- Feeling is Believing: Pentecostal Prayer and Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Sensory experience is pivotal to postmodern culture. A globalized world seems newly interconnected, yet individuals may feel more isolated than ever before. Scientific technologies and modern medicine have achieved remarkable triumphs and exhibited devastating limitations that leave people unsatisfied and searching for “more.” Modernization has not resulted in secularization, but sources of religious knowing—revealed Scripture, inherited tradition, institutional authority—have become unsettled. Postmoderns want more than intellectual certainty; they long for direct experiences of what is really real. In the United States and globally, many postmodern Christians combine “scientific” medicine with diverse touch-oriented “religious” and “spiritual” healing practices to find healing, reassurance that God is present with them personally, and hope for their future lives on earth and in the world to come.
This essay draws on ten years of ethnographic research, in the United States and across globally diffuse social networks, on Christian prayer for divine healing and participation in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). I argue that touch-oriented healing practices attract adherents by promising sensory experience of the sacred. Bodily experiences in turn shape religious perceptions and may open a revolving door between religious world-views.
Ethnographic Research on Prayer and Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Since 2003, I have been studying the global spread of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity through what I call “proximal intercessory prayer” for divine healing. The practice involves getting up close to a sick person, laying hands on their head, shoulder, or diseased body part, empathizing with their sufferings, petitioning God to heal, and commanding healing in the name and authority of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the Christians I surveyed, interviewed, and observed sought prayer for healing both because they had physical and emotional needs and because they wanted evidence of God’s personal love and active intervention on their behalf. The pentecostal network at the center of my research—Christians influenced by the Toronto Blessing revivals of the [End Page 60] 1990s—emphasized that healing is often an immediately tangible experience. Practitioners deliver “words of knowledge”—a gift of the Holy Spirit which communicates that God wants to heal a particular condition now—experienced as sympathetic pains that disappear once the “word” is shared. People testify to “healing” if, during or after prayer, they feel at least an eighty percent reduction in symptoms such as pain or an increase in mobility that allows them to do something they could not do before. People also point to sensory perceptions of heat, tingling, vibrating, or sensations akin to “electricity” as evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and at work to bring healing, whether or not an improvement in symptoms can yet be perceived.1
I asked Christians whether they did anything besides pray when they needed healing. Few informants rejected modern medicine, but many expressed ambivalence: wanting benefits of drugs and procedures, but disliking the side effects, failures, costs, impersonal approach, and materialistic assumptions. Informants also described their love for complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. I was surprised, because most of my informants are theologically conservative Christians who eschew religious pluralism. Yet many of the CAM practices they mentioned are closely connected with selective interpretations of religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism (Daoism), and/or Western metaphysical spirituality. These practices include yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, mindfulness meditation, martial arts, homeopathy, and certain anticancer regimens. A common denominator among Christian prayer and CAM is an emphasis on sensory experience—including sensations of heat or tingling and the like—as evidence of the sacred. It seemed that Christians interpreted similarity in physical sensations as evidence of common spiritual causation. In other words, if particular sensations indicated the activity of the Holy Spirit during prayer, and one experienced comparable sensations during a Reiki session, these too could be attributed to the Holy Spirit.
In twenty-first-century American culture, theologically conservative Christians debate the meanings of sickness and how healing should be pursued. There are “cessationist” evangelicals (for instance, Calvinist Presbyterians and Baptists) who affirm biblical miracles, but who believe that miracles ceased after Bible times because they are no longer needed as confirmation of...