a collaborative genealogy of spirituality


by Omri Elisha

Embroidered potpourri pillow by <a href=''target='_blank'>Beatrice Floyd</a>
Embroidered potpourri pillow by Beatrice Floyd

I lied to a dying man, although I meant every word. It’s a strange thing, to say you intend to do something that you don’t really intend to do, yet feeling as though the words themselves are embraced in such uncompromised truth that they actually exceed their indexical meaning. If there is spirituality in promises, prayers, and praise, can there also be spirituality in the excellence of the lie?

I had known Phil for barely over a year, while doing ethnographic research with evangelicals in Knoxville, Tennessee. We became close friends, despite a four-decade generation gap and even wider cultural differences. I was a New York academic with an agenda; a secular Jew sojourning in the lives of church folk. Phil was a committed Christian, with a lifelong dedication to his church and a passion for ministries of evangelization. He was an endearingly calm, quick-witted Tennessean, and an ebullient father and grandfather. When I met him, he was already fighting for his life.

The lymphoma that eventually killed him was gaining ground, and Phil was undergoing a series of chemo treatments at a local hospital. He had a steady, seemingly endless stream of visitors; family, friends, coworkers. On the afternoon I visited he was uncharacteristically alone, but characteristically upbeat and talkative. As I approached his bed he sat up and smiled, barely showing a hint of fatigue or concern. “This sucks,” I said, gesturing at the wires, tubes, and monitors that surrounded him but clearly referring to something more. He tilted his head back and laughed. “Yeah, it does kinda suck,” he said, still smiling, “Thank you! You’re the first person to come out and say it since I’ve been here.”

We talked for several minutes, perhaps an hour, mostly about news and gossip in the community. We talked about my research, which Phil supported by helping me make contacts among local pastors and churchgoers and putting a little friendly pressure on those who never invited me to their Bible study groups. I used to joke with Phil that he was like “my personal mob boss” in the church. On more than one occasion he turned the table, calling me his “personal rabbi.” It was novelty that drew us to friendship in the first place; it was a shared sense of humor that kept us there.

As I prepared to leave Phil’s bedside that afternoon my heart was heavy and my hands turned cold. I knew what I was about to say. I didn’t plan it ahead of time, but I could see it coming and chose not to stand in its way. In my relations with people who were part of my research, I never wanted to feel like I misled or deceived anyone. But this instant just felt different. It called for something novel.

“I’ll pray for you.”

I said it.

Phil stared back stunned. In those fleeting seconds I imagine he was both shocked and pleased: There was hope for me yet. He was never the kind of guy to be smug or self-congratulatory about such a thought. There was undoubtedly a part of Phil that reveled in my words, but he was far too mature in character, and in his faith, to have settled on a triumphal reading of our exchange, as though my spiritual indifference was finally conquered and that was that.

And what of my character? I lied. I told someone that I would do something for him that I could not do. I didn’t plan to set aside time to petition God on Phil’s behalf, or “lift him up” as evangelicals say, at least not in any way consistent in form or content with the prayer practices of the faithful. Perhaps I should have simply said, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts, Phil”? Why even invite the pretense of religiosity? Was I so eager to make Phil happy? Did I think my words, my simple unexpected words, could actually save him?

The fact is, by telling Phil that I would pray for him I spoke something of an indirect truth. My sincerity rested not in the content of the statement but rather the sentiment that inspired it. It was a sentiment that called out to be expressed in prefabricated words, conveyed in what for me were new wineskins (to put it biblically). I wanted to enter a new level of social exchange, to give him an inalienable gift, however disquieting and self-alienating it may have felt. I wanted him to know that I cared about him that much.

In this sense I was perhaps more like Phil and his churchgoing friends than I had ever been before. Prayer is an act of private supplication and public worship, but that is not all it is. Prayer is an artifact of value, something given and received. It can circulate among friends and strangers like currency, sometimes in the form of an act, often in the form of a promise. “I’ll pray for you.” The words invoke piety, but they also signify sociality. They cannot be empty words. They have the power to create bonds, to forge narratives of belonging, to convey or reciprocate emotions. I suspect I’m not the first person to say those words without meaning them in a literal sense. There are many self-aware evangelicals, for example, who could probably admit to neglecting promised prayers at one point or another in their lives, either by failing to make time or forgetting altogether. But that’s not my main point. That’s not really the point at all.

I am often asked if I was ever moved spiritually during my fieldwork, whether I experienced a “God moment” akin to that famously described by Susan Harding, when she suddenly found herself interpellated by the conversionist discourse of her fundamentalist-Baptist interlocutors. Of course, such questions usually rely on assumptions as various as they are loaded, with regard to what exactly constitutes a “spiritual” experience. Nonetheless, on most occasions I feel obliged to respond in the negative. While I certainly experienced profound revelatory episodes, uncanny coincidences, and flashes of emotion with visceral intensity that I could have internalized in a spiritual idiom, I rarely felt inclined or compelled to do so. This response may be well received by certain scholars who would applaud me for holding my ground, for not allowing myself to “cross a line” from an intellectual position posited to be secular to the faith of my subjects. But that would be a misguided conclusion, misguided in that it presumes that the line between belief and disbelief (or better yet, between those who pray and mean it and those who don’t pray at all) is the only line there is to be crossed.

The reality is that there are many lines that can be crossed when an avowedly non-spiritual person interacts with “people of faith,” and not all of them have to do with spirituality as conventionally understood. Lines of sociality—that is, the terms of when and how we perform our relational affinities with other people—make up an intrinsic part of what it means to be evangelical. For all their individualist rhetoric, evangelicals are often intensely social people, who celebrate and affirm their interpersonal bonds with routine diligence. Negotiating those lines offers a different point of entry into the realm of evangelical spirituality, a moral disposition that, among other things, relies on the richly paradoxical claim of privileging “relationships over religion.”

So while I may not have flirted with conviction in theological terms, I explored a space of indeterminacy that in my experience was no less implicating. When I “lied” to Phil about praying for him I did not separate myself from his religious world, as one might critically accuse me of doing, so much as adopt a communicative cue derived from a mode of religious sociality in which stated affections, expectations, and courtesies—indeed, words themselves—provide the channels through which “authentic” spirituality is made to appear real and tangible.

Maybe I’m deceiving myself. Maybe I’ve done little more than try to resolve an ethical lapse with an intellectual conceit, a half-truth at best. Or maybe, as opposed to centuries of Christian teachings insistent on transparency and objective sincerity in religious language (as Webb Keane has described), there are parallel, unspoken values attached to the art of well-intentioned words. Maybe Phil really knew what I really meant, and if he were still alive would understand why the memory of that afternoon both exhilarates and haunts me. Maybe I’m praying for him right now.