Essays & Exchanges

November 19, 2015

Jewish Prayer: An Introduction


My mother used to tell the following story: My father was a rabbi in Houston, Texas, where I was born. In those days, rabbis and cantors wore long black gowns and squared hats on the pulpit, and the synagogue had an organ and a choir. One evening, as the cantor recited Kiddush (the prayer over wine announcing the beginning of the Shabbat), I looked at the cantor and asked, “Mama, is that God?” The story became apocryphal in the family but, unlike other children, I did not give up pondering the question, “Who is God.” It stayed with me as we left Texas and moved to New York. It remained a part of me as I went through several schools, culminating in a Jewish day school where we had a double curriculum, the Judaic part of which was taught in Hebrew. There, I added a new dimension to my pondering: texts. The words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Torah, the Siddur (prayer book), and much more fit naturally in my memory, much as math or art or social skills fit naturally into the memory of others. God was, in some way, always at the center.

My concern with God followed me into the university, where I studied more texts with men who were legends even in their own lifetimes. It followed me into rabbinical school, where again I studied texts with men who were legends in their lifetimes. It followed me, yet again, into my years in the practical rabbinate, the work of which had, however, very little to do with God. And then, it followed me into doctoral work and a long career centered around the many, many ways the Jewish tradition uses to express itself on the subject of “Who is God.” For some, this meant an abstract, philosophical understanding of God as the power behind the universe. For others, it meant intense mystical experiences of various sorts. For others, this meant being in the living presence of God, listening and talking to God. At various points in my life, I tried all of these, settling on the last of them as the most spiritual, for me, though I respect the spirituality of others. This portal, and book, is the culmination of many decades of reflection, experience, learning, and thought in that mode.


When I began to write, I wrote in Harvard outline style: very orderly, with an argument and well appointed footnotes. I published several books in that style. Slowly, however, I learned to follow the more poetic style of the psalmist, the prophets, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Always, however, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Then, the internet came and the idea of “book” changed. People rarely needed (or used) books that had a beginning, a table of contents, a middle, a conclusion, and an index. A new kind of “book,” one which was written for the internet, developed. Because internet “reading” is more associative, more intuitive, the units of the internet “book” are shorter, the “footnotes” are embedded clicks to something else. Also, there is no argument as such, nor is there a “beginning” and an “end”; there are only links to the next unit(s) / idea(s). This is not bad; it is just very different, especially for those of us who are a little older. Challenged by this new mode of reading and writing, I decided to formulate my thoughts on God in internet format. This resulted in the portal that you are reading.

Writing this way was an exciting experience, unlike all of my previous work, and I am glad to have been able to present God in this new way. I am, however, old enough to want to see this work appear as a real book, to be published by Hamilton Press, entitled Keeping God at the Center: Contemplating and Using the Prayerbook. The reader, thus, has the opportunity of reading this material as a portal and as a book (and as an ebook). I am not able to add material to the latter but I hope to add material from time to time to the portal.

How does one write about God? The book and this portal are the answer to that question. There are four parts, each composed of chapters and units. Each unit is short, though some are longer than others. In the portal, each unit has links to other parts, and the Table of Contents allows easy navigation between parts. The book concludes with an Index that enables one to follow various themes.

Part One is entitled “Insights.” It is composed of reflections on texts from the classic Jewish liturgy for weekdays, Shabbat, and holidays.

Part Two is entitled, “Thoughts.” It is an extended reflection on the theology behind prayer. For systematic theologians, this should be the first part. For most of us, it is best to approach Jewish prayer more empirically; hence, I begin with actual insights and allow the reflection on the underlying theology to follow.

Part Three is entitled “Meditations.” Each of its units is a “how to” piece, an instruction on how to pray, on what to have in mind as you recite selected texts from the liturgy.

Part Four is entitled, “Mystical Meditations.” Here, too, each is a “how to” piece, an instruction on how to pray selected prayers with zoharic intentionality.

Thank You
This portal will appear in book form under the imprint of Hamilton Press. I want to thank Holly Buchanan and Bethany Davis for their genuine support and timely help in bringing that part of this project to fruition.

I also want to thank Candace West, Wei Zhu, and Taline Cox of the Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere. They took on this project with a faith that it was worth doing, and they diligently saw it through the stages of editing and web management to its present form. Their faith in this, as well as their editorial and aesthetic sense, have made this portal on Jewish prayer possible.

Finally, I am honored to dedicate the book, Keeping God at the Center, and this portal to Murray Perahia, the most distinguished pianist of our generation. I have had many conversations on the relationship between text and interpretation with Murray. He says, “The music is not on the page; it is in the interpretation.” That is true of liturgical texts too. Prayer is not saying what is written on the page; it is in the interpretation of the text. One must interpret to make music, or to pray. Music and prayer are in the interpretation and intention of the doer. Murray says too, “It is not enough to play the notes. You need to know the line of the music and all its voices. That requires study.” That, too, is true of prayer. One has to know the meanings, and there is always more than one meaning. One needs to hear the associations, the overtones, and the undertones. Understanding a piece of music and understanding a sacred text requires knowledge of the text, the commentaries, and the supercommentaries. One needs to study all of them to grasp the whole. Music and prayer are in the serious scholarship of the doer. Finally, it is not enough only to study and to practice. One must “perform”; one must “do” music and prayer. Music and prayer are in the action of the doer. All this I have learned from Murray Perahia.

There is also the holiness of beauty. If electronic reproductions of music could wear out, I would have used up many such recordings of the works of Murray Perahia. For decades, his Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and much more have been in my ears and heart as I have sat down to write, to edit, and to ponder. I could not have come this far without Murray Perahia. It is an honor to dedicate this work to him.

October 19, 2015

Private Candles in German Protestant Churches

It is now commonplace in German Protestant churches to find private, non-liturgical candles burning in wordless prayer. These candles, lit by individuals who might spend little time in church themselves, represent a transformation of classical Protestantism that highlights shifts between public (congregational) and private (individual) religiosity, and perhaps between what we might call “institutional theology” and “individualistic spirituality.” If Martin Luther (1483-1546) were to visit a Protestant church in present-day Germany, he might be shocked to see the new forms of spirituality that have emerged there. Seeing the candles, Luther might be relieved to notice that the church had no statues, that the candles were lit before plain walls. However, he might be puzzled that the next Protestant church contains a huge statue of the Virgin Mary looking out onto a similar sea of candles and flyers filled with prayers and poetry. But, perhaps on further reflection, he might recognize in such practices some aspect of the Protestant Reformation that he began: namely, he recognize at the core of such practices an echo of the Reformation’s erasure of spiritual hierarchy and the dissolution of centralized power to grant or deny access to God.


In a time of social and religious unrest, the Protestant Reformation began in sixteenth-century Wittenberg (Germany) as the protest of a theologian and other academics against the practice of selling indulgences. Mainstream Protestantism of the Lutheran variety developed out of this protest. Lutheranism developed as a spirituality of reading and memorizing Bible verses, singing, listening to sermons, and reflecting on interior and exterior life. Theoretically, Protestants consider everyone equally close to God, and believe that people require neither human mediators for access to the divine nor a system for the distribution of holiness: salvation requires only faith. (That Protestant theologians thinking about the selection and pre-election of the faithful wrote very thick volumes and used their arguments as a means of power and guidance of the flock is no secret.) This flattening of the spiritual hierarchy made some religious practices obsolete: believing the sacrifice of Christ to have been made once and for all, Luther and other reformers saw no need for priests to re-enact that sacrifice in the mass, no cause to plead with saints to intercede on one’s behalf, and no justification for the practice of paying those seen as higher up in a spiritual hierarchy) to convey one’s prayers more effectively.

The lack of hierarchy was also reflected in the aesthetic of Protestant churches: the number of altars was reduced and statues of saints, no longer necessary as intercessors and guarantors of salvation, disappeared. Many churches changed from dimmed halls into bright prayer rooms, and the choir became largely useless, except for the occasional communion. The pulpit—always a symbol, its place and its decoration reflecting current understandings of the word of God and the role of the clergy—became the new liturgical center.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, dialectical theology sought to purify the Protestant church of worldly contamination by erasing from it everything that did not correspond to the gospel. Again, pure faith was the only answer to God’s call. And again, the theology was expressed in the aesthetic of the church, especially the pulpit. The congregation was placed under the pulpit—under judgment—while the light of the gospel, or God’s grace, fell from above. But, in time, this authoritarian theology collapsed under its own weight. In the 1960s, people demanded new, more personal liturgies, as they sought greater self-expression in religion. Once again, the (re)placement of the pulpit was symbolic: in the 1960s and 1970s, they were lowered, or even removed, as pastors were no longer seen to stand above the congregations, handing down the word of God.

This re-flattening of the spiritual hierarchy was again accompanied by new possibilities of religious expression, including the lighting of individual candles in church. Though private candles had previously been associated with Catholic rituals, bringing light into the darkness of human existence as a symbolic act was close enough to biblical references, and it was not forbidden. Protestant churches developed installations for lighting candles. As with the pulpit, the form and placement of these installations can tell us something about the ongoing negotiation between private and public religiosity in Protestant churches.


Private, individual spirituality in public, Protestant space

As German Protestant churches function primarily as rooms for listening to public sermons, they do not need to be open except during services. There is nothing to be adored, no holy communication except at the time of the service. But, since some churches interest tourists, the congregations open their doors between services. Churches therefore serve a strange double purpose as spiritual hotspots and as non-functional symbols of the congregation’s hospitality and the institution’s openness. The current practice of individual candle lighting must be seen in this context. The churches are public, Protestant spaces; but the motivation to light a candle or to write down a prayer or a sentence is private, and is not bounded by faith or denomination.

We can distinguish three main types of installations for lighting individual candles in Protestant churches. The first is close to the classic Catholic style.

This installation—a sort of spiritual art—is on the floor of St. Peter’s church in Hamburg. It is in a state of constant change, as many visitors write and draw in the sand. There is a prayer on the wall behind the installation, but the theology of the prayer and the spiritual practice of the candles and sand are not the same. Perhaps the provided text is a way for the institution to make a Protestant statement, to serve as a guide in the act of turning candle lighting officially into a prayer, and to juxtapose the transience of writing in the sand with what one might consider the permanence of a plea to God. At the same time, the spiritually private nature of candle lighting and the individual nature of whatever one may write in the sand lets happen whatever may happen there. Quite often, one can see hearts and initials in the sand, presumably created by couples seeking heavenly protection for their love: this tradition speaks in a different spiritual register than the prayer on the wall.

In St. Michael’s church in Hamburg, we see an example of the next style, the cauldron. Here, the candle installations illustrate the difficulty of adapting a liturgical space with its own history and architecture to changing patterns of spirituality. St. Michael’s is a baroque Protestant space resembling a theater, where everyone can see and hear the preacher on the huge pulpit. But, in this picture, we see a cauldron filled with sand in which to place decorated candles. This cauldron and another one just in front of the steps to the choir have been placed in places of no real significance. These are not spaces for prayer, solitude, or meditation—each is a sort of non-place, but within the spatial organization of a church building. Above the cauldron, a table shows numbers corresponding to songs to be sung during the service, but these things are in proximity, not in actual relation.

New forms of spirituality have no adequate place here—the church was not built to accommodate recent spiritual practices, but the need is obvious. This is spirituality seeking a place it has only found in the margins, not in the very center.

The Marktkirche in Hannover gives another example of candles and individual prayers in Protestant churches. In a number of churches, one may find a heavy bronze tree with candles placed at the end of the branches. The tree seems to blossom with fire, possibly in reference to the burning bush that Moses saw; to the grape, a biblical symbol of unity and individuality; or to the tree of life. (It seems to me that the variety of interpretations represents the postmodern openness of meaning.) In the Marktkirche, visitors may write down prayers to be read during the noon liturgy and pin them to the adjacent wall. The connection between the prayers and the tree of light is not obvious, though it may somehow be intended. The tree stands by itself as a strong symbol, and other practices seem to be minor. I interpret this lack of clarity as an unfinished search for adequate forms of emerging expressions of faith.

In the photograph, we also see a specifically Protestant spirituality in evidence. The locked trolley on the left contains the songbooks for the Sunday service: it serves only for public services, not for private prayers or candle lightning. There may be some uneasiness about the mixture of private and public piety.


The ability to light private candles in Protestant churches is one of many new expressions of faith. Installations like the ones examined here contrast the exclusively institutionally expression of faith with a more fluid and personalized spirituality, one that makes accommodations to personal needs and interests. That these Protestant spaces now offer the ability to light a candle is neither completely self-explanatory from the history of Protestant piety nor contradictory to it. It can be understood through the interaction of a fundamentally Protestant impulse and larger social trends towards personalization and individualized spiritual expression.

September 22, 2015

Spiritual Warfare and Aggressive Prayers

Elizabeth McAlister, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, has spent many years studying Afro-Caribbean religiosity, and has recently turned her interest to aggressive prayer and spiritual warfare in Haiti and the United States. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, McAlister discusses what these terms mean, how they have developed in recent years, and their influence in the American Evangelical community.


Onnesha Roychoudhuri: I don’t think many people have heard of “aggressive prayer.” Can you explain what it is?

Elizabeth McAlister: I coined the term “aggressive forms of prayer” so I get to define it, for our intellectual purposes. Aggressive forms of prayer include any prayer—to the monotheistic god of the orthodox monotheistic traditions or to any other deity or spirit—that seeks to harm, debilitate, move, remove, or change another party.

I thought this would be a fruitful category because, in the popular understanding of what prayer is, most people think of a submissive activity. It’s supposed to be loving, beneficial to all, and certainly benevolent. But in the groups that I was studying, that wasn’t necessarily the case. It was often the case that people were praying for someone else to go away, for someone else to be harmed, or for someone else to be caught in a kind of a situation of the prayer subject’s making. I thought that this might be a useful angle to accompany other studies, which tend to look at prayer as a pro-social behavior, or as positive for a community. It also allows for Christianity to be examined along with non-Christian forms on a comparatively level playing field.

OR: Do you feel like this is a category of prayer that is seeing a resurgence, or has it always been present and we’re now carving out space to discuss it?

EM: That’s a great question. I think it’s been a practice all throughout history in various traditions. What is perhaps new, and the reason it really caught my eye, is that since the Obama election, American Evangelicals have been publicly praying against Obama. Once I noticed that, I also noticed that some Evangelicals were also praying against, for example, abortion providers or other social enemies of their own making. So what I think is new is that American Protestants are publicly speaking these prayers. I also think it’s new that social scientists are studying the phenomenon in the contemporary world.

OR: Aside from the contemporary political sphere, where else do we see aggressive prayer today?

EM: This has been a thread all across the charismatic, and particularly, the Pentecostal world. So a couple of our other New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees, like Ebenezer Obadare and Ruth Marshall, are seeing it in African Pentecostalism. Negative prayer or imprecatory prayer is also famously associated with sorcery and particularly with the Afro-Haitian religion that I study. But when I investigated it further in Haiti, what I realized is that the people who would be accused of or thought of as doing imprecatory or aggressive prayer in that sphere always see themselves as part of a system of justice.

I ran into a lot of counterintuitive findings, where the people doing imprecatory prayer in Vodou actually have a very conscious way of thinking of themselves as spiritual lawyers. In Haiti, the poor have very little hope of gaining justice in the state justice system, and that’s precisely why they have to seek justice in their own forum.

OR: So it’s viewed as a kind of defense rather than offense.

EM: Exactly, it’s spiritual defense. There’s also a very elaborate principle whereby you can’t harm someone if they are not guilty. The prayer will ricochet back on the originator if it’s unjust. The ancestral spirits, who operate in what is thought of as a higher sphere of justice, will cause that to happen; they effect justice.

OR: Do you see similarities between this Haitian understanding of aggressive prayer and the more American Evangelical manifestation of it?

EM: Yes; among American Evangelicals, I discovered that spiritual warfare prayer, which is the most explicit kind of aggressive prayer in the Protestant world, is also bound up in a very complicated theory of justice. Only in their case, they see what they’re doing as carrying out God’s law. They see the world in terms of a legal system of God’s law that Satan penetrated and gained legal rights in. So this is where it gets really interesting: They see the world as having been laid down in a beautiful way, of course in the Garden of Eden. Then the devil comes in and causes the fall of humankind. But the idea is that the devil entered legally, since Eve eats the fruit willingly. They say that Satan, “gained a legal foothold in this world.” And he does that through sin, through Eve and Adam’s sin.

In John 12:31, spiritual warriors say that Satan is called the “prince of this world.” There’s this idea that Satan has legal rights to influence anyone who commits sin against God, and that accounts for one reason why, even though Jesus Christ came and redeemed the world, the world is still in a state of disgrace. Every time people sin, they give Satan a so-called “a welcome mat” to enter this world legally. They repeatedly use this word “legally,” as if to say that once they—the spiritual warriors—understand the legal logic of God’s kingdom and God’s court, then they can move to destroy Satan’s hold on people. They can bring down revival and transform the world into a Christian world.

OR: It’s so elaborate, and so rooted in what I’d think of as a more contemporary legal sensibility.

EM: I know. I love rich religious imaginaries, and the spiritual warfare folks have created a very rich one that includes these legal precepts. There’s even a strand of thought right now that argues that the United States, unbeknownst to itself, has fallen into some contracts with Satan.

They have, as part of what are known as “the gifts of the spirit,” the gift of spiritual discernment, and they claim to be able to discern Satanic activity with their spiritual senses. Right now, they’re claiming that the Statue of Liberty is an image of the Sun God (though it’s actually a depiction of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty). And because it’s a pagan statue erected as a national site, it let in pagan influences, which are—by definition—demonic. These Evangelicals have come to the conclusion that America has married itself to demons. They’ve actually created a divorce decree for Americans to divorce themselves from Baal, whom they view as an ancient evil spirit of corrupt governance.

I attended one of these church services where the congregation stood up and went through divorce proceedings. A lawyer who is a spiritual warrior has drawn up a divorce decree from the “Principality of Baal.” Right now, he’s going state by state conducting these ceremonies.

OR: How does this treatment of Baal as real relate to Evangelical beliefs?

EM: Mainstream or traditional Protestantism basically saw pagan religions and traditional religions as simply being ontologically false, so-called “primitive people’s” mistaken belief. The idea being that, once they accepted Christ and science, they’d be on the road to “proper” spirituality and “proper” reason. Many Evangelicals—and Pentecostals in particular—see the spiritual world of other religions as being absolutely real. It’s simply that they understand any spiritual force that isn’t Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to be demonic by definition.

OR: When you’re talking about these Evangelicals undertaking spiritual warfare, what are we talking about in terms of numbers? Is this a powerful contingent?

EM: That is a really good question, and it’s one that stymies me. The spiritual warfare movement really is best understood as a network of people who invest in this thought and practice. I think it’s the case that a lot of churches in America tried spiritual warfare on for size, and many of them rejected it. At one point, onlookers were saying that spiritual warfare was on the decline ,if not defunct; but it’s not totally defunct, and it’s still a vocal minority among various networks who now have representatives and prayer groups, some cell groups, and prayer warriors in every single state and in many countries.

It’s quite an extreme wave of thought, but it’s also influenced a great number of less extreme spheres of thought. You find their rhetoric in things like the International House of Prayer, the Promise Keepers movement, the Vineyard churches, the Quiverfull movement, and in lots of independent Evangelical churches. It’s extremely difficult to quantify because nobody’s checking off boxes on any surveys, and it also tends to happen in independent churches, Pentecostal, or charismatic churches, networks, and prayer groups. Someone could be a member of a church that isn’t highly invested in spiritual warfare, but within their church there might be a couple of cell groups that are. I think of it as a wide, global network of a highly invested minority.

OR: In your writing, you talk about how the militarization of prayer has evolved over time.

EM: Christian prayer has been militarized explicitly in lots of periods. Certainly there are military references in the New Testament. The Crusades is a time when the Church became an army, literally on a crusade against Islam, “heathens,” and others. And then, in more contemporary times, the Salvation Army had a very militarized instantiation of Christian prayer. So the militarization of Christian prayer has waxed and waned throughout history.

What intrigues me is the use of contemporary military images and metaphors, but also technologies in Evangelical aggressive prayer. So for example, at the Lausanne conference in 1989, people start to use geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, developed by the military, in order to map out the world to see which unreached places could be targeted by Christian missions. They started referring to territories in very technological ways, in terms of latitude and longitude. People now will talk about going on mission strikes, doing covert operations, and being on assignment. So I argue that with the relatively new spiritual warfare movement that takes shape from the 1980s on, it’s in a context of the increased militarization of America. They’ve taken on some of that language and imaginary.

OR: How does this kind of militarized missionary mentality play out on the ground?

EM: I wondered that exactly, so I traveled with white American missionaries in Haiti, who are trying to battle so-called demonic forces. The militarization of evangelical missions plays out in Haiti in various ways. For one thing, the mission is conceived of as just that, a military mission, only the enemy is Satan’s army and the goal is to “win souls for Christ.” They talk about “taking land” for Christ; winning territory for Jesus. Missionaries speak in a military-inflected language, saying that they feel they are “on assignment from the Lord.” Many go into training for missionary work; the intensive trainings are called “bootcamps.” Those on short-term missions go to Haiti on teams with matching T-shirts and backpacks that evoke a squad and its gear.

The Haiti case is really interesting and tragic because, in the spiritual mapping and spiritual warfare imagination, God has made certain nations and certain groups of people “chosen.” We are used to that formulation even in American civil religion. But logically, this means certain others are “un-chosen.” And American Evangelicals have claimed that the Founding Fathers were Christian and meant for America to be a Christian nation. They’ve invested a lot of intellectual work in making those claims. And they’ve made Haiti God’s least favorite nation, at least in this hemisphere.

OR: What’s their justification for that claim?

EM: They managed to completely re-narrate Haitian history. They used the fact that Afro-Haitian religion was instrumental in Haitian history—that’s a long story but basically, some of the early slave meetings that led to the slave rebellions were both religious and political. They would do rituals, “feed” the ancestral forces with animal sacrifices, and invoke the spirits for protection. So the evangelicals argue that those revolutionary rituals were actually idolatrous moments that go against the Commandment to not worship idols, and therefore have made Haiti, “the only nation dedicated to Satan.”

They got this thinking out in many Evangelical Protestant circles. I’m fascinated by what this thinking means both for Americans who think that they’re doing good work in Haiti, especially after the earthquake [in 2010], and also for Haitians—some of whom take up this story and accept it. For me, it’s a question of how aggressive prayer has worked to change the historical sense of a particular kind of nationalism. And because this spiritual warfare movement is a global one, with an aggressive, missionary drive, it feeds religious conflict, national identity, and even how families understand their own lineages.

September 16, 2015

"Nones," Affiliation, and Prayer

Elizabeth DrescherElizabeth Drescher, Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion & Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University, has spent the past several years learning about so-called “Nones”—the religiously unaffiliated who answer “none” when asked with what religion they identify. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Drescher discusses how her interest in this topic developed, the meaning of religious classifications, and the impact of new and social media on how people pray.


Onnesha Roychoudhuri: What first drew you to studying “Nones” as a religious classification?

Elizabeth Drescher: I was working at a seminary when the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape and the American Religious Identification survey came out. It marked the first big jump in the number of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated. Seminaries were really struggling at that time, as they are now. We were looking at the question of what it meant to prepare people for religious leadership in the current age. I wanted to understand who these folks were and what their relationship to traditional religion was. I wanted to understand how they were developing spiritual lives in relation to and beyond those traditions. So I started there, and I continued to have an interest in what that might mean. Also, I live in northern California. It’s a pretty Catholic culture in many ways, but it’s also really religiously diverse. There are a lot of religiously unaffiliated people.

OR: What are the parameters of the “None” classification? Do many “Nones” consider themselves believers in God?

ED: The data tells us that the majority of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God, a higher power, or something like that. Saying that you’re religiously unaffiliated is saying that you don’t primarily engage or practice that belief in the context of an institutional religious group. But it isn’t to say that you don’t believe in anything.

However, one of the things that the religiously unaffiliated really stress is that our conventional fixation on propositional belief, and those questions that fill our theologies and philosophies—”Is there or isn’t there a God? How does that God work in the world?”—aren’t necessarily the most important measures of how spiritual or religious people are.

For many of the unaffiliated I spoke with, their distance from or indifference to institutional religions didn’t have a whole lot to do with complex doctrinal or theological issues. It had to do with different experiences of the spiritual in their lives that weren’t central to institutional religious practices as they had experienced them.

OR: But it also sounds that you’ve found in your research that many “Nones” are apprehensive to even identify as spiritual.

ED: There’s certainly a range. A sizable percentage of folks from the 2012 “Nones on the Rise” study did identify as spiritual. But many of the unaffiliated—and I think all of the new data from Pew isn’t out, but I suspect that we’ll see this—are religiously indifferent. They are neither religious nor spiritual, and they really don’t want to have their lives defined in that language.

Certainly, the language of the spiritual is often demeaned in the culture—especially the “spiritual but not religious” moniker. I think Lillian Daniel’s work on this is pretty typical. There was a viral essay she wrote for the Huffington Post that she later turned into a book, entitled, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” She went on about people who are spiritual as being vapid, narcissistic, and shallow. But what I’ve found is that people have complex ways of understanding what they see as the work of the human spirit, the divine spirit, a natural spirit in the context of everyday life. It wasn’t necessarily systematized in conventional ways, but certainly created a richness in their lives.

OR: I’m curious about all the terminology floating around here. Already, we’ve used the terms “unaffiliated,” and then “Nones.” How much of a role does the categorization and terminology play in the visibility of different ways of practicing spirituality or faith? For instance, I think in the Pew report there was a troubling grouping of different categories.

ED: At one point they lumped together atheists and agnostics, and that creates weird data. You see a certain percentage of people in the atheist/agnostic category who pray, and people think, Well what are you praying to if you don’t believe in God? But, of course, agnostics don’t necessarily not believe in God; they just don’t know that the answer is settled.

The names are really important. When I started doing this research, I had “Nones” as this long hyphenated construction: “Nones—people-who-answer- ‘None’-when-asked-with-what-religion-they-identify-or-affiliate.” Because people didn’t know what that terminology meant. After the “Nones on the Rise” report, which got so much media attention, people suddenly did know. After 2012, people would self-identify to me as “Nones.”

The unaffiliated have tended to be described by the dominant religiously-affiliated cohort as “un” sorts of things: “un-churched,” “un-religious,” “un-saved” or with fairly pejorative language, like “heathens” or “pagans.” Even “atheist” has a strong negative connotation, although that’s changing. “Agnostic” is a little softer. Depending on your denominational background, “humanist” can be more neutral or it can be very negative. So I think for many of the unaffiliated, having this category of “None” allows them to be strategic in how they identify, but it also allows them to say, “I’m not a heathen or an ‘un-churched,’ I’m not nothing. But I’m not what you define.”

OR: It sounds like the term “None” is starting to carve out its own affirmative space. But I when I read the Pew report, I noticed that they were cautious about using the term. They specified that they were putting “Nones” in quotes, as a nod to the fact that the term is considered diminishing by some. What are your thoughts on the use of the term?

ED: For some people, “None” has an empty sound to it, and they want to be more specific. When I was interviewing people for the New Directions in the Study of Prayer project, and for my wider research on the Choosing Our Religion book, I asked them how they identified. I would say, “If someone asked you what your religion is, what would you say? How would you describe yourself?” People had all sorts of ways of describing and labeling themselves, and refusing labels. Sometimes that would change repeatedly in the course of an interview.

One of the things that was pretty consistent was that people would amend the label that they used, often with the space holder, “whatever.” So they might say, “Well, I’m more of an agnostic or whatever.” Some people read that “whatever” in a kind of valley-girl, vapid way. But linguists talk about those kinds of words as space-holders that allow people to negotiate meanings together. Essentially, they’re saying: “There’s not really a word in the language for who I’m being and who I’m becoming, but I’m going to continue to talk about it with you, and maybe together we’ll come up with some kind of understanding.” “Whatever” doesn’t always mean, “it doesn’t matter.”

People have been testing “None” out now for a couple years. For some, it really works well and feels more authentic than something like “spiritual but not religious.” The label will probably change, too. That’s a big part of the process of religious change we’re seeing right now. Just like fixed doctrinal propositional beliefs are no longer the center of people’s religious experience. Even for people who remain affiliated, the language of, “I am a Presbyterian,” or, “I am a Buddhist,” as a fixed feature of identity is less and less the norm.

OR: I know there are a lot of different theories as to why there’s been a rise in “Nones” and an increasing aversion to wholeheartedly embracing one label. What’s your perspective on what might be behind this rise?

ED: There’s no one particular cause. At a really basic level, people live much longer lives than they ever have. As institutional religion was developing, most people died by the time they were 50. They didn’t have a lot of exposure to other religious traditions, and lives were short and brutal. Doing a lot of religious and spiritual exploration was a luxury that most people didn’t have. If you happened to live in a part of the world where everybody was Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, that’s what you practiced. Now, many of us can expect to live past a hundred, and we have much easier lives—even if they’re complex in different ways. Our lifespans allow for a more expansive exploration of religion and spirituality.

New media technologies have given us access to more information and authority over it. And the ability to shape expressions of our identity in online spaces has influenced our offline activity. We have this expectation that everything is revisable in a certain sense. There are very few people with exclusive authority over knowledge, information, and wisdom now. And in a globally connected world, we’re just exposed to lots of different religious traditions and non-religious practices. It’s just not possible, as Charles Taylor tells us, for people—even if they believe in a very devout sense in one particular religious tradition—to really think that other reasonable people don’t believe different things.

People are also frustrated by the politicization of religion, or the religionization of politics, and have stepped away from certain versions of fundamentalist religion and culture. So all of those things have come together to create this period in which people are holding religious identity more loosely and exploring it in more complex ways in their lives.

I think that the conversation itself—about religious affiliation and “Nones”—produces some “Nones.” There are people who might not have been particularly active participants in the religious traditions that they identified with, but maybe still would have said, “I’m a Lutheran,” or “I’m a Hindu.” And when the conversation about “Nones” in the media invites them to think about that, they start identifying as “Nones.”

OR: Your research relies heavily on interviews with “Nones.” Can you talk a little bit about your experience conducting these? Did you discover any common threads in terms of how “Nones” describe prayer, or what constitutes prayer for “Nones”?

ED: I traveled around and interviewed over 100 people across the country about their spiritual lives. There was a lot of variety. When I surveyed people about their spiritual lives, prayer was the only traditional religious practice that came up as spiritually meaningful, consistently across the board—both among the affiliated and the unaffiliated. But people think of prayer in lots of different ways.

The traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of prayer is that it’s either a petition to a supernatural being, or a way of engaging the presence of that being. So it’s either about making a request and hoping for some kind of change to happen, or developing a relationship, and often expecting some kind of change to happen on the basis of that relationship.

That conception of prayer didn’t come up much with the “Nones” I talked to. More often, I saw prayer functioning as a practice that created a continuity between their religiously-affiliated past and their unaffiliated present. It allowed them to be in certain social relationships—with people in their families, among coworkers and friends who were praying people. For example, one woman I interviewed is an atheist who works as an executive in a social services agency in Chicago. She said that in the course of her work, there are many religious groups and lots of praying. So her feeling is that, Sure, I’ll bust out a prayer, that’s not a big deal. I don’t have to believe in your God to stand with you. She didn’t think the words meant anything in terms of getting a supernatural being to affect lives, but they meant something in terms of her relationships. It’s this idea of praying with people in a Durkheimian sense of creating social cohesion. I’ll pray with you because it brings us together.

This woman also said that when she’s gathering with family and friends, they’ll often start with a prayer as a way of acknowledging the significance of the gathering and the people who are there. For some people there, that has religious meaning, and for others, it doesn’t. I saw that a lot with people I interviewed: prayer serving to continue connections, to move the story forward.

It also came up that prayer held a space in which people could express the paradox of hope and anxiety—often in circumstances where people were praying for somebody. People explained to me that saying you’re praying for somebody is different than saying that you’re thinking about them. When I explored that in greater depth, what I heard was that, when someone is struggling in our lives, we have what I think of as a contingent vulnerability—this sense that your sense of security, safety, and health is connected to mine, at least emotionally. So the idea is, I don’t feel secure and healthy and safe until you are. Prayer is way of narrating that contingent vulnerability and articulating this sense that, I both hope you’ll be better, and I’m worried that you won’t be.

There aren’t many words in our language that really hold that paradox. Saying, “I’ll meditate for you,” or “I’ll think about you” doesn’t say, “I’m implicated in your wellness and security.” Whereas saying, “I’m praying for you” does, even if it doesn’t relate to a supernatural being or force.

OR: What you’re describing sounds like a practice of deep empathy.

ED: Absolutely. People told me that the most spiritually meaningful practices in their life were those that related to family, friends, their pets, and sharing and preparing food. It’s what I think of as the “four F’s” of contemporary spirituality: family, friends, Fido, and food. It’s not necessarily about developing personal virtues that allow you to be a good person in the world; it’s about nurturing relationships, starting with those in the family, relationships with friends, with nature, and so on.

Empathy is really critical in those kinds of relationships of care, where care is the central ethical value. And in that context, prayer is a technology of empathy. It’s a way of articulating and ritualizing empathy. But it also goes beyond that. If empathy is, in a classic dictionary definition, “the ability to understand the feelings of another deeply,” what I’ve been calling “contingent vulnerability” evokes an even deeper compassion, a sense of a profoundly personal implication in the wellbeing of another.

OR: You had mentioned that, for some “Nones,” praying is a way of connecting to their religious pasts. Are there a lot of “Nones” who have a past that includes identifying with a more conventionally delineated religion?

ED: The majority of the unaffiliated come from religious backgrounds—mostly Christian backgrounds. And they emerged from that background in different ways. Sometimes it was problematic, but not always. Some people felt like they took all kinds of beautiful things from the tradition, but that it didn’t really work for them anymore.

One woman I interviewed identifies as variously a “None,” “spiritual but not religious,” and has a pagan-wiccan practice. But she really likes the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and thinks it’s a beautiful tradition. It’s really common for people to carry artifacts from their tradition into their lives as unaffiliated people.

Another woman I interviewed had a really difficult relationship with her fairly conservative Evangelical tradition. She left it behind and then identified as a fairly hardcore atheist. I think she’s softened on that now, but she talked about prayer as “sneaking up on her.” She really didn’t want to be doing it, but she was in certain life circumstances and it was really the only language she could approach that experience with. But it was uncomfortable for her.

OR: One of the women you interviewed identifies as an atheist, but she starts every morning by praying. And for her, that means looking at photos of her children and grandchildren. And in that instance, it sounds like she’s incorporated that kind of prayer in her life and it’s sufficient. Whereas in some other contexts, it sounds like prayer is an act of yearning to feel connection that isn’t yet fulfilled.

ED: Yes. Judith set out these photos of her daughters and granddaughters every morning. It’s easy to see how that resonates with lots of traditional prayer practices—you know, the prayer cards, having the ritual of doing that every morning. But it’s also easy to see how that doesn’t have to involve an idea of God at all. Just seeing those images reinforces those relationships, deepens empathy, enriches a sense of caring, and creates a sense of fullness for her.

There were other people who talked to me who said, “You know, I wish that I did believe in a God that was going to do something, and when I sit and pray, maybe I’m connecting with something, but I’m not certain about that.” It was still important for them to do. One of the people I interviewed, a recent graduate from Santa Clara where I teach, is an atheist who prays. He says when he does it, he’s not really seeking anything in terms of a specific outcome; he’s just thinking about the people he cares about, the things he wants to explore in his life, his relationship to the world.

OR: You mentioned the impact that new media has had on the conception of “Nones” and prayer. How has the rise of the internet and social media opened up space for a more elastic definition of prayer and the practice of prayer?

ED: We see this on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, even Flickr. Every time there’s some kind of tragedy, we see the hashtag on Twitter: #prayforCharleston, #prayforBoston. You’re seeing people expressing this kind of paradoxical understanding of hope and anxiety that is most fully marked in the language we have available with the word “prayer.” It has both some bonding effect—because everybody’s looking at the hashtag—and we’re reflecting on whatever that regional or national experience was. For some, that will provoke what would be traditionally recognized as prayer. They’re going to invoke a deity, petition, use traditional language. For others, it’s going to provoke a kind of reflection that they may or may not consider to be prayer, but we might define as prayerful. It creates a great space.

We see the same thing on more visual sites, where people put up quotes and images that create a kind of digital stained glass window that looks a lot like traditional prayer stations. There’s iconography and short memorable passages that can be recited in patterned ways. People spend time scrolling through them. I have students who say that when they’re feeling down, they go onto Pinterest and scroll around and get some inspiration from people. That certainly changes how people actively experience what they would articulate as prayer or prayerfulness in their everyday lives.

So, they’re not seeing prayer in the more conventional liturgical structures that would be associated with institutional religions. And this isn’t just among the unaffiliated. When the affiliated are going into their churches, they’re also carrying these digitally integrated prayerful practices into those spaces.

OR: Can you give some examples of how these broader conceptions of prayer are evolving the way that people pray in churches?

ED: I think there are lots of churches where ministers are actively inviting people to both Tweet prayer requests or put them on a church Facebook page. So there’s a digitally integrated connectedness that expands beyond the local space into a more distributed network of care. I gave a talk with a colleague a while back, and as an experiment, we invited people in the group to ask for prayer requests. People were holding up their iPads and their iPhones calling out prayer requests from all around the country. It was quite a powerful moment.

Marcel Mauss has an understanding of prayer as increasingly moving people into greater and greater internalization so that, ultimately, we’ll become our own private religious spaces. In fact, social media has flipped that. We’re externalizing prayer quite a lot more,but it’s in much more nuanced ways than, say, a charismatic or street-corner prayer experience. Where we might have seen the evolution of religion becoming more market-based, free choice, individualized, privatized, and interiorized, it’s actually becoming more networked, relational, and social in really complex ways.

August 17, 2015

A Machine for the Production of Gods

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 22, 2015

Not Your Grandmother's Islam

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EO: I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 4, 2015

Tradition, Innovation, and the Orthodox Sensorium

Sonja Luehrmann, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, heads a team of researchers exploring the role of the senses in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer in Russia, Greece, the United States, Egypt, India, and Romania. Here, she tells Jennifer Lois Hahn about her research on emerging rituals in Russia related to childbirth and abortion, strategies for ensuring that prayers “reach God faster,” and the productive tension between tradition and innovation at the heart of modern Orthodox prayer. 


Jennifer Lois Hahn: How did you come to be involved in this project?

Sonja Luehrmann: The project I was involved with was a team effort to study the use of different sensory media in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer. Prayer isn’t just something you say—it involves visual media, it involves chanting, hearing, all of that. I have been studying post-Soviet, post-socialist religion in Russia for about the past ten years, and my focus has been on a variety of religious groups, because Russia is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country. I’ve worked with Muslims, I’ve worked with indigenous religious groups, but in recent years I’ve become more interested in the Russian Orthodox Church. I think it’s a very understudied section of Christianity, especially when you look at the English-language literature that is out there. In 2005, while I was doing this kind of more multi-religious work, I participated in a conference at the Max Planck Institute in Halle, Germany on Eastern Christians in anthropological perspective. That is where most of the collaborators for this research team met for the first time. We liked each other’s work and have stayed in touch since then. We started thinking is there something that we could do together, that would enable each of us to do our own research, but do it in a coherent way that it would complement each other, and also give us opportunities to meet up and bounce ideas off each other. [Luehrmann’s collaborators were Daria Dubovka, Jeffers Engelhardt, Angie Heo, Jeanne Kormina, Vlad Naumescu, and Simion Pop.]

JLH: Tell me about your own research project. Where did you do your fieldwork?

SL: I did research on texts and prayers in conjunction with a longer ethnographic project that I’ve been doing on new rituals that are emerging in Russia, particularly in connection with issues of childbirth and abortion. These issues did not exist to the same degree in pre-revolutionary Russia and are now requiring the elaboration of new ritual and prayer texts. I’ve been doing this research in a multi-sited way. I worked with people in Moscow, both iconographers and also people who are part of a commission to approve new liturgical texts. I’ve done research in more outlying regions. I went on a pilgrimage in the Kirov region in Russia, which is further out east near the Ural Mountains. So I’ve been looking at these aspects of ritualization of new issues in a church that is known to be very conservative. When people think of Orthodox Christianity they probably don’t think of ritual innovation, they think of people doing things that have been done for centuries.

JLH: What is distinctive about Orthodox prayer versus prayer in other traditions?

SL: One thing that I think both Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox people think of as very distinctive is certainly the use of icons. Icons are flat, two-dimensional images traditionally painted on wooden boards that are used in prayer. They differ from Catholic art, both in the insistence that you rarely use three-dimensional statues, traditionally you have to use flat images, and also in the way that in most iconographic styles it’s very important to preserve a certain kind of canonical style and way of depicting a person. The idea is that in Orthodox art you cannot do what has often happened in Western painting since the Renaissance: painting an image of a saint and putting in the face of the person who sponsored the painting, or some other contemporary of the painter. The faces in Orthodox iconography are always fairly stylized, but the idea is that they actually give a likeness of what that saint or person looked like in real life. They’re meant to be more realistic than Catholic iconography in some way.

Another thing that is distinctive is the practice of praying with traditional texts. So this evangelical Christian idea of just having a casual chat with God—or even the post-Vatican II Catholic idea where you can also do that—is something that in Orthodox Christianity is not considered a norm. It is not even considered to be particularly desirable. So people I have talked to say, “Well, yeah, you can pray with your own words, but in the prayer book we have the words of people who were spiritually more advanced, who were monastics and who have been recognized as saints and everything. So why don’t we use their words?” The phrase that is often used is that these traditional prayers “reach God faster,” because they are inspired by the spiritual insights of the people who put together these words. In practice, often what I’ve seen people do is that they will recite some of these traditional texts and then maybe if they have a concrete request, they will add it on either silently at the end or they will actually add some language in their own words about something in particular that they are asking God for. But the main emphasis of the prayer event is always the recitation of these canonically authorized texts.

JLH: This interplay of the fixity of the textual prayer and the creativity that people bring to it is really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about how that tension plays out?

SL: I sometimes think about it as dialing God’s telephone number to then tell God what you really want to say. The traditional text is like the telephone number. It is the way to get through to God. Then once you’ve established the connection, you feel that it’s the right moment to add what it is you wanted to say. But another way in which people get creative with these prayers is to abbreviate them. So the morning and evening prayers, if you say the whole thing, it takes about half an hour. In today’s world, not everyone has time to do that. In Russia quite a lot of Orthodox Christians I know just don’t say them. But then there are also people who will pick and choose, maybe stay a bit longer with a particular part that speaks to them on that particular day. When you look at writings by nineteenth-century Orthodox religious figures that talk specifically about how you live this Orthodox spirituality as a layperson, you actually find that as advice. They say that you do not actually have to say the whole thing for it to be valid. So abbreviation is another very common way to get creative.

Another way that people play with this is that they don’t necessarily say the prayers themselves. They can delegate that responsibility to others. That’s not the case for these daily prayers—either you say them yourself or you don’t. But if you have particular petitions or concerns, if you have a particular illness or a relative who has a particular illness, you do have a choice. For instance, do you go yourself to particular icons that are known to be helpful for a particular disease? Or do you pay money to a monastery that has this particular icon and that will do daily services in front of it, and include the name of yourself or your relative? There is this idea that certain people, either because of their spiritual merits, or just because of their position, are better at prayer, God hears them better, God hears them faster. So you can delegate your prayer requests to these people, and hope that with their intercession your cause will be furthered.

JLH: What happens in the case of extemporaneous prayer? For instance, when evangelicals are thrown into a difficult situation, they can use their own words to ask for help. What do Orthodox Christians do? Would they use the Jesus prayer, for instance?

SL: One prayer that is especially popular among Orthodox women in the moment is the Orthodox version of “Hail Mary.” It goes: “Oh Virgin birthgiver of God, rejoice, blessed Mary,” and so on. It’s a fairly short text, and it’s something that people know by heart. Many people also know a melody that goes with it so they might actually chant it. I went on a three-day walking pilgrimage with women where we came by a spring that was considered to have healing properties, so they organized bathing. But the water was also pretty cold. First the men all got to go in, and then the women, because there were no changing rooms. While some of the women were going in and having to overcome this coldness, the other women who were standing at the bank were singing Hail Mary to help them, to give them strength to do it.

The Jesus prayer is something that is a little bit more contentious. It is this very short petition, “Oh Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” and it kind of has this legendary status in the Orthodox world (and to some degree in the western world too) that there are these very committed spiritual people who are saying that prayer constantly in their mind. So it is less this small moment of petition, but more this idea that throughout your whole life you are always close to Jesus, and invoking Jesus. But there are also debates about it: is it good to try to do that as a layperson? Is that only something that monastics should do? If you try to do it as a layperson, could you get too caught up in your spiritual exploits and forget about life as it is? One of our collaborators, Simion Pop, was looking at that in Romania, where there is a post-Socialist revival of Orthodoxy just like in Russia. Part of that revival has been a more pronounced movement of laypeople who are very interested in the Jesus prayer and either use it as meditation tool when they go on retreats or actually have this ambition to be trying to say it their whole lives. That is an issue about which different Orthodox Christians have different opinions.

JLH: Along those lines, could you talk about the differences that you and your collaborators have seen in different parts of the world?

Sonja: One thing we noticed that was going on in all the different countries—Russia, Romania, Greece, Egypt, and India—was the search for specifically Eastern Orthodox Christian ways of praying and living spirituality that I think started sometime in the late twentieth century. In Eastern Europe and Russia, it’s very much connected to the end of socialism. But it also goes back to processes that started in the nineteenth century, a beginning to turn away from Catholic and western European influences in search for this unique and eastern spirituality. In India and to some degree also in Egypt our collaborators were seeing the same thing. For instance, in terms of painting styles, there was this desire to go back to either Byzantine iconography or even the oldest Christian styles of icon writing to be different from the Catholic images. I think we have to still do more to tease out what the different reasons are in the different countries that this is happening. Everywhere it has to do with some sort of identity politics, but also with an idea that there are natural ways in which human spirituality should express itself, and that these old, in some ways very strict, very stylized versions of iconography and chant express that best. Maybe they are most pronouncedly different from secular styles of music and art in all these countries, and there is a certain value that is being placed on that, that the religious approaches have to be very different from the secular ones.

In terms of differences, I think there are definitely differences in how open the different churches are to electronic media or any kind of technical innovations. Jeffers Engelhardt, the ethno-musicologist in our group, has found that in Greece electronic amplification of sound has become the norm, even in the smallest of monasteries on Mount Athos. Sometimes for lighting, they only use candles, but they will still have a microphone in the altar to project the sound of what the priest is saying, even in a tiny chapel where everyone could perfectly hear everything that is being said. In Romania we saw the same thing, whereas in Russia there is much more hesitance against using any kind of these electronic means. It is extreme in monasteries. Another one of our collaborators, Daria Dubovka, did long-term fieldwork in a number of convents in Russia. She has very interesting stories about technology there. In some places you were allowed to have a laptop but not a phone. In other places, nothing at all was allowed. But basically in Russia there was this idea that there was something morally suspect about new technologies and you don’t really want to have them.

JLH: In terms of what holds it all together, what makes Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, you have mentioned Birgit Meyer’s concept of an aesthetic formation. Could you explain what that is?

SL: I understand aesthetic formation as referring to a style that connects a number of churches or geographical contexts and gives a loose coherence to something that doesn’t have a common institutional body. That is one of the reasons that we’re using it for the Orthodox church, because different from the Catholic Church, there is no pope in Eastern Christianity that would give you a general line on the opinion of the Orthodox Churches on something. There are bishops. There are patriarchs. In most contexts the patriarch is the national head of the church, but he’s really considered to be primus inter pares [first among equals], the one of who has administrative authority, but whose word on doctrine is not necessarily higher than that of the other bishops. So in the absence of this kind of institutional structure, we like this term “aesthetic formation” to think about common ways of responding to media. So for instance, I was just talking about these common debates in different countries about how do we go back to whatever it is we understand as a Byzantine, Eastern Christian, or Orthodox style. That is something that Orthodox people from Romania and Russia and India, if they could somehow get together and to talk about it, they would mean similar things. But at the same time, they might have very different political ideas about what the church should be about or very different historical experiences. Still, there is a common resonance around a certain kind of sound or visual impression. That’s what we meant by aesthetic formation.

JLH: Many of the NDSP grantees seem to have been attracted to the concept of “embodiment” as a new way of thinking about prayer. How has that theoretical orientation informed your group’s focus on the senses?

SL: I think, for us, embodiment was an overarching category under which you can bring together the study of different senses. Part of what we’re interested in for our research is the question of why do you have to have all these different sensory media? Why can’t it be just text or just icons or just chant? There seems to be this abundant saturation that somehow helps people feel that they are in a holy place, that their prayer is going to be heard, that their prayer is in some way appropriate to God. Praying is not something that you just do with the mind or the eyes or the mouth, but you do it as a whole person. What icons do for instance with visual media, is they help the person who is praying orient their body in a certain way. It’s not just about having eye contact with the saint whom you’re venerating, but how you’re standing, you’re facing the icon, you’re orienting your body in a certain way. When Orthodox Christians go to Western Europe and visit Catholic churches, one of the things they talk about is how strange it is to pray at a statute. This bodily orientation toward a three-dimensional body on a pedestal is very different than praying to a flat image that is in front of you. So I think in people’s own sense of what it means to pray and how to pray well, bodily posture and bodily integration of various sensory input is very important, just intuitively. That’s maybe one reason why so many of our researchers in this grant project as a whole are picking up on that.

JLH: What do you think that the overall New Directions in the Study of Prayer project would be missing if Orthodox Christianity hadn’t been included as a focus of study?

SL: That’s an interesting question. Well, let me turn it around to ask: what is the unique thing that you can see in Orthodox Christianity that is maybe not as clear in other religious traditions? On the one hand, the study of the senses is very important, and we were very much interested in that, but we also always found ourselves pointed back to the institution and the community of the Church. I think in some other contexts, it can be relatively easy to study prayer as this kind of individual activity, this way that people bring out their own innermost wishes or thoughts and bring them up to God. Or a way that people develop themselves and work on themselves ethically, as in a lot of current research on spirituality and self-development. In Orthodox Christianity, I think all of that happens, but I think it is also always very clear that people develop their own styles and preferences and experiences of prayer in relation to this very strong authorizing discourse of the institution. Being Orthodox means that you are part of a tradition of prayer and theological debate. So we understand the Orthodox Church in some ways as Talad Asad talks about Islam, as a discursive tradition. It’s a tradition in which people have argued, people have had all kinds of positions, but in order to do something and call it Orthodox you always have to be able to tie it to somebody’s authoritative position, the position of one of the church fathers, even though maybe all of the other church fathers disagreed with it. The strength of the institution and its authorizing discourses for people’s experience of what is proper and effective prayer, that is something that sometimes can be forgotten in the sensory turn in recent years. The Orthodox Church brings the two perspectives together by showing that yes, the sensory media are very important, and people use them in all sorts of creative ways that are not necessarily authorized by the institution, but they are also always very conscious of their placement in this hierarchy of experts, of the need to get the blessing of your priest in order to do a certain sequence of prayers.

JLH: How does your work on anti-abortion activists in Russia relate to these tensions between the individual and the institutional?

SL: The paradox of the issue of abortion in Russia is that the Russian Orthodox Church nowadays very strongly opposes it and the state is also starting to become more critical of it, mainly because of concerns with the birthrate. On the one hand the church is very opposed to abortion, on the other hand, abortion was the method of fertility control in the Soviet Union. So pretty much any woman you meet who is over 40 or 50, unless she had fertility problems, or she didn’t have a heterosexual partner, she will have had multiple abortions. These elderly and middle-aged-women are also the main support of any Russian Orthodox congregation. Just like in the United States, Christianity is very feminized and dominated by older people. So the church is telling its most faithful parishioners that they’re terrible sinners who have to repent of these murders that they committed during their youth. But the church is also developing these rituals that you can do to expiate your past abortions. And that is often where prayer comes in. There is an icon that has been created of what is known as the slaughter of the innocents in the West, the incident where King Herod had all these children under two killed in the attempt to kill Jesus, that has been adopted as kind of the symbol of aborted fetuses. There was no traditional iconographic depiction of that scene in its own right. I actually interviewed the iconographer who in the 1990s wrote the first full-size prayer icon of this episode in consultation with a priest. So there are these new prayer media, and there are also official prayers that the church recommends women say for their aborted fetuses. But then there are also ways in which women actually pray for aborted fetuses. The main difference between them is whether or not the women come up with a name for the aborted fetus. The church very emphatically says no, because the only way that a name can be conferred is through baptism, and of course having died before being able to live outside the womb, it is not possible for these children to have been baptized. Whereas there are these unofficial rites that are coming up, by which you actually sort of posthumously baptize your aborted fetus, and then you have a name that allows you to participate in official church prayer. So again, that’s a place where we see that the sensory media and experience is one thing, but the little mark of institutional belonging—do you actually have a baptismal name for someone you want to pray for or not—can become very important in the minds of laypeople, more important than the whole long text that might be around it.

January 21, 2015

Prayer, Survivors, and the Post-Secular

For the past two years, Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has been talking with adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse in an effort to understand survivors’ religious practices and experiences in the wake of the abuse. Here, Orsi speaks with Jennifer Lois Hahn about why sexual abuse by a priest is more than a matter of individual psychopathology; how survivors’ continued religious and spiritual engagement challenges functionalist theories of religion; and what he means when he describes survivors of clergy sexual abuse as existing at “ground zero of the post-secular.”


Jennifer Lois Hahn: People tend to see sexual abuse as an individual pathology, the problem of the priests and nuns involved. Is it something larger than that?

Robert Orsi: Clearly sexual abuse is the result of individual pathology, in the sense that there are men and women who are driven by their particular obsessions to abuse children or adolescents, and it is possible for psychologists to develop a profile of general characteristics for such individuals. On the other hand, I think it’s very important to look at the social, cultural, and in this case, religious environments within which abuse takes place, how particular environments may contribute in specific ways to the abuse, giving it meanings and lived consequences in excess of the psychological. I asked a survivor once if she thought it made sense to talk about her abuse as being in some way religious. This woman goes to church today, having returned after some time away. She’s a devout and, as it happens, quite learned laywoman. Her answer was, “Everyone who was abused by a priest was abused in a Catholic way.” So it is this Catholic way that I’m interested in. The sexual abuse is not an act in isolation from other acts, other forms of violence against children, or in isolation from the construction of the child as the object of devotional desire in modern Catholicism, and so on. There was collusion, moreover, on the part of parishioners or parish staffs, who were implicated in the abuse if only by saying nothing or looking away from what they knew well was happening, and on the part of bishops, who protected abusers or moved them from parish to parish. All the figures in these networks of collusion had Catholic reasons for what they did, their choices. Furthermore, the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests took place in a particular theological, sacramental, even ontological environment. The priest was a certain kind of being in Catholic theology, the other Christ (alter Christi), ranked higher than the angels because only priests are endowed by virtue of their ordination with the power to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of God. Angels cannot be ordained. So to be abused by a priest was not at all the same as being abused by a high school football coach, as awful as this is too. It was to be abused one step removed from God. And that, I think, sets clergy sexual abuse in a context that needs to be examined from multiple perspectives, including, or primarily, the religious.

JLH: In your proposal, you talked about wanting your project to assess the victim’s survival beyond the “implicitly normative terms of the therapeutic.” In what ways is the standard secular therapeutic treatment not sufficient for some of these victims?

RO: Well, there is not a single therapeutic modality in contemporary psychology, as we all know. There are many different schools of therapy, many different kinds of practice, and survivors have tried one or the other or several over time. In this sense, their experience with therapy cannot be generalized. Furthermore, I don’t think the kind of Freudian orthodoxy that dominated therapy for years, with its rigorous, insistent secularism, retains the credentialing power or authority it once did. Because most of those abused by a priest were abused in a Catholic way, as a scholar of religion, I believed I could bring analytical tools and perspectives both from religious theory and the study of history to bear that might illuminate dimensions of the abuse beyond, or in addition to, the psychological. But I have been struck by the extent to which psychological approaches, language, narratives, and so on, crowd out other idioms of understanding and theory, even among church people who are able, or enabled, by reason of this conceptual singularity to say simply, “Well, it’s a psychological issue.” Likewise, psychologists argue that the perpetrator is sick. Norwegians struggled with this question of sickness versus intention in the trial of Anders Breivik. But I have been resisting this one dimensional psychological explanation because I think it lifts the sexual abuse of children and adolescents out of history and culture, in a way that distorts its reality. At the same time, I’ve been very mindful and respectful of the fact that almost all the survivors I’ve spoken to have been in some sort of therapy and that all have benefitted from it, and also that psychological theory is essential in understanding sexual abuse. But the woman I quoted earlier about clergy abuse being always in some sense Catholic eventually had to break with her therapist because her therapist didn’t want to talk about God, and more, felt that her client’s continued attachment to both God and the church were symptoms, rather than religious choice.

JLH: That must have been painful for her I would imagine.

RO: It was. Because she loved this therapist and she was very grateful for how much the therapist had helped her, but with her devotion to God, Mary, and the saints, and her attachment to the church, she hit a blind spot with the therapist.

JLH: Along those lines, I was really struck by what you have said about survivors of clergy sexual abuse being at “ground zero of the post-secular.” Can you explain more what you mean by that?

RO: I probably should begin by explaining what I think “post-secular” means, because I think it has a wide and not always stable semantic range. After Talal Asad, the “secular” was recognized as itself a religious project, so that it began to make sense to speak of a “religious secular.” It’s also evident that the secular generated various forms of religious expression, understanding, and practice, or the secular religious. But I think what gets left out in post-Asadian accounts of religion after secularism is the enduring life of religious traditions, pre/post-secularism. The survivors I know were all involved, in one way or another, with Catholicism. I make no claim that this is true of all survivors of clergy sexual abuse. But it was true of the ones I have spoken to. So when I say that survivors are at ground zero of the post-secular, I am talking about how survivors find themselves in a situation in which their lives are construed in a set of normative languages that serve to mask the complex realities of their biographies. Again, multiple frames are needed to approach survivors’ lives, including a robust Catholic language. These are Catholics and in many senses they remain Catholics, even when they reject the sacraments, hierarchy, and so on. Despite rejecting certain elements of the tradition, the survivors I got to know spend a lot of time talking about God, they think about the Blessed Mother and the saints, they are knowledgeable about Catholic theology, and in this way they’re not pre- or post-secular. What’s the term then? Perhaps we scholars of religion are overly confident in the reach of our theoretical language. We need to be more attentive to what ways of being are excluded, or hidden, by the terms we use. What lies on the other side of our theoretical languages?

JLH: In relation to the secular, you have written about how important the notion of real presence is in Catholicism. As I was reading that I was actually thinking about Tanya Luhrmann’s work, how difficult it is sometimes for the evangelicals she studies to find this sense of real presence in a modern society. Do you think this is different for Catholics?

RO: Almost all of the people I spoke to had grown up or had been “formed”—in the Catholic word for the processes by which children become Catholic—within the Catholic Church before or during the Second Vatican Council, when the devotional density of Catholicism was at it’s most excessive. The world of their childhoods in the mid-twentieth century could not have been more enchanted, and this was the world that Catholics took as real. For a book to be published soon by Harvard University Press, tentatively titled History and Presence, I am working on a chapter on Catholics and the dead. The dead are present in everyday life to Catholics in all sorts of ways; the boundary between living and dead is porous. In an article I cite from the 1950s popular Catholic press, a priest says that he really likes old ghost and horror stories because he thinks they say more about reality than modern accounts of death. Such tales were truer to Catholic ontology. To the Catholics who grew up in this world, whose bodies, imaginations, minds, relationships had all been made and remade to this reality—not that they were passive in this process—enchantment is given, taken for granted. It is both given and special, it is in their bodies as well as their minds.

JLH: Do you think that having grown up with this enchanted ontology eventually helps survivors to move on from the abuse because they already know how to draw comfort from religion and spirituality?

RO: Survivors would not say that they’ve moved on. This is one of the great lessons of this project for me. As one person I spoke to put it, is there ever really an “after” to the abuse? I’ve said that I thought that as a scholar of religion I had something necessary to contribute to understanding the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. That said, I also anticipated that the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as history and personal reality, and what survivors had to say about it, could speak to me as a scholar of religion, and I might learn something about religion itself that would allow me to open up some theoretical possibilities in the study of religion more generally. One of the things I have found consistently among survivors is the resistance to closure. This is why the word “comfort” is not really appropriate either. If comfort implies an end, or if it means any sort of ultimate peace, then it’s the wrong word for survivors. Functionalist views of religion—and most theories of religion are functionalist—break against the experience of the survivors because they did not encounter a God that made them comfortable, that provided order or meaning. Nor do they speak about a world put back together again when they turn to God later in their lives. The survivor I spoke about before refers to herself as a resurrected wound. She remains a wounded person, but she’s resurrected. Sometimes I think the most religions offer is scar tissue. This survivor also says everyday she has to make a choice between light or dark, between what she calls the abyss or life.

JLH: The issue of the interplay of agency and structure in religious life has been a central feature of your work over the years. Can you talk more about how this dynamic plays out in the ongoing process of dealing with abuse?

RO: The short answer to your rich question would be that survivors, like the rest of us, are subject of/subject to our histories. I think it’s tempting to many to tell the life stories of men and women abused by priests as being going from victim to survivor, which is another way of saying from “subject to” to “subject of.” But the from/to language obscures a more complex reality, which is that survivors are always moving back and forth between these positions, and they know it. This is how they talk about their own lives. The longer answer requires a discussion of how survivors come to the recognition that they are both actors and acted upon, which I think of as a realization of the tragic nature of human existence. Maybe I was attracted to this project in the first place because I have a tragic view of history and culture myself, a position for which there are multiple sources, from psychoanalytic theory, post-World War II social theory, and historiography, meaning the very fact of being a historian. Many of the survivors, understandably, share it, not simply for obvious reasons, but because they have lived their lives beneath the cross, in several senses. At some point in their lives they accepted the irrevocability of what happened to them, and it was with this recognition that they became free. Almost all of the survivors I’ve spoken to had a period in their lives as young adults when they were still practicing Catholics, when, in fact, they were the best of all Catholics—dutiful and obedient. They were children or adolescents when they were abused, so practically speaking they couldn’t walk away from the church without community scandal and disapproval. But even afterwards they continued going to church and many of them described themselves as model Catholics in their 20s and early 30s. Then at some point the incongruity just broke them apart and they couldn’t do it anymore. Now they accept the fact that they were abused by priests in a church that some of them now have come to love again; but the reality of the abuse and the reality of the love are not separated into compartments. This is why the resurrected wound is such an apt metaphor. So they have moved in a way beyond absolutes. And maybe they teach us scholars of religion to be wary of imposing any sort of totalizing framework on religious practice, whether it’s the totality of power, or language, or doctrine. The challenge has always seemed to be how to account social historically, politically, and so on, for those times when the polyvalence of religious worlds gets fixed into an absolute. Survivors are the freest people I know, as I’ve written somewhere, because of the clarity of their recognition of the inevitable dual nature of human history.

JLH: You have written about some of the survivors finding an intermediate higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous. At one point you describe the A.A. God as a higher power without attributes. This struck me because I’m writing my dissertation on A.A. and I’m actually investigating what attributes people in A.A. tend to see in their higher powers.

RO: It wasn’t my judgment that this was a God without attributes. This came from one of the survivors I had spoken with, who went through A.A. and then eventually decided to move on to religious idioms more thickly conceptualized. Many of the survivors I know say that A.A. offered them a transitional God, a God they could deal with when they couldn’t deal with God. Nonetheless, they acknowledged the importance of this God who was not the God they knew but another God. People go into A.A. from particular religious traditions, which inflect this signifier, the higher power. The higher power sometimes behaved a little bit like the Catholic God among Catholics. A.A. gets taken up into other ontologies. One of my sources, for example, spoke very movingly about his A.A. sponsor, who had passed away, coming to visit him in the middle of the night, when he was frightened about something. Like many of the survivors I spoke to, this is a man whose life periodically erupts with the pain that has been attended to but does not go away. At the moment he was describing, he felt desperate about his life—then he felt a touch on his hand in the middle of the night, when he was awake, and immediately knew this was the touch of his A.A. sponsor.

JLH: One of the priests you talked to, Father Frank, said his way of dealing with the theodicy issue, why God would allow these people to suffer so horribly, was to say God had nothing to do with what happened. Do many of the survivors buy that?

RO: I think Father Frank was suggesting that it would be helpful if survivors realized this, so that they might move on from debilitating anger. But that’s his view and not all survivors would agree with it. There are long periods of time for many survivors when they wonder what God was doing when they were being abused by one of this God’s representatives on earth. This is particularly a problem because so many predator priests implicated God in the abuse. They told their victims, for instance, that God wanted them to surrender their bodies to the priest, that this was God’s gift to them. What I am about to say is a generalization I am not quite sure about yet, so I offer it as a hypothesis. That is, it seems to me that the generation of priests trained before the Second Vatican Council made greater use of the density of Catholic devotional culture in the abuse itself, whereas afterwards priests exploited some of the new possibilities open to clergy following the Council, being more socially casual and available to laity, for instance, celebrating Mass and devotions in people’s homes (which was often the immediate context of abuse). Before the Second Vatican Council, it would have been very unlikely for a priest to hang out with young teenagers. It would have been really looked at askance, for many reasons, in terms of church culture, but also, the expectations of working class and ethnic Catholics. In the history of American Catholic priests, the priests who came of age in the years just before and then after World War II, into the 1960s, were the most socially remote. But devotionalism was a domain in which the abuse could take place, and it was exploited as such. Later on, priests used the somewhat more relaxed view of the priesthood in their predatory plans.

JLH: As a final question, did you learn anything about prayer from this project that you maybe hadn’t thought about before in your career?

RO: Frank’s perspective on prayer has been very important to me. I had known, of course, about the traditions of prayer being a form of grappling or struggling with God. But the question is: how do people live inside a religious tradition? I think there’s a widespread idea that to live inside a religious tradition is to have oneself dominated by it, that the only possible way of living is obedience or surrender. But this is not always or necessarily the case, as I said earlier. Religious domination is a historical and cultural question. People inhabit a religious tradition in many different kinds of ways. They can improvise, appropriate, alter, ignore. Catholics, as they went through life—not so much as children or adolescents, but even then there were some possibilities—worked within the demands of the tradition. This is not to deny the power of the tradition at specific times and places over people. But the tradition itself is capacious enough that media exist for living both with and against it. How with/against are lived at any point is a historical question. I saw these dynamics at play in the lives of many of the survivors as they got older and contended with the wounding that had taken place in church at the hands of one of God’s agents.

September 29, 2014

Praying with the Body: An Experimental Challenge to Mind/Body Dualism in the Psychology of Religion

Mark Aveyard, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is using his knowledge of embodied cognition to study how the position and movement of the body during prayer relates to higher-level cognitive processes such as decision-making, language processing, and emotion. Aveyard, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the difficulties of experimental design, WEIRD research subjects, and the impact of culture on the way we think, use our bodies, and in some cases, use our bodies to think.


JLH: Could you start by explaining to someone who’s unfamiliar with embodied cognition what it is and how it differs from other models of cognition?

MA: We tend to talk about the mind in a kind of dualistic language. We tend to think of our minds as mental and our bodies as physical, and that these are separate domains. This dualism is reinforced by our religious beliefs, certainly. I think it’s reinforced partly because it’s useful to think of things in that way and by the fact that when we compare ourselves to many animals it does seem that we have these certain mental capacities that are extremely sophisticated. It’s very tempting to think of these as being almost disembodied, as being part of our human spirit in a way. That dualism has often carried over into more academic theories about the mind as well. Not that people are talking about souls and spirits any more, but they are talking about representations in the mind that are disconnected from bodily processes or not closely intertwined with them. The analogy I sometimes use with my students is a scene in the movie “The Matrix.” Somebody essentially gets plugged into a computer and they learn things about the world just by having information downloaded into the brain. This idea that you can fill your brain with data in the absence of physical experience has been very influential in the way that we think about the mind academically. So you have theories in robotics and computational science that try to model the brain with purely abstract symbols, with zeros and ones. If you just think about numbers and mathematics, about concepts like time and infinity, these seem to be very disconnected from the way that we move from one room to the next, or the way that we learn to walk or ride a bike, which seem like very physical activities. So I’m sympathetic to this dualistic mindset because I think it’s useful in some ways. But where it falls short is that it underestimates the contribution that bodily experience is making to those higher-level cognitive processes. Research on embodied cognition is showing that in mental processes like mathematics, the mind is often recruiting bodily processes in order to understand the things that it needs to understand. The same thing is true for language comprehension. Using language seems to be something that is pretty disconnected from the body. A lot of people out there are working on artificial intelligence programs for understanding language, and that may be theoretically possible—embodiment doesn’t say that comprehension of language absolutely needs, in all cases and at all times, a body. But it does argue that human beings use the body to understand language and that when, say, you read a sentence about somebody walking, running, or throwing something, you are understanding that sentence not just in some kind of dictionary sense, but that you are actually recruiting your own bodily understanding of how those actions are done. So whatever neurons you are activating when you, yourself, walk or run or throw, some of that network is being recruited when you read a sentence about somebody doing the same thing. In other words, having experienced something bodily is helping you understand everyday conversation about similar actions. It wasn’t obvious to cognitive scientists many years ago that that might be the case because things like language, mathematics, decision-making, and judgment seem so abstract in their nature and disconnected from the bodily experiences. But we’ve seen a shift over the years as we’ve accumulated more and more evidence that these higher-level processes are actually actively drawing on these so-called lower-level processes of motor, sensory, and perceptual experience. 

JLH: It’s striking that embodied cognition has not been studied more widely in the context of religion.

MA: It has been studied extensively by anthropologists, especially in ethnography, but anthropologists tend to be interested in the social ramifications of those rituals and what each of those bodily movements or adornments are supposed to express in terms of the theology of the religion. There is no focus whatsoever on what the motor movement itself is supposed to contribute when people do those rituals. So if you are a Christian and you pray by putting your hands together and closing your eyes, what is that doing for you besides making you feel as if you are doing what you are supposed to be doing as you pray? If you are Muslim and you are going through the Muslim prayer ritual, which has a predefined series of steps that were outlined by the prophets, what does that contribute? It’s easy to miss the importance of the motor rituals beyond this sort of traditional standpoint because it’s easy to adopt a dualistic framework when thinking about religion. In fact, that is what most religious people tend to do implicitly when they describe the rituals that they go through in their religion. If you ask people what is important in prayer they tend to focus on the most mentalistic or even spiritualistic aspects of prayer. Not surprisingly, they don’t reflect very much on what bodily movements contribute to all of the other stuff they think is important in prayer. What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and adopting a certain position and these higher-level cognitive processes in regard to what you’re thinking about, what decisions you’re making, what kind of spiritual feeling you’re having? What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and your concerns for your family, for the state of the world around you, for the state of your soul? 

JLH: How did you go about trying to answer such complex questions experimentally? 

MA: In the basic paradigm, we bring participants into the lab and tell them they’re going to be doing a very simple exercise study. In fact, half of the participants will be going through a series of motions similar to those they go through in their prayers within their religion. The other half will be going through a series of motions that are not related to prayer in their religion. We expect that just going through these motions without being aware of their religious nature will have some effect on the next task that they do in the experiment. What we want to see is that they show stronger religious cognition when they’ve gone through motor movements that are associated with prayer versus movements that are not associated with prayer. It’s important that they make no connection between the movements that they did earlier and the measurement that we’re conducting. When we first started out, the problem was that when they were going through the movements themselves they were becoming aware that this must have something to do with religion. So we really struggled to create procedures that were authentically religious where the motor movements corresponded to prayer movements in Islam but were not so obvious that people would become aware of it. That was actually much more difficult than I imagined. We wanted to show that just doing something physically, even if you’re not even thinking about what that’s associated with, can influence subsequent religious thinking—that the body, just in it’s own capacity, can influence cognition in some surprising ways. So that’s why we wanted to isolate that, the influence of those motor movements.

JLH: You conducted a number of different experiments to try to shed light on how those motor movements affect cognition. Can you tell me more about some them and what you found?

MA: In one experiment participants were asked to look at a series of words on screen and memorize them. Most of these words were non-religious words, but we threw in a small subset of religious words. While they were memorizing these words, they were either holding their hands up in a way that corresponded to the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual or in a way that did not. Then we had them take a break for a moment and we came back and we presented another series of words and asked them to press a button in order to indicate whether that word was present in the original set or not. While they responded to these words they adopted the original position that they had adopted in the first part of the experiment, either congruent or incongruent with prayer. What we found is that when they adopted a congruent position, both in the training and the test phase, they were much faster to respond to religious words that had been present in the original phase—more so than the words that had nothing to do with religion. We also found that those in the incongruent condition, who were adopting a position that is not consistent with the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual, were responding slower to the religious words. This seems to indicate that the position in which they are holding their hands is slowing them down because it’s inconsistent with the associations they have made over the years between the words that we are presenting on screen in Arabic and the position that they should be in. It’s as if their mind thinks, “I’m seeing a religious word on screen, but I feel like I should be in a different bodily position when I’m responding to that word,” and so it takes just a little bit longer for their minds to adjust to that and then to say, “Oh, yes, this is a religious word that I saw earlier in the first part of the experiment.” We followed that up with another study where we had them adopt the same positions, congruent or incongruent with Islamic prayer, and this time, instead of having them respond to words they saw in the training phase, we presented them with incomplete words on screen and asked them to fill in the last letter to complete the word. So they might see the letters G-O on screen, and then a blank, and they could fill it in with a word that wasn’t religious, like GOT, or they could fill in that word with a religious word, which would be GOD. What we find is that when they are holding a position consistent with the Islamic prayer ritual, they complete that task with religious words more often. So what we’re showing is that just by being in a certain type of physical position, it’s as if you are preparing your mind to think religiously. It may be that one of the core functions of using the body in religious rituals is a way of preparing yourself to be in the mindset that you need to be in in order to satisfy the general function of your religion.

JLH: Where does culture fits into all of this? The cognitive science of religion is often criticized for being too universalistic, for not giving enough consideration to the effects of culture on cognition.

MA: I think culture is a big challenge for embodiment researchers. Everybody in every culture has a body. By and large, the vast majority of human beings walk upright and have two legs, two arms, ten digits and so on. Because of this, we tend to assume that a lot of these embodied processes in cognition must be universal and must develop in very similar ways. I was just in the Netherlands presenting the results of some of my work on the SSRC project. Of course you notice when you’re in the Netherlands that lots of people ride bikes. Where I work in Dubai, virtually nobody rides bikes. So there may be these cultural differences in terms of the types of motor movements you do, but the assumption is usually that the rules that the brain follows to connect motor movements to higher-level processes like language comprehension or decision making must be universal. I don’t think we should be making that assumption. I think that’s something that’s going to have to be demonstrated empirically. It could be that embodiment is very flexible culturally and that the cultural differences between the way people use their bodies has a very big impact on higher-level processes. For instance, there are some cultures where people are used to thinking in terms of arithmetic operations and there are some where that’s just not the case. Not only does that make for a large cultural difference and important psychological differences but maybe that’s also connected to the motor behaviors and sensory perceptual experiences that people grow up with in those cultures. I don’t know. I think we need to be careful about it. Given that cross-cultural differences in cognition have been revealed to be fairly significant in many cases, I think that embodiment researchers need to think carefully about the role of culture in embodiment. I don’t have a theory of that yet, but it is something that I have been thinking about.

JLH: How do you think that embodiment researchers might better test for the effects of culture?

MA: When it comes to religion, the big challenge for psychology right now is just to get out there and do research in different religious contexts—to study non-Western and non-monotheistic religious traditions in more depth in order to test out theories on subjects other than the typical American college student. Also, the challenge is to conduct more international collaboration projects and to try to put some more of the psychology of religion into the replication projects that are going on in psychology right now. That’s easier said than done. There’s a little bit of an irony here in that to establish a lab in a culture that isn’t represented very well in psychology is very difficult, because these are often cultures that do not have the sort of Westernized values that help build up research universities in the first place. So if a culture doesn’t value psychology and doesn’t fund it, and if people aren’t going to university and choosing to major in psychology, it’s pretty difficult then to have a presence for psychological research in those contexts. There’s a lot of criticism about WEIRD psychology, the fact that psychological studies tend to rely on subjects that are from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. The idea is that most of our participants are these WEIRD participants who are not like most people in the world. That’s true with psychology of religion as well. I think there’s been a lot of criticism about that, particularly in social psychology, but I think it’s actually much harder to do research in other contexts, and I say that partly from personal experience.

JLH: Can you talk a little bit about your experience working in Dubai and how living in the Middle East has changed your view on prayer?

MA: After I moved to Dubai, the experience of cultural difference really inspired me to think about conducting research there on culture and specific aspects of culture, like religion. For nearly all of my students, religion is an important aspect of their lives, either as something that they follow in a very traditional sense or as something that they are sort of exploring in a more individualistic way. I had so many conversations with students in my first few years there about religion and culture that I started asking myself why I wasn’t doing any research on those topics. I also saw an opportunity to conduct research in a setting that virtually nobody else was conducting research in. When I first started doing research on psychology of religion about three years ago, I didn’t know of anybody else in the Arab world who was doing this type of research experimentally. Since then, I’ve seen a couple papers coming out from other researchers in the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s a large area of the world, in which there are very few psychology labs and a lot of instability, so it’s hard to attract people to this part of the world to set up a lab and commit to cross-cultural research.

Living in Dubai has changed my view of psychology in general. I have a much greater appreciation for the power of culture in a way that I think I would not have appreciated if I had moved to London or Berlin or some place where there was a lot of common cultural currency between my place of immigration and my place of origin in the United States. The power of culture in everyday thinking and decision-making and emotional life has struck me as being a much bigger deal than it’s typically regarded as in psychology, particularly in cognitive psychology, where universalist assumptions are predominant.

September 11, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 4, 2014

The Architecture of Multi-faith Prayer: An Introduction

[Editor’s Note: This essay serves as the introduction to Courtney Bender’s portal on “The Architecture of Multi-faith Prayer.”]

When you stop to think about it, there is something sort of strange about the multi-faith chapels, buildings, and prayer rooms that form a familiar part of our contemporary institutional landscape. We find them in airports, hospitals, prisons, shopping malls, entertainment complexes, and universities. They include soaring architectural landmarks and simple rooms where design seems to be an afterthought at best. Unlike chapels, churches, synagogues, and mosques—all of which are designed for particular ritual activities and draw on or speak to specific theologies and religious histories—multi-faith spaces must make it possible for individuals or groups with diverse theologies, rituals, and symbols to pray. So, why does this not seem like an impossible task? Or rather, why does it appear to be a necessary one?

At first blush, the strangeness of multi-faith (and less common interfaith) spaces appears to be the very question of shared space. While we can point to many holy or sacred sites that multiple groups might claim or share, the modern multi-faith prayer rooms, chapels, and buildings in this portal are almost all built and designed within secular institutions. They are placed on land that is almost by definition prosaic, perfunctory, not uncommon. Indeed, many are built in the crevices and liminal spaces of modern life—that is, where people are often on the move or away from some other place called “home.” This is where we anticipate the presence of a heterogeneous, “multi-religious” public, and where we apparently also find space to accommodate or promote our visions of religious pluralism.


July 29, 2014

Theoretical and Methodological Maneuvers of Global Prayers

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Urban studies has traditionally equated modern urbanity with secularity. Following Jennifer Robinson, this was informed by “theoretical maneuvers” that tied the con­cept of modernity exclusively to western metropolises, leaving the cities of the Global South to a “developmentalism” that cast them as deficient. Moreover, the prevailing urban studies approaches are, as Aihwa Ong argues “overdetermined in their privileging of capitalism as the only mechanism” of urban development.

The Global Prayers project seeks to counter these problematic traditions of urban theory by developing a transdisciplinary conceptual framework for investigating the production of urban religion and religious urbanity. It does so by interpreting these productions as two sides of a continuous process in which the urban and the religious interact: the project follows the thesis that religion is an integral component of the material, social and symbolic production of the urban at all levels.


July 24, 2014

Curatorial Aspects and Institutional Settings of Global Prayers

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I would like to draw attention to three considerations that framed the Global Prayers project, all of which can be understood as knowledge processes. First, how does a research project relate to and interfere with its institutional bodies? Second, to what extend does it enable and stimulate a transgression of knowledge production? Third, how does it correlate to societal settings?

Institutional Settings as Modes of Knowledge Production: What is a Project Good For?

The Global Prayers project was supervised by a set of institutions: the project’s initiator, the metroZones Center for Urban Affairs, which engages critically with urban development; the arts and culture institution Haus der Kulturen der Welt; and two scientific bodies, the Europa Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder and the Forum Transregionale Studien, which have supported the research project over the course of four years.


July 22, 2014

Speaking in Tongues: Multichannel Video Installation

Aernaut Mik: Impressions from the multi-channel installation Speaking in Tongues, which was shown at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt from November 2013 to January 2014.

From November 2013 to January 2014, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) showcased video artist Aernout Mik’s multi-part video installation “Speaking in Tongues” under the auspices of the Global Prayers Congress. An essential component of Mik’s work involves comparing the prosperity gospel and the practices of religious communities who espouse it with the beliefs and practices of the secular business world, exploring the extent to which the business world relies on religion for establishing its own rites and practices, and vice versa. Mik’s approach combines aesthetic, fictional, and documentary elements, resulting in the creation of an autonomous artistic performance that both brings to life and reflects on the individual phases of the exploratory work.


July 18, 2014

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

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

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

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


July 17, 2014

On Research Methodologies of Global Prayers

When asked how he processed his fieldwork experiences and data, Claude Lévi-Strauss replied that he always took a lot of notes and collected file cards, “a bit of everything, fleeting ideas, summaries of readings, references, quotes.” If he wanted to understand something, he took a stack of cards from the box and laid them out like a game of Solitaire. The random combinations helped him reconstruct his memory and always gave him a new angle on the matter. At first glance, it might appear astonishing to produce knowledge by means of random combinations. But, taking a closer look into the processes of knowledge production, it is not that astounding at all. Tools to collect data, and the ways materials are categorized to produce meaning, are often based on experiments rather than on purely systematic practices.


July 15, 2014

Redemption and Liberation in the City: An Introduction

Over the last decades, new megacities and postcolonial metropolises have become a laboratories and locations for new religious movements that distance themselves from traditional religious communities. This shift has largely been ignored in urban studies; in thrall to outdated theories of modernization, it has commonly equated urban modernity with secularism. Against this background, the research project Global Prayers: Redemption and Liberation in the City investigated new manifestations of the religious in urban space and the influence of urban cultures on the religious. In making use of collaborations between art and science-based researchers, Global Prayers took a new approach to exploring the urban images and sounds, spaces and practices that the religious adopts in the age of globalization. It created trans-regional networks and advances interdisciplinary approaches.


July 2, 2014

Embodiment in Orthodox Prayer and Spirituality

This article is an extension of Connective Implications of the Material Holy, our essay on Orthodox material and sensory cultures that was published here on Reverberations last fall. Eastern Orthodox worship, prayer, and devotional activities are composed of sensory and material cultures that are deployed and employed through kinetic, embodied gestures and rituals, both vernacular and institutional. In other words, prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church are embodied. We understand embodiment as physical acts of engaging with ritual, liturgical, or holy items located in both the parish and the private domus (home), but also in the kinetic contouring of the body in ways that are both restrictive (i.e. rigorous fasting) and communal (i.e. ritual forgiveness).

We employ the term embodiment in a phenomenological and, to a slightly lesser extent, theological sense. Embodiment draws together the sensorial and the physical, highlighting the body as the locus of experience, while also pointing to the inclusion of the person within a larger network or system. Focusing on lived religion requires, according to Robert Orsi, an emphasis on embodied praxis in a variety of environments. Embodiment is crucial for understanding the devotional activities of Orthodox Christians since each devotee is an actor in the socio-religious drama that unfolds in both liturgical and community spaces. Orthodoxy itself proclaims that it possesses a living tradition and theology, which is embodied in believers and manifested through their actions, especially through prayer and spirituality. Thus, examining the physical worship practices of Orthodox adherents allows for a deeper understanding of lived Orthodox theology and beliefs.


May 5, 2014

When Prayers Become Things

In Orlando, Florida people pin prayers to a cross. The cross stands on the grounds of the Holy Land Experience (HLE), a fifteen-acre “living, biblical museum” that teaches Christian themes in a themed environment eleven miles northeast of the Walt Disney World Resort. HLE is a site on the American religious landscape where materiality flourishes: religious history and textual ideologies are re-presented in a way that fuses evangelical commitments with the logics of immersive entertainment.

HLE’s “Testimony Cross Garden” exemplifies this site’s ongoing effort to document the many diverse ways in which pray-ers pray and prayers are prayed. We can observe much in the way of constitutive material acts. We might begin with the writing itself. Like keeping a daily prayer journal or submitting a prayer card to Oral Roberts, a power is harnessed by putting pen to paper, externalizing human interiors. (This extends the associations between writing technologies and faith emphasized by other Christian performances, as when one sings the opening lines of the Gospel standard When God Dips His Love in My Heart: “When God dips His pen of love in my heart and writes my soul a message He wants me to know…”) Then there is the folding. Each prayer is bent; some loose and uneven, some tight and perfectly aligned. Folding eases a tension between the public quality of the cross and the secrecy of each paper’s contents (“this is just between me and God”). Once folded, there is the pinning, attaching, affixing; full of iconicity. The park map that each guest receives when entering prompts us to “nail your burdens (prayer requests) to the cross.” And, there are numerous bodily tactics at work: taking the paper, holding the pen, reaching up, kneeling down, stretching left or right, touching the cross.


April 4, 2014

Sweating Our Prayers in Dance Church

As I walk up from the Oakland subway station on a Sunday morning, rain is falling in a slow drizzle and the downtown street is deserted. Around the corner, I spot the “Tropicana Ballroom” sign on a 1920s building that is my destination. I pay $15 at the entrance and walk up the red-carpeted stairs to a ballroom where art deco wall sconces softly glow onto an 8000-square-foot floor full of dancers warming up. On the far side of the dance floor, beneath floor-to-ceiling windows, an altar has been laid with candles, a vase of gladiolas, a statue of Shiva, and Osho Zen Tarot cards. A young woman sits cross-legged in meditation in front of the altar; the man next to her is kneeling and praying; and two hundred other dancers—ranging in age from infants wearing padded ear coverings to men and women in their 70s—are preparing to “sweat their prayers” on the dance floor.


March 28, 2014

Take It to the Bridge: Jazz Prayers

“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.


March 13, 2014

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

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


March 4, 2014

Inner Grooves

A few years ago, I had an idea for a sound art project. Now, I should warn you that I’m neither an artist nor a sound engineer, but this one seemed (like so many other discarded ideas) like a good idea at the time.

It would be called “Albums I’ve Fallen Asleep To,” and it would consist of recordings of the inner tracks of great record albums. You know, that place in the vinyl record where the groove links back to itself and, if you grew up without a “fancy” turntable with an auto-return arm, the needle would just get stuck, going round and round until someone got up and gently returned it to its cradle.

I thought this would be a great project, of more conceptual than audible interest, but I thought it would make for interesting listening, nevertheless. CD’s, no matter how scrupulously re-mastered they might be, never reproduce the sound of the needle endlessly circling something we weren’t supposed to hear in the first place.  Or, if we did hear it (over and over and over and over), we certainly weren’t supposed to pay attention to it.


February 24, 2014

When Prayers Kill

Prayers are, of course, sometimes petitions. They may be calls to a supernatural being for healing, guidance, or even a bit of rain to drench a drought-ridden field. Some prayers of petition are meant to kill. In the Shellac song above, the singer Steve Albini calls on God to kill two people, a woman and a man. As listeners, we suspect that it may have something to do with infidelity, or perhaps a selfish emotional desire for revenge over a relationship that went sour. This sentiment isn’t relegated to the fictions within post-punk songs. An acquaintance who suffered abuse from an alcoholic father once told me that, as a child, he prayed for God to kill his dad. And in some religious narratives about prayer—specifically those found among certain kinds of evangelicals who practice spiritual warfare—God may respond by choosing to kill someone, regardless of whether the human who made the prayer wished such an outcome.


February 18, 2014

Pathros Velliappan, “An Outcaste Son of God”

From the conversion of Habel in 1854 to the early 20th century, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in central Travancore grew to accommodate more than 35,000 Dalits—over half of the total membership of CMS. The mass religious movements among the slave castes of Kerala, in which so many Dalits embraced Christianity, have been studied before. Nevertheless, many questions remain. Chief among them: how do we understand the agency and selfhood of an individual believer in an era of mass conversions? The search for an answer to this question led us to the incredible narratives centering on Pathros Velliappan, or Pathros, the Grand Father who lived at Kangazha in central Travancore. In studying these three stories of slave brothers running away to freedom, we find a clear common thread of salvation and Christian faith.


February 13, 2014

The Legal Unintelligibility of Prayer

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

Winnifred Sullivan begins her post with Bruno Latour’s delicious metaphor from his volume, The Making of Law: that trying to understand life through law is akin to trying to fax a pizza. She moves from that insight to an important set of reflections on how the world of religion fares in an atmosphere of juridification, setting American constitutional law in a critical frame in a way that few of her colleagues are able to do.


February 11, 2014

The Many Grooves of Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

In 1935, Samuel Saia, a garbage collector from Buffalo, New York, and a devout Jehovah’s Witness, purchased an electroacoustic loudspeaker and affixed it to the roof of his Studebaker automobile. On a weekly basis, he would drive up and down the streets of upstate New York, using a portable phonograph to broadcast the recorded sermons of “Judge” Joseph Rutherford to all who could hear. Saia’s practice was common among Jehovah’s Witnesses of his time, who took advantage of all sorts of media and auditory technologies to spread the word of God. But it is inadequate to think of their use of “sound cars” as merely instrumental. Instead, Saia and his co-religionists practiced what I have described elsewhere as “sound car religion.” That is, their choice of media was inextricably entangled with their message: sound cars and loudspeakers materialized their imperative to preach the gospel as loudly and widely as they could, their rejection of a popular inclusionary ideology that assumed sectarian differences were best kept to oneself, and their refusal to abide by the liberal norms of civil restraint that often seemed to govern American public spaces.


February 7, 2014

Praying According to the Law

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

In response to Winni Sullivan’s astute analysis of Town of Greece v. Galloway, I want to probe her claim that “prayers are tamed by law,” before looking in a little more detail at the content of these public prayers. On one level, the claim is straightforward enough. Scholars of law and religion use “law’s words and law’s aesthetics” to “describe and judge” the prayers. Public prayers come under the jurisdiction of legal terminology in an analysis that is highly textual. But the more fascinating and challenging claim is that, prior to this academic surveillance operation, the pray-ers/prayers themselves have already spontaneously become law. This sounds like a contemporary Foucauldian story about the internalisation of law’s discipline. But there are also echoes of an older story, told by (for example) Aristotle, Seneca, and Paul. Law is not the real thing, the thing in itself, but an eikon (image) of the good society. The good person, the god-like person, becomes living law.


February 5, 2014

Future Shocks

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be, goes the old joke. Nostalgia seems to revert obsessively, and infinitely regressively, toward the past—an impossible, unreachable past that can’t be reconciled with the exigencies of the present. It locks us in a backward spiral of desire, alienated from the present in a mode of accusation, as if this present moment would give rise to a false future, one that could have been averted, if only we were more properly “at home,” if only things had been different. The affective turning toward an inaccessible past is also a lament for a lost future, an obscure but achingly felt image of the loss of what will never arrive.


January 30, 2014

Children, Social Cognition, and the Divine

Rebekah A. Richert is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and director of the Childhood Cognition Lab, at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the cultural and social-cognitive dimensions of children’s understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Richert’s latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, examines how prayer practices and instruction shape children’s concepts of God and supernatural causality. On a recent afternoon, I spoke with Richert about her current work and its implications.

* * *

Steven Barrie-Anthony: Your research looks at how children develop their understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Why religion and fantasy?

Rebekah Richert: There are parts of our psychological experience that are captured by our religious beliefs, by our imagination and creativity, our fantasy lives, that are rarely able to be tapped into when we look at other more basic types of psychological processes. I’m interested in trying to understand some of the bigger and more abstract types of thought processes that we develop. And a way of doing that is studying how we think about abstract meaning-laden systems like religion.


January 29, 2014

Laughter and the Supreme Court

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

With her citation of Latour’s faxed pizza, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan argues that law in Town of Greece v. Galloway traces, delimits, and “tames” prayer such that the facsimile produced is a mere reproduction framed by the technology—in this case, the legal concepts—translating it. The work of the law, Sullivan suggests, is to transform religion, “to obscure the actual practices in the case, reducing them to types in service of law’s own logics.” As a result, she notes, “law does not need courts” because the power of law extends beyond courts and provides rules structuring daily practice. In its work of transformation and concealment, however, the unfolding of the law through its institutional manifestations—hearings, court briefs, amici curiae, transcripts—reveals to us not only, as Sullivan suggests, “the juridification of life in its very subjectivity,” but also how such manifestations authorize particular beliefs and practices as acceptable civil norms. As a result of this attempt of inclusion and authorization, an always inescapable moment of exclusion occurs and it is this moment of exclusion, I argue, that helps us explore Benjamin Schonthal’s observation of a moment of religious practice or belief that remains untamed despite the classificatory and performative aspects of legalizing discourse at work upon it.


January 23, 2014

Searching for Something in a Kansas Record Bin

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

“To our knowledge this is the first time the ‘gift of tongues’ has been recorded.” Liner notes, The Gift of Tongues: Glossolalia LP, Scepter/Mace Records MCM-10040, circa 1960s

I often head back to my hometown of Olathe, Kansas, the “Cupcake Land” of Thomas Frank’s description. And when I’m back I usually try to make a couple of short day trips—one up I-35 north to Kansas City and another along K-10 to the west and Lawrence. The latter is a classic college town, bearing the stamp of its Beecher Bible carrying forbearers, who trekked across America in the 1850s to set up a little slice of educational and reformist utopia. So strong was the northeastern, Yankee imprint that the novelist Thomas McMahon dubbed Lawrence a whaling town on the prairie. These migrants from New England might not have been as zealous as the hirsute, broadsword-wielding John Brown, but they were dedicated nonetheless.


January 21, 2014

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

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

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


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.


January 10, 2014

What Like Abandonment

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Herman Melville | via Wikimedia Commons“For the rest, blame not Stubb too hardly. The thing is common in that fishery; and in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.”

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I come, I suppose, from praying people, even if that prayerfulness, by the time it came to me, had assumed a form more sanitized, more tidied up by middle-class propriety, than fizzy with Old World mysticism. We revered no blood-weeping statuary; we buried no rosary-wrapped crucifixes upside down in the garden, at least as far as I know. Still, I confess that when I was young I found it discomfiting, the way my aunts were forever telling me they’d pray for me, my work, my friends, my losses, my loves. It was as if their prayers were the mark of some dimly shameful Catholic atavism, tenacious and unoutgrown, surviving in the family line like a strand of misfiring DNA, and threatening my louche assimilation perhaps a little too intimately.


December 12, 2013

There's Always a There There

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Recently, while doing archival research on a book project, I read a 1946 letter from Woody Guthrie to Folkways Records founder Moe Asch, in which the singer complains that he lacks the type of phonograph that would allow him to stack up a bunch of 78s rather than have to reload and reset the device every time a record finishes playing. It’s a tiny point in a much longer letter about the wealth of projects Guthrie has underway. Still, one feels tempted, as a scholar, to transform even such a small moment (the smaller the better, some might be inclined to say) into something else, into significance. It tells us Guthrie wasn’t well off, even after he’d recorded his most famous songs. It tells us he was really busy and productive in this period between his military service and the onset of the Huntington’s Disease that would end his career in a few years. It tells us that listening to music fueled his productivity. For a figure of Guthrie’s status, a figure so obviously worth studying, everything is important, so this must be. In a broader historical narrative, his letter might also tell us something about leisure, masculinity, and the impending success of the LP.


December 6, 2013

Legalizing Prayer and Politics

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

Years ago, before I was a parent and obsessively risk averse, I took an eventful, if short, research trip. The trip was to northern-central Sri Lanka to visit the quasi-independent region that had been set up by the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers. It was a de facto state complete with its own roads, hospitals, school system, police force, customs officers, ministries and, of course, judicial system. All this was intriguing because the Tamil Tigers were an armed rebel group who since the late 1970s had been fighting a violent campaign against the Sri Lankan state. To most, they were known not for their visa forms and traffic cops, but for their brutal guerilla military tactics and devastating suicide bombings.

I had crossed the border into the ‘state of Tamil Eelam’ with the hopes of examining the Tamil Tigers’ practices of memorializing dead soldiers, such as elaborate burials and commemoration rituals. Yet, keen to make the most of the trip, I also thought I’d conduct some general journalistic interviews about rebel leaders’ grievances and goals.  Contacting the Tamil Tigers was a remarkably easy process. I emailed the “LTTE Peace Secretariat” and made an appointment with their media attaché (of course they had one), a former English teacher from Jaffna. The attaché gave me directions to a compound in Kilinocchi where I was ushered into a well-appointed two-storied house. On arrival, I was seated on a large couch and offered a cup of tea. The media attaché soon entered with two other men, each with large purses that I recall as being suspiciously pistol-sized. Although the purses alarmed me slightly, I had vaguely expected this. After all, it was violence (and the threat of violence) that had made the LTTE what it was. I assumed that this was precisely the sort of thing to be expected when talking to a representative of an armed insurgent group.


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 15, 2013

Prayer and Medical Materialism

[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.]

* * *

Part II in an occasional series by Don Seeman on the materiality of Jewish prayer.

Is thought a form of materiality? The question is not an innocent one. I once overheard two neuroscientists at a faculty mixer joking about some of their colleagues in the humanities who still did not yet seem to realize—they were incredulous, in a self-congratulatory, slightly tipsy sort of way—that “mind” is really just another word for “brain. But what precisely is at stake in this polemic? I want to argue that there is no empirical question here but really a taxonomic one, and that reflection upon prayer—in my case, classical Jewish models of prayer—may help to reframe our mostly implicit taxonomies of matter and spirit in helpful and intellectually freeing ways. Is mind really just another word for brain? I think it depends on what you are asking.

Prayer has long served as a primary site for expressions of anxiety over the relationship between matter and spirit in human affairs. More than a hundred years ago, William James already complained about the “medical materialists” of his day, who thought they could reduce faith to a kind of nervous disorder, and he composed his Varieties of Religious Experience largely in response to that challenge. James, a psychologist, of course did not deny the material basis of mental function, nor did he argue in any simplistic way for the efficacy of prayer. He did however insist that the whole of a complex phenomenon like prayer is much more than just the sum of its parts, and that the existential force of religion must necessarily transcend any narrow account of its physiological mechanism. His empirical accounts of prayer were somewhat flawed from a modern anthropological point of view—they lacked ethnographic context and awareness of the role culture plays in the shaping of human affairs—but they rightly emphasized the holistic sense of personal transcendence that was linked to prayer in many of the narratives upon which he drew. Though today’s materialists have more impressive experimental tools at their disposal, James’ critique is an important reminder that these must be leveraged against broader interpretive approaches that examine prayer in the contexts in which it is lived.


November 14, 2013

Praying Angry as a Reformatory or Revolutionary Act

 [Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Praying Angry” by Robert Orsi.]

A German perspective on “praying angry” as a reformatory or revolutionary speech act.

Robert Orsi’s essay, “Praying Angry,” addresses a specific theme that emerged from a series of interviews he conducted with survivors of sexual abuse committed by priests. At the center of Orsi’s analysis  is a specific “theodicy of praying angry.” This is represented by a certain “Frank H.,” who has become a spiritual advisor to many survivors.

I would like to concentrate on the following passage from Robert Orsi’s text:

Frank’s theodicy of praying angry directly addresses this reality. “What more can God do to you?” he says. To have seen God at God’s worst is to be liberated from the old relationship with an omnipotent God, and this opens a way for a new relationship. Survivors are free not only to express their doubts, their sense of betrayal, and their anger with God, but also to consider the articulation of these feelings as prayer. There is a hard edge to Frank’s theodicy of prayer. Survivors have got God’s number; they meet God without illusions about God. But this does not drive them away from God, or it need not do so in Frank’s theology. Rather, it permits them to pray fearlessly and freely, to pray as they really are as persons, to open their inner lives in all their turmoil and anger to God who must take them as they are.


November 8, 2013

Muslim Prayer Beads

[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.]

My recent ethnographic fieldwork with an Islamic sect in Turkey focuses on the use of objects during prayer practices, especially prayer beads and their mechanical and digital versions. This study explains the way objects are used, adapted, and appropriated in and through the performance of religious rituals and the expression of faith. Moreover, my ethnography demonstrates that the physical properties of these objects (material substance, visual qualities, amount, etc.) play an integral part in the negotiation and construction of the domains of the sacred and the profane. In this regard, objects have been central to the conduct, facilitation, organization and arrangement of practicing faith.


November 6, 2013

Objects, Anti-Objects, and Efficacious Interpretations of Prayer

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

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


November 5, 2013

Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway

Taconic-prayingsymbol300x357.jpg (JPEG Image, 300 × 357 pixelIn his ethnography of the French Conseil d’Etat, Bruno Latour describes the effect that law has on life as being analogous to faxing pizza. The Making of Law brilliantly and hilariously shows how law flattens life, remaking it for law’s own purposes. One sees all of the color and taste drained out of the drama of local government and politics as it makes its way up through the relentless contouring of each fact to suit the public purposes of the French administrative courts. Similar effects can be seen in any legal system. But, as Talal Asad and others have shown, the shaping of life to suit the law has backstream effects as well, beginning long before life enters the courts. One feature of the modern world is the thorough juridification of life in its very subjectivity. Law does not need the courts. Law reaches in and tells us what it is that we experience and even how we are religious—how we must choose to be religious. It is not just that religion, when it appears in court, must answer to law’s demands, but that religion, in its daily life, is shaped by the modern church/state accommodation and what Benjamin Berger calls law’s aesthetics. That accommodation and those aesthetics take a particular form in the U.S. context.


October 29, 2013

Prayer and the Neuroscientific Real

[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Charles Hirschkind has given us an insightful and entertaining take on the anthropologist/cognitivist polemics we have experienced in some of our discussions, while asking the serious question of whether the study of prayer allows us “to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties.” Contributors to the conversation have pointed to the ways this question begs at least a couple of others: what counts as interesting? And what do we mean by “universal human attributes or faculties?” On the latter point, respondents have drawn attention to the ways the argument reveals new features of the universalism/particularism dilemma. The former pertains, among other things, to the role of disciplinary divisions in the dispute, a discussion taken up in different ways by various contributors: clearly, what counts as “interesting” depends on what your discipline is interested in. Charles’ tone is playful and provocative, and the fictional Mr. Cognitivist and Ms. Socio-Cultural seem less intended to reflect the variety of possible positions than to draw attention, in a tactful way, to what is a profound dispute between natural scientists and humanists. However important they are, invoking our disciplinary differences as an explanation of disagreement begs Charles’ question; or at least could be seen as a sort of relativist avoidance of the very serious challenge the question poses to everybody—cognitivists, anthropologists, historians, critical theorists, sociologists, journalists and even poets alike. 


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.


October 24, 2013

Praying Angry—A Jewish View

 [Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Praying Angry” by Robert Orsi.]

Bob Orsi’s “Praying Angry” shows a sensitivity to the victims of clerical abuse within the Catholic Church that is much needed. Based on interviews with a circle of survivors, and particularly with a former priest, Frank, Orsi sets forth some of the difficulties such survivors have with prayer and he presents Frank’s advice to survivors.

The core of the problem for Catholic survivors of clerical abuse is the teaching that the Catholic priest is an alter Christus, someone who is elevated, as Orsi puts it, “to higher ontological levels than other humans.” This makes clerical abuse not only a human betrayal, but betrayal in the spiritual life of the believer, even if the believer continues to believe and to participate in Catholic liturgy. Jews have a completely different relationship to their clergy: Rabbis are hired, and fired, by the congregation. No one would dream of thinking of his or her rabbi as alter Deus. Rabbis are people, and they are as subject to sin as anyone else. If they sin, they need to repent, and that usually includes punishment. Clergy abuse is wrong; guilty clergy should be handled by psychotherapy and/or prosecution. Any attempt to cover up clergy abuse is wrong, and should be handled by civil suit. This is largely what actually happens in the various Jewish communities, although resistance runs higher in some than in others. It is true that spiritual leaders, beginning with Moses, face higher expectations; but they are not alter Deus.


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”).


October 22, 2013

Praying Angry and Surviving Abuse

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Praying Angry, a piece by Robert Orsi...]

Robert Orsi, in his sensitive and insightful piece, brings out how “praying angry” is a necessary spiritual exercise for many who have been touched by God and abused by life. I say “many,” because abuse convinces some to give up on God. They trusted God to “be there” for them, to protect them from the worst that we can suffer, be, or do. They cried to the Lord in their trouble. But no rescue was forthcoming. For some, abuse makes belief in God psychologically impossible. Others conclude that even if God exists, God is not the kind of person they want to have anything to do with. Abuse is evidence that God is a deadbeat deity, that God is aloof and doesn’t care, that God is callous or cruel, even that God hates us. Still, for whatever psycho-spiritual reason, many who have been touched by God and abused by life, find themselves unable to let go. They are hurt. They feel abandoned and betrayed by God. But they aren’t finished with God. They can’t heal without confronting the authorities that allowed the abuse to happen. In imitation of the bible’s Job, praying angry calls God to account.


October 18, 2013

Ambiguity, Reciprocity, and Orthodox Intercessory Prayer

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

I heartily welcome Reverberations’s new prayer portal, “Praying With The Senses,” as it not only tackles significant issues in the study of prayer from a variety of methodological angles, but it also brings much needed attention to that which continues to be a significant lacuna in religious studies—namely, the distinctive characteristics of various expressions of Eastern Christian faith and practice.

Sonja Luehrmann’s curatorial introduction highlights a number of the distinctive factors that affect “the efficacy of prayer” in Eastern Christianity. Many of these factors reveal how the Eastern Christian traditions are fraught with tension between formal regulations prescribed by ecclesiastical authority and the ambiguities and “judgment calls” that confront the individual believer in actual practice. As Luehrmann puts it, some of these factors

are internal to the praying person: his or her state of sincerity, undivided attention, preparation through fasting or prostrations, and knowledge of and access to prescribed prayer texts. Others are intersubjective: in a group of people praying together or in a situation where one person is interceding for others, there are social characteristics such as gender, age, clerical status, and training in recitation techniques that determine who recites a prayer and who listens, or whose duty it is to intercede for whom.


October 11, 2013

Naming and Omission

Munavarbhai is a 42-year-old watch-guard (chokidar) of a middle-class Muslim housing society in a suburb of Ahmedabad, the Indian state of Gujarat’s largest city. His wife Haneiferben does domestic work, but also intermittently works as a house cleaner for Hindu and Muslim middle-class families. Munavarbhai and Haneiferben belong to the informal sector of Ahmedabad’s highly stratified economy. Their nuclear family consists of four heads and has to make do with approximately RS 5,000 a month (roughly US $80). They live in an area of Juhapura called Fatehvadi, in proximity with various rishtedar (relatives) including members of their respective kutumbvala (members of the patriline) interspersed with houses of migrant laborers from outside the state (mostly from Uttar Pradesh) and various other Muslim communities. They hold close social connections with their respective home villages, in which they are officially registered, and to which they regularly return for marriages, festivals, and political elections.