Faith in Motion: Techniques and Technologies of Prayer in the Appalachians and Beyond – By Bruno Reinhardt

Bruno Reinhardt on Anderson Blanton’s Hittin’ the Prayer Bones

Anderson Blanton, Hittin’ the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South, University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 236pp., $27.95
Anderson Blanton, Hittin’ the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South, University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 236pp., $27.95
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In his 1964 classic Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan argued that increasing mediatization has transformed the modern human being into “an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide.” According to McLuhan’s well-known theory, changes in communication technology have not only increased the reach and speed of information, but also literally reshaped our sensorial apparatuses through prosthetic augmentation: visual media become extensions of the eyes and imagination, radios and telephones become long-distance ears, and electric media become extensions of our very central nervous system and its capacity to manage, store, and retrieve information. Since then, innovations like the New Media, with a saturating influence in our daily lives, have corroborated McLuhan’s predictions about the blurring of the divide between flesh and technology, reality and mediality. His “extensionist” approach has also been conceptually refined by a number of academics dedicated to investigating the entanglements between technology, cognition, and the body in different domains of social life and from multiple disciplinary angles. It is only very recently, however, that this scholarly tide has reached religious studies and the anthropology of religion.

The reasons for such delay in the study of technology and religion are literally intuitive. It has become part of our secular common sense and indeed sensibility that religion can only be the other of technological modernity, an attempt to hold on to meaning, providence, miracles, and unified values and truths in a world that has been “disenchanted” by instrumental reason and the scientific objectification and control of Nature. A possible alternative to this reactive way of relating religion to technological modernity is a sort of pact between the two, as condensed in the Deistic notion of God-the-watchmaker, which emerges after the Newtonian revolution. According to this still influential crypto-Protestant position, which echoes today through arguments like “intelligent design,” Nature has been produced by divine fiat as a self-feeding and replicating mechanism. To question this axiom by portraying God as an interventionist agent would be to undermine his own omnipotence. The necessary entailment of divine sovereign transcendence would be therefore its withdrawal from the world’s kinematics.

Anderson Blanton’s ethnography Hittin’ the Prayer Bones differs from both of these positions. It is an attempt to take seriously the possibility of a divinely suffused cosmos in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction. It is an experiment on the elasticity of religious imaginations and their ways of feeling and dwelling in a world that has been thoroughly crafted and mediated by technology and yet remains pregnant with divine presence. The book is based upon two years of ethnographic research among Pentecostal Christians in southern Appalachia, the eastern portion of the so-called American Bible Belt. Although much has been written about Pentecostals, both in this particular site and elsewhere around the globe, Blanton’s empirical focus is innovative. His primary research groups are not conventional church congregations — which lie closer to the classic long-term, in-depth relation anthropologists have fostered with religious communities for many decades — but charismatic radio preachers, their in-studio congregations, and listeners dispersed around what these broadcasters call “the radioland,” an imagined community ranging from Western North Carolina to eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Blanton’s empirical oscillation between the emission and reception of mediatized Pentecostal messages is complemented by a historical perspective, which surveys Pentecostal engagements with technology in the United States, especially through evangelist Oral Robert’s pioneering “radio ministry” and his systematic use of the postal network as a prayer circuit.

Hittin’ the Prayer Bones explores four central topics: the “prostheses of prayer”, the production and circulation of prayer cloths, the pneumatic manifestations of charisma through the preaching voice, and the Pentecostal notion of “points of contact.” These explorations are intercalated by detailed transcriptions of sermons that speak to each of these themes. As a good ethnographer, Blanton writes through his fieldwork material. His prose borrows sensorial thickness from the worship scenes it analyzes. And yet, the globalized nature of many of the techniques and technologies of devotion evoked by the book allows his argument to unveil far-reaching patterns and to tackle questions of general relevance. I will refrain from revisiting his rich ethnographic data in detail and attain myself here to some of these broader issues.

Pentecostal Christians are indeed a good counterpoint to the archetype of the religious technophobe mentioned above. Since its modern emergence in the early twentieth century, the Pentecostal movement has been especially prone to embrace new technologies in order to advance its evangelistic and missionary effort across the globe, from the telegraph to the telephone, from the radio to the TV and the internet. Moreover, Pentecostals have engaged with technology not only as a strategic means for distinctive religious ends. They have incorporated media as an intrinsic component of what Blanton calls their “apparatus of belief,” the set of practices and material attachments that mediates, conducts, and summons both human faith and divine agency at a sensorial level. In the Pentecostal case, such “abrupt space of coincidence between subject and object, spirit and matter” articulates highly organic and visceral matter, like prayerful knees or “prayer bones” hitting the floor, with a number of artifacts and technological extensions. It is epitomized by the phenomenon of “radio tactility,” intercessory prayers accompanied by utterances such as “Lay your hands on the radio as a point of contact and pray with us.”

What if religion and technology are not only instrumentally connected, but might resonate with each other in their very being? In a context of increasingly mediatized religious presence in the public sphere, this question has gained relevance and occupied many contemporary scholars, from Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler to Hent DeVries, Birgit Meyer, Jeremy Stolow, and others. I believe one of the virtues of Blanton’s particular approach is his situated focus on prayer, instead of religion per se, a category with an allegedly murky genealogy and semantics.

According to anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s incomplete doctoral thesis On Prayer, prayer is a “fragment of a religion.” It is a privileged object of analysis for scholars of religion, as it condenses much broader doctrinal, moral, and cosmological frameworks of specific religious traditions while setting them in motion. I emphasize the “in motion” because prayer is primarily religion-in-action. It is an effort, maybe even a form of labor, what Mauss calls “an expenditure of physical and moral energy in order to produce certain results.” Mauss predicates prayer’s mental and linguistic components on its volitional core. After all, “to speak is both to act and to think: that is why prayer gives rise to belief and ritual at the same time.” By focusing on the will to pray, Mauss also recognizes the inevitably embodied nature of this practice: “Even when it is entirely mental, with no words spoken, with scarcely even a gesture, it [prayer] is still a voluntary movement or a attitude of the soul.” Later in his work, Mauss reflects more thoroughly on the potentialities of prayer’s repetitive patterns of expenditure, redefining it as a “body technique” among many others.

An electronic prayer mat or rosary and this list of “Ten Apps and Gadgets to Help You Find Zen” can all be considered technological “extensions” of prayerful senses. But in order to understand their different values, attractions, and functions, one needs first to understand how particular consumers incorporate them into the field of expectations and proclivities nested in their prayer techniques. Putting it more conceptually, technological “affordances” (their inbuilt action possibilities) are always relational, thus arguments about the newness of techno-religion must be balanced with deeper knowledge about the kinematics of prayer these machines already find in place.

By beginning with prayer, Blanton follows Mauss’s lead and starts amidst action, a place in which what-questions (what is religion, what is prayer, what is technology and media) are necessarily bound to how-questions: how should one invest one’s prayer expenditures, and how will expectations be fulfilled? As anthropologists have long known, this type of question is best answered jointly, with the help of our interlocutors, and Blanton indeed portrays Appalachian Pentecostals as often engaged in debates about how faith can “unleash” miracles and how to get prayers “through.” Consequently, the book integrates postal networks, microphones, and radio sets into a vast set of Pentecostal techniques of devotion, such as excited praise and worship, cacophonous “skein prayer” in tongues, testimonies, and inspired preaching. In a way, in order to gain traction, technological innovations like radio prayers must unveil a sort of arché-technicality of prayer in general, while also shifting it in terms of scale and introducing new tensions.

The hybrid techno-religious apparatus orchestrated by Pentecostal radio preachers is highly transposable. Oral Roberts, for instance, borrowed this practice in the late 1940s from early Pentecostal healing evangelists, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, but he also legitimized it charismatically, by evoking mystical epiphanies in his testimonies. Moreover, the practice is deemed authentically Christian by Pentecostals simply because “it works,” producing new testimonies from in-studio audiences, which continue its mimetic transposition across vast territories. Blanton shows how, in the hands of Roberts, radio prayers become literally a method, conveyed through theological reasoning and rule-governed behaviors, summarized in manuals such as If you need Healing do these things. The result is a highly rationalized and yet still experimental mystical science, akin to what Michel de Certeau, in his study of early modern Catholic mystics, calls “propaedeutics of rupture.” This is not a religious tradition in a classic sense, with relatively clear-cut theological and institutional limits, but rather a number of techniques and technologies that are authenticated along their very practical circulation and journey of trial-and-error.

What Blanton calls “radio tactility” is a way of transferring charismatic power (or “the Holy Ghost par”) through media as part of a true healing method. But this method also travels socially like the Holy Ghost, as a boundless and contagious flow that is both self-referential in its transcendental wholeness and affective in its immanent truth-effects. His argument dwells richly in this space of transmission and replication, the “healing line,” a continuous aggregation of human and non-human mediators thematized as “points of contact” and “stand-ins.” Those are cogs in a spiritual, technical, and technological kinematics able to compress time and space into a single flow of experience. This feeling of simultaneity despite geographical distance is enabled, paradoxically, by the Holy Spirit’s very unmediated and electricity-like force. By focusing on motion, Blanton’s narrative is able to trace, instead of simply capture, the inherent itinerancy of Pentecostal spirituality, which is actualized in history through tent revivals as much as through the haptic voice of radio preachers and prayer cloths circulating through postal networks. Blanton’s discussion of the “anointed poetics of breath” is strategic in this regard. Blanton examines in detail radio preachers’ breathing techniques as a charismatic infrastructure underpinning the semantic aspect of their sermons. In this way he locates in the non-possessive, circulating materiality of the voice as charismatic breath (pneuma) the organic basis that is ultimately “extended” by socio-technical innovations. Here, again, Blanton finds good company in Mauss, who has argued in his Manual of Ethnography that “Sounds, breath and gestures can be prayer, in the same way as words. The mythology of the voice is important.”

Of course, the well-working hybrid machine I reconstituted above is not without tensions, and the second virtue of Blanton’s book I would like to stress is exactly his keen attention to the place of contingency in religious projects. We may say that prayer is always a technique, just like plowing, writing, or riding a bike. One of the evidences supporting this view is that religious subjects are often ranked in terms of prayer competency. Time, dedication, and practical knowledge matter, and prayer virtuosi are considered morally and spiritually closer to God, which shows that prayer is a practice whose performance carries internal goods. In her recent book When God Talks Back, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has explored in detail this pedagogical dimension of prayer, showing how evangelicals engage with “the art of hearing God” by actively and methodically tuning in their senses toward this possibility. Anthropologist Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape has explored the relation between media and religion by focusing exactly on the pedagogical convergences between technology and body techniques, in this case by exploring how recorded Islamic sermons are incorporated by Egyptian consumers’ devotional lives as tools for honing a pious sensorium.

Blanton does recognize the centrality of the religious body as a self-developmental means to the effectiveness of radio prayers and travelling prayer cloths. And yet, maybe because of his focus on healing, thus intercessory expectations, he also shows how a pedagogical approach to prayer might miss the centrality of contingency to practices of faith. Indeed, his narrative makes clear the fact that prayer must be contingent in order to be prayer. Devoid of the risk of failing, it becomes “mechanical,” or even worse, “magical” and “demonic.” Mauss addresses this issue in On Prayer as the difference between prayer and “incantations,” beseeching and conjuring, evoking and invoking. Blanton recognizes a similar tension through Max Müller’s etymological connection between prayer and precariousness.

When Pentecostals argue that their miracles are already there, given, as a sort of virtuality, but that faith is still needed to “unleash” them, they recognize the same space of alienation to which Müller refers. “Unleashing” miracles is not “producing” them, since the power of prayer rests entirely on active passivity, willful submission, or, again, expenditure. A similar tension affects the new media of prayer introduced by radio shows, since the automatism of technological extensions resonates positively with prayers’ own technical reliance on repetition, intensification, and flow, but these new media also expand the possibility of fetishization of simple conduits into the source of divine agency. Oral Roberts claimed that “points of contact” simply help praying subjects to “unleash their faith,” and yet radio sets are eventually portrayed by testimonies from Appalachians as literally shaking as the anointing of God is channeled through them. How arbitrary and unmotivated are these conduits vis-à-vis the power they help to unleash? There is no unambiguous answer, and Blanton illustrates with richness the tensions thriving in Pentecostals’ mystical sciences, always torn between an empiricist reliance on a “living God,” who backs what he says with deeds and evidences, and the precarious status of faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

By acknowledging this tension in the productivity of prayer, Hittin’ the Prayer Bones is able to argue that, for Pentecostals, “faith comes by touching” and is “like the clicking of a revolver’s hammer,” but also that such tactile and eventful experience of God is constantly tempered with communicational breakdowns. Misfires make prayer continue to be prayer. In consonance, they rarely lead to crises of faith, disappointment or unbelief, and are likely to even amplify converts’ prayer investments. Key to dwelling anthropologically in this complex existential space is a notion of faith that is both materially shaped, thus dispersed in the world as an apparatus, but also endowed with a particularly fleeting temporality: “faith is perpetually moving just beyond full perceptual grasp of the subject through postal networks, narrative circulations, and the compelling force of talk. Thus it is precisely in the deferred or disjointed space of getting ahead of the self that faith lives and moves and has its being, so to speak.”

The final point I would like to make is about the sociality of prayer, a topic to which the book makes important contributions. But here there are also a few empty spots, which I would like to explore briefly. When Blanton shows that belief and faith are relatively external, since embedded in, intensified by, and circulated along material conduits, he is already recognizing that prayer is a social practice, one that is cultivated and transmitted amongst others. Such a perspective avoids a functionalist divide between “social structure” and “ritual,” and the necessity of a well-bounded moral community that precedes its practical weaving. This is what contemporary anthropologists would call the performativity of prayer. Another form of sociality addressed by the book is that of praying for others, people whom Pentecostal converts care for, who have their names and problems cited on the radio before anonymous people pray for them. “I wanna ask yous’ people out in the radioland to help us out,” says a pastor. During this practice, the radioland is assembled again in action, while cultivating their shared identity of brothers and sisters in Christ. Such generalized enactment of Christian kinship is modulated interestingly in the book by another phenomenon: the use of kinsfolks as privileged “stand-ins” for intercessory prayer, like praying for a sick mother “out in the radioland” by laying hands on her son’s bodily presence in the studio. These methods exemplify the relationality of prayer as an act of care. As much as the Holy Spirit participates sacramentally on Pentecostal flesh, their flesh can participate on each other with different degrees of closeness along the healing line.

Generally, because it highlights the relation between technology and prayer, the book does not dwell systematically on these cases. In this sense, it still shares some of the limitations of most recent religion and media scholarship: an excessive fascination with questions of mediation (How can the transcendental immediacy of God persist along such long chains of material mediators?), which leaves relatively untouched questions of morality and belonging concerning media consumers. The radioland is described in the book’s introduction as a “nebulous space where the totality of the dispersed listening audience is imagined as a single community,” and rapidly disappears as a subject of anthropological inquiry. We do not learn much about how it is imagined, with which degree of efficacy, and, more importantly, how broadcasters and consumers relate this diffuse and mediatized body of Christ to more conventional, face-to-face modes of Christian relationality. Is the conventional church entirely substitutable for the electronic church? If not, how do they intercalate? And what kinds of pressures do they produce on each other? These questions would require a more thorough engagement with the particular biographies of believers, which are evoked in the book only fragmentarily, through in-studio testimonies. They would also give us some ethnographic hints about a more general issue concerning mediatized religion: its relation to trust, since, as we know, electronic preachers are famous as much for their public visibility as for the instabilities and moral perils that accompany their call and métier. I mention these absences not because they are vital to the book’s argument, but because it actually opens interesting avenues to rethink them.

Hittin’ the Prayer Bones is nevertheless an exemplary case of a new form of materialist approach to religion being developed in the anthropology of religion and religious studies. This is not the materialism of Feuerbach or Marx, in which religion appears as spiritualized projections or representations of non-religious forces, but a form of recognizing the emergent entanglements between religious worldmaking and materiality. Compared to other scholars working within this paradigm, Blanton’s approach stands out as particularly “infrastructural.” By infrastructural I do not mean to evoke this notion’s classic theoretical sense, which opposes ideology to material structures; rather, I am thinking about his skillful exploration of zones of isomorphism between religion and material infrastructure. In other words, I am referring to infrastructure in the most conventional sense: the networked, environmental, self-effacing, and flow-like materiality of postal systems, wires, and antennas. Although Blanton never states this openly in the book, I was left with the impression that Pentecostal practices of faith and infrastructure organize the sensible similarly: primarily by setting forces that transcend them in motion while enabling relations in an ecological fashion. It is because they have isomorphic qualities that Pentecostal spirituality and infrastructure become concretely attached in various ways. Such a model of reasoning requires the capacity to “think through things” that anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss found among Amerindians, actualized in Blanton’s book through a form of narrativity that often draws from religious materiality sensuous qualities that are also found in the very kinematics of prayer. His discussion of travelling prayer cloths and the “texture of faith” epitomizes this method of thinking and writing. I found this approach extremely useful when it comes to Pentecostals, because it avoids attributing to them a naïve supernaturalism, as if they are simply unaware of the “true” comings and goings of matter. Pentecostals do not live in a parallel, “enchanted” world, nor do they mix “symbolic” immaterial entities, like God, with real artifacts. They dwell in our common world through specific moral and sensorial expectations and grasp divine agency as a modality of motion in it, one that is both actively constructed in terms of receptivity and factually real, like a house. Despite its focus on phenomena prone to be framed as “survivals” of a pre-modern mentality, such as spiritual healing, prayer, and inspired speech, and a geographical area that liberal America often sees as “backward,” Hittin’ the Prayer Bones is fundamentally an ethnography of the contemporary, helping us to understand the proliferation of temporalities and agentive possibilities unleashed from the ecological encounters of humans and machines, religious or otherwise.