The Prayer Blog

June 10, 2013

The Power in Higher Power

Whenever someone says to me that they believe in a higher power, I squirm inwardly. Why should this be so? Am I not post-secular enough to respect such a general invocation for its potential individual substance?

The squirm is, I admit, is initially a rebuke of the phrase’s voracious use by celebrities.

Invoking a higher power seems to be a requisite keyword for film premiere red carpets, Rolling Stone interviews, and Grammy Award speeches, a signal from the famous speaker that however mega they might become, they too submit to something (something ephemerally awesome, something that always seems quite focused on the success of their particular starry lives). “I’m very close with my higher power. I have a very strong connection with it,” explains Black Eyed Peas lead singer Fergie. “I believe in a higher power. I believe in inspiration,” explains pop queen Janet Jackson. “My trust in a higher power that wants me to survive and have love in my life, is what keeps me moving forward,” explains Footloose crooner Kenny Loggins. Talk of a higher power in this sense seems only to draw attention to the media height of the speaker, and to the beneficence they receive from whoever might be further up Olympus.


June 5, 2013

When Jesus Saves

The Sunday after tornadoes ravaged Texas, killing six, The Dallas Morning News front page, five-column, lead headline read “Faith seeing them through.” Newspapers don’t traditionally banner such affirmations of religion; seeing this newspaper do so caused a tumble of contradictory feelings in me. I winced at the parochial look of it. And then I sighed. Faith probably did get the little town of Granbury, Texas, through the disaster. What was my problem?

I had been part of The Dallas Morning News team in the 1990s that pioneered new openness to religion among journalists. One of our goals was to eliminate the various ways that journalists covertly sneered at certain manifestations of faith. 

Readers sometimes mistook our even-handedness for advocacy. I was often accused of holding and furthering beliefs that were not mine at all. So now I was a reader instead of a reporter. I read on, and I didn’t have to read far before I found the prayer story I’d been expecting.

A family hidden in a closet, called out to God, “Jesus, save us. Jesus, save us.” Minutes later they opened the door “to a world of splintered wood, jagged metal and naked, broken tress. Everything was gone except for the closet they were standing in,” the story read.

Their pastor, who was relating the story, then finished it: “Somebody standing in a closet calls out to God to save them, and everything is destroyed except their closet,” the pastor said. “That’s no coincidence.”

I smiled to think of how happy the reporter must have been to get such a quote. I imagined that he had kept his head down writing the quote, as I would have. I wondered if he’d looked up then and nodded encouragement. I wondered if he’d been thinking at the same time about the six people dead and the scores more maimed and injured. I wondered whether or not he wanted to ask, “Did they die because they didn’t call out to Jesus?”

I hoped the reporter had thought of that. I was sure he hadn’t asked. And I am sure that he shouldn’t have asked.

He’d played it straight. Just as he should have.

And I had come full circle. I was now a reader, bridling just a bit, wondering if the reporter was really reporting or feeding me his own beliefs.

Which is fine. Just as it should be.

Reporting is relaying. Faithfully. Honestly. Making a record of a time and a place and a people. Playing it straight.

June 4, 2013

The Ivory Tower in Cyberspace

When I went back to graduate school in my 40s, I took with me years of having produced films, network TV programs, and a mass-market book. I thought the theological faculty would be impressed. They were not, except for my advisor who saw the potential for mass-media religious education. My qualifications and publishing record was enough to get me into a Master of Arts program at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, but I quickly discovered that academia and mass-media didn’t relate very well with each other.

Also against me was that I was “a believer.” I soon learned that the worship department stood on its own; it didn’t interface much with the academic lines. I found that odd. I still don’t understand why departments of religion and divinity schools separate faith and analytics. Is faith and worship too soft? Certainly a subject for some research.

Then again, everyone I knew at the time warned me not to go to graduate school to study theology. As a matter of fact, the founder of a major mass-market spirituality magazine told me bluntly, “don’t study religion or you’ll lose your faith!” I actually had the opposite experience.  Studying ancient writings in asceticism, and in doctrine, and mystical practices served to increase my faith. Now, I’m able to add what I learned in historical-critical context.


May 30, 2013

Post-Secularism and Prayer

This past April, Tanya Luhrmann—the Stanford anthropologist—was invited by the New York Times to contribute a series of Op-Ed guest columns based on the recent publication of her 2012 book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s work has been lauded for its unusually judicious and refreshing approach to understanding the nature of American Evangelicalism; unusual because Luhrmann does not succumb to the typical secular biases and downward-looking smugness that all to often skews academic work on the subject, and refreshing because Luhrmann genuinely hopes to understand Evangelicals not simply by observing them, but also by inscribing herself within the spiritual practices of evangelical communities.                                                    

Yet Luhrmann’s Op-Ed pieces offer something more substantial than simply a prosaic description of her Evangelical encounters. They suggest rather the possibility of mutual understanding and respect between Evangelicals and secularists. In her first column, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect” (April 5th), Luhrmann argues that despite the common punditry of an ever-growing political divide between believers and unbelievers, these groups are tied together by similar doubts, anxieties, and yearnings. Both deal with life’s uncertainty through meditation, keeping journals, and going on retreats. The human condition, Luhrmann argues, provides a point of overlap where secularists and believers can carry on a conversation and learn from one another about their common spiritual yearnings.


May 29, 2013

More on Prayer Memes and Negotiating Spiritual Meaning in Public Spaces

As one national tragedy follows another, the ubiquitous Twitter prayer meme—the most recent in the aftermath of the tornados in Oklahoma (#PrayForOklahoma)—continues to attract attention from media religion-watchers. I spoke this week to CNN Belief Blog co-editor Daniel Burke about the phenomenon as a marker of changing American religiosity:

The social-media sparring over prayer and God’s will reflect a culture in which traditional notions of religion – and the places where people talk about faith – are changing faster than a Twitter feed, said Drescher, the Santa Clara lecturer.

“We’re watching people re-articulate what it means to be spiritual and religious,” she said.

The full story is here.

While not specifically focused on the spiritual practice of prayer, a recent story I wrote for Religion Dispatches on a the response of a village church in Western New York to an act of vandalism highlights the negotiation of religious meaning in public spaces. I suggest that Grace Episcopal Church, Rudolph takes seriously the built church itself as social media, engaging creatively and compassionately with a local tagger, effecting its own “conversion” to new ways of being church:

But the bigger conversion, it seems to me, is of a small church in a world of changing, arguably declining, religiosity recognizing that the main currents of religious and spiritual meaning-making flow outside its doors. It’s the story of a fairly traditional church actively recognizing that religious doubt, religious critique, and all manner of theological questioning that once would have been seen as belonging squarely within the clapboard walls of a village church unfold in a much wider, much more broadly networked universe.

The initial story is available here. It turns out that, “after school special style,” the family of the tagger approached the church to make restitution on behalf of their son. A follow-up piece is in the works.

May 9, 2013

What Nones at Prayer Tell Us About What “Praying” Means

#Prayfor Boston | by Flickr user Bill BedzrahPeople are often surprised to learn that a substantial portion of people who are not affiliated with traditional, institutional religions—Nones—pray on a reasonably regular basis. Indeed, close to twenty percent of those who identified as Atheist or Agnostic in a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported praying on at least a monthly basis. Some people will see in such data a secret longing of those who don’t believe in God or affiliate with a traditional religion to come into the fold.

But in recent articles in the Washington Post and Religion Dispatches, I suggest that the prayer practices of Nones, and perhaps of Americans more generally, mark “prayer” as a something of a discursive category in a culture moving rapidly away from traditional, belief-based religious practice. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, I wrote of the ubiquitous #PrayForBoston meme on Twitter:

Perhaps, in aggregate, that spiritualized pause in the noosphere is not nothing, mere microblinks of expression coming together to suggest the possibility of genuine encounter, if not with a divinity, with one another. Maybe that is something of the possibility that the notion of prayer, the meme, holds in times of crisis. Perhaps that’s why so many Nones I talk to, who sincerely believe they “know better,” continue to slip into prayer when the reality of disconnectedness and the risk that it cannot be mended makes itself most plain.

For many of the religiously unaffiliated I’ve interviewed, praying, calling for prayer, offering prayer, referencing prayer—the word itself as a discursive practice regardless of what behavior or belief might accompany it, I wrote in the Washington Post, “offers an openness and flexibility that makes it functional for those who have left the religions of their childhoods but who don’t’ want to—or can’t—forget them entirely.”

The Religion Dispatches article is available here. The Washington Post piece is here.

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 29, 2013

Response to Jeffrey Guhin

[Editor’s Note: This post responds to Jeffrey Guhin’s engagement with the author’s Harper’s article, “Blinded by the Right? How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives.”]

I am always grateful for a serious debate on what’s going on with evangelical Christianity. Let me make clear what I am trying to argue in the Harper’s essay.

It is not controversial to point out that hippie Christianity had a big impact on the style of the evangelical Christianity which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and helped to make that style of thinking mainstream. It is also not controversial to suggest that hippie Christians were left wing and that most modern evangelicals—including many who were once hippies—are now right wing. The question is whether those hippies who changed their political orientation were simply “blinded by the right” or whether there is what you might call an authentic or compelling reason based on their understanding of their relationship with God to be more politically conservative. I think there is. I think that understanding yourself to be “walking with Jesus” means that you think of yourself as growing with God—and that you are always intending to be better tomorrow than you are today. From that perspective, it is but a small step to think that government “handouts” will stunt someone’s growth and development.

I don’t think that Betsy’s been snookered. And I don’t think her views or her prayer practice or the way she thinks about God represent the whole of evangelical Christianity. But I do think that like many contemporary evangelicals she comes to her views from a genuine response to her theological orientation. That’s what I wanted to say.

April 23, 2013

Hippies Were Cool and All, but They Didn’t “Beget Evangelical Conservatism”

Editor’s Note: Tanya Luhrmann responds to this post, here.

In her recent Harper’s article, Tanya Luhrmann tells the story of hippie Christians becoming conservative Evangelicals, using one such transformation—that of Californian Betsy Jackson’s transformation from flower child to mama grizzly—to illustrate the tale. Along the way, Luhrmann tells an even bigger story, this one about these hippies’ influence on American Evangelical spirituality and politics. She writes:

Of course, American evangelicalism has deeper, older roots, but the hippies changed what it meant to be Christian in America. They made speaking in tongues common. They made reading the Bible literally a mainstream practice. They made the idea of Rapture—the process by which believers will be spirited up to heaven when Jesus returns for the Second Coming—a cultural touchstone.

But they also went through a dramatic political transformation. We know that most evangelicals are now vehemently right-wing, and that most hippies were decidedly not. They seem to have been largely apolitical or, like Betsy Jackson, on the left… So what transformed an Aquarian ethos woven around gentle Christian communalism into a fiery form of conservatism?

The argument Luhrmann lays out has three versions. The first is that hippies came to find conservative politics accidentally, either through preachers they met by happenstance, or—as some secular liberals might want to believe—by insidious design. Yet Luhrmann finds the two others stories more compelling. One is that Evangelical politics, and particularly the suspicion of big institutions, is not all that different from hippie politics; and the other, that Evangelicals think about politics in terms of who they want to become rather than what is best to do. Without using these terms, she describe a distinction between a kind of Kantian focus on the right versus an Aristotelian focus on the good. Until seculars understand this more Aristotelian focus, she argues, they will not understand Evangelicals.


April 22, 2013

Can Being Asked to Pray Be Harmful?

My hope when I started my research on prayer was to learn about faith. However, anyone who does experimental research knows that it is a very long road from idea to data. After coming up with our ideas and designing our experiments, the next step in our process was to get approval from an independent review board to run experiments in which participants come into our lab and pray. The board is there to look out for our participants’ well-being, which is an important and necessary job. There are some standard issues which they look out for:  are we informing participants of the requirements of the experiment; is it clear to them that they can quit at any time without penalty; are there any risks; are participants aware of those risks; etc. We are lucky enough in my department to have a reasonable and smart review board which functions very well. However, because the board is staffed by humans, and because humans are generally reasonable but also imperfect, inconsistent, and unpredictable, the decisions of the review boards are generally reasonable but can also be imperfect, inconsistent, and unpredictable. Some studies which seem like high risk to us fly through the board without issue, whereas other studies which seem innocuous to us get a great deal of consideration. Those inconsistencies are to be expected in any such process. 

The first time we submitted a study in which participants would be asked to pray we got a lot of feedback and concern from the Board. Sure, asking people to pray seems innocuous to me in comparison with studies that expose people to disturbing images, ask them to recall stressful events, remind them of their insecurity about their romantic relationships, and threaten their self-esteem—but the process is variable, remember? Thus, one over-cautious review from the Board didn’t cause me pause. However, when a pattern emerged, the scientist in me took note. And a pattern has emerged. A significant portion of reviewers have had substantial concerns about asking participants to pray in the lab. One reviewer asked us to limit our sample to only religious people. He (or she-I don’t know) thought it might be offensive to non-religious people to be asked to pray. So we limited our sample to only religious people. Then another reviewer was concerned that even with our limits, some participants might be traumatized by the prayer manipulation. He or she felt that it would be unethical to ask people who don’t pray to pray in the lab and suggested that we warn people before the study even starts that we will be asking them to pray. That way if someone finds this so offensive, he or she can quit before the experiment starts and thus never have to be in the position of being asked to pray.


April 17, 2013

Upcoming Talk at Princeton Youth Ministry Forum

I will share preliminary findings from my research on the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—at the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, April 23-26 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Drawing on interviews and narrative surveys with self-identified Nones across the United States, I will discuss practices of meaning-making, self-realization, and self-transcendence that Nones describe as durably meaningful and how these practices shape complex, secularized religious constructs of spiritual identity. The lecture will highlight in particular my research on practices of prayer among Nones, as these suggest an emerging spiritual epistemology that speaks to wider shifts in American spirituality and religion.

April 15, 2013

Supplications and Islamic Reformism

During my fieldwork in Lyon, France, and its working-class urban periphery, I heard a refrain among Muslims and non-Muslims alike about the “superficiality” of reformist (in this case, Salafist) concerns: among others, their concern over the details of prayer, from body positioning to length of time spent in prayer. I eventually lost track of how many times I heard this common sentiment, and over time, I learned the deep inaccuracy of this view. This isn’t particularly surprising, given the global (mis)perceptions of reformist movements as both troubling and homogenous. I use “reformism” here as employed by Osella and Osella as “…projects whose specific focus is the bringing into line of religious beliefs and practices with the core foundations of Islam, by avoiding and purging out innovation, accretion and the intrusion of ‘local custom’…”. 

A category of Islamic prayer whose centrality to the faith I began to understand while spending time with reformist women in Lyon’s periphery is duas, or supplications. These are distinct from the daily obligatory salat. According to the Prophet’s teachings, they constitute a form of worship and express one’s ultimate humility vis-à-vis her Creator. As I saw among my companions in the field, duas are crucial to questions of avoiding shirk (associating other powers or entities with God); having a direct, unmediated relationship to God; and perfecting one’s faith. These are central concerns among reformist women.


April 11, 2013

A Child's Eye View of Faith Healing








I recently wrote a piece for The Huffington Post featuring an insider’s look at whether faith healing by one of the country’s biggest tent revivalists delivered or deceived:

They wanted to know if the miracles were real. They asked about the preacher’s affairs. About the money he made. They asked if Donna Johnson, the woman who considered the preacher her stepdad, had forgiven him. But what they really wanted to know, they asked only after that polite number of other questions. Had Donna ever seen a miracle that she believed was real?

David Terrell was once one of the country’s most famous tent revivalists. During the 1970s thousands of his followers sold their possessions and relocated to encampments across the South and Midwest because he’d told them that the world was about to end. Donna Johnson’s mother was his pianist, the woman who left her two oldest children with various church members while she followed him about the country. She bore him three children while believing that someday he would divorce his wife and marry her. He never did.

Donna is the oldest of her mother’s children. Her new memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, has just come out in paperback.

Read the full piece here.

April 8, 2013

Tanya Luhrmann in The New York Times

During the month of April, NDSP Grantee Tanya Luhrmann will be a weekly guest columnist for the Op-Ed section of The New York Times.

In her first column, Luhrmann explores the difficulties that believers in God and skeptics face in connecting with each other. The escalation of this opposition, which Luhrmann calls “schismogenesis,” is pervasive—and yet Luhrmann nonetheless sees possibilities for optimism:

[B]elievers and nonbelievers are not so different from one another, news that is sometimes a surprise to both. When I arrived at one church I had come to study, I thought that I would stick out like a sore thumb. I did not. Instead, I saw my own doubts, anxieties and yearnings reflected in those around me. People were willing to utter sentences — like “I believe in God” — that I was not, but many of those I met spoke openly and comfortably about times of uncertainty, even doubt. Many of my skeptical friends think of themselves as secular, sometimes profoundly so. Yet these secular friends often hover on the edge of faith. They meditate. They keep journals. They go on retreats. They just don’t know what to do with their spiritual yearnings.

Read the full piece here. And check out Reverberations’ interview with Luhrmann.

April 1, 2013

Children’s Understanding of Divine Minds and Prayer

Ideas about divine beings that possess extraordinary mental capacities, including omniscience, are found in the doctrines of many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Such ideas are also integral to believers’ personal conceptualizations of divine beings. For years, I have been interested in how we come to cognitively represent or imagine the idea of an omniscient being; my PhD dissertation was focused on how this idea develops in children and adults. It turns out that this idea is grasped slowly over the course of development, and may not be firmly understood until adolescence or adulthood.

For example, 4-year-olds in the U.S., Spain, and Greece often report that God will be ignorant of things that ordinary humans will also be ignorant of—like the contents of unmarked closed containers. At this age, U.S. children also report that omniscient beings will be ignorant of occurrences in the distant past (what the first dog looked like long ago), and knowledge of people’s personal experiences; though children who are more heavily exposed to ideas about the Judeo-Christian God attribute more of such knowledge to other omniscient beings. By 5-6 years, children (at least those raised in the U.S., where Christianity is widely and openly practiced) attribute a much broader body of knowledge to omniscient beings than they do to ordinary beings—reporting that omniscient beings (but not ordinary humans) will indeed know about the distant past, people’s personal experiences, and many more things.

Yet at this age, children still don’t fully grasp the breadth of omniscient knowledge—they often report that all-knowing beings know many things but not everything. And they have a particularly difficult time conceptualizing the depth of omniscient knowledge—for example, they often report that a doctor knows more about medicine than an omniscient being, and that a mechanic knows more about cars than an omniscient being. It is not until late childhood that U.S. children grasp that an omniscient being possesses knowledge that exceeds even experts’ knowledge. Not only are these ideas difficult for children to grasp, adults may believe that their God knows everything and is all powerful, but in their everyday reasoning tend to conceive of their God’s powers as limited, constrained by space and time—for example, when asked to reason about a story where multiple people pray to God at the same time, adults tend to expect that God will attend to those prayers one at a time, rather than simultaneously.


March 28, 2013

Losing Religion, but Keeping Prayer

There’s been a lot of praying going on around the globe, what with the recent elevation of new leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Throughout the Christian Holy Week, both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby called on the faithful to join them in prayer, but they also made a point to included the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—in the prayerful love. In a recent article for Religion Dispatches, I wonder what all this might mean:

As more and more people pull away from institutional religion, do  have any real meaning in the wider world? Do they connect in any significant way to private, personal expressions of prayer? Does prayer matter at all?

A majority of Americans still answer “yes” to those questions. Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, a plurality (17%) of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.

But do the prayers of Nones have anything in common with the prayers of Pope Francis or Archbishop Welby and their flocks?

The rest of the article is available here.

March 28, 2013

Lived Mysteries: A Response to Robert Orsi

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Bob Orsi’s prayer portal, “Real Presences,” draws on his exceptional work highlighting the sense of “real presences” in Catholic devotion. This sensibility is of course deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and its Jewish antecedent. The celebration of Passover is the most prominent example in Judaism of what theologians call anamnesis, in other words a ritual that makes present the saving realities that it celebrates. In Judaism, those who celebrate Passover are not merely engaging in a pious recollection of an historical event; through ritual the salvific power of that event is present in the here and now. The work of liberation God accomplished on behalf of slaves in Egypt millennia ago continues to unfold in the lives of those who ritually participate in their forebears’ exodus. Similarly, in a sense Catholics believe there is only one celebration of the Mass or Eucharist: the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. When Catholics gather to celebrate the Eucharist, they are not celebrating the Eucharist anew. Rather, they are actually present with Jesus at the Last Supper which is extended through time and space in ritual remembrance, and Jesus is really present to worshipers in the consecrated bread and wine, as well as in the Word of God and the gathered assembly.

Orsi is the premier scholar whose work examines how this sensibility of real presence plays out in the everyday lives and devotion of American Catholics. One important aspect of such devotion beyond what Orsi is able to address in his portal reflections is how Catholic devotion often transcends time and space. A particularly poignant instance is the widespread devotion among Latino/a Catholics to the crucified Jesus and his suffering mother on Good Friday. In many faith communities across the United States, this devotion encompasses a public reenactment of Jesus’s trial, way of the cross, and crucifixion, or some other public procession.


March 21, 2013

One Step and One Giant Leap Towards Humanity

Kaippatta is located on a hilltop near Mallappally, a tiny town in central Kerala. An aerial view from Kaippata displays the many nearby churches belonging to different Christian denominations. However, the church we were to visit has a unique story to tell. It was in this hilly village that on September 8, 1854, Habel (or a slave named Thaivathan) embraced Christianity in faith and belief.

We climbed the hill in our cab to get a glimpse of that old church of Habel, the first “convert” among the slave castes of Travancore, thinking how difficult it was for the missionaries to reach Kaippatta on that day. In no time, accounts of that eventful day left by the missionary Rev. John Hawksworth spring to our mind: “…The paths through the jungle were indeed converted into streams, so that we had to wade through the water a great part of the way, and it was unpleasant having to wait some hours in our wet clothes.” What began as the baptism of Habel quickly grew into a “mass movement.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the Church Missionary Society in central Travancore counted as members more than 35,000 Dalit Christians, more than half of their total membership. The journey from first baptism proved to be an ordeal for the slave castes, due to upper caste reprisals. Upper caste Syrians twice reduced to ashes the thatched church building first erected at Kaippatta. Yet, the assembled slaves standing among the ashes exclaimed: “It was here we first found the Saviour and here, on this spot, we will worship Him still. They objected to seek the shelter of a neighbouring tree; so the service was held on the spot, which they regard as consecrated ground.” And the saga of prayer and worship continues.


March 21, 2013

Studying Ritual

The January 24, 2013 issue of Nature features “The Ritual Animal,” an article by Dan Jones on the study of ritual that draws on research conducted by New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Jeremy Ginges.

The article focuses on research that Brian McQuinn and Harvey Whithouse conducted while McQuinn was traveling with Libyan rebels in 2011. They focused on understanding how the rebels “used ritual to create solidarity and loyalty amid constant violence,” and how rituals evolved over a period of time marked by intense combat and victory.

Rituals are a human universal—”the glue that holds social groups together,” explains Whitehouse, who leads the team… Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community—which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.

McQuinn and Whitehouse operate on the theory that rituals are either “doctrinal” or “imaginistic.”  In the first instance, rituals are easily transmitted to both children and strangers, and are suited to large-broad-based communities “that do not depend on face-to-face contact.” By contrast, “imaginistic” rituals are more suited to small, intensely committed groups, and are often more traumatic in nature, allowing for the creation of strong bonds among the participants.

Jones contextualizes McQuinn and Whitehouse’s research within a larger set of studies conducted with other communities around the world. In particular, he draws on research conducted by Ginges and his colleagues in Palestine.

Read the full piece here.

March 19, 2013

Public Prayer in France, a Vexed Question in the Cradle of Revolution

Why can some believers pray in the street in France, the home of revolution and laïcité or strong state-enforced secularism, while others are forbidden?

As I wrote in my opinion column for Quartz, a new all-digital news platform published by Atlantic Media, publishers of The Atlantic Monthly, the principle of separation of church and state seems to apply differently depending on your religion.

If you are bowing down in the direction of Mecca, and uttering your daily prayers as a devout Muslim in a big assembly in a Paris street, you can risk arrest. 

But a radical group of breakaway Catholics is using prayer, and specifically prayers like the Rosary, to protest in the French street against moves to legalize gay marriage. They had legal permits to assemble in a public demonstration of opposition to attempts to give same-sex couples the right to marry. So far they have done so without any attempts by police or the executive arm of President Francois Hollande’s government to stop them. 

In contrast, Muslims lacking Mosques or perhaps in some cases wanting to challenge deep-seated public suspicion about France’s second religion after Catholicism have since 2011 had to adjust to a Nicolas Sarkozy-imposed edict pushing them off the streets.

Yet as one French law student argued in a Twitter response to my article, ‘‘there is a difference between praying one day for a cause and praying everyday in the street like it’s a mosque, don’t you think?’’

The line between acceptable public displays of religion, secularism, and illegality is not always a clear one in France. Prayer is a flash-point for deep-seated views about who has the right to express their devotion and difference in the public square.

March 18, 2013

Real Presences: A Curatorial Introduction

 [Editor’s Note: For further reading on this topic, visit Real Presences, a new portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer, in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Robert Orsi presents a curated collection of resources for readers interested in the intersubjective nature of Catholic prayer, and what this tells us more generally about how religion is practiced today.]

Praying in the Roman Catholic tradition takes place within networks of relationships on earth, and between heaven and earth. For Catholic men and women, supernatural figures are taken to be really, literally present in the everyday circumstances of their lives. Catholic sacramental theology holds that bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration in the Eucharist. To take consecrated bread out into the streets and fields in a great golden monstrance, as Catholics have done for centuries, is to bring Christ himself to the people.

But Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are also present in images, statues, and relics; in times of great communal distress or personal suffering; in features of the natural landscape and shrines that mark sites of encounters between humans and supernatural figures; and in holy oil and water. Such encounters are not a matter of human interiority; humans meet these real presences as others in the world.

Holy figures are really present in relationship with men and women, but they also possess separate intentionality and will. There are many stories in the Catholic tradition of a saint’s image or relics refusing to remain where people place them, and instead moving of their own power to where the saint wants to be. This means that men and women do not know how a saint will respond to their petitions, or what a holy figure sees as best for them. They may be taken by surprise. For this reason praying in the Catholic tradition is, among other things, an open-ended process of discovery: the person praying discovers his or her own life in the saint’s response to their articulation of needs and desires (or of what they believe to be their needs and desires until the saint shows them otherwise).

The real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints in the Catholic imaginary proved to be an extraordinarily rich and generative point of intersection with other cultures populated by their own supernatural presences. One result of the period of European missionary and colonial expansion, for example, were the hybrid Catholic/indigenous expressions and experiences of presence in the world of African Caribbean spirits, in which the saints and African spirits are joined into single multifaceted personalities. Over time, Catholic idioms were themselves transformed, even as they transformed local practices of presence around the world.

March 14, 2013

How do You Know God's Talking to You?

Tanya Luhrmann continues to set the pace for understanding and respecting the many ways that people are religious, as Steven Barrie-Anthony’s Reverberations interview with Luhrmann makes clear. I was first amazed by her work years ago in her book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. I was writing my own book, Not In Kansas Anymore, about the spread of magical ideas in America. I was interviewing people who call themselves Otherkin, and believe themselves to be elves and werewolves and fairies. I was struggling to understand young people who identify as vampires. Among these witches, pagans, and hoodoo docs were some of the smartest, most well-read people I’d ever met. They were dead serious about their religion, and a surprising number of their beliefs were being picked up by suburbanites all over the country, most of whom had no idea how far from their Christian roots they were venturing.

The stars of Not in Kansas Anymore were truly strange. Strange enough to delight a journalist’s heart. But I despaired of ever being able to do them full justice.  

For much of my career as a reporter, we journalists simply set our pencils aside whenever a source started talking about religion. Nobody ever said so, but we knew that this kind of talk didn’t belong in the mainstream media. We would cover religion, sure, but only as an event. If the Pope came to town, we’d make a big, reverential fuss. If a tent revival came to town, we’d treat it like a freak show. But if a mother whose child had died told us that Jesus came to comfort her, we did her the favor of not letting the rest of the world know that she was so unhinged as to be talking like that.


March 11, 2013

Prexting: Deepening and Extending Prayer Circuits via SMS

I am a reluctant user of verbal adjoinages. But when the issue of the circulation of prayer requests through mobile text messaging came up for discussion last week in an SSRC working group meeting, I could barely suppress the totally hypocritical urge to formulate one. By coupling praying and texting, I emerged with ‘prexting’.

My elation at fathering a new concept naturally turned into disappointment when I discovered shortly after that prexting was already part of the new digital logos, where it is used, rather nefariously, to capture two kinds of practices: first, when someone is busily pretending to compose a text message as a way of avoiding eye contact or making a conversation; and second, when someone sends prank messages, often at odd hours, to another person. In the former instance, there is strategic avoidance, with someone actively pretending (pre-texting?) to compose a text message while apparently not; and in the latter, there is a deliberate effort to make contact, though of the unwanted sort.

Clearly, in its existing mobilization, prexting is, well, not cool. But here comes a chance for renovation. Which explains my proposal here of a reutilization that can make prexting a handy discursive tool for scholars attempting to capture and understand one of the wide range of innovative practices at the interface of religion and the new media. Heidi Campbell’s (2013) concept for these new devotional and interpersonal forms is “digital religion.” The study of digital religion aims to track and comprehend the multiple ways in which devotees of various religions mobilize, negotiate, resist, and revel in new media worlds. It is not just about seeing religion and religious forms through the prism of new media technologies; more interestingly, it is about how nascent media technologies continually transform our perception of faith by overhauling the forms and parameters of religious practice. In short: the ability of new media technologies and platforms to enact new cultures of religiosity.


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 7, 2013

Upcoming Talk at UC Berkeley on Ethical Practices of ‘Nones’

Elizabeth DrescherI will be sharing early insights from my research on the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—at a forum sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley’s Religion, Politics & Globalization Program on March 13. Drawing on interviews and narrative surveys with self-identified Nones across the United States, I will discuss how Nones articulate the ideologies, philosophies, and values that they understand as shaping their day-to-day ethical practices. The talk will consider the ways in which the resources that Nones see as significant in their ethical formation and practice mark shifts in the wider ethical ethos in the United States. 

March 6, 2013

Prayer and Worldmaking

Prayer can be thought of as the act par excellence by which we give explicit recognition to the limits of human knowledge and mastery, and so, adjust and orient ourselves to a world that exceeds our grasp. It is more, therefore, than an encounter with a transcendent other, for it entails that we give voice and gesture to our frailty and fear, to our un-Promethean nature. The place we ascribe to that dimension of human existence—to that inarticulate, gesticulating being—within social life strikes me as key to the kinds of habitable world we are capable of making. This is one reason—by all means, not the only reason—why we should be interested in prayer. Prayer can become laden with the burdens and conflicts of history.

The mezquita-catedral of Cordoba combines a mosque, constructed between the eighth and tenth centuries, and a Catholic chapel, built within the inner sanctuary of the mosque during the sixteenth century. Since the building of the chapel five centuries ago up through the present, only Roman Catholic ritual practice has been permitted, though from around the year 2000 a growing movement among Muslims in Spain has sought permission from the church to be allowed to pray within the walls of the vast sanctuary. The conflict has led to a number of arrests over the years, as Muslim visitors have sought to defy the ban and have begun to perform the words and gestures of Muslim prayer within the space of the mezquita-catedral.

The weight of history lays heavily upon these acts. For many Spanish Catholics, the Reconquista undertaken by the Roman Catholic monarchs remains the foundational pillar within the edifice of Spanish identity and history. From this perspective, the transformation of mosque into cathedral and the displacement of Muslim salat by Roman Catholic mass are not simply historical events to be reassessed and revised, but rather, remain essential to the symbolic architecture of the Spanish soul. For Muslim visitors, in contrast, the mosque stands as the embodiment and expression of a highly celebrated period within the history of Islamic societies, an inheritance that is as much theirs as it is Christian Europe’s. For some, the enchanting beauty of the sanctuary solicits a passional response which seeks to find expression in prayer. In both cases, the turning to God in prayer is made across a dense fabric of historical relations, and carries both the burdens and the possibilities that this history offers.

March 6, 2013

What Prayer Can and Cannot Do

My interest in prayer has to do with what prayer can or cannot do. Mine is the quest of the doubter who would believe. I want to know what efficacy there is in prayer.

Can our prayers change the outer world? I suspect not, but I’m interested in stories that claim otherwise. Once a woman, whose beliefs I’d challenged, told me that she needed a swimsuit so that she could go into a medicinal spring that would help ease her back pain. She told me that she would pray for a swimsuit, and God would provide one that was within her rather meager budget. We were on a trip and in a hotel. So off she went to the hotel gift store. They had swimsuits, but all were far too expensive. A woman had overheard us talking, however, and followed my friend to the store. She offered to lend my friend a swimsuit and did. My friend returned to me triumphant. I protested that the woman had eavesdropped and thus her offer couldn’t be counted as an act of God. But my friend only laughed and said that I couldn’t restrict how God answered.

Many people in my family believe that God hears their prayers and intervenes to heal minor illnesses and to remedy daily difficulties in their lives. They find such a God reassuring. I find a God who would heal my sprained ankle while doing nothing to stop rape, torture, and starvation to be horrifying. But I don’t tell them that. I like it that they can believe. It helps them. And we all need help.

I’m more inclined to believe that prayer can change us. I’m interested in how. And why. And whether some forms of prayer change us more deeply than other forms.


March 6, 2013

Are you Interested in Prayer?

prayer machine iWithin the frame of secular modernity, religion has become something in need of measured explanation, something that is either at odds or consistent with the natural state of humanity. Prayer, as a fortifier of belief, has come to mark the religiosity of a shared human experience, for better or for worse. For practitioners and scholars, promoters and critics, prayer often distills something essential about religion. The measurement of prayer corresponds to its drift inward, into the mind and the nervous system, in general.

Cognitive studies of prayer, for example, are rather pervasive these days. Such studies often serve to articulate a boundary between the religious and the secular as either quite stark or else rather porous. In either case, the religious is being measured, constructed, and deployed.

The significance of these studies, I contend, lies in the ways in which they manufacture religion, study after study, regardless of results, turning religion into a measurable and natural matter. Your prayer-life, or lack thereof, is a mark of your individuality in the secular age. Do you pray? Did you used to pray? Do you want to pray? Are you interested in prayer?


March 5, 2013

Who Can Pray in the Streets?

As a journalist with a family background steeped in religion, I have long had an interest in prayer. But my earlier personal experiences with various schools of thought surrounding the nature, purpose, and efficacy of prayer have metamorphosed into a professional interest since I decided to become a reporter.

Despite concentrating on politics throughout my career, I have written often on religion and the public sphere, a subject that nearly always touches on prayer. When I studied for my Master’s in Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I undertook Professor Ari Goldman’s inaugural Covering the Religions of Israel class. We traveled to Israel and Jordan for our field reporting and I continued my research and reporting on ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish communities, already begun in Brooklyn. Prayer is at the centre of Hasidism and is indeed integrated into daily existence.


March 4, 2013

The Ritual Location of Prayer

On 23 December 2012 we visited the Mother Goddess Shrine adjunct to the Great Kneeling Elephant temple, one of the four spiritual gates of the ancient citadel in Hanoi, in the company of Mr. Thien, a successful businessman and chairman of a group doing research on what they called “telepathy.” He had arranged for me to see some spirit mediums who would try to contact the spirits of my deceased family members. For that to be possible I had to send him by email beforehand the names of my father, mother, and brother, as well as the places where they were born and where they had been cremated. Such information was used by the telepaths to apply for a “spiritual visa” in order for the spirits to enter Vietnam. When we arrived in the temple in the early morning there was a group of around twenty people waiting. They invited us inside the temple and began to sing a song of praise of the gods present in the temple and, notably, a patriotic poem on the ancient history of Vietnam, to which the temple was connected. The gods in the temple were regarded as the fathers and mothers of the people of Vietnam, and others were the representatives of the four elements, altogether a rich pantheon that was connected to the location of the temple at one of the original four gates of Hanoi, protecting the city. After the song, they prayed to the gods to ask them permission to perform the invitation of the spirits inside the temple. The gods answered with a refusal, saying that since I was from a cold country I should be able to bear sitting outside in a Hanoi winter that was far warmer than the winter in my own country. This seemed a reasonable argument, and the whole party moved outside where attempts were made to contact the spirits of my family. A possible other reason to move outside was that they would not know what kind of spirits would show up which could pollute the temple. Several mediums got possessed while I spoke in Dutch about my family members, but none of them could respond to me in Dutch, although several languages were attempted.  A further attempt by spirit writing in which a medium is directed to write spirit language (a nonexistent language) on a piece of paper that then can then be interpreted also did not give any satisfying result.


March 4, 2013

"Rethinking Religion" wins Wilbur Award


My national public radio series, “Rethinking Religion: Harlem Renaissance–Music, Religion and the Politics of Race” (from Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life) has won the prestigious Religion Communicators Council 2013 Wilbur Award for Best Radio Series. The programs are in collaboration with Columbia University Professors Josef Sorett and Obery Hendricks. The award will be presented at an awards banquet, April 6th In indianapolis, Indiana. The Religion Communicators Council has presented Wilbur Awards annually since 1949. Juries of media professionals, coordinated by council members across the country, evaluate submissions on content, creativity, impact, and excellence.  The award is named for the late Marvin C. Wilbur, a pioneer in religious public relations, longtime RCC executive director and former Presbyterian Church executive. Please listen to the programs online on this link, on the Columbia University website.  Scroll down to play. Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life Co-Directors: Mark C. Taylor, Alfred Stepan, Karen Barkey Executive Producer and Host, Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D. Producer: Jim Luce, LuceGroup Associate Producer: Genevieve Luce Managing Editor: Emily Brennan Writer: Sally Placksin Engineer: Duke Marcos IRCPL Production Assistants: Chelsea Ebin, Joe Blankholm

March 3, 2013

Special Forum on Prayer in JSSR

In her introduction to the March 2013 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion—which features a special forum on prayer—editor Laura R. Olson highlights the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer project as an important stimulant of new interdisciplinary research on this topic:

JSSR March 2013Our special forum on prayer marks the first in what we hope will be a recurring series of in-depth analyses of emerging issues, theories, and methods in the scientific study of religion. The study of prayer is a growth industry in our field at the present moment. Some scholars are asking how, where, and why prayer is offered; others wonder how it affects those who pray and are prayed for. The Social Science Research Council has undertaken a broad-based project on prayer that promises to stimulate new research crossing disciplinary boundaries and drawing upon a wide range of methods. I might assert that nothing about religion could simultaneously be more personal and more collective than the practice of prayer. Shane Sharp opens the forum by exploring the question of how we react when our prayers go unanswered, basing his analysis on in-depth interviews with people who have experienced intimate partner violence. R. David Hayward and Neal Krause ask how our prayer practices change in older adulthood; they show that we do pray more, and differently, as older adults. To close the forum, Markus Schafer adapts social network theory to determine whether we become more optimistic when close friends and family members pray for us.

Access this special forum on prayer here [Note: Subscriber access is required].


March 2, 2013

The Higher Power

“Prayer” is not a good word among many adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I learned this at the first meeting of survivors I attended in the Chicago area last winter. These survivors have largely broken with the church. They associate “prayer” with the authority of the church and with the church’s determination, as they see it, to deny their experience. “Prayer,” when it is attached to the idea of “healing,” is especially toxic because it appears to insist on closure. “Pray to be healed” sounds like a command. “What’s a better word than prayer?” I asked.  The word this group agreed on was “spirituality.” Here’s where I had to confront and rethink some old assumptions about praying and about religion. I had been certain for a long time that “spirituality” is an empty category, signifying nothing. But if spirituality is nothing, then it makes no sense to think of prayer as a “spiritual” practice, which is precisely how these survivors were thinking of it. And if prayer is relational, as I believe it is—taking place within webs of relationships that extend between heaven and earth, living and dead—then what does it mean to pray to the pallid abstractions, who have no personality or substance, that float through the realms of the “spiritual?”


March 2, 2013

Knowing What it's Like to Hear God Speak

New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Tanya Luhrmann, in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, writes: “I know what it is like to hear God speak.” Luhrmann gleans this knowledge from years of anthropological study of evangelical Christians, during which she has observed their learning to hear the voice of God, to “pay attention to their inner world in a different way.” But while Luhrmann is not herself a Christian, nor even does she know in certain terms what she herself means by the word “God,” there is nonetheless an experiential flavor to her knowledge of God’s voice: prayer and the other techniques of learning worked for her, too.

I worshiped with these charismatic evangelicals. I prayed with them. I read their books. I sought to pay attention to my inner world the way they did. As I did so, I began to have experiences like the ones they reported. I remember with clarity the first time it happened. I was trying to compose a note to someone—one of those complicated notes you need to send to someone you don’t know well, when you want to be personal but not forward. I fretted about the note off and on for a few days. Then suddenly the sentences just came to me. I didn’t feel that I had chosen them. They came to me, and I wrote them down, and they were perfect. To some extent, the practice works. My ethnographic and experimental work confirmed this again and again.

Read the full piece here. For more information about Luhrmann’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer research, read her project description. Also keep your eyes on Reverberations for our upcoming interview with Luhrmann.

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.

March 1, 2013

The Psychology of Everything

In a video lecture for The Floating University, New Directions in the Study of Prayer advisory committee member Paul Bloom gives a broad talk on the field of psychology and the science of the human mind. The lecture, titled, The Psychology of Everything: What Compassion, Racism, and Sex tell us about Human Nature, explores some of the fundamental elements of human nature.

February 28, 2013

Intercessory Prayer as Powerful, or Pointless?

Substituting “good thoughts” for intercessory prayer has become a common practice among friends looking for a way to comfort the sick and bereaved. I recently published a short meditation on the how and why of this new practice, and some thoughts on whether it measures up to the more old-fashioned ways of consolation:

 “To my mind, the most wince-worthy consolation our new prayer-shy world offers up is “I’ll be sending you good energy.” Pleez. If you’re a Buddhist, go for it. Otherwise, just say sorry and move on.

My usual choice isn’t a lot better. “I’ll keep you in my thoughts,” is not only wonky and weak-kneed but it makes entirely too much of me. Each time I write it, I grimace at an image of my recipients, puff-eyed with grief or chill with fear, being so startled by that little sparkler of egotism that their only honest response would: “Big whup.”

Read the rest of my post at Religion Dispatches.

February 27, 2013

All Things to All People

The examination of prayer captures perfectly the complications of studying religion at a time when there are no longer assumptions of normativity, no prevailing biases that there is a right way to practice or believe from which other ways are mere divergences. For prayer is—or can be—all things to all people. It is the contemplative silence of a Carthusian convent as much as it is the clanging gongs of a Tibetan monastery. It is at once the metronomic davening of Hasidim in Brooklyn, and the ecstatic naked fire dancing of pagans in Kansas. It is found at isolated, extreme, “Jesus, take the wheel” moments no less than in the mundane minute-by-minute reality of those who follow the Orthodox suggestion to “pray without ceasing.” Simply stated, prayer is in the eyes of both the beholder and the performer. It is global yet local. It is at once external and internal. It is communal and individual. It is sometimes obviously real (depending on what we mean by “real”) and sometimes obviously fake (depending on what we mean by “fake”).

To find new directions for the study of prayer, we must first ask ourselves if what we talk about when we talk about prayer is always the same thing, or is it actually many different things which we stubbornly persist in describing with a single term. Moreover, we should remember that prayer itself comes to us from the Latin word for “to beg or to ask”; does this history make it a term fraught with implications truly relevant to only certain cultures among many? In any case, those who would study the subject (or subjects) of prayer would do well to keep in mind that the stories we tell about prayer are usually also stories about people who pray. Just as we cannot hope to account for or describe the differences between one individual and the next, we may not be able to capture adequately the endless differences within the category of prayer. Yet to study prayer at all is—or should be—to remain open to varieties of experience. Taking a cue from the etymology of the word, we might proceed with the study of prayer with the assumption that the best questions about it have yet to be asked.

February 26, 2013

The Psychology of Prayer

New Directions in the Study of Prayer advisory committee member Kevin Ladd, along with co-author Bernard Spilka, have recently published The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach (Guilford Press):

Reviewing the growing body of scientific research on prayer, this book describes what is known about the behavioral, cognitive, emotional, developmental, and health aspects of this important religious activity. The highly regarded authors provide a balanced perspective on what prayer means to the individual, how and when it is practiced, and the impact it has in people’s lives. Clinically relevant topics include connections among prayer, coping, and adjustment, as well as controversial questions of whether prayer (for oneself or another) can be beneficial to health. The strengths and limitations of available empirical studies are critically evaluated, and promising future research directions are identified.

Read more about the volume here and access a PDF of the introductory chapter here.

February 26, 2013

Ruth Marshall receives Chancellor Jackman Fellowship in the Humanities

New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Ruth Marshall has received a Chancellor Jackman Fellowship in the Humanities from the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto. The fellowship will begin in June 2013. Marshall describes her project, entitled “Speaking in Tongues: Religion and the Call of the Political,” as follows:

My project explores how Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity owes its astonishing success in the postcolonial South to the ways it stages faith as an experience of language that maintains a unique relation to translation, mediatization and universalization. Instead of deploying itself through a process of translation into the vernacular, Pentecostalism attempts to deactivate the force and signification of cultural and linguistic difference through the staging of a universally singular experience of the Word as performative. My project thus explores the ways in which global Pentecostalism ‘revives’ Christian faith as a veridictive force through the experience and dissemination of religious speech: tongues, prayer, prophecy, witness and testimony. I examine the ethico-political force of the Pentecostal deployment of language and the political ambivalence of the Pentecostal response to what I have termed ‘the call of the political’. This project is interdisciplinary, grounded on extensive field research while developing a sustained theoretical reflection in conversation with continental philosophical criticism. It is intended as a work of ‘contrapuntal’ analysis, in which I use my theoretical exploration of this religious phenomenon to reflect critically on the problematic attitude to radical religious ‘otherness’ in the writings of contemporary political philosophers. The problem of translation and translatability is thus posed both as an object of critical inquiry and as a ‘method’, initiating a critical conversation between two idioms or languages: the political and philosophical critique of religion and the religiously grounded critique of political philosophy.

You can read about the other fellows here.

For more information about Marshall’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer project, read her project description.

February 26, 2013

Experimental Social Psychologist and Person of Faith

Watery Shadow 1, via Flickr user Mabacam Being a Professor at a Research University involves balancing many different identities. We are teachers, researchers, committee members, administrators, writers, and editors. Thus, I am used to balancing many different identities and I generally like doing so. I have a small attention span, so a job in which I get to move from one task and identity to another with regularity suits me well.

As with most people in our society, my life also includes many non-job related identities. For example, I am a mother, a wife, a friend, a PTA member, an advocate for my village, and a fan of live music.

As an Experimental Social Psychologist, I sometimes find my other, non-professional, identities slipping into and altering my scholarship. Experimental Social Psychologists are interested in understanding the psychology of human interaction by examining snapshots of it inside the laboratory and, sometimes, even out in the world. We study things like prejudice, romantic relationships, friendship, helping behavior, aggression, and attitudes. We see humans as fundamentally social and want to understand how relationships impact our lives and how we impact others’ lives. As you might imagine, this is a topic of study that is frequently affected by one’s own experiences. Thus, my love of reading informed my work on narratives and social connection; my close friendships informed my work on friendship and the self-concept; and even my love of macaroni and cheese wormed its way into my research on comfort food and well-being.

One area that I always assumed would remain separate from my identity as a researcher was my identity as a person of faith. After all, my research laboratory is about finding a question and then reducing it to its parts so that I can manipulate it, measure it, quantify it, and understand it. Faith is about keeping things whole, about not knowing all the answers, and about appreciating the grace and peace of something that is too big to be divided, counted, and understood.

But, once again, I have been proven wrong. Due, initially, to the interest of a graduate student, my research laboratory has been exploring issues of faith for the last few years. We are interested in understanding the psychology of connecting to God. How do people experience their connection with the divine? How do they feel God’s presence in their lives in direct and indirect ways? These are big questions, to be sure, but we feel that we can gain some insight into them using the tools we have as Experimental Social Psychologists. So far, this work has been interesting, rewarding, humbling, sometimes confusing, and generally a great deal of fun.  However, the merging of identities has been harder for me. As one might imagine, not everyone in the experimental sciences is very welcoming to the inclusion of faith and not everyone in the faith-based community is very welcoming to the experimental study of faith. And by “not everyone,” I mean not most people. And by “not very welcoming,” I mean horrified. Nonetheless, we continue in our small way. My goal is to use this space to share with you some of the work we are doing, how we do our work, what we have been finding, and the various challenges that arise when mixing science and religion. My hope is that people will come to understand that we don’t want to degrade science and we don’t want to debase faith.

At the very least, I get to add Blogger to my list of identities.