Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materialities of Spirit in the Pentecostal South

Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materialities of Spirit in the Pentecostal South

Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materialities of Spirit in the Pentecostal South

Hittin the Prayer Bones: Materialities of Spirit in the Pentecostal South

Synopsis

In this work, Anderson Blanton illuminates how prayer, faith, and healing are intertwined with technologies of sound reproduction and material culture in the charismatic Christian worship of southern Appalachia. From the radios used to broadcast prayer to the curative faith cloths circulated through the postal system, material objects known as spirit-matter have become essential since the 1940s, Blanton argues, to the Pentecostal community's understanding and performances of faith. Hittin' the Prayer Bones draws on Blanton's extensive site visits with church congregations, radio preachers and their listeners inside and outside the broadcasting studios, and more than thirty years of recorded charismatic worship made available to him by a small Christian radio station. In documenting the transformation and consecration of everyday objects through performances of communal worship, healing prayer, and chanted preaching, Blanton frames his ethnographic research in the historiography of faith healing and prayer, as well as theoretical models of materiality and transcendence. At the same time, his work affectingly conveys the feelings of horror, healing, and humor that are unleashed in practitioners as they experience, in their own words, the sacred, healing presence of the Holy Ghost.

Excerpt

“HITTIN’ THE PRAYER BONES” is a phrase invoked in charismatic Christian worship spaces throughout southern Appalachia. Evoking a long history of Christian devotional exercises, this phrase viscerally describes the importunate act of falling down upon one’s knees in the performance of prayer. Hittin’ the prayer bones is a percussive genuflection that literally sounds an embodied technique of divine communication. Even before the mouth begins to give voice to a prayer, the body itself, in a sudden coincidence with an external object, opens a communicative space between the sacred and the everyday. In this moment of collision between the enlivened bone and the wooden floorboard, the curative efficacy and miraculous power of the Holy Ghost is materialized within the space of charismatic worship.

In this way, the miraculous appearance of the Holy Ghost, a seemingly intangible and ethereal entity, can never be fully abstracted from this striking sound unleashed between the subject and the object in the performance of divine communication. The percussive noise produced through this technique of the body-in-prayer also resonates with the rapid, disjointed hand claps that pierce the entangled voices during performances of communal prayer, and the bony knuckles of a brother or sister as he or she raps the wooden church podium to mimic “God knockin’ on that heart’s door” during the altar call of the worship service. The sound of the bone is not only used as a crucial embodied metaphor of prayer within spaces saturated with “Holy Ghost’n’par” (power), but the rattling sound of those dry bleached bones in the valley becomes a sermonic touchstone to describe the enlivening potentiality of the Spirit in a world where the living waters of charisma have dried up. While scanning the airwaves of southern Appalachia on any given weekend, for instance, one is sure to tune in to a disembodied radio voice speaking of those dry bones and the quickening power to come:

Ever-body that can, stand up an’ help us,
Sister Jackson wants “These Bones.”

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