NDSP grantee Sanal Mohan has been researching the history of Christianity among Dalits in Kerala, India. In this interview excerpt, Rachel Mathai, a seventy-two-year-old native of Pariyaramangalam village in the Kottayam district, recalls prayers and prayer songs current in the Dalit Christian community of the early 20th century.
“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.
In the April Issue of Readers Digest, an essay on “How and Why We Pray” quotes two NDSP grantees, Elizabeth Drescher and Tanya Luhrmann. The article, which takes a closer look at prayer practices in various communities around the United States, examines the ways in which prayer practices have evolved more recently.
Prayer is ubiquitous in America because it’s so flexible and customizable. Says religion scholar Elizabeth Drescher, a faculty member at Santa Clara University in California, “Among the traditional religious practices, prayer allows the most individual autonomy and authority. That’s especially resonant in our culture, which values personal choice”…”Recently, we’ve been seeing a shift toward more informal but also more imaginative prayer,” says Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Indeed, if they were alive today, pontiffs of the past would no doubt have been confused and amused by one of the first official actions of Pope Francis.
The author, Lise Funderberg, references the ways that media influence has changed prayer—from a congregation in San Francisco writing prayers in chalk on the sidewalk, to Pope Francis’ first tweets, days after ascending to the papacy, to what is perhaps most ubiquitous nowadays, people using Facebook to ask for prayers and to pray together.
Read the full piece here.
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.
Historically, prayer has been used as an effective weapon to resist oppression. Here I wish to share two examples of Dalits using prayer as resistance against caste oppression in Kerala, India.
The first case in point took place on February 10, 1937, in the village Thurithikkara, located in the Quilon district of Kerala where the Salvation Army was actively working among the Dalits. In this village, the Dalits were not allowed to take water from either the common water supply sources or from the landlords’ wells. The Dalits in the village had just one well, which had dried up in the summer.
It was in this context that one Dalit family faced a serious problem of water scarcity on the occasion of the marriage of their son. A person had dug a well in a nearby paddy field, and this Dalit family requested permission to use his water. He allowed the Dalit family to draw water from his well for the wedding. However, they had to walk through property owned by another upper caste landlord, a Nair, to reach the well in the paddy field. Seeing Dalits crossing his property for water, the landlord rushed to the spot with his men and drove the Dalits off his property, depriving them of easy access to water. The disheartened and sorrow-stricken people then approached their empty, dried up well, and began to pray.
Kaippatta is located on a hilltop near Mallappally, a tiny town in central Kerala. An aerial view from Kaippata displays the many nearby churches belonging to different Christian denominations. However, the church we were to visit has a unique story to tell. It was in this hilly village that on September 8, 1854, Habel (or a slave named Thaivathan) embraced Christianity in faith and belief.
We climbed the hill in our cab to get a glimpse of that old church of Habel, the first “convert” among the slave castes of Travancore, thinking how difficult it was for the missionaries to reach Kaippatta on that day. In no time, accounts of that eventful day left by the missionary Rev. John Hawksworth spring to our mind: “…The paths through the jungle were indeed converted into streams, so that we had to wade through the water a great part of the way, and it was unpleasant having to wait some hours in our wet clothes.” What began as the baptism of Habel quickly grew into a “mass movement.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the Church Missionary Society in central Travancore counted as members more than 35,000 Dalit Christians, more than half of their total membership. The journey from first baptism proved to be an ordeal for the slave castes, due to upper caste reprisals. Upper caste Syrians twice reduced to ashes the thatched church building first erected at Kaippatta. Yet, the assembled slaves standing among the ashes exclaimed: “It was here we first found the Saviour and here, on this spot, we will worship Him still. They objected to seek the shelter of a neighbouring tree; so the service was held on the spot, which they regard as consecrated ground.” And the saga of prayer and worship continues.
Across Protestant denominations and congregations in South Korea, instances of t’ongsǒng kido, or “group prayer,” share a common feature: synchronous but unsynchronized individual prayers carried out in groups. In these groups, a cacophony of voices hinders the interpretability of any single voice. Some extol this form of prayer as the optimal way to share personal secrets with God while participating in a Christian community. This ethnographic study links this widespread prayer genre to other forms of meaningful social behavior organized around intimacy, privacy, and secrecy in South Korea.
For three quarters of a century, state surveillance was a fact of Korean life—from a Japanese colonial regime that restricted speech and attempted to control people’s everyday lives, to a military dictatorship that practiced deep and pervasive monitoring and manipulation of its citizens in the name of modernization, stability, economic growth, and anti-communism. While these authoritarian regimes have given way to representative democracy, privacy still remains a concern, because forms of surveillance are still carried formally by the state, as well as, crucially, by family, friends, and acquaintances in the form of social surveillance.
To link prayer and reflections on it to individuals’ ongoing attempts to find spaces of intimacy and privacy, I study ethnographically the various forms of masking and hiding that are mobilized in response to surveillance. One dimension of the research is focused on prayer itself—its structures and formal features, the contexts of its practice, and reflections on its purpose and efficacy. The other dimension looks at different areas of contemporary social life in Seoul that also operate around privacy, intimacy, and secrecy, such as social factions, Internet discourse and slang, and the use of hidden quarters of the city.
This research uses the analytical and methodological tools of linguistic anthropology and semiotic anthropology, which attempt to link semiotic structure, social practice, and cultural ideology through ethnography. This research will further our understanding of the social and institutional dynamics of prayer by viewing a culturally specific, socially significant, institutionalized, highly ritualized form of prayer in relation to other socially significant forms of behavior beyond the church. At a more general level, this research speaks to longstanding concerns in the social sciences with the way private, secret, or esoteric knowledge and practices emerge and are formalized in specific kinds of social relations. Linking secrecy in prayer to practices of intimacy- and privacy-making in broader Korean urban society will demonstrate the ability of prayer both to reflect deep and pervasive concerns of members of a society, as well as to generate practical ways of managing these concerns while reproducing other values of a society, such as collective group sociality and publically performable morality.
We examine the development of prayer concepts, specifically concepts of petitionary prayer that makes requests of divine beings. Petitionary prayer is practiced by children and adults worldwide (BBC News, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2008; Pew Research Center, 2010). It is particularly interesting conceptually because it entails that we suspend many of our intuitions about the natural world. In our daily social interactions we lack telepathic skills and communicate by speaking aloud; further, we appreciate that people and objects are subject to inviolable laws of physics and biology. Yet, to fully grasp the significance of petitionary prayer requires that we conceptualize and believe: (1) in a being (God) who is not physically present yet can still perceive our words and, even more extraordinary, is aware of our unspoken thoughts; (2) that our prayers can yield physical outcomes without our physical intervention; and (3) that otherwise improbable or impossible phenomena (e.g., parting a sea, recovering from a terminal illness) are indeed possible with divine intervention.
Intellectual merit: Our research will examine how people come to represent these counterintuitive prayer concepts, a topic that can also shed light more generally on how counterintuitive spiritual ideas are cognitively represented and culturally transmitted. Limited prior research suggests that an understanding of prayer emerges and develops substantially during early and middle childhood (e.g., Bamford & Lagattuta, 2010; Woolley & Phelps, 2001), highlighting a particularly important period for research. But young children evidence cognitive limitations that may hinder their appreciating the three components of prayer described above, these include a difficulty conceptualizing extraordinary minds (Giménez-Dasí et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2010; Makris & Pnevmatikos, 2007); a disbelief that the improbable is possible (Shtulman & Carey, 2007); and disbelief in mental telepathy and psychokinesis (Bering & Parker, 2006; Woolley et al., 1999). Given such cognitive constraints, when and how do children fully grasp and believe in the goals and significance of prayer?
Research: To answer this question, Study 1 will examine when and how children and adults appreciate that an extraordinary being (the Judeo-Christian God) can perceive prayers, whereas ordinary humans cannot. Study 2 will examine reasoning about the efficacy of prayer relative to other psychological activities, like thinking and wishing. Critically, conceptual development is partly a function of culturally-provided information (Shweder et al., 2006). So, we will conduct studies with participants from different religious contexts. Moreover, we will collect data on participants’ religious background, including their exposure to and engagement in prayer. We will also assess other cognitive capacities that may support a developing understanding of prayer, including children’s ability to reason about improbable phenomena (Shtulman & Carey, 2007).
Broader impacts: Results from these studies will shed light on the cognitive and cultural foundations of prayer concepts that are held by millions of individuals worldwide, and in doing so will contribute to the cognitive science of religion. In particular, our studies will (a) contribute to understanding the cognitive and psychological dimensions of prayer, and will (b) serve as a cross-cultural comparative analysis of prayer. Moreover, our findings will inform parents and others about when children are most receptive to learning about different components of prayer.
My project proposes to use the tools of visual ethnography (documentary film) to explore the ritual life and everyday prayer practices of the hugely diverse and rapidly expanding Pentecostal-Charismatic Christian (P/c) congregations in the Indian city of Mumbai. Scholars have noted the dramatic expansion in recent decades of P/c churches across the globe – particularly in the so-called “global south,” where the movement has been particularly dynamic, accounting for the lion’s share of an estimated 9 million new converts every year. Since everyday prayer practices are intertwined in complex ways with the socio-economic, cultural, and geographic contexts within which people live their lives, the event of conversion, which involves a change in prayer practices, has implications not only for religious life, but for nearly every other aspect of daily life as well. My project will explore the remarkable expansion (through conversion) of P/c congregations in Mumbai in this context, using documentary film to look at how new and varied forms of prayer practices are transforming the everyday lives of “Mumbaikars.”
While the terms “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” are popularly used to refer to a wide variety of Christian traditions, following Robbins (2004), I use the term P/c to refer to churches that share a doctrinal emphasis on the individual, ecstatic experience of receiving the “gift of the spirit”—sometimes called being “born again.” Since this experience is believed to be available to everyone, even non-Christians, evangelism and conversion (through ecstatic experience of receiving the Spirit) are central components of P/c prayer experience and practice. Building on this idea, my project will focus on these two related aspects of P/c practice: the ecstatic experience of worship and prayer that is so central to the everyday P/c life, and the evangelism and conversion that happen by means of—and are an integral aspects of—prayer.
As a Mumbai-based film maker, my interest in pursuing these questions is both intellectual as well as civic—seeking to contribute to public life both in my own city as well as internationally. The spread and proliferation of P/c Christianity in Mumbai over the past two decades have paralleled the rapid and dramatic changes comprising “globalization”—changes that are not only economic or technological, but that have also had enormous impacts on social and cultural lives of Mumbaikars. Does the spread of P/c Christianity in Mumbai represent a homogenization of cultural or religious practice accompanying globalization? Or rather do varied forms of P/c prayer evidence culturally embedded, “indigenous” ways in which modernity is articulated? That is, how does the rapid spread of P/c prayer practice relate to (or articulate) ways of navigating, engaging in, or making sense of the tectonic shifts that have accompanied globalization? Despite the rapid growth of P/c Christianity in Mumbai (a city that remains overwhelmingly Hindu), it is still a little-understood phenomenon, barely registering in the city’s intellectual and cultural life.
The intellectual impetus of the research is to explore prayer not only as a reflection or instantiation of particular beliefs, but rather to probe at the ways in which prayer works as a social technique: how do prayer practices become embedded in and mediate other aspects of social and everyday life? How does prayer re-configure people’s moral world? How do everyday prayer activities impact people’s ideas about the future, reorienting (and perhaps straining) relations with families and communities? To what extent, and in what ways, do new prayer activities generate a changing sense of responsibility about whether and how to engage in public life? And finally, how do the various activities comprising “prayer” produce new ideas about people’s hope for future—for themselves, their communities, their city, or the world?
In the aftermath of 9/11, the assumption that adherents of evangelical Christianity and reformist Islam inhabit discrepant, permanently warring publics, has solidified. The dominant narrative is one of mutual antagonism, which positions these religions as foundational in major global conflicts. In Western Nigeria however, scholars have noted new forms of Islamic prayer whose modalities such as all-night prayer sessions, Sunday Services, personal testimonies, and a new emphasis on good and evil bear a striking resemblance to those of Pentecostal Christians, Similarly, evangelicals are engaging in new approaches to prayer and uses of religious space that reveal the influence of Islamic practices. The convergence between the religious practices of these two groups reveals the direct sharing and transfer of experiences in religious practices and evangelizing stratagems. The new forms of Islamic prayer suggest an emergence of “Charismatic Islam” as can be seen in the intensification in (Yourba) Islam of the kind of “all-embracing enthusiasm” (Ojo 2006) normally associated with Pentecostalism.
In this study, I use the case of these new dramatizations of Muslim prayer in order to understand broader questions such as: how does the transformation of Islam, betoken by these new expressions of prayer, help us to understand the shifting boundaries between Islam and Christianity, particularly in ecologies where both remain socially, economically, politically, and ideologically competitive? Further, to the extent that the nascent modalities of worship symbolize or anticipate doctrinal transformation within faiths, how does a study of prayer provide an analytic platform for understanding of critical shifts and tension within and between Christianity and Islam primarily within the cultural contest of Western Nigeria? In a national context in which the state is disconnected from ordinary people’s lives, prayer has become a central element in the rearrangement of personal and inter-personal regimes, and in the composition of ordinary people’s selfhood. Using prayer transfer and imitation, important components of how the two faiths relate in Western Nigeria, I interrogate the role of these emergent forms of Islamic prayer in the deeper transformation of the totality of the religious culture in the area.
To address questions, I will conduct ethnographic research that focuses on close observation of devotional programs and social events among Islamic groups in two Western Nigerian cities: Lagos and Ibadan. My goal is to closely monitor these events to capture the expressions and nuances of the new protocols of Islamic prayer. My work in the field will be supplemented by interviews with participants. The primary data I plan to collect will be supplemented with an analysis of audiovisual material used by Islamic groups for proselytization. Secondary data will come from published books, journal articles, newspaper reports, and religious pamphlets and tracts. The intellectual payoff of this research will be to challenge the ideas of an “economy of political panic” (Last 2007) or “cosmologies in collision” (Kileyesus 2006) that have appeared in mainstream literature. Instead, I will shift the emphasis to a “spiritual economy” (Rudnychyj 2010) in which, even as theological differences remain salient, competing faiths, in their attempts to expand and preserve themselves, frequently cross boundaries to appropriate the other’s devotional and conversionary strategies. In addition, by emphasizing the strategies of mutual influence and appropriation between Islam and Christianity, the research demonstrates the fundamental “instability of the borders” (Larkin 2008, 103; cf. Soares 2006) between these seemingly antagonistic groups, providing deep insight into their modes of adaptation and accommodation.