- Hittin’ the Prayer Bones: Materiality of Spirit in the Pentecostal South by Anderson Blanton
Anderson Blanton’s Hittin’ the Prayer Bones is a carefully detailed ethnography focused on the Pentecostal practices of the Southern Appalachian mountains. The text is grounded in Blanton’s fieldwork, conducted over two years, and ambitiously calls upon classic texts and unconventional interpretations alike, interspersed with vibrant narrative examples and sermons. The result is a rich and thoughtful discussion that provides a nuanced examination of Pentecostal beliefs and their practical, material interpretations.
In chapter 1, “Radio as ‘Point of Contact’: Prayer and the Prosthesis of the Holy Ghost,” Blanton explores the role of radio broadcasts in facilitating charismatic prayer and their function as a medium for healing. Blanton’s observations on the Jackson Memorial Hour (broadcast on southern gospel station WGTH-FM) and its hosts Brother Aldie Allen and Sister Dorothy Allen are balanced with thoughtful contextualization of the terms and concepts used on the show. An analysis of the relationship between the hosts’ use of the terms “prayer” and “precarious” is contextualized to support “the emergence of faith as a kind of burden or threat to the automatic efficacy of the magical incantation” (p. 14). Blanton argues that the radio itself becomes a medium for the Holy Ghost to communicate and describes the physical situation of the radio among the congregation assembled in the studio as well as the aural effects of the prayers. Blanton coins the phrase “skein prayer” to refer to the cacophony of voices participating in the communal act of gathering around the microphone-altar, highlighting its similarities to glossolalia.
Chapter 2 addresses the transformation of scrap material into sacred cloths that transmute the healing power of the Holy Ghost. Blanton discusses the physical manufacture and storage of these cloths, their movement throughout the community of faithful congregants, and, with great detail, the transformation process itself. The importance of this haptic practice is connected back to skein prayer. Dividing the chapter into sections, Blanton first connects the prayer cloths to the rosary and, in doing so, draws upon Michael Carroll’s eyebrow-raising analogy between the practice of using the rosary beads as a tactile devotional and the “sensation of defecation” (p. 60). In other sections, he compares the ritualistic cutting and storage of the prayer cloth to the process used early in the ministry of Oral Roberts and links the fabric of the healing cloth to the use of tent revivals, specifically the “Tent Cathedral” [End Page 235] custom-built for Oral Roberts in 1952. Blanton also contrasts the prayer cloth with its modern pragmatic counterpart, the handkerchief, the etymology of which is associated with sleight-of-hand “hanky-panky” and pantomime.
Chapter 3, “Preaching: The Anointed Poetics of Breath,” addresses a specific respiration heard at the end of each delivered line of a sermon, which declares the presence of the Holy Ghost to the faithful Pentecostal congregation. This rhythmic breath provides the architecture of the sermon, punctuating each line. Blanton also explores the place of levity and laughter within Pentecostal worship, connecting the belly laugh to the rhythmic “pneumatic gestures” that accentuate sermons. Similar to his definition of “hittin’ the prayer bones” as a percussive genuflection that signals the materialization of the Holy Ghost during worship, the aural punctuation of laughter is explained as characterizing the place of contact between the sacred and the everyday.
Chapter 4, “Standin’ in the Gap: The Materialities of Prayer,” focuses on the practice of substituting one physical body for another, while that substitute also acts as a conduit for the healing presence of the Holy Ghost. Using the apparatus of the radio as physical point of contact, divine communication is achieved through displacement and the power of skein prayer.
Interjected between chapters are “interludes,” exemplary primary texts from Sister Julie, Sister June, and Brother Pearl. Each of these three sermons is reproduced in its entirety and is allowed to stand alone with no commentary from Blanton other than...