There are two letters in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine that illustrate the (low) level at which religion is generally discussed in the MSM (mainstream media).
One is from Ira Levin of New York (who I assume is the same Ira Levin of New York who wrote the novel Rosemary's Baby):
There's a simple way to judge the efficacy of prayer: compare the batting averages of those players who cross themselves on approaching the plate with those who don't.
I assume Levin is (mostly) kidding, so I won't agonize over this one except to point out that it's not necessarily safe to assume that ball players who cross themselves are praying for a base hit. Years ago I saw an interview with a Latino player (and Latinos cross themselves a lot more than Anglos) who said, "Oh, I don't pray for a hit. I pray I won't get injured." Makes sense, no?
The other letter, from Mike Mee of Endicott, NY, is a little more substantive. Partial quote:
As I read Russell Shorto's article (Oct. 31) about the growth of evangelical Christianity in the workplace, my initial interest turned to dismay and, eventually, revulsion. The nadir for me came when I read of the "Christian banker" joining hands with the young couple in prayer that their mortgage would be approved.
Are these people so utterly self-absorbed that they fail to see they are treating God as a fixer?
I share the writer's negative reaction to the anecdote, but my reasons are different. In complaining about "treating God as a fixer," Mee seems to be criticizing the idea of asking God's help in getting a mortgage. I actually have no problem with this. You and I might think that a financial transaction is a crass thing to pray about, but the Jesus of the gospels tells us we ought to ask God for the things we need when we pray. In the Lord's Prayer we say, "Give us this day our daily bread." Does that make God a baker?
Admittedly there are complicated theological problems surrounding so-called petitionary prayer, among them the paradox: Why does God want us to tell him what we want, when presumably he knows all about it? But Mee isn't raising those issues. He's just offended by the idea of asking God for help with a mundane daily problem. I'm not. One of the great things about God is that he actually cares about our trivial, mundane problems. That was part of the point of the Incarnation, after all--for God to understand what it is like to deal with hunger, boredom, mosquitos, paper cuts, annoying relatives, etc. etc.
What does offend me in the anecdote is the fact that a banker is praying that his clients will get their mortgage. Isn't the banker the one who decides whether they will get the mortgage? Even if the individual banker doesn't decide, surely the lending institution he works for and represents makes the decision. So how can he get away with sloughing it off on God, as if it's a matter of divine will?! Take responsibility for your own actions, for pete's sake.
Or if this banker feels constrained by the lending rules established by his bank and is concerned about doing God's work, he should be looking for ways to make the credit system more responsive to the needs of the poor and the marginalized--battling against red-zoning, for instance, or supporting subsidized lending initiatives in undeprivileged neighborhoods.
There's another issue which would concern me as a Christian. That's the question of when it's prudent to pray in public. It would be repugnant for a bank to develop a reputation as an "evangelical" institution which only welcomes Christians. (I don't doubt that there are such banks in certain parts of the country.) Such clubby exclusivity would be anathema to Jesus, I think. For this reason, if I were a banker I would be very hesitant to prayer with my customers--at least, as a routine thing.
But praying privately at work is very different. I sometimes ask God to help me do a good job, especially when I'm tackling something I find psychologically or emotionally hard. For instance, when I'm driving to Long Island to work on an educational video, if I'm feeling tired or nervous (which is often the case), I'll pray to God to help me teach well and thereby connect with my future students who will watch the tape. I don't know for sure whether God literally intervenes, but praying like that usually ends up making me feel better, and I think I do a better job as a result.
It's a shame that the whole notion of prayer has gotten so closely associated in many people's minds with self-righteous right-wingers who resemble the hypocrites Jesus constantly criticized. Despite what folks like Mee and Levin assume, praying for help from God isn't necessarily an act of superstition or showboating. (Except of course when it is.)