Hittin’ the Prayer Bones: Book Review

Blanton, Anderson. 2015. Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)

Come and listen in to the radio stationWhere the mighty hosts of heaven singTurn your radio on, turn your radio onTurn your radio on, turn your radio on…

So sings John Hartford on his 1971 cover of the 1938 southern Gospel standard. It was this song, “Turn Your Radio On,” that I recalled in a progressively louder hum to myself throughout Anderson Blanton’s Hittin‘ the Prayer Bones. The reason is that Blanton’s ethnography of charismatic Christianity in Appalachia has a distinctly musical quality. Each chapter unveils further nodes in a network of oral traditions and communicative genres: songs from deep in the coal mines and songs for laying rail track; Gospel tunes; the verbal artistry of prayer, testimony, and preaching; hand claps and technological emanations; and rhythmic faith-filled laughter. Pages and sections introduce singular moments of rich cultural revelation, akin to John Jackson’s “slices” (2013: 16-17) more than any conventional mode of ethnographic writing. I do not hesitate to write that this is really not a book one simply reads; it is a book to experience…

…If you wanna hear the songs of ZionComin‘ from the land of endless springGet in touch with God, get in touch with GodTurn your radio on, turn your radio on…

…The ethnographic context is the Pentecostalism of central Appalachia; rural, white, working-class communities distributed throughout eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia. The wavelength connecting these distributed communities is the AM/FM signals of radio ministries. For two years (2007-2009) Blanton worked with charismatic radio preachers, the small in-studio congregations, and devout listeners out in “radioland” (5). Archives of audio-recorded broadcasts and sermons from some of the same radio preachers complement the ethnographic material, revealing 30 years of anointed poetic continuity. Blanton illustrates how these Holy Ghost people are inheritors of two interlaced cultural traditions. First, they are the direct descendants of early charismatic mass communicatin‘ preachers, namely Oral Roberts’ massively influential network of radio programs, tent revivals, television broadcasts, and print magazines of the 1940s and ’50s. The kinship here is clear not so much through overt invocations of Oral as it is the re-creation of Oral’s aural, bodily, and media techniques for prayer, healing, and testifying. Second, Blanton’s radio preachers and pray-ers are inheritors of Appalachian creativity and bricolage. They are the charismatic faith equivalents to “rural farmers who use whatever materials are at hand…to get a tractor up and running again” (15; cf. 164)…

…Turn your radio on, turn your radio onAnd listen to the music in the airTurn your radio on, turn your radio onHeaven’s glory shared, glory sharedTurn your lights down low, turn your lights down lowAnd listen to the Master’s radioGet in touch with God, get in touch with GodTurn your radio on, turn your radio on…

…Blanton’s signal theoretical grounding and contribution runs clear and clean throughout the book, like steel wire binding miles of fence post. His is a project in material religion: a studied and strict concentration on physical bodies in physical space working with physical objects amid the company of other physical bodies. This orientation builds on established work in religious studies (e.g., McDannell 1995, Morgan 1999) and anthropology (e.g., Meyer 2008). The holy trinity of Hittin‘ the Prayer Bones is body, technology, and object. We see this trinity examined individually and in creative combination: the poetics of “belly laughter” and breathing (120), the microphone amplification of a metal zipper opening a King James Bible (115), prayer cloths that are oiled, fingered, clutched, and exchanged (52). Through the intersections of body, technology, and object we come to understand the grooves in which the charismatic sacred rushes into the crevices of everyday life and ritual performance. Blanton risks over-repetition but succeeds in avoiding it. He spirals around to his trinity, moving the analysis forward with each pass, looping around again, progressing, and around again. He introduces readers to the useful concept of “skein prayer.” Adapted from an Appalachian craft tradition, this concept promises to resonate with cultural contexts far from the hollers. Skein prayer borrows weaving terminology to connote “the act of tangling or coiling thread” for “manual technique and haptic sensation intertwined with the oral performance” (16). Blanton’s steady nuancing of body-technology-object demonstrates that charismatic mass media is always “in excess of the informational content of the [radio] broadcast” (21). He does this nuancing with a distinctive ethnographic sensibility, as when he searches to adequately characterize the affective force of one female preacher’s delivery: “her voice is like the hard oak handle of a tool polished smooth by years of contact with the grip and sweat of the hand whose burnished surface beckons hands to touch its surface once again” (136). Blanton’s spiraling analysis is fully capable of putting to rest tired ideologies that resist, doubt, or deny that faith, belief, and prayer are anything less than deeply entangled in life’s gritty and polished materialities. “Faith emerges not from within an interiority of a religious subject, but at the interface between the body’s perceptual limit and its sensory prostheses” (177). R.I.P. religion-as-abstraction…

…Come and listen in to the glory land chorusListen to the glad Hosanna’s rollTurn your radio on, turn your radio onTurn your radio on, turn your radio on…

…For comparative interests in the anthropology of Christianity, I am eager to see Blanton’s work read alongside two other projects in particular. First, Hittin‘ the Prayer Bones drew me back to Francio Guadeloupe’s ethnography of Christian radio DJs on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin/Sint Marteen (2009). Guadeloupe profiles three SXM DJs, tacking back and forth between their personal biographies and their on-air discursive strategies. The latter, which include both song selection and interludes of narrative performance, are directed toward crafting a public personae and circulating a form of Christian ethics. SXM Christianity provides a “metalanguage of inclusiveness” (76), an ecumenical spirit of tolerance that seeks to keep unrealized the island’s potential divisions: its split nationalism, severe class disparities, and numerous denominational affiliations. While they are both interested in how mass media is influential in circulating a particular species of Christianity, Blanton and Guadeloupe offer very different methodological approaches to doing radio studio fieldwork. Their contrast will be instructive for scholars designing radio projects as ethnographies of production and listening. Second, closer to the cultural geography of Appalachia, I was drawn back to Elaine Lawless’ research with Holiness Pentecostals in southern Indiana (1988). Lawless combines feminist and linguistic anthropology perspectives to explore how Pentecostal women use the Spirit-filled genres of charismatic performance as a transgressive, empowering medium. Lawless’ close textual and communicative analysis of Pentecostal speech genres is complemented by Blanton’s knack for highlighting the tight interweaving of charismatic radio speech with the material trinity of body-technology-object. Indeed, the pairing of Blanton with Lawless puts forward the significant contribution that performances of religious language should never be severed from the materiality of their channels of circulation.

…Get a little taste of love eternal, Get a little Heaven in your soulGet in touch with God, get in touch with GodTurn your radio on, turn your radio on.

 

References

Guadeloupe, Francio. 2009. Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and Capitalism in the Caribbean. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jackson, John L. Jr. 2013. Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lawless, Elaine. 1988. Gods Peculiar People: Womens Voices and Folk Traditions in a Pentecostal Church. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

McDannell, Colleen. 1995. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Meyer, Birgit. 2008. Religious Sensations: Why Media, Aesthetics, and Power Matter in the Contemporary Study of Religion. In Religion: Beyond a Concept, edited by Hent De Vries. New York: Fordham University Press.

Morgan, David. 1999. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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