Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Lexical and Performative Cues for the Provocation of an Altered State of Consciousness in the American Evangelical Church

Lexical and Performative Cues for the Provocation of an Altered State of Consciousness in the American Evangelical Church

Jasmine Walker

The charismatic preaching style synonymous with several denominations within the Evangelical church is known for inducing physical responses with a perceived supernatural origin from pious congregants known as “Spiritual Gifts.” This article focuses on lexical and performative cues for the provocation of an altered state of consciousness (ASC) in the American Evangelical church, specifically members of the Pentecostal denomination. The research aims to determine whether preachers in the church use institutionalized homiletical devises to guide members of their congregation into two forms of invocation of spirit known as “Catching the Holy Ghost” and Glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” which often happens in conjunction with one another. Preachers’ motivations come into question in terms of whether they are actively trying to induce the reception of Spiritual Gifts to legitimize their claims as mediums between god and their congregants to use as empirical proof of being “anointed” (officially chosen by god to be a representative on earth). Aspects of Jon Bialecki and Niko Besnier’s Language and Affect theories are used as a framework of analysis to understand how a preacher’s words can cause a desired response. Ralph Locke and Edward Kelly’s research on altered states of consciousness help to understand exactly what happens when one enters an ASC. Online videos of church services, participant-observation, as well as informant interviews were used to collect the ethnographic data needed for this research. The resulting data suggests that there is, in fact, a prescribed manner of delivery that incorporates specific word choice and stylized performance tools that “build-up” within a congregant, causing them to enter an ASC. This research can be useful in a number of anthropological contexts including semiotics, power and agency, ontology, and discussions on American race and gender.

April 6, 2017 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Wow, Jasmine, this is super fascinating. I know almost nothing about this and would love to get your take; do you think the people participating really enter ASCs or is it a hoax? If so, have you ever found yourself in that situation, either as a participant observer or otherwise? If the cumulative effect of the language has the ability to evoke an ASC, why doesn’t it happen with more people in the congregation simultaneously? If it could potentially have that effect, isn’t it sort of a dangerous situation for the preacher, with the potential of having to manage many people at once? Do you think one person or preacher is privileged over others to be ‘the messenger’, or do we all have that spiritual potential?

    In addition to it being a fascinating and important topic, your abstract is beautifully written–good job!

    Comment by Stacy Markel | April 9, 2017 | Reply

  2. This is such an interesting topic. I have always been skeptical of the roles of the preacher and the congregation member in these situations, it always felt staged to me. I guess you could say I’m a non-believer. I would be really interested in reading this paper!

    Comment by Rebecca Cornejo | April 10, 2017 | Reply

  3. This sounds like a very interesting read, Jasmine. I’ve always been interested in the cosmological and metaphysical realms and aspects that play this major roles in the breadth of humanity. I’m sure conducting this research was very rewarding and intriguing. There are so many religious and spiritual practices that are connected with this altered state of consciousness that I firmly believe needs to be more greatly understood and explored in the realm of anthropology, since it plays such a large role in humanity in so many aspects. The glossolalia phenomena is very intriguing as well. If you haven’t yet, check out Terence McKenna and his discourse about language, altered states of consciousness, and psychoactive drugs, as he believes they are all intimately intertwined. There’s a large selection of lectures you can find on youtube regarding this, also his book “Food of the Gods” is a great look into his theories surrounding a narrative that would contribute to your research.

    Comment by Josh Wolford | April 17, 2017 | Reply

  4. Thanks, Josh and Rebecca! Your suggestions are valued. Stacy, I do think that people genuinely believe that God is speaking through them, but with anything, there are always some who have ulterior motives when participating in these types of events. No, I’ve never entered an ASC from a church experience, but most of my family have caught the Holy Ghost or spoken in tongues. Through my research, I’ve learned that experiencing these gifts is a skill that is practiced. Some people are more skilled in hearing God’s voice than others, which is why only some people enter ASC in this context. However, even people who train themselves to hear God through prayer aren’t necessarily successful if they don’t have a natural proclivity to suspend their disbelief and be “absorbed” in the ceremony. in other words, it’s a mixture of learned and natural ability.

    Comment by Jasmine Walker | April 17, 2017 | Reply

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