Anthropologist and author T. M. Luhrmann has written a guest column for The New York Times this week called “Addicted to Prayer.” Luhrmann, who has spent time studying the American evangelical community and written a book on “the evangelical relationship with God”, discusses the benefits of any kind of prayer (including secular meditation) on health. She also, however, distinguishes the idea of spiritual warfare from other forms of prayer, and warns that any practice too “imaginative” can actually be detrimental. Luhrmann describes her wariness like this:
I was most struck by the dangers of prayer when people got deeply involved with spiritual warfare…Many evangelicals conclude that humans live in a supernatural battlefield in which prayer attacks demons like a stun gun…Whom does this intense imaginative immersion put at risk, and when? A study of the popular Internet game World of Warcraft suggests an intriguing answer.
Yep, welcome to the World of Prayercraft, where bowing your head launches you into battle with demon trolls and the armor of God gets a lot more literal. Luhrmann warns that becoming addicted to prayer is potentially harmful because it disconnects people from the “real world” and their “real” lives like reclusive World of Warcraft players who can only relate as an avatar to other avatars. The World of Warcraft comparison, in addition to being a tad condescending, assumes that prayer exists in an imaginary realm (“this intensive imaginative immersion”) that is completely out of touch with the real world and, therefore, too much time in the World of Prayercraft is isolating. God can only be reached—and is only relevant—in an ethereal spiritual realm that’s like another dimension, or Narnia; he has no place in our everyday. Yet a major part of the beliefs of those who pray against demons or spiritual evils is that these things are acting in the earthly world and impact not only the lives of those praying but of others as well.
Luhrmann says that some pray-ers, like World of Warcraft players, are soothed by the activity of prayer while others become addicted to the point of exhausting themselves and withdrawing from the physical world.
What made the difference [between World of Warcraft players who become addicted and those who don’t] was whether people found their primary sense of self inside the game or in the world. When play seemed more important than the real world did, they felt addicted; when it enhanced their experience of reality outside the game, they felt soothed. Prayer works in similar ways. When people use prayer to enhance their real-word selves, they feel good. When it disconnects them from the everyday…they feel bad.
It makes sense that engaging in emotionally intense prayer often can become exhausting, and there are certainly many cases where prayer is used as a shield–a means of escape from reality. However, making this distinction between finding one’s “primary sense of self” inside or outside of this imaginative prayer world creates a false dichotomy. Your praying self is not like an avatar—it’s not a different creature that’s distinguishable from your normal self. When you pray, you don’t enter into another body in an imaginary realm, full of fictitious spiders and orcs, but you talk about your reality with a God that you believe is present and working in that same and singular reality. It is the same self, guided by the same sense of self. Neither praying nor having a spiritual life signals a move away from reality. In Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman writes:
I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it…because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.
If anything, our daily life is mediated by avatars much more than prayer. The achiever on the resume, the clever tweeter, and the ever-happy, Ray-Ban-wearing, filtered face on Instagram are far more distanced from reality than a person on their knees. And while we all self-select to some extent even while praying, in contrast to the constant work of editing and maintaining these other avatars, prayer looks like a moment of relative honesty. The walls come down, you’re alone with your God, and asking for help for your shortcomings is often at the top of the agenda. An avatar can do things that you yourself cannot do—that’s the whole idea, from the spell-casting mage in World of Warcraft to the interior-design prodigy on Pinterest. But we can’t present improved versions of ourselves to God, despite our efforts to do just that; bowing our heads acknowledges our position of dependence.
Maybe it’s just impossible to talk about prayer clinically, and there’s just no apt metaphor for it. But however you view prayer—as a conversation, a reflection, a surrendering, a spiritual battle, or something else—it’s not an activity that’s restricted to a computer screen or mediated by a keyboard. Prayer is a part of everyday life. It doesn’t take any effort on our part to make God relevant in the real world—he already is.