transparency and immediacy, a desperate attempt to cover one’s bases—they are authentic ALL THE TIME. “There is no pretense to these people who have such expressive and spontaneous smiles.”


November 19, 2013

Vinyl Prayers: A Curatorial Introduction

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within John Modern’s “Vinyl Prayers,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Prayer may be an act of gratitude after the fact. It may be a weapon, a request to heal the body or boost the brain, an epistemic cry, a meditation, a mediation, a quip, a plea, a means of passive resistance, a wonderful gift from God. Or any manner of combination.

Whatever prayer is or has been, it often seems to be bound up in the play of transgression and transcendence. Within the move across, there are the moves against and the moves beyond. Against and beyond simultaneously, continuously, even as a prayer is conceived and uttered, even after it is ignored or answered.

A will to negation is, of course, necessary for transcendence. And transcendence must be in the offing for this will to become manifest. In the living act of prayer, there is no beginning and there is no end. Prayer is precisely that activity which, in theory, denies the localization and stillness demanded by means of human measurement. Yet, in practice, this denial is offered under circumstances that have been utterly humanized and subject to social forms, grammars, and algorithms of immanent origin. The praying hands of humans, in other words, pray to no man, which is strange indeed in a world in which modeling the human is the key for knowing the human and much else besides.


November 12, 2013

Prayer Card

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

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


October 23, 2013

Views on "Ritual Efficacy"

In their recent essay, “Connective Implications of the Material Holy,” Sarah A. Riccardi and Aaron Sokoll critique Sonja Luehrmann’s prayer portal, “Praying with the Senses,” for being overly invested in the question of efficacy and its relation to practices of Eastern Orthodox prayer:

In her curatorial introduction, Sonja Luehrmann acknowledges the importance of aesthetics and materiality, but she ultimately suggests that the most pressing issues requiring investigation are the efficacy of prayer and, possibly, the spontaneity of petitionary prayer…. Rather than seeing efficacy as a uniting principle among these fine essays, we see the materiality and visuality of prayer as the most vital part of this portal.

I find this critique extremely productive, not because Luehrmann’s portal actually neglects the question of materiality, but because it identifies the current re-conceptualization of the term “ritual efficacy” by scholars in the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Albeit implicitly, Riccardi and Sokoll’s “Material Holy” piece issues a call for scholars of religion to clearly articulate a new definition of “efficacy” in relation to prayer. Indeed, if we begin to conceive of the efficacy of prayer as an organization of sensory potential and attentive structures that is inextricably related to devotional objects, media technologies, built environments, bodily techniques, etc., then the two seemingly different approaches to Eastern Orthodox prayer appear to be more closely related. In this way, it is precisely efficacy that is the uniting principle between the compelling entries in the “Praying with the Senses” portal—that is, if we define the efficacy of prayer as a sensation of communicative presence with the ‘holy’ that is actively organized, inflected, attuned, and extended by the agency of the devotional object itself. Or to put this another way, we could define the efficacy of prayer as a sensation of presence that radiates or resounds at the interface of the pious body and the devotional object (see for instance, “There is No Distance in Prayer”).


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.


August 2, 2013

The Apparatus of Belief

[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 key element in the practice of charismatic Christian healing prayer is the operation of a “spiritual gift” (charism) that allows the pray-er to discern the presence of illness-causing demons. Practitioners of faith healing often describe this “gift of discernment” specifically in terms of a divinely augmented sense of touch that allows the healer to detect the presence of unseen agents of illness within the body of the patient. Through this gift of the spirit, the sensory capacities of the mortal flesh are quickened with a preternatural capacity to sense the presence of that which, under everyday sensory regimes, persists undetected. Prominent faith healers such as William Branham, A. A. Allen, and Oral Roberts described this haptic quickening as a special sensation of “pressure,” “heat,” “electricity,” and “vibration” registered through the hand. The gift of discernment, therefore, is a divine prosthesis that allows the human hand to detect the spirit during the therapeutic performance of prayer.

The divinely attuned capacities of the body, however, are not the only media for the detection of the spirit. Artificial devices and material objects have also played a crucial role in the discernment of sacred presence, and reveal striking homologies with the specifically somatic gift previously described. Take for example the sensitive capacities of the camera’s mechanical eye, simultaneously revealing sacred structures and organizing particular experiences of “belief” for the viewer. More specifically, mass circulated Pentecostal magazines included photographs that were described as having registered sacred presences unavailable to the naked eye (see illustration from A. A. Allen’s Miracle Magazine). As an influential precursor to Pentecostalism, the “spirit photography” of nineteenth century American Spiritualism also relied heavily upon the camera and the photographic plate to reveal spectral forces circulating beyond the capacities of everyday sensation.


July 24, 2013

Norman Corwin’s Radio Prayer

When Norman Corwin died two years ago this fall at the age of 101, we lost a man who not only was perhaps the most famous writer ever to be forgotten because of the medium he chose, but also an early practitioner of the oddest of modern artforms: the non-sectarian prayer.

For those of us who in the past twenty years have come to spend our waking lives with eyes fixed on glowing screens, it may be difficult to remember that there was an earlier refocusing of our culture’s collective attention that was no less revolutionary. A radio scribe who once was a household name, Corwin once described the technology he used with a phrase that today could be applied to any of the gadgets that make possible our digitally connected world: “the miracle, worn ordinary now.”

When he wrote those words, it had been just nine years since a majority of Americans began to welcome voices from beyond into their homes, less than twenty since the earliest regional “radio-phonic” transmissions, and already it seemed perfectly natural for families to sit for hours in their living rooms, ears titled toward the hearth of a talking wooden box.


July 12, 2013

Holy Ghost Amplification

[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.]

Emphasizing their capacity to hear and respond to prayer, representations of the gods in the ancient world often depicted deities with disproportionately large ears. The popular Pentecostal paraphrase from the book of Isaiah (59:1) gives a more contemporary resonance to this ancient motif, “His ears are not too heavy to hear the cries of his people.” Among many Pentecostal communities in the United States and elsewhere, performances of communal prayer that produce an excess of sonic intensity are believed to be more effective in opening communicative relays between the sacred and the everyday. This production of “numinous noise” emerges not only from techniques of the body such as breath, posture, rhythmic schemas, and other modulations of the voice, but a body-in-prayer that is amplified and extended by technologies of sound reproduction such as the microphone and the loudspeaker.

On a basic structural level, the “loudspeaker” is itself a technical reproduction of glossolalia (unintelligible language), one of the most important forms of prayer in the Pentecostal tradition. Focusing upon technological terms such as “loudspeaker,” theorists of the radio apparatus have commented upon the fact that early devices of sound amplification not only mimicked human organs of vocalization, but produced uncanny sensations of doubled immediacy between a voice that emerged from within the apparatus, yet simultaneously resided in some displaced elsewhere. Like glossolalia (literally a tongue that is moved by forces radically exterior to the religious subject), the “speaker” creates a particular experiential intensity precisely because it seems to produce an unmediated presence, yet is animated by forces that are distant or displaced from the artificial apparatus of sound production. 

One possible approach to the technological history of prayer, therefore, would be organized by the techniques employed for the displacement and amplification of the voice. These technologies for the displacement of the voice (as if the voice were not always fleeting!), moreover, could be tracked not only within the space of the auditory, but across a range of sensory experiences that are enabled and extended through the process of technological reproduction. Techniques of ventriloquism, the ritual manipulation of the mouth through the mask, speaking tubes, and electronic amplifiers could all be invoked, among many others, in this particular technical history of divine communication


July 3, 2013

Prayer Cards and Prayer Line

[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.]

James Bielo’s recent essay on walking prayer inspired me to think about other instances of prayer and communal peregrination in the history of American Christianity, especially the “prayer line.” In terms of mass crowd phenomena and the spatial organization of bodies during the performance of prayer, the prayer line was one of the most significant twentieth century manifestations of communal prayer. During the charismatic tent revivals of the 1940’s and 50’s, the prayer lines became so massive that certain techniques were adopted to organize the multitudes in need of healing prayer. Structuring the throngs within the space of the giant canvas tent, “prayer card” systems helped organize the potentially excessive revival crowds into single-file lines that followed the inner perimeter of the revival tent and ended in a serialized passage across the elevated platform of the healer.


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 31, 2013

The Muslim Xbox

A machine that I’ve taken to calling “Pray Pray Revolution” stands out, among hundreds of other prayer systems and devices described in patent applications, due to its inventor’s precisian approach to ritual movement. In 2009 Wael Abouelsaadat, a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, filed an application for an interactive prayer system with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His system for “enhancing prayer” has three key components. First, it has a prayer rug equipped with force sensors and vibrating motors. This pressure-sensitive pad registers when and in precisely what order a user’s knees, hands and forehead touch the ground. Second, the system comes equipped with a camera that takes digital photographs of the user in motion. Through a posture detection technique involving the use of geometric modeling tools, a software program establishes a kinematic model of his or her bodily poses. Finally, this system also features a screen that coordinates the display of scriptural passages—in the original script of revelation or liturgy, as well as in transliteration and translation—with the performance of particular gestures of prayer.

Abouelsaadat’s invention may seem unremarkable to a generation of gamers and engineers familiar with Konami’s video game Dance Dance Revolution and, more pertinently, Microsoft’s innovative motion-sensing device for its Xbox 360 video-game console, Kinect. From a technological perspective, it is indeed a fairly straightforward application of recent innovations. What I find remarkable, however, is the fact that Abouelsaadat approaches ritualized prayer from an engineer’s perspective as a modern problem that can be solved by modern technology. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to schedule ritual,” he claims, “with the rapid life pace of the modern world.” Laypersons lack the knowledge and skills to perform prayer movements correctly and in perfect synchrony with the recitation of apt formulas derived from sacred texts. They want to “customize their ritual experience with minimum time spent in educating themselves.” His praying machine would in particular provide Muslims pressed for time but eager to learn how to pray perfectly with the necessary technological assistance.


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. 


April 10, 2013

TV Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

A pivotal moment in the technological history of prayer occurred when Oral Roberts introduced the motion picture camera into the charismatic atmosphere of his massive “tent cathedral.” Through the medium of television, millions of Americans experienced performances of Pentecostal healing prayer for the first time. More than this, however, the motion picture film significantly altered the enthusiastic environment of the healing tent while organizing new sensorial and performative possibilities within the practice of prayer itself. From the first telecast in 1955, it is as if the mechanical eye of the camera gradually insinuated itself into the actions of the prayer line, drawing ever-closer to the intimate tactile contact between the patient and the healer. Through the zooming capacities of the cinematic eye, members of the television audience got an intimate view of the performance of healing prayer, including the vigorous gesticulations, bodily contact, and ecstatic countenances enlivened through this curative technique.

Ironically, the rapid mechanical clicks of the new “fast film” cameras instituted a slow-down in the prayer line. In order to produce a compelling sensation of belief among the television audience, Roberts began taking more time to chat with each patient as they filed through the healing line. After several years of telecasts, Roberts began instructing especially compelling patients who were healed during prayer to look directly into the camera and deliver their testimony. The presence of the camera not only influenced the organization and movement of the prayer line, but necessitated the performance of a healing prayer explicitly directed toward the television audience. Oral Roberts termed this new technique of televisual healing the “TV prayer.”


March 8, 2013

Praying on Twitter

Over at Religion Dispatches, New Directions in the Study of Prayer Grantee Peter Manseau talks about the use of Twitter as a venue for prayer. In particular, he highlights the Catholic fraternal group Knights of Columbus:

Following the pontiff’s request that all Catholics “continue to pray for me, for the Church, and for the future pope,” the Knights naturally asked for prayers. Breaking new ground, however, they proposed that these prayers might not merely be spoken at home, declaimed during mass, or formed in the privacy of one’s thoughts. The prayers for Benedict and his successor should, instead, be put on display in the growing global commons of the Twitterverse. According to their press release, the Knights were “encouraging people to send their prayerful support to Pope Benedict XVI directly by tweeting ‘I am praying for you’ and the hashtag #prayerforthechurch to the pope’s twitter account.” The tweetless were not left out—one could record their pledge to pray for the pope at, or even mail in an actual paper prayer card—but they presumably would not enjoy the Twitter-specific thrill of imagining that @pontifex himself might note their devotion while scrolling through the papal mentions feed. In any case, the names of all those who pledged to recite a daily prayer written by the supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, would be brought to the installation mass of the new Bishop of Rome, whomever he may be.

Read the full essay here.

March 1, 2013

Digital Communication and Spiritual Progress

Does digital communication encourage or inhibit spiritual progress? As I wrote in a recent essay for Big Questions Online, I think that answering this question in binary form—help versus hindrance—is inadequate. The relationship between digital communication and spiritual progress is a both/and equation.

The current communications revolution—like those that have preceded it—widens available options to learn about soul, spirit, God and religion. It also presents new opportunities to deepen spiritual practice and to grow in loving community. Yet notwithstanding the potential for spiritual progress, digital communication comes with caveats. Its democratic nature can reinforce individualization to the detriment of community. Its openness challenges religious authority and devalues spiritual apprenticeship, the ongoing, long-term commitment to mastering esoteric knowledge. Its accessibility yields to the demands of a competitive marketplace; commercialization creeps in, if not from providers than from users.

But our explorations in digital spirituality are not passively dictated by the medium. The responsibility for spiritual progress lies, in our unfolding digital world as always before, with the seekers of spiritual progress themselves. Read the full piece here.

February 20, 2013

The Materiality of Prayer: A Curatorial Introduction

[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.]

Patent illustration, electric votive

Citing literary references from the fourteenth century, a folklorist lecturing on the history of the Rosary provocatively stated, “the word ‘bead’ (Anglo-Saxon beade or bede) meant originally ‘a prayer.’” Despite such early etymological gestures toward an inextricable relation between prayer and the material object, however, formative debates within anthropology and religious studies can be seen as precisely an attempt to isolate the practice of prayer from its material conduits. More specifically, participants in these formative debates have often described the history of prayer (and concomitantly the evolution of religion) as a progressive movement of abstraction from the mechanical efficacy of the thing itself (incantation, object, and gesture) toward an increasingly intellectual endeavor beholden to the contingent demands of “faith.” Such narrations of prayer as a developmental history of interiorization into the cognitive recesses of the modern subject have had lasting consequences for the academic study of religion.

Scholars have tended to describe prayer as a predominantly intellectual act oriented by the exercise of volition, generally neglecting the way these imagined inner experiences are intimately related to bodily techniques, material objects, technologies and built environments which subsist and circulate “outside” the cognitive interiorities of the religious subject. In short, the academic theorization of prayer itself mimics a crucial performative moment in the history of Protestant faith healing: at the very moment when the patient must make tactile contact with a material supplement to open a communicative relay between the sacred and the everyday, the proscriptions of the curative technique simultaneously renounce the objectile through the phrase, “Only Believe!” (see for instance: The Radio as Prosthesis of Prayer).

Against this foundational narrative of prayer as a history of abstraction, this collection of objects seeks to recuperate the old etymological resonances of prayer as a “bead,” as a gloss for both materiality and mechanized rhythms or repetitions (see for instance: Electric Votive). In so doing, this exhibition explores the ways in which prayer is intimately intertwined with material objects that actively organize performative techniques and embodied experiences within the practice of prayer.  A new definition of prayer emerges from this focus on materiality. Unencumbered by a long history of scholarship that conceives of prayer strictly in terms of articulations of the voice and an interior circuitry of will and representation, the materiality of prayer collection describes prayer as a particular sensory attunement emerging at the interface between the assumed everyday capacities of the body and its technological extensions and material supplementations. Articulating the shifting sensorial registers organized in different religious traditions and technological environments, this collection will demonstrate that the social and experiential force of prayer often subsists within sensations that reverberate before or beneath the clearly demarcated intellectual categories of “belief.” This collection will concretely describe a new history of prayer, not as a retreat into the silent recesses of the religious subject, but as a progressive exteriorization through media technologies and material objects into the “apparatus of belief.”