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Jan. 15 2010 - 2:18 pm | 497 views | 0 recommendations | 54 comments

On Prayer As Disaster Relief

Readers who’ve been hanging tough with me for awhile might have expected I’d want to double dutch into the conversation about Pat Robertson’s vile suggestion that Haiti had it coming.

I really don’t. To my mind Robertson is the Spencer Pratt of the Christian world, a sick soul hip to the public’s appetite for villains, a spotlight addict who knows that the more repellant he is, the more magnetic. Robertson is predictable, he’s odiously numb to the pain of others, and most importantly, he isn’t in the least representative of what’s going on in the evangelical mainstream.

Note that the church of the late Jerry Falwell–a preacher whose ignominy crested in an appearance on Robertson’s very own 700 Club just after 9/11, where Falwell postulated that God had lifted the veil of protection on America because of a culture dominated by “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians”–note that Falwell’s church, now helmed by son Jonathan, isn’t dreaming up supernatural explanations for human suffering, but urgently dedicating itself to raising money for earthquake relief in Haiti. Jonathan Falwell is on the Tweet beat, and the church’s homepage is set up to shuttle visitors right to a donation hub. So that should give you some starting sense that Robertson is off the reservation, where I hope he stays to go fuck himself.

Closing the curtain on that sideshow, I do want to muse on and solicit thoughts about something more complicated, something that does happen in the religious mainstream after a disaster: prayer for those affected.

If you followed those Falwell links above, you’ll notice that there’s a tremendous effort underway to get people praying for Haiti right now. Issue-specific prayer collectives sprout up whenever disaster strikes, and on a personal scale you always hear religious people reply to news of someone else’s trials by promising to pray for them.

Sometimes I find it moving to hear a believer offer to commit to a ritual they earnestly believe will help someone, even if I believe the ritual amounts to talking to oneself. The intention to help is there.

Nonbelievers don’t have any expression that measures up, powerwise, to “I’ll pray for you.” I’m always struck by how hard it is to find an expression ample enough to hold deep compassion. Yesterday, I talked to a Haitian student whose parents lost their home, and another whose grandmother is missing. What could I do? I could listen, say “I’m very sorry,” I could volunteer help (knowing it would probably be refused), and I could finally, lamely offer the nonbeliever’s shallow-sounding alternative to “I’ll pray for you”–”I’ll be thinking of you.” So I feel pangs of envy that believers have this service they offer.

BUT. It’s always seemed to me that when you say you’re praying for someone you imply 1) that God wasn’t looking when disaster struck them; 2) that now God needs to be persuaded of the merits of their case; and 3) that human teamwork can somehow intensify the powers of his blessings. Which all strikes me as a teensy bit self-aggrandizing and patronizing, all at once.

And one does worry that there will be some believers who see prayer as a functional substitute to financial contribution.

What about you, Internet users? What do you think when people offer to pray on the behalf of others? And nonbelievers, do you have a better expression of compassion than my feeble line above?

God or no God, we can all give, right? Even though my corner of the internet is but a mouse hole, and even though you’ve seen these a billion times already, I’m of the opinion that the following links should be everywhere. We should roll over in bed and see these links on our pillow. These links should be floating in our milk when we finish our cereal. When we open our mouths to speak we should find that we’re only able to communicate in these links. So here are these links, some places the Internet suggests as safe bets to give money to earthquake relief in Haiti:

Yele – Wyclef Jean’s Haiti-specific organization, which is pooling resources with other first responders (You can also make donations in $5 increments by texting YELE to 501501.)

Partners in Health – Boston-based organization providing medical care to poor communities, with 25 years’ experience operating in Haiti. They’re also calling for medical volunteers.

Red Cross - Donate specifically to their operations in Haiti using the link to left, or text HAITI to 90999 to donate in $10 increments.

Charity Watch has posted a comprehensive, ranked list of organizations working on Haiti earthquake relief HERE.


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  1. collapse expand

    ~~~”If you want to feel good about yourself, but avoid any real work or results, try prayer.”

    My “I’ll pray for you” line is probably more like “I’m sorry that happened to you. What can I do to help you right now?”

    Other ways to show true concern are to listen attentively with no judgement, and touch. There are studies showing oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is releashed when the flat of the palm touches another person. Holding hands, hugging, or a casual rub on the shoulder or back is a sweet, nonverbal, universal way to connect.

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    I was an English professor, so I’ll correct your “. . .for awhile.” You should have written ” . . . for a while.” The former, awhile is an adverb, as in stay awhile; you want to use a prepositional phrase. Your error is a quite common among writers.
    I hope you’re not angry. I don’t know how to contact you privately.

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    “What do you think when people offer to pray on the behalf of others?”

    I see it as a gesture of human caring. Sorry that you see it as wanting. Since there’s no single or simple explanation for what prayer is, I can’t imagine what anyone could tell you. Maybe you should simply accept it as a cultural ritual that mystifies you, and let it be.

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    Thanks for writing this; especially the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. So often, especially for atheists, it’s easy and tempting to make generalizations about those who pray based on the actions of vacuous souls like Pat “makes-me-want-to-vomit-my-spleen” Robertson. But, there do exist those of the Christian faith who actually do follow – believe it or not – the humble selfless example set by the story of Christ.

    Who is anyone to say that there is no power to prayer? Just because i don’t believe in some omnipotent being ‘up’ in the clouds watching over and judging everything we humans do, doesn’t mean that i cannot recognize its potential power.

    You are right: in the most empirical sense, prayer amounts to talking to one’s self. But in order to talk to one’s self, one must form thoughts. Well, the very world we inhabit today was formed in part by the thoughts of humans. Without thoughts there would be no wheel, no transistor, no UNICEF…

    There can be no doubt that thought, and by extension prayer, is a powerful thing. Granted, prayer can indeed be used as an easy ‘out’ for someone with hypocritical tendencies who doesn’t want to commit to true action for someone else in trouble; however, in the minds of truly faithful, compassionate souls, prayer can be a force to move mountains (or even better, a motivation to click the ever-important links you provided so graciously above).

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    Looks like Danny Glover has been praying to algore

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    I agree with Andy that prayer, while potentially the most powerful of acts, is one of the least costly to the actor. As we say, “you shall know the tree by its fruit.” Pray as they might, if there not taking concrete action, something’s missing.

    As for Pat Robertson, I’ve prayed that he be given the twin gifts of tact and decorum that he might stop making the rest of us believers look like fools.

    • collapse expand

      To many “secularists,” we’re fools simply to the extent that we fail to be atheists. Which is to say, even if Pat Robertson were to suddenly morph into a reasonable human being and the Religious Right collectively repent, we believers would still be viewed as oddballs whose quaint, irrational ways warrant study in the same way that previously unseen changes in Saturn’s ring system deserve documentation.

      Tell the fashionable non-believer of our day that you’re on the same page, and he or she will doubt your sincerity. The alternate possibility–that we actually share some values and life experiences–is too yucky for them to consider.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Yes, in a sense prayer is talking to oneself. In the context of the Quaker belief that the Divine exists in each of us, that is how we talk to God.

    But I like best the way George Herbert said it in his sonnet “Prayer”: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” The entire poem is a series of metaphors descriptive of prayer. Close study of this poem is the best treatise on prayer I can imagine.

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    andygeiger – So, what are you saying? Judging from your last paragraph, it WOULD be rather silly for someone to say “I’ll pray for you,” when what they really mean is, “I’ll ask myself to be motivated to help you in some way.” While I would certainly agree that this is closer to reality, it’s certainly not what the vast majority of faithful people mean by the word “pray.”
    Walk into any mainstream church and ask the people who they are praying to and they will say “God,” and they will be asking HIM to do something. They will NOT say they’re meditating or talking to themselves.

    Chris van Avery – So much for the “power” of prayer. Robertson will be an asshole until the day he dies.

    savio – Given that you (a believer) and I (an atheist) might very well share some values and life experiences, why wouldn’t we just work from that point and keep god out of it?

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      “savio – Given that you (a believer) and I (an atheist) might very well share some values and life experiences, why wouldn’t we just work from that point and keep god out of it?”–markbolton

      For the same reason I don’t ask you to keep God in it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        And there you have it. I express a willingness to work together by starting from the things that unite us, and you cannot come to the table without bringing what might be the ONE thing that divides us.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          I guess I’ll have to explain what I meant. What I meant was that, just as I have no right to dictate the rules of discourse, neither do you. Another way of saying it is that tolerance is a two-way street. Freedom for all, not just for those who object to any mention of religion or who insist on not capitalizing proper nouns.

          Simply put, you want your non-”god” point of view to dominate, and I do not, so of course you conclude that I’m being unreasonable. I don’t know what you say. Either you grasp that debate is a two-way process wherein everyone follows the same rules, or you don’t.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Oops. “I don’t know what you say” was meant to read, “I don’t know what TO say.”


          In response to another comment. See in context »
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      @markbolton – It’s silly to you and me perhaps; but then again you’re an atheist and i’m agnostic… and aren’t humans silly creatures in general? I mean, just today i heard about an atheist who claimed to speak for the vast majority of the Faithful. I got quite a kick out of that.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Har har. The difference between “speaking for” and “observing” is a subtle one, I know. Almost invisible to the naked eye.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Come on, andy. I don’t have to speak for the vast majority of the faithful, I’m just trying to keep one foot in reality here. Are you really going to tell me that you think the majority of people of faith acknowledge that they’re praying to themselves? I’ve known religious people all my life – they are the majority you know – and not one of them has ever said they pray to anything other than a real, living god. If that’s not so, then the churches are full of liars – people who claim to believe in god but know they’re only praying to themselves. I give them more credit than that. I think they believe just what they say they do.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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        What I love most about the pop atheism of the moment is how it demands that religion explain itself. All while angrily denying any requirement to explain itself to religion. Gloriously one-way, isn’t it?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          “What I love most about the pop atheism of the moment is how it demands that religion explain itself. All while angrily denying any requirement to explain itself to religion. Gloriously one-way, isn’t it?”

          Like the man said:”Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Sorry, the duty of explaination falls on the believers in the supernatural – not the doubters.

          I would also point out that I have not doubted anyone’s sincerity here and have, in fact specifically said that I think people believe what they say they believe. However, you once again accuse me of being on a one-way tolerance street when it is you who characterize the lack of faith as “the pop atheism of the moment,” showing no respect whatsoever.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            Like the man said:”Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

            Indeed he said it–unfortunately, he failed to give a proof.

            He also failed to define how he was using “extraordinary”, because the claim that the universe was created by a divine being is terribly ordinary outside the field of dogmatic naturalism.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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            “Sorry, the duty of explaination falls on the believers in the supernatural – not the doubters.”

            I don’t believe prayer has any supernatural power, and I didn’t assert same. I was merely observing that, whereas I don’t ask non-believers to explain themselves (i.e., account to me or justify their views), the same courtesy isn’t extended to me.

            And, no, I didn’t reduce atheism to the pop atheism of the moment. I was simply referring to the most popular type of the moment–Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens. The brand wherein religion is reduced to a claim (or claims) for the supernatural, and followers of religion are assumed to be logic-deficient, prone to voting Republican, and so on. It’s presumption of guilt and guilt by association–i.e., Christians are intolerant scoundrels not to be trusted or taken seriously unless, through some miracle, we convince our accusers otherwise. It’s a depressingly one-sided thing.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Speaking only for myself, I’m happy to talk about why I don’t believe in any god, but yes, I think people have the right to be private about what they believe and why.

          The big exception for me applies to religious groups trying to legislate faith. From my perspective, many conservative evangelical Christians can’t get off the hook of scrutiny–they subject their faith to public conversation by expecting us to live by the letters of their belief.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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      @markbolton “They will NOT say they’re meditating or talking to themselves.”
      Right. But I guess the question we’re then working on is something like, if we don’t believe there’s someone manning the phones at the prayer hotline, can we non-praying people find any value in prayer?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I think religious folks find prayer helpful, or else they wouldn’t do it. It means and results in different things for different people. Having a friend offer what s/he can for you can at least uplift your spirit.

    As an atheist, I have had people say they would pray for me. All i can say is “thank you.” I an unable to offer the same, even if it would make them feel better than my basic offer of “I’m so sorry to hear that,” “I’ll be thinking of you,” “If there’s anything I can do to help,” and if I know them well (especially if we live near each other) “Why don’t you come over for lunch/for a relaxing time/something to that effect.” Sometimes I wonder of Christians fell I am offering something of the magnitude or prayer, but that’s what’s genuine to me.

    Savio, you said “To many “secularists,” we’re fools simply to the extent that we fail to be atheists. Which is to say, even if Pat Robertson were to suddenly morph into a reasonable human being and the Religious Right collectively repent, we believers would still be viewed as oddballs whose quaint, irrational ways warrant study in the same way that previously unseen changes in Saturn’s ring system deserve documentation.”

    You might consider the other side:


    The contents of this article show – in part – why atheists and agnostics wrestle with the presence of religion into comforting others.

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      ??? The article cites poll results and presumes that hostility against non-believers must result in society-wide discrimination, even if not on an individual level. Yes, there’s a lack of tolerance on both sides. And?

      Does one justify the other? I hope that’s not what you’re suggesting.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I am not in any way suggesting that side A’s intolerance of/non-acceptance of/discrimination against side B justifies side B doing the same to side A. My response was to your comment that you feel that atheists treat those who follow a religious faith as fools. All this article really shows is that atheists often feel put out by those who are religious, NOT that it’s justified.

        When you write later that “What I love most about the pop atheism of the moment is how it demands that religion explain itself. All while angrily denying any requirement to explain itself to religion. Gloriously one-way, isn’t it?” you yourself are being a bit condescending, and I believe that kind of attitude is what Kaminer is referring to with her article. I do not participate in “pop atheism,” whatever that is. Perhaps you can explain.

        I’m in accord with Gina in that I don’t mind people following a religion or believing in a god or gods; I do not care for legislation that is driven by religion. I should add that personally, I don’t really care for people suggesting that going to church will improve my life. (To be clear, I do not think you are doing the latter; this is simply a clarification for my way of thinking.)

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          “I’m in accord with Gina in that I don’t mind people following a religion or believing in a god or gods….”

          Well, glad to learn that you don’t mind! I wouldn’t want to form a belief system without your permission. (-:

          Actually, such freedom is granted by/in the U.S. Constitution. Thankfully, it’s not up to us (or shouldn’t be) to mind or not mind what other people do and say.

          Explain “pop atheism”? Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. Thousands (if not more) websites that present their best-selling point of view. Pop=popular. The extremely popular form of atheism that, at the moment, is leading in popularity. No, it doesn’t make it the only or sole kind, just the kind one is 99.9 percent likely to encounter at any one moment these days.

          You keep listing ideas and words that annoy you. In a free society (or pretty much free, like ours), people are free to do and say things we may not like. There are a lot of things that irk me, too, but there’s no Irk Clause in our founding document, so I guess we simply have to learn to live with behavior we may not approve of, so long as no laws are being broken.

          I don’t ask atheists, pop or otherwise, to think as I do. Meanwhile, I’m forever being asked not to mention “god,” to keep my Bible to myself, and so on. Am I wrong to sense a little bit of irony in that?

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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            Savio, I’m sorry that you cherry pick from my writing. There is more to what I have posted here than things that annoy me. It seems that you have run into some bad situations and are bitter. My guess is, if we met on the street or in a professional situation, we’d get along. You probably wouldn’t even know what my beliefs are; I may have know ides about yours either. My writing here addresses the subjects covered in Gina’s article and the subsequent posts.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Thanks for linking to that article from the Atlantic. You know, I’m so curious about that Pew poll (had it on tap for a possible post, but I’m probably the slowest person on the internet…)–it isn’t altogether surprising to learn that such a large percentage of people balk at marrying an atheist (previous polls have shown that atheists would face similar hurdles running for the highest office), but what’s so interesting is that, for being as widespread as it is, prejudice against nonbelievers seems to manifest itself so rarely.

      I do remember once hearing someone at Jerry Falwell’s church refer angrily to Christopher Hitchens as “that atheist,” as if the word itself were a pejorative, but I’ve never felt openly discriminated against for being a nonbeliever. Uncomfortable around religion, yes, but that’s something different.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  10. collapse expand

    Perhaps this will help all:
    Understanding Grammar

    And Writing Well

    Without the Erudite, the Esoteric,

    or the Mundane





    good starting point toward our goal of understanding grammar would be to begin by defining what it is and its history. Too many people devote too much time trying to enhance their vocabularies to present a more erudite perception of themselves, while shunning any reference to the study of grammar. But what good should it do us to learn by rote a surfeit of words, but fail to comprehend how to correctly construct a sentence?

    The term grammar has an interesting, if peculiar, history. The word originally connoted learning in language(s) and literature. It eventually came to mean any sort of general learning, hence the concept of a grammar school. At one time, centuries ago, the word grammar also referred to the learning of astrology and magic, of all things occult. The Scottish then transformed grammar into glamour, which today means enchanting and exciting.[1]

    It appears that the Greeks, circa the first century, were probably the first to develop a grammar. The Romans, in turn, applied rules to their Latin. Eventually, scores of countries throughout Europe developed grammars to create standards for their languages. Until the publication of Doctor Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, however, there were few specific or standardized rules for English-speaking people. Although several English dictionaries surfaced before Johnson’s, his became the magnum opus of the century. It was not until publication of The Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later that Johnson’s English Dictionary suffered an affectionate preemption.

    So, what is English grammar? It provides the rules we should use in the construction of a sentence. That’s it! There is no need to complicate matters. As an example of what grammar does for a speaker or writer of English, we would not write, “home walked He than, hurry rather.” Instead, the rules of grammar insist (sort of) that we write, “He walked home, rather than hurry.”

    Of course, no one enforces the rules of English grammar, not even the government. There are putative experts in the field, but they cannot impose grammatical restrictions at will. No one, save Mother Persuasion, can prevent anyone from writing benighted sentences should they choose to do so. The only penalty that we will pay for practicing poor grammar is that a passel of people—our family, our friends, our employer, our co-workers, and virtually anyone else who reads our written work—will think we’re stupid! It’s a perception that most of us would rather avoid.

    There are two groups to which the interested reader can turn for assistance: the first group, known as the prescriptivists, are lexically conservative; they battle rigorously to sustain and protect what is known as Standard English. On the other side of the linguistic fence reside the descriptivists, who, for the most part, believe that there is no such thing as Standard English, that the way a person speaks and writes is neither right nor wrong. The cautious reader will listen closely to the prescriptivists while never completely dismissing the colloquial wisdom of the descriptivists.

    So, why is a grammar necessary? Put simply, words are the tools of thought. Without a grammar to guide us, our thoughts would be a tangled, incomprehensible mess! Words are the primary method by which we communicate with ourselves. Having the ability to communicate with others through words is a corollary benefit. As one writer properly puts things in perspective: “The ability to express ourselves is not a frill for the edges of life, but an indispensable tool of our self-understanding, our understanding of others, and our rational contact with the world around us.” [2]

    Is it possible to think without words? Of course, but our potential to acquire knowledge would be severely restricted (and our capacity to retain exponentially waxing images would be quickly diminished).[3] Consider the word furniture: it represents tables, chairs, sofas, dining room sets, beds and bureaus, etcetera—the list is almost infinite. If we were to employ these objects using only facsimiles (mental images), it would be too time-consuming to get anything else done. Moreover, abstract thinking would be impossible. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is utter nonsense. It seems to me that the opposite is much more likely, that a word may be worth a thousand pictures! For example, when I write the word love, I wonder how many images it brings to your mind.

    The mere mention of grammar seems to send the faint of heart heading for the hills at full speed. In fact, it’s a subject that most people would prefer to avoid. The simple truth is that grammar has its own jargon, and its jargon tends to lead many of us to think it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Additionally, grammar seems to be replete with rules—and scores of exceptions to those rules. And, yes, it has exceptions to the exceptions.

    But all is not loss. First, everyone makes an occasional grammatical error. Even the most celebrated authors and linguists confess to the odd grammatical gaffe. After all, no one is perfect. Moreover, it is not our intent to write perfectly, but to write concisely; i.e., with clarity and brevity. It can be done! All it takes is a passion for language and a commitment to improving—not perfecting—your writing skills.

    You may have noted that I refer only to your writing skills, never mentioning your verbal skills. I do so because I believe that once you have mastered the art of writing, your verbal skills will improve coincidentally.

    You might ask, But isn’t it necessary to enjoy a voluminous vocabulary in order to write effectively? In my view, vocabulary is least important in enhancing one’s communications skills. I have met many people with limited vocabularies who are capable of constructing a sentence that will dazzle you for days. So knowing how to arrange the several parts of speech in a sentence is a fundamental skill that ought never be subsumed.

    Consider the following sentences: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country.” “Give me liberty, or give me death.” “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I shall never live for the sake of another man, nor ask any man to live for mine.” “Four score and seven years ago . . .” The point is that these words will send a chill along your spine, yet not one word is erudite (known only to the intelligentsia), esoteric (not known by the general masses), or sesquipedalian (words that are a foot and a half long!).

    Let’s face it: you wouldn’t be reading this book if you didn’t appreciate the effort that it takes to construct an interesting and well-written sentence. If language lovers are to confess to a certain truth, a well-turned phrase can set us swooning. It’s usually not what someone has to say about something, it’s the way in which he or she says it.

    Word usage, not vocabulary, follows closely behind grammar. How many times has someone written your when they meant to write you’re? And how often have you seen its when the writer meant it’s? A list of common usage errors could fill books—and does! In the end, it matters little how extensive our vocabulary is, if almost every sentence is guided by grammatical ignorance.

    Beyond understanding the rules of grammar, a familiarity with how to use certain words correctly is vital to good writing. Pronouns such as who/whom cause many novices and professionals alike to grope for the right choice. Knowing when to use the word as, instead of like, cripples many writers, too. The puzzling threesome, who, that, and which, are often confused and abused. Understanding when you have a dilemma and when you have a predicament or a conundrum can also be perplexing. Do we decimate or do we destroy? As we shall discover throughout our studies, many words have similar definitions but subtle shades of differences as well. We’ll learn more about this later.

    This is not to say that a good vocabulary isn’t a commendable goal. There are times when every writer longs for the right word, the word that expresses precisely what he or she is trying to convey. Mark Twain wrote: “. . . (T)he difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” The French refer to this concept as “Le mot juste.” Another aspect of good writing is being able to communicate ideas using a minimum of words. Concise writing, that is, writing that is brief and clear, is the linchpin of effective communication. So, enhancing your vocabulary is essential to improving your writing skills, but it is only one spoke in the complex lexical wheel.

    We are the conceptual animal; we are not governed primarily by instinct or impulse. Nor are we born knowing how to survive the many trials and tribulations that life presents, or how we might enhance our positions in the human hierarchy. Our survival is predicated on our potential to effectively engage our minds in the process of reasoning.

    Putting aside innate biological factors, our command of language determines the level of concrete and abstract thinking that we can successfully perform. The more familiar we are with the rules of grammar and proper word usage, the more compelling is our ability to reason effectively.

    In a nutshell, our potential to live efficaciously is directly related to the measure of knowledge that we have assimilated regarding the successful use of our native tongue. That, dear reader, ought to be incentive enough to have you quickly turning to the next page.

    Chapter One

    Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, often remarked that perfect grammar seemed to reside in the fourth dimension. He clearly understood that no one was ever completely shorn of grammatical error or escaped culpability. E.B. White wrote: “English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education—sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.”

    Still, grammar has always been important to the serious person: “I will not go down to posterity talking bad grammar,” wrote Benjamin Disraeli. Michel de Montaigne proclaimed that “The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions and grammar.” And it appears that Ambrose Bierce heartily agreed with him when he described grammar as “A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet of a self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.”

    So, it would appear that grammar gives even the best writers pause. But that doesn’t mean that we should retreat and live in grammatical ignorance. Sydney Smith offers writers hope by proclaiming: “In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word (that) you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.”


    [1] See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=grammar.

    [2] Royal Bank of Canada, The Communication of Ideas 37 (rev. ed. 1972).

    [3] Our memory banks are as limited as a hard disk drive in a computer is limited. We can store scores more words than we can store images.

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    There was this great episode of Hill Street Blues. For the umpteenth time the cops are called to deal with domestic abuse. The guy says he goes to church twice a day but still he just can’t stop misbehaving. So the Franz character says, “When I played football in high school we used to pray every time before the game. So one day I asked the Father, ‘Father, if we pray before the game, does that mean we’ll win?’ The Father said back to me, ‘If you pray and you make your block.’”

    Another good one was at a fish restaurant in Mobile, the walls plastered with mainstream aphorisms: “Pray doesn’t change things, people changes things. Prayer changes people.”

    My own thinking is that there is really only one basic prayer, for courage/acceptance, your own, not someone else’s.

    So, yeah, Gina, I’m with you. It’s kinda hard to find the value in faith without acts. I much prefer acts without faith, an atheist’s good deed to a believer’s useless prayer.

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    Over the top. Too much information. You’re giving us English profs a bad name.

    Gently, gently. Specific points only, as in your post about “a while.”

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    Let’s test the power of prayer by asking the faithful –

    If you were in need of assistance, would you rather I said that I’ll pray for you, or would you prefer that I asked what I could do to help?

    You might be tempted to say “both.” But then, what good would my prayer do if I’d already provided the assistance you needed?

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      Were it 13 years prior, I would dare you to say that in the face of Mother Theresa.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        You’d dare me to say what to Mother Theresa? That prayer is useless and works are productive? She knew this all too well – having spent her life praying much, doing little, and accomplishing next to nothing other than raising a shitload of cash for the Catholic Church.
        You are kidding – right?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Please forgive my reactionary comment. I broke my own rule; of engaging in discussion with those who are so dogmatically closed minded that they claim absolute certainty of the nature of the universe. To me, you are no different than a religious zealot… in fact, you are a diametrically opposing mirror image of one. You are so certain of the nature of things. I wish you could see that there are merits to many of the diverse viewpoints of human beings; that no one/group of us can claim monopoly on truth, and that there are workings of the universe that we will never truly have the capacity to comprehend. I respect the truly faithful for their embrace of that fact.

          p.s. – It’s kind of ridiculous that you are making me out to be someone who is arguing that one should only think/pray about help coming to others from outside instead of actually doing something about it. Of course that is absurd.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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      If you were in need of assistance, would you rather I said that I’ll pray for you, or would you prefer that I asked what I could do to help?

      If the question was posed by a believer, I’d prefer that the believer do something to help, because it’s a win-win. As the one in need, my needs are met, and for the one helping, it is a work of faith that helps prove and build the faith of the believer and actively do the will of God.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Palavering, apology accepted. You see how you get people’s backs up–and you’re not even being paid to do it!I earned a living annoying young people, but that was then. Fun,though.

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    I think, Savio, that what you are engaged in is typically referred to as reductio ad absurdum; that is, you dissiapate your time trying to reduce someone’s argument to the absurd when it are already there.

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    Gina, you have spent an admiral amount of time trying to understand evangelicals, but you’ll never really understand us unless you understand our God.

    God was looking when disaster struck Haiti, he doesn’t need to be persuaded to help, and human teamwork does not intensify his blessings. He alone is all-powerful and self-sufficient.

    So why does God want us to pray? Simply because praying connects us both to God and to those in need. It is not about us trying to persuade Him to help, when he already knows and understand their pain. Instead it is more about God involving us in the process of help and healing. Were it not for prayer, then we and God would be entirely separate. He does not want that, and nor does He want us to be separate from the pain of those in Haiti or elsewhere. Prayer is part of His solution to both problems.

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      Thanks for your comment, Mark. I’m afraid you’re right–God-belief is the undigestable nugget in this equation for me, so whatever I can reason out will seem unsatisfying for believers because I can’t factor in God’s existence.

      But bear with me as I try to interact with your ideas.

      I don’t really understand this–”[prayer] is more about God involving us in the process of help and healing,” if God doesn’t ‘use’ our help. What’s coming to mind are those little grocery carts children can push to *feel* like they’re helping shop.

      And this–”Were it not for prayer, then we and God would be entirely separate”–I don’t really get because if He’s aware of all things always, he’s aware of (and so not coldly separate from) your consciousness.

      And I see the value in this–”…nor does He want us to be separate from the pain of those in Haiti or elsewhere,” but this exclusively benefits the believer, no? In terms of increasing his or her sympathetic capacity?

      But believers aren’t praying to increase their sensitivity to the problems of others, are they? Don’t they pray to alleviate the problem for the sufferer?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I thought you might find the following interesting, related to World Vision (it has a B+ on “your” Red Cross/Haiti charity list):

    Here’s the headline and teaser:

    Non-Christians need not apply
    World Vision hires only Christians under its $250 million in US government foreign aid grants. Obama promised to change that. So why hasn’t he?

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    I don’t find prayer to be harmful unless it is used as a substitute for action. Prayer directs your mind, which is engaged in selfish thoughts a great deal of the time, outside of itself.

    I have struggled with finding an adequate expression of sorrow and desire to help without resorting to “I will pray for you.” I typically say “I will be thinking about you,” which comes across as somehow less to my ears. The sentiment is the same, but I worry that it rings hollow to a believer’s ear.

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    About Me

    I am the Gina Welch whose first book, "In the Land of Believers," is forthcoming from Metropolitan Books in 2010. My book is sort of an outsider's odyssey, detailing the two years I spent undercover at Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, VA, traveling the long, hard road from "WTF" to "I feel your pain." I'm originally from California, although most of the gold dust has rubbed off by now. These days you can find me swiveling in my desk chair on Capitol Hill or scrawling on the chalkboard at George Washington University.

    If you seek the Gina Welch who wrote a Christian inspiration book, keep seeking. If you are she, we should meet!

    See my profile »
    Followers: 66
    Contributor Since: September 2009
    Location:Washington DC