Testing Prayer: Book Review

Brown, Candy Gunther. 2012. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

By: Anna I. Corwin (UCLA)

In 2010, Candy Gunther Brown and her research team published a compelling and controversial article in Southern Medical Journal arguing that proximate intercessory prayer, performed in their study by Pentecostals in Mozambique, significantly improved the hearing and vision of a number of prayer recipients.  This claim – that prayer can heal – has been a flash point, setting off debates and controversies about the nature of prayer for generations.  This article was no different.  Brown’s book Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, sets out to reconcile some of the interest as well as the controversy Brown faced following her team’s empirical study of intercessory prayer.  She grapples with questions of whether prayer should be studied, how, and by whom.  Drawing on her background as a historian and ethnographer, Testing Prayer uses an interdisciplinary approach to address the question of efficacy, focusing specifically on global practices of Pentecostal prayer, and ultimately leading to a proposal for a multi-pronged approach to the study of efficacy in healing prayer.

Brown’s primary motivation for the book appears to be her argument that indeed prayer can and should be studied empirically.  Given that Brown already published a rather compelling empirical study of prayer’s efficacy in improving auditory and visual function, the motivation of the book seemed a little confusing.  Early in the book, Brown sets out her orientation on the debate, following Steven Jay Gould’s proposal that the two fields of religion and science be treated as non-overlapping magisteria.  Brown argues that while science and theology are best thought of in this light, they nonetheless can be brought into productive conversation.  Given this tantalizing argument, I was disappointed to find that she did not begin to model such a conversation in the book.

Testing Prayer reads a bit like patchwork, each chapter representing a distinct methodological approach to the empirical study of prayer including: historical ethnography; the history of scientific debate on prayer; the strict empiricism of her clinical trials; and individual experiences of healing prayer.  For some readers, the chapter-by chapter stylistic and pedagogical shift may be refreshing, but for others, such as myself, it can be a bit dizzying.  Brown opens the book with an ethnographic history of the Toronto Blessing, a Pentecostal revival and resulting social movement, from which she traces the global spread of Pentecostal healing practices through transnational networks.  She describes the birth and the social history of a massive network of Pentecostal revivalist networks spanning the globe.  In this first chapter, Brown demonstrates her strength as a historian, providing an impressive social history of the movement, spanning global networks.  However, Brown sets out to treat the group as a “case study of healing prayer,” and while she provides solid documentation of the social movement as a healing ministry, there was little ethnographic attention to the healing itself.  As a reader and anthropologist, I found myself wanting to know more about how the healing was practiced, experienced, and understood as well as the underlying ideologies and phenomenology of the prayer itself.

In her work, Brown is trying to do something quite difficult – to bring the two worlds of empiricism and theology together, one argument of the book being that this can be done.  In Chapter 2, Brown lays out just how difficult this is.  Here, she again demonstrates her skill as a historian, examining historical and contemporary controversies surrounding the biomedical study of prayer.  She begins the review with discussions of John Calvin and Martin Luther, then moves to the history of the scientific study of intercessory prayer, concluding that debates in theological and scientific communities continue to go on.  She shows us through a historical lens that the topic of prayer’s efficacy is a very touchy subject for theologians and scientists alike.  In Chapter 3, Brown provides a historical review of research methods on the question of efficacy, concluding that while medical records can be useful, they are controversial and difficult to rely on as data in the larger question of efficacy.

In the subsequent chapters, Brown proposes a model to study healing through qualitative and quantitative methods, which she suggests are informed by theological analysis.  This multi-modal analysis entails a four-pronged method involving the collection of medical records, surveys, clinical trials, and the collection of longitudinal data to study any lasting impacts of healing prayer.  She then goes on to show the reader how this might be accomplished, beginning with written surveys on perceptions of illness and healing which serve to prove how real the healing is for the Pentecostal communities she studies.  In the following chapter, she uses a clinical trial of proximate intercessory prayer, albeit a small sample size, which shows remarkable results.  She argues that while the mechanism through which this happens is not understood proximate intercessory prayer nevertheless has measurable empirical effects.

After this compelling argument, an extended version of the 2010 Southern Medical Journal article, Brown addresses the question of whether those who experienced healing stay healed.  Using interviews and testimonials from a variety of sources, Brown illustrates that individuals perceive themselves to be healed, and that the healing has lasting effects.  While her attempt to blend empirical clinical studies with narrative evidence from Pentecostals who have been healed is laudable, the effect would be vastly more compelling if the two methods were integrated, which might allow the qualitative data to illuminate the quantitative findings.  Instead, Brown devoted a chapter to each method, perhaps aiming to respect the magisterial boundaries of each.  It does not become clear in these chapters how Brown means to integrate theological analysis in this process.

The most interesting argument of the book comes as a surprise at the very end. Brown spends a little time in earlier chapters suggesting that although we do not know why prayer works, empirical studies like hers show that healing prayer is indeed efficacious.  In the conclusion, Brown proposes an explanation for why prayer might be so powerful.  Drawing on Pitirim Sorokin’s model of love energy, Brown proposes this as a tool for interpreting the effectiveness of healing prayer.  She argues that since Pentecostal prayer rituals center around cultivating love towards not only the divine but also other people, healing prayer encourages benevolent actions toward others, and that these “effects snowball.”   This intriguing argument took up only a few pages of the conclusion, and I ended the book wishing for much more.

What Candy Gunther Brown has set out to do is extremely admirable and much needed.  Brown has written a clear, well-researched, historically situated book that will hopefully be a touchstone for further debate in the problem of empirically studying prayer.  Her work might have benefited from a more dynamic integration of the multiple methods she engaged and much more of the theological analysis she foreshadowed.  The great strengths of the book come from Brown’s expertise as a historian and her empirical work, in fact, testing prayer.  Throughout the book she alludes to what we don’t yet know about why proximate intercessory prayer works: does touch play a role? How about faith? What is the role of the cultivation of divine love energy, as she posits in the conclusion?  These are some of the most compelling questions in the field today, and I hope that Brown’s future work continues to uncover some of the questions the book raises.

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