July 30, 2014

Prayer as a Portable Power Source

Unknown Ottonian, Regensburg, about 1030 - 1040 from the J. Paul Getty Museum

According to Christian belief, Pentecost is a remembrance of the disciples of Jesus being comforted after his death by a visitation from the Holy Ghost. Professor Birgit Meyer captured my imagination when she characterized the infilling of the Holy Ghost that occurred at that time as “a portable power source.” That set me to thinking about the spread of glossolalia and the various explanations for the practice. The blog I wrote for Psychology Today, which includes a story by Ebenezer Obadare and a theory by Tanya Luhrmann, begins this way:

Not too long ago, many people were predicting the demise of Christianity. Their predictions may have been borne out in Western countries, where church attendance appears to be dropping. But the worldwide picture is completely different where such talk has been utterly silenced by an explosion of belief in African and Asian countries.

Many of these new converts have come to faith through a particular kind of prayer that’s not much accepted in the West. Known as glossolalia, also called speaking in tongues, this prayer practice is often called the baptism or infilling of the Holy Spirit.

October 28, 2013

Odd to Each Other

Cross-posted at The Immanent Frame.—ed.

It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.