Radio Fields: Anderson Blanton:
Appalachian Radio Prayers


Anderson Blanton
Appalachian Radio Prayers


The Prosthesis of the Holy Ghost and the Drive to Tactility

Taken from Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, by Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher, with an Afterword by Faye Ginsburg at
Map of Appalachia, courtesy Appalchian Regional Commission, November 2009.
Map of Appalachia, courtesy Appalchian Regional Commission, November 2009.

Paragraph 1 follows:

Academic accounts on the phenomenon of charismatic Christian radio in Appalachia often have approached radio as a passive technological medium for the transmission of a discrete, self-contained religious content (Baker 2005; Clements 1974; Dean 1998; Dorgan 1993; Rosenberg 1970; Titon 1988). [Note 1] (The Notes are end-notes, at the foot of this file: click on ‘See Note 1’ to go there.) These scholarly accounts are governed by an imagined transparency of the technologies or instrumentality of the radio broadcast itself, understanding the effect and meaning of the religious message they carry as a mere epiphenomenon of its content and as not inflected in any essential way by the apparatuses through which it is transmitted.


This chapter has a different point of departure and explores the unanticipated centrality of tactile experience within what is usually understood as an exclusively auditory phenomenon, namely, listening to prayer over the radio. In the following, I suggest that the force of radio as a specific communicative technology fundamentally affects how crucial charismatic ritual practices of intercessory prayer and faith healing are experienced and understood. This intertwined relation between haptic sensation, prayer, and the radio apparatus suggests new ways to describe and theorize ‘faith’ within Pentecostal and charismatic healing traditions.


microphone-lores Scanning the airwaves of southern Appalachia on any given Sunday, the radio loudspeaker is certain to voice the importunate communal prayers, energetic singing, and ‘anointed’ preaching styles that characterize the ecstatic performances of so-called folk religion in Appalachia. Unlike the highly produced, syndicated evangelical programs that also retain a daily place within the Appalachian ether, these charismatic broadcasts are recognizable by their spontaneous and improvisatory style.


The guiding principle of these live broadcasts, repeated time and again during each worship service, is ‘Just obey the Lord.’ Implicit in this phrase is a profound sense of expectation and anticipation that the miraculous power of the Holy Ghost will instantiate itself within the ritual milieu, taking possession of the faculties of speech and bodily control for the purposes of healing physical ailments and blessing the listening faithful.


These charismatic radio broadcasts maintain a vague liturgical structure, yet this form is often deferred, interrupted, or completely derailed according to the precarious contingencies introduced into the worship context by the miraculous power of the Holy Ghost. When the ‘power falls,’ it often ‘anoints’ the preacher with a particular poetic style characterized by a rhythmic delivery of sentences punctuated by guttural grunts and gasps for breath, while at other times the spirit is ‘quenched’ and withholds the charismata of rhetorical inspiration.


When the Holy Ghost power reaches ecstatic intensity, the anointing becomes so excessive as to completely enrapture the body of the speaker, initiating a ‘fallin out in the spirit’ that renders speechless the mouth of the preacher. This evocative phrase describes the sudden and precipitous collapse of the body into an inanimate mass whose only sign of life is the gentle, silent undulation of respiration.


To people not present but listening on the radio, the abrupt silencing of an anointed voice usually signals that an in-studio congregate has fallen out, as if his or her consciousness were suspended in that nebulous space between transmission and reception. The power of the spirit can take on myriad manifestations and self-effacing intensities, and the structure of the broadcast must be flexible enough to accommodate these precarious potentials of the Holy Ghost.


blanton-the-sheep Centrally located within the southern Appalachians, radio station 105.5 FM WGTH, ‘The Sheep,’ provides a good example of the small independent radio stations located throughout this region. [Note 2] Transmitting from southwestern Virginia, the signal of this station is capable of reaching the listening faithful throughout portions of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.


As if to mimic the improvised spontaneity of the charismatic worship services that take place within the live studio of this station, this structure was originally constructed as a domestic residence but has been converted with minimal alteration into a radio station. The space of the ‘live’ studio clearly suggests its earlier domestic organization with its brick fireplace, now usurped by a wooden podium that functions as both a support for the single studio microphone and an altar for the participants of the worship service. A large window in this room reveals a dilapidated storage shed and an outmoded satellite dish resting wirily in the backyard, its rusted face still gazing expectantly toward the heavens.


Abutting from the wall opposite the window, a bare incandescent bulb mounted in a porcelain housing looks strangely out of place. The sudden muted glow of this bulb signals to the live studio congregation that the sounds within this converted space are now being broadcast to the listening audience out in what is referred to as ‘radioland,’ a nondescript space where the totality of the dispersed listening audience is imagined as a single community.


Two reclaimed church pews, well worn and stained from years of use, and fifteen mismatched chairs provide seating for the members of the live studio congregation. Though sometimes young children are present in the studio, the congregation is primarily made up of white working-class individuals (truck drivers, miners, service-industry employees, mechanics, etc.) generally ranging in age from forty-five to seventy. Women have a slight majority in terms of attendance and participation within the live studio. Underneath the naked bulb sits a piano that often gives instrumental accompaniment to the lively singing of hymns.


blanton-appalachian-music During the week, live charismatic worship services are interspersed with local news, obituaries, church announcements, and syndicated evangelical programming such as the Back to the Bible Broadcast. In addition, local businesses such as funeral homes, banks, restaurants, and farming-supply stores advertise on this station. On the weekend, however, the programming features a higher concentration of charismatic worship services and preaching. On Saturday and Sunday, the radio station is bustling with energy as preachers, instrument-toting musicians, and faithful congregants pass in and out of the studio in slots of airtime ranging from thirty minutes to an hour. One of the most popular weekend broadcasts is the Jackson Memorial Hour, airing during the prime Sunday listening time from eleven a.m. until noon. The main organizers of this worship service, Brother Alide Allen and Sister Dorothy Allen, have been preaching on the radio for over forty-three years.


Moreover, the Allens took the program over from Dorothy’s father, Brother George Jackson, who began broadcasting in the mid-1950s on a radio program called The Little Mountain Preacher. Brother Aldie, the main preacher during this broadcast, had his conversion experience while listening to the voice of Brother George issuing from the radio loudspeaker.


blanton-appalachiaAs these brief historical details suggest, many of the self-proclaimed ‘old-time Gospel’ worship practices in Appalachia are significantly related to the technology of radio. A significant amount of the charismatic faithful in this region grew up listening to worship services mediated over this apparatus. The prominent practice of radio listening, in combination with the aurally saturated metaphors of early Christianity (‘Faith cometh by hearing,’ etc.), significantly influences how many of the charismatic faithful, both broadcasters and radio auditors alike, experience and understand practices such as intercessory prayer, faith healing, and glossolalia.


Like many of the charismatic broadcasts in this region, the Jackson Memorial Hour is oriented around the healing of physical illness. The key ritual performance and climax of emotional intensity in such radio programs is organized around the practice of faith healing. In order to create an efficacious milieu for miraculous cures, the force of the Holy Ghost must be instantiated into the worship context. Various theurgical apparati are set in motion in a precarious attempt to ‘get a prayer through’ to the divine ear.


As noted by Max Muller in his series of Oxford lectures ‘On Ancient Prayers,’ the word prayer has an important etymological similarity with the word precarious (1901). This analysis is helpful within the context of this study because it suggests the emergence of faith as a kind of burden or threat to the automatic efficacy of the magical incantation. An elementary contingency and potential breakdown, therefore, resides within the performance of prayer.


Moreover, this supposed burden of faith gets to the core of significant debates within the emergent disciplines of comparative religion and ethnology. These debates have described how the automatic efficacy of the magical and materialized incantation undergoes a gradual process of abstraction, spiritualization, and interiorization through an ever-increasing technological control of the contingencies of the natural environment. Through this process of abstraction, the materialized and automatic efficacy of incantation becomes the precarious practice of prayer directed toward autonomous spiritual agents.


Despite these earlier forecasts, however, material conduits always seem to insinuate themselves into the contemporary worship context in a tactile attempt to mitigate the precariousness of prayer. Thus, a panoply of charismatic techniques of the body, material objects, and media technologies are simultaneously engaged to make manifest the presence of the Holy Ghost.


Moreover, such material and ideational entanglements summon a physicality shared by both the spirit and the radio voice, a commonality that is necessary for successful faith healing.


Several times during the course of the Jackson Memorial Hour, the members of the studio congregation, referred to as ‘prayer warriors,’ are called to circle around the microphone and pray for the sick listeners out in ‘radioland’ The altar mentioned during such healing prayers refers to the microphone and microphone stand as well as the wooden table they rest on. Congregants of the radio church occasionally kneel down in front of the microphone during moments of conversion and supplication. As the prayer warriors approach and place their hands on the wooden platform, the sensitive microphone crisply perceives brisk pops, cracks, creaks, and thuds as hands are placed near the microphone and as the microphone is adjusted.


This call for participation in the healing prayer also includes the listening audience. Both the isolated sick in need of a cure and the distant worshiper who wishes to contribute to the theurgical efficacy are importuned to ‘lay your hand on the radio as a point of contact and pray with us.’ As if to mimic the early radio sets that had the capacity both to transmit and to receive, the radio loudspeaker becomes a two-way conduit for divine communication (Hill 1978; Schiffer 1991). For listeners out in radioland, it is as if the radio loudspeaker can simultaneously amplify or extend prayers from the everyday to that sacred space somewhere else and receive the miraculous transmission of healing force from the sacred to the everyday.


Point of Contact
Point of Contact
While these preparations for healing prayer are taking place, Brother Aldie further organizes the prayer by assigning ‘stand-ins’ and arranging the most efficacious manual positioning for the communication of Holy Ghost power. Once again, the level of spontaneity and creative improvisation that characterizes these ritual preparations is worth noting. While observing these preparations, one is reminded of the creative informality of rural farmers who use whatever improvised materials at hand (garden hoses, tin cans, bailing twine, rusted washing machine parts, etc.) to get a tractor up and running again before the rain falls on the hay. ‘Standin in’ the gap between the everyday and the sacred, poetic techniques of prayer and material conduits of the spirit are mobilized through a consecrated performance of what Kathleen Stewart calls, in describing a local cultural poetics, ‘foolin’ with thangs’ (1996, 44).


Among charismatic practices in Appalachia, one member of the congregation who is present in the studio becomes the bodily substitute for a patient who is to be prayed for yet is not physically present. Blood relations usually provide the most efficacious ‘stand-ins’ or conduits for the prayer, though some members of the congregation are believed to possess particular elective affinities for certain categories of illness and patients and may be employed as stand-ins in these cases. For example, one older sister was believed to have a special gift as an embodied conduit for sick children; therefore, when the congregation prayed for a distant child who had no kinship bond in the studio, this woman was often called on to stand in and thus become a physical medium for healing power on behalf of the ailing child.


Radiating outward like spokes around the hub of the microphone / altar, the outstretched arms and downward-facing palms of the studio worshipers demarcate a sacred circle for the communication of Holy Ghost power. As if to amplify the efficacious connectivity of the spirit through tactile contact, the body in communication with divine powers and the material mediations of the radio apparatus mimic each other almost without distinction. In this way, the haptic and proprioceptive sensations of the outstretched or uplifted ‘holy hand’ seem to amplify the technical capacities of the microphone (Csordas 2004, 1994).


Speaking forcefully toward the center of this sacred wheel, Brother Aldie begins the prayer: ‘Father God we call… ’ Like the sudden illumination of the exposed electric bulb protruding from a wall in the makeshift studio, his short invocation signals all the prayer warriors to commence praying their own specific prayer out loud.


What follows is a technique of prayer that is practiced in charismatic worship services throughout Appalachia and elsewhere. Because of the striking entanglement of articulated words created in this communal performance of divine communication, I have termed this practice skein prayer. Borrowed from the terminology of weaving and textiles, the word skein denotes both a bundle of yarn and the act of tangling or coiling thread. Thus, the phrase skein prayer suggests that there are elements of manual technique and haptic sensation intertwined with the oral performance of prayer.


As the prayer progresses, this atmosphere of language grows dense like the haze of coal dust: the bituminous unction of industrial modernity. As these atmosphe… res thicken, so does the explosive potential. In this entanglement, the possibility of articulation is immersed in a seething skein of noise.


As if this vociferous entanglement of dismembered words was not enough to secure the attention of the divine ear, the noise of the skein prayer is further affected and augmented by vocal exercises such as wailing, crying, and the most prominent and practiced form of these vocalizations, the undulating ‘Whooo.’ As if to further thematize the disarticulation of langue and immersion into the buzz of noise, the mouth cedes its function of ar-ticulous and simply cries out, voicing a basic capacity of the vocal organs.


Skein prayer, according to many charismatic practitioners in Appalachia, is one of the most efficacious theurgical techniques to ‘get a prayer through’ to the divine ear. Suddenly, this pulsating flow of skein prayer is cut through with the only clearly discernable sound, the percussive pop of hands rapidly clapped together in disjointed bursts of five to fifteen beats. If only for an instant, these percussive cracks pierce through the entangled thickness of noise.


There is an important structural similarity between the overall aural effect of the communal skein prayer and the practice of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia. In both cases, the most efficacious forms of prayer are those which can be registered by the human ear but whose plentitude of meaning remains unavailable. To observe this performance of skein prayer in the space of the live studio, one is moved, perhaps even threatened, by the emotionally charged, ecstatic space that is produced. However, the translation of this performance through the radio apparatus produces a significantly different experience — an experience, moreover, that seems particularly apt for the ecstatic moment of skein prayer.


The performance of skein prayer in the live studio differs subtly from the way that this efficacious prayer is ‘traditionally’ practiced. Whereas the ritual of skein prayer within the space of the church or revival tent is usually performed by each congregation member either where he or she is already positioned within the space (in the rows of chairs or pews, for instance) or perhaps concentrated around the body of the sick patient, the performance of this type of entangled prayer within the space of the live studio is specifically organized and oriented around the artificial ear of the microphone. As if to utilize the artificial amplifications of the electro-mechanical ear / mouth to enhance the efficacy of this theurgical technique, the prayer warriors gather around the microphone / altar.


Once again, this particularity of skein prayer oriented around the microphone suggests yet another entanglement: an intertwining between the technological infrastructure of the apparatus and the precarious hearing capacities of the divine ear. Early Christian anxieties around the potential for the divine ear to become ‘heavy,’ ‘dull,’ or ‘deaf’ and thus unable to register ‘the cries of the people’ suggests the historically and technologically contingent modes for understanding and experiencing divine hearing capacities, angelic messengers, divinatory speech, sacred postal economies, disruptive demons, oracular noise, and so on (Blanton 2009; Peters 1999; Schmidt 2000).


Charismatic practitioners self-consciously utilize the radio apparatus to amplify ‘the cries of the people.’ Yet this amplification reacts back on the pious subject with unanticipated consequences and attunes particular modes of religious sensation. Within this particular charismatic context, the radio apparatus is an important component in what Birgit Meyer has recently termed the ‘sensational form’ (2009). Senses of transcendence are inflected, attuned, and augmented in particular ways by the religious mediations within the worship context. Embodied techniques and pious training combine with material mediations of the divine to produce the ecstatic sensation of what de Vries, emphasizing the intimate relation between instrumental artifice and the miraculous, calls the ‘special effect’ (2001).


It is as if the theurgical orientation around the microphone simultaneously facilitates a benediction on the ears of the listening faithful out in radioland and an amplification of the importunate intercessory cry toward heaven. In this way, the prayer warriors in the radio station anticipate the simultaneous voicing of their prayer somewhere else in the nebulous and nondescript space of radioland. Thus, the very organization of the prayer, even before the tongues have tangled and the percussive pops cut through the skein, prefigures a peculiar experience of simultaneity or doubling somewhere else.


This basic detail concerning the different orientation and conception of the charismatic skein prayer offers an example of the way the radio apparatus inflects or augments experiences and performances of divine communication. Skein prayer voiced into the artificial ear of the microphone, therefore, is not merely the replication of ‘normal’ charismatic worship practices ‘over’ the radio but a profound alteration, reconceptualization, and reembodiment through the transforming process of technological mediation.


As the skein prayer is translated from the space of the live studio to the mouth of the loudspeaker, the listener, whose capacity for hearing is extended by the artificial ear of the microphone, experiences this moment in a condition of ‘blindness’ (cf. Arnheim 1972 [1936]). The technical capacities of the radio do not convey any visual information about the prayer. There is no visual grounding to help orient and locate the voice issuing forth from the loudspeaker.


Alternatively, when this type of prayer is experienced within the space of the studio or church, for example, the participant is able to differentiate and organize this otherwise cacophonous tangle of noise by visually identifying the positions of other congregants bodies. Likewise, if the congregant has his or her eyes closed and hands raised in a posture of prayer, he or she is able to differentiate these voices by differing proximity and intensity of sound, reverberations created by architecture or surroundings, physical contact with other church members, and so on.


Rather than detracting from the somatic and emotional power of prayer in the presence of a church space, this distinction may be useful to emphasize the different sensory registers and sense ratios that are invoked, attuned, and trained in what may seem to be the same practice. In comparison to the architectural space of the church, worship through the radio invokes, attunes, and trains significantly different sensory registers and sense ratios.


As if issuing from nowhere, this compelling force of sacred noise gains a new quality and intensity of disorientation through the radio. This vertiginous ‘special effect’ of the radio apparatus foregrounds and attunes the sense of hearing at the expense of other perceptual capacities. Of course, this is not to say that the body of the listener loses all perceptual and embodied orientations in the private domestic space. Listeners are still experiencing this ‘canny’ environment through the embodied orientation of the senses (seeing the table on which the radio sits, feeling the fabric of the couch, smelling the food cooking, etc.).


This feeling of embodied familiarity, we might add, could further contribute to the strange sensation of aural disjuncture between the noise issuing from that peculiar elsewhere of the apparatus and the privacy of the everyday domestic space. The sacred noise of skein prayer rends the mundane and habituated ‘radio texture’ that is usually associated with practices of radio listening within the domestic space (Tacchi 1998). Uncanny in the strict sense of the term, the ecstatic noise of skein prayer demarcates a numinous space within the intimate interior of the home.


One could add to the disorienting force of the ‘disembodied’ skein prayer the technical failure of the microphone that is voiced by the loudspeaker. At moments, the noise of the prayer reaches such sonic intensities that the sensitivities of the microphone are unable to clearly register the sound. This inability to ‘hear’ creates strange distorted sounds and thus adds to the efficacious noise mouthed by the loudspeaker. Like the stones in the book of Luke, the technical capacities of the apparatus themselves cry out, adding to the efficacy and sensorial impact of the prayer. This technological failure is voiced by the loudspeaker as a violent hiss of wind, static, and a bending or distortion of the skein voices.


Just as there are moments during the performance of prayer when the technological media fail to ‘faithfully’ register the boisterous noise within the studio, there are many instances following the gradual lull and decrescendo of the skein prayer when the pastor declares, ‘That prayer ain’t gone through yet. Keep prayin’!’ When a member of the congregation senses that the prayer has not ‘gone through,’ the prayer warriors resume the prayer until everyone is satisfied that the theurgical transmission has reached the divine ear. Communication breakdown between the divine and the everyday is often attributed to the obstructing influences of the devil and his ‘dark principalities,’ as well as the burden of unbelief among the radio congregation and the listening audience. Likewise, the negative force of unbelief is said to ‘quench’ the Holy Ghost, preventing the anointing power from entering the space of worship. Though many times the skein prayer is performed with no tangible manifestations of the spirit within the studio, there are occasional moments of ecstatic irruption when the numbing buzz of prayer unleashes the miraculous power of the Holy Ghost.


Many faithful listeners in radioland claim to have been miraculously healed as a result of hearing the skein prayer mediated through the radio apparatus. Take for example the cure of Sister Violet, a faithful listener to charismatic broadcasts and occasional participant in the space of the live studio, who gave a testimony to the miraculous cure of her severely infected index finger while listening to the radio:


When my fanger was in bad shape,
you know, Sister Dorothy was a-prayin’.
She was a-prayin one Sunday mornin on there [the radio] for me.
And I felta-sucha par a-shakin my radio.
And I just lifted my hands up, and then I realized that I had my fanger on the radio,
and my fanger began ta straighten out.
And, you know, somebody’s gotta pray the prayer of faith for ye.
And I felt her, and then I realized my fanger was straight…

You know, we need to tell, and stand up and tell what God does for us.
And may God bless ya — I don’t wonna take up no more time.


As Sister Violet testifies into the microphone for an unseen audience, her performance completes a circuitry of efficacious prayer. It is as if the healed body of the patient tracks back to the mechanical origin of the prayer. Recounting the miraculous event and thus tracing the infrastructure of the radio broadcast, the healed patient returns to the material source of transmission. Her ‘live’ in-studio appearance in the technological space of transmission is voiced into the self-same microphone that once registered a prayer on her behalf. The anointed body of Sister Violet embodies a forgotten technical potentiality of the radio apparatus; the magnetic interface of the radio’s transducer is not only capable of reception but transmission as well (cf. Sterne 2003).


Sister Violet’s experience of ‘presence’ entails sensations that are in excess of the merely instrumental capacities of the medium. Thus, the haptic and kinesthetic descriptions given by Sister Violet point to a specific effect of radio listening that transcends the informational content of the broadcast. Not only are the sounds of Sister Dorothy’s praying voice translated by the apparatus; Sister Violet feels the physical proximity of Sister Dorothy and this specifically in relation to the somatic awareness of bodily disfigurement and proprioceptive sensations of elevated extremities.


Likewise, faithful listeners out in radioland also respond to radio’s production of presence by actively participating with the broadcast. During interviews, for instance, listeners often described how they interact with the worship service by clapping their hands and singing along with the studio congregation. Several listeners claimed to actively encourage the radio preacher with exhortations such as ‘Preach it, Brother!’ and ‘Come on!’ Finally, this type of participation with the radio broadcast is accompanied by ecstatic manifestations such as the listener who called into the broadcast to testify that she received the anointing while doing house chores and suddenly began ‘just a-jumpin and a-shoutin all over the kitchen.’ Once again, the sound issuing from the radio loudspeaker produces an experience of calling or demand on the listener that is in excess of the informational content of the broadcast.


As Adorno notes, a basic characteristic of the radio apparatus is that during the experience of listening, the instrumental / material aspects of the radio apparatus (studio microphones, transmitters, receivers, electrical grids, etc.) are forgotten or repressed (2006). Through habitual use and a longing for the unmediated, the machinations and material details of the instrument fade into the background. This inability to actively conceptualize the infrastructure of broadcasting, therefore, creates a sensation of actuality — that an unmediated voice is present in the space of listening directly addressing the listener in his or her singularity.


As I have suggested, this sensation is also described as the experience of the isolated radio listener suddenly singled out by a speaker who seems to be actually present in the space of listening. Using archival material such as letters, historian Tona Hangen has also demonstrated that the mediated voice of twentieth-century evangelical preaching made it seem as if the preacher were actually present inside the privacy of the home (2002).


And yet it is not merely this capacity to forget that produces the most profound sensations of presence but a kind of doubled awareness that recognizes simultaneously the instrumental machinations of the apparatus and a vague sensation of something else at work behind the apparatus. This rupture or special effect that is produced when sensory capacities are augmented and extended by media such as radio brings us closer to understanding the moment when Sister Violet’s radio trembled with divine power.


To be sure, the charismatic faith-healing tradition is saturated with metaphors and practices of touch. Throughout many charismatic radio broadcasts, for instance, phrases such as ‘he needs a touch from the Lord’ and ‘touch her, Lord,’ are employed as metaphors of divine healing and miraculous intervention. Moreover, accounts within the New Testament of ‘laying on of hands’ and various instances of efficacious communication of divine healing virtue through tactile contact are literally interpreted and translated into a plethora of tactile practices within the worship context. The performance of healing prayer is thus intimately and crucially linked to a frenetic drive to tactility.


In this way, the contagious potentiality of the Holy Spirit could be communicated through tactile contact with the radio loudspeaker. The specificities of charismatic radio tactility, however, cannot be merely collapsed into a more general charismatic drive to healing touch. As previously described, the act of touching the radio receiver in order to facilitate both the efficacious reception and transmission of Holy Ghost power is generally referred to as a ‘point of contact.’ Though this crucial theologico-technical term has spread out — a propensity of all sacred force — to encompass a significant inventory within the charismatic reliquary (anointing oil, photographs, letters, television sets, prayer stamps, prayer cloths, etc.), the concept of ‘point of contact’ itself was formulated within the context of healing prayer mediated over the radio apparatus.


oral1 Oral Roberts, arguably the most significant proponent of both the charismatic healing revival and Pentecostal faith-healing movements during the twentieth century, coined this preeminent phrase as a theologico-technical term that helped to mitigate the distance from both the ear of the faithful radio listener and the efficacious healing virtue of the Holy Ghost. The term theologico-technical suggests that the point of contact is both a specific theurgical technique that augments or amplifies the efficacy of the prayer and a theological claim on the nature of divine communication and faith. According to Roberts (1950, 35), God institutes certain ‘instrumentalities’ into the world to provide efficacious material conduits for divine force, allowing the patient to ‘turn faith loose’ through an act of tactile contact.


oral-working Though most of the faithful must employ material and technological instrumentalities to unleash their faith and thus instantiate healing virtue, Roberts himself claimed to have been given as one of his charismata a specific ‘sense of discernment’ in his right hand that allowed him to ‘detect’ the presence of illness-causing demons. This presence was discerned through tactile sensations of pressure that were exerted on his healing hand by the malignant force of the illness-demon (1950, 35). For the isolated listener, tactile contact with the radio loudspeaker became a prosthetic extension of Roberts’s gift of discernment and detection. Thus, as Roberts laid his hand on the microphone or a physical stand-in within the studio during the ‘prayer-time’ of his famous Healing Waters Broadcast, the ailing patient placed hands on the radio loudspeaker to achieve access to Roberts’s manual sense of detection. This tactile/objectile exercise of faith, in turn, ‘loosed their faith’ and created a physical conduit for the communication of healing virtue.


oral-healingIn Roberts’s famous treatise If You Need Healing, Do These Things, he emphasizes the radio as an important point of contact. Of course, Roberts’s use of radio contact as a technique of immediacy, ‘liveness,’ and audience participation was not new. Early Pentecostal radio pioneers of the late 1920s, such as Sister Aimee McPherson, also encouraged listeners to make tactile contact with the loudspeaker during the prayer (Hangen 2002, 74). Roberts, however, made radio tactility a centerpiece of his Healing Waters Broadcast and explicitly formulated the theologico-technical phrase ‘radio as a point of contact.’


oral-microphone Moreover, his how-to manual of faith healing features a visual illustration explaining how the point of contact works. At the top of the image sits Roberts himself in front of a large microphone exclaiming, ‘Rise, the Lord maketh thee whole.’ A bedfast and sickly-looking man is located in the bottom corner of the illustration, his feeble hand outstretched and touching the radio, while a gigantic divine hand reaches down from heaven to touch his head and thus communicate ‘healing virtue.’ Providing a striking example of the disavowal of the material conduit in the moment of healing cure or efficacious divine communication, the radio loudspeaker, placed prominently in front of the prone patient, voices the ironic words ‘only believe’ (Roberts 1950, 33).


Likewise, a prefiguration or anticipation of the ‘radio as a point of contact’ can be seen in the pictures and descriptions taken from Roberts’s massive tent-revival campaigns of the 1940s. Inside what was then the largest tent in the world, sick patients would form a ‘prayer line’ or ‘healing line’ in the front of the sanctuary to be prayed over, one at a time, by Roberts’s palpating hand. This massive tent auditorium depended on a large public announcement system to broadcast the voice of the healer throughout the throngs of faithful and expectant audience members.


microphone-lores Roberts’s praying voice and his right hand of discernment were therefore already mediated by a technological system of voice amplification that was literally inserted between the body of the healer and the patient. The microphone, or technological extension and amplification of the voice, was already mediating the patient-healer complex; Roberts would often hold the microphone in his left hand, its large steel housing held close to his mouth, while the right hand reached out both to ‘discern’ the illness of the patient and to communicate healing virtue. Ironically, the technology of radio broadcasting allowed Roberts to propose a strange mimicking of the healing technique within the amplified space of the revival tent. Roberts asked listeners to put their hands on the apparatus in order to gain access to divine healing power. The materialities of the radio, combined with a need to produce a sensation of ‘liveness’ and immediacy for the distant listening audience (cf. Auslander 1999), initiated a curious reversal or inversion of the tactile healing technique.


oral-miracle-touch In this way, the faithful listeners experienced an artificial or prosthetic embodiment of Roberts’s spiritual gift of haptic detection; they literally experienced the tactile sensations of heat and pressure from the vibrating electric diaphragm of the radio loudspeaker. In terms specifically related to the radio apparatus and the challenges of communication at a distance, the point of contact can be seen as a theatrical production of immediacy or ‘liveness’ through a strategic thematization of an unanticipated or unregistered potential of the radio apparatus. Hearing the prayer issuing from the loudspeaker in an experiential condition of ‘blindness,’ the listener-participant laid on hands to ‘fill in’ the disembodied and distanced voice. Deploying two sensory modes — the auditory and the haptic — during the performance of healing prayer created a powerful sense of immediacy with the praying voice. More than this, however, the discontinuity or disjuncture between sounds registered by ear and vibrations felt by hand was likely experienced by many tactile listeners as the miraculous healing power of the Holy Ghost.


To experience sound through the hand, as a deaf person palpating the throat of someone speaking in order to ‘hear,’ creates a sense of disjuncture between the body’s capacity to register and process sound and the sheer materiality of sound experienced through the hand. Thus, this sensation of vibration not only corresponds or co-registers with certain sound-meanings of the radio voice, but the sensitive capacities of the skin are able to register heat, pressure, and vibration that are ‘unheard’ by the ear. Radio tactility, therefore, allows the listener to experience the prayer in a profoundly different sensory mode than is possible in other worship contexts and media environments.


Sensations of Holy Ghost power surging through the radio loudspeaker thus reside in this strange space of the experiential gap between the haptic and the audile. This sensation of excess during the practice of radio tactility helps us to understand the healing testimony of Sister Violet and her reliance on tactile and kinesthetic metaphors to describe the miraculous moment when she feels her radio trembling with divine power. At a basic level, Sister Violet’s testimony is quite literally a tactile sensation of skein prayer experienced through the hand. Indeed, the tangled excess of noise, percussive pops, and wailing produced through the performance of skein prayer is manually registered through the loudspeaker as a series of warm, trembling vibrations. [Note 3]  This particular practice of radio audition seems to emphasize the tactile sensibilities at the expense of aural experience.


In conclusion, historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that radio has had a significant influence on understandings and experiences of prayer, the healing efficacy of tactility, and pious listening practices within the charismatic context. Crucial theurgical techniques within the context of charismatic faith healing, such as the tactile ‘point of contact,’ were developed specifically in relation to the radio apparatus and actively incorporated into the worship styles of the Appalachian faithful.


Ironically, modes of listening and understandings of faith healing insinuated themselves into the ‘normal’ church context through the mass mediations of the radio apparatus, at least since the early 1930s. Emphasizing the intertwining of charismatic practice and media technologies such as the radio also attests to the thorough modernity of ‘old-time gospel’ and prevents the typical narration of religion in Appalachia as ‘isolated’ or ‘timeless.’


Charismatic practices such as skein prayer and radio tactility can be seen as performative negotiations of a specific technologically mediated environment just as much as attempts to influence and instantiate supernatural power. Indeed, I have argued that there are crucial moments within the ritual context when the two seemingly discrete phenomena — the performance of prayer and the technical apparatus — become indistinguishable.


Within the charismatic tradition, the phenomenon of radio tactility points to a ‘prosthesis of prayer’ and an ‘apparatus of faith’ supplementing the spiritualized rhetoric of faith healing. Many of the faithful within the charismatic community and beyond emphasize that prayer is unmediated and free from material conduits, claiming that ‘there is no distance in prayer.’


Likewise, on the level of academic analysis, many so-called belief-centered theories of ritual efficacy relegate the force of charismatic healing techniques to internal psychological mechanisms and cognitive processes. In this way, both everyday and scholarly understandings of ‘faith healing’ take for granted the internal, spiritual, and belief-centered characteristics of this curative technique. Yet the prevalence of material ‘points of contact’ such as the radio apparatus suggest otherwise. Perhaps a reconceptualization of the term faith in the ubiquitous phrase faith healing would be useful.


The exercise of faith — and its visceral, embodied connotations — seems to be activated in material objects and technological apparati exterior to the religious subject. It is as if faith does not reside in the interior structures of cognition and belief but remains hidden within the external object, ready to be ‘let loose,’ ‘unleashed,’ or ‘released’ through the explosive tactile performance of the ‘point of contact.’ Through the machinations of the radio apparatus, for example, the religious subject is able to ‘reach out and touch faith.’ Faith therefore seems to make its appearance felt in and through specific processes of objectile and technological mediation.


Yet to conclude by suggesting that faith resides in media radically exterior to the religious subject would be merely to reify what seems to be a peculiar oscillation at work within the term faith itself. The precariousness inherent in prayer demands some kind of performance or practice of faith. This performance of faith is not only a spiritual form of volition or belief that would prqpitiate the precarious contingencies of divine communication. Rather, it is simultaneously a performative revelation and concealment of the material conduits of divine communication.


Its power, moreover, depends on a disavowal of the tangible media of prayer in favor of some spiritualized form of belief. The word faith, then, encapsulates both the material conduit of prayer and its simultaneous denial. In an ironic self-effacement, the radio loudspeaker voices ‘only believe’ at the very moment when the ailing patient must make tactile contact with the apparatus in order to receive healing power.


Just as haptic and kinesthetic sensations were restored to the necrosed and benumbed finger of Sister Violet through tactile contact with the radio apparatus, the miraculous presence of the Holy Ghost makes its appearance to the particular sensory registers of the religious subject as a specific effect of technological mediation. The apparatus, as a kind of prosthetic sixth sense, attunes the perceptual faculties to specific somatic experiences of the ‘transcendent.’ The material and technological prostheses of prayer extend the perceptual capacities of the subject somewhere else, yet this religious experience of ecstasis (literally, ‘talking outside the self’) can never be abstracted from the material devotional practices that ‘stand in’ between the everyday and the sacred.


The Holy Ghost moves in that ecstatic space between body and apparatus, and thus Sister Violet feels her radio ‘shakin ’ with divine power. To rephrase the ubiquitous passage from the book of Romans (10:17), perhaps it would be more appropriate to conclude that ‘faith cometh by touching.’


Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[1]  I would like to thank Brian Larkin for his insightful commentary and helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this chapter presented at the Scheps Memorial Library in the Columbia University Department of Anthropology.

[2] These small independent radio stations are usually owned by members of the local community and operated on a for-profit basis. In addition to the administrative and organizational capacities of the owners of radio station WGTH, they also work in the studio as DJs throughout the week. Much of the revenue for these stations is generated through advertisements for local businesses.

[3] While conducting fieldwork with charismatic listening communities in Appalachia, I had the opportunity several times to participate in radio tactility while listening to live broadcasts in the space of listeners’ homes.


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