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.