After the stunning news from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the online chorus of Americans offering support.
“Reports out of Texas are devastating,” said Ryan, on Twitter. “The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.”
A star in the Star Trek galaxy, and frequent guest on “The Big Bang Theory,” was furious with Ryan.
“The murdered victims were in a church,” tweeted Wil Wheaton. “If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of (expletive).”
Wheaton later added: “Hey, real and actual people of faith: I hear you. I apologize for insulting you, in my rage at Paul Ryan’s refusal to address gun violence.”
This was, of course, yet another round of warfare about the Second Amendment, faith, bloodshed, media bias and the political powers that be. The fighting hadn’t even ended after the secular vs. sacred Twitter wars following the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.
At this point, it’s clear that the fighting over “thoughts and prayers” tweets is yet another sign that America is dividing into warring camps in which language and symbolic actions are causing pain and confusion, rather than unity, said Tim Stewart, a professional wordsmith who created the “Dictionary of Christianese” website.
It doesn’t help that the vocabulary of many Christians, especially evangelicals, is packed with “insider jargon they use all the time, whether they know it or not. ... This language is like a liturgy for them, but they don’t understand that other people don’t get it,” said Stewart, who was raised Catholic, but attends a Southern Baptist church in Austin, Texas.
“It’s like they’re speaking another language and it makes other people feel like outsiders,” he added. Non-believers may need to say: “Is there a booklet I can read so that I know what’s going on and what you’re talking about?”
This is one piece in a larger puzzle. In a recent iBelieve.com article, evangelical writer Lindsey VanSparrentak -- after consulting with social-media friends -- included “I’ll be praying for you” in a list of “10 Christian Sayings that Need to Go.”
Part of the problem is that this statement implies real action, as in actually praying for a specific person, with a specific need.
“There’s been countless times I’ve told somebody I’d be praying for them, only to forget to actually pray,” wrote VanSparrentak. “After too many times dropping the ball, I decided to make a change. Now, instead of promising to pray later, I ask if I can pray with them right then and there. This prevents me from forgetting and it’s more encouraging to be prayed with than prayed for.”
Among other examples of Christian jargon that made it into this list were “Bless her heart,” “Be Jesus to people,” “It’s just the way God made me,” “Hate the sin, love the sinner” and “Just pray harder!”
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.
“Some people hear the word ‘prayer’ right now and they think it’s the opposite of promising to do real work in the real world,” said Stewart. “If people don’t believe prayer is real, then it really can sound phony and fake and hollow and maybe even insulting. It sounds like you’re pretending to care, instead of doing something that -- from their point of view -- really matters.”
At some point, religious leaders will need to realize that “Christianese” isn’t constructive when they’re talking to the public, as opposed to in-house conversations among the faithful, said Stewart.
“We have to start asking, ‘What are we saying?’ and ‘Why are we saying it?’ and ‘What do other people think about what we’re saying?’ Our jargon could be distracting people and doing harm. ... It’s time to ask if Christianese is actually impeding people’s ability to understand what the church is saying.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)