'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

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Why are so many people mad about the "thoughts and prayers" angle of the tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?

That was the question that host Todd Wilken asked at the start of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

The short answer is that many Americans think that "prayers" are not real, if the goal is solving a problem in the real world, while gun-control legislation is "real," since it is linked to government and politics. As I wrote in my national "On Religion" column earlier this week, after interviewing Tim Stewart, a professional editor-writer who who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website;

It's obvious, explained Stewart, that many Americans believe that this kind of prayer talk after disasters or tragedies is meaningless, a kind of emotional fog that helps public leaders avoid action on tough issues.
It only makes matters worse when these criticisms of "thoughts and prayers" language turn into nasty attacks. After all, millions of believers sincerely think that prayer is the first step to any faithful effort to help others through charity, ministry, political activism or any other strategy in public life.

In other words, this controversy is -- stop and think about it -- another way of looking at the decades of debate among editors and reporters about how and why religion news should or should not be covered in the first place. The bottom line: Politics is "real" and "public," while religious faith is "private" and "spiritual."

I'm not sure why, but I found myself thinking , earlier this week, about a famous event in the life of the man who would become St. Pope John Paul II. It was during his work as an archbishop of Poland, wrestling with the powers that be in the Communist party.

At one point, Polish officials tried to ban the public display of religious images. This had obvious implications for liturgical processions in public streets honoring Our Lady of Czestochowa, and this icon of St. Mary that is, on many levels, a touchstone for the land's Catholic life and, for millions, Polish identity.

Now, try to picture the following scene in your mind, or cue up the corresponding scene in the epic "Pope John Paul II" movie about his life (starring Cary Elwes and Jon Voight):

In Krakow, Cardinal Wojtyla (later St. John Paul II) conceived of a solution both ingenious and mischievous.
On May 3rd, 1975, with approximately 200,000 people lining the streets, the procession commenced.
Communist officials were on alert only to discover at the heart of the procession an empty frame of Our Lady of Czestochowa, which to all participants served as a poignant sign of the endurance of their faith under persecution.

Now, the people were singing, praying and throwing flowers at an empty wooden frame? Didn't they know that Our Lady of Czestochowa was not "there," really? Come to think of it, from the viewpoint of Communist leaders Our Lady of Czestochowa wasn't "real" in the first place. All that Polish adoration was just going up into empty air. It wasn't "real."

Tell that to the leaders of Soviet bloc states across Eastern Europe.

Like I said, this image came into my mind several times this week while reading coverage from Sutherland Springs. It's a "real" tragedy, of course. "Real" people died. But when you get to the blunt details, a lot of people in Texas and around the world are going to say that there was more to this drama than flesh and blood.

Think about that while you read this unforgettable Washington Post story: "The sound of hymns drifted from the country church. Then came gunfire." It's based on eyewitness accounts.

But are these kinds of details the whole or the "real" story? Why? Why? Why? Why?

What's "real" here? I'll leave you with a quote from an interview that I once did in Washington, D.C., with Heidi Johnson of Columbine High School outside Denver. She survived the bloodbath in the school library. The question: Why was gunman Eric Harris asking students, "Do you believe in God" in the first place?

"It really doesn't matter. It wasn't really him talking," said Johnson. "When I saw his face and looked in his eyes, he just wasn't there. There was no one there. ... That question came from somewhere else."

Enjoy the podcast. Sort of.

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