If you pay attention to the many sorts of Christian voices on social media you may know journalist and pundit Jonathan Merritt. He has won awards for writing for The Atlantic and has been one of our most prolific religion and culture writers. He shows up on serious TV shows on networks as diverse as CNN, Fox News, and NPR and has been published by The New York Times and The Washington Post. His recent podcast (co-hosted with Kristen Powers) is called The Faith Angle and has a huge, passionate following. Regardless of your own theological tradition or political bias, he is an author you should know. His new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them (Convergent) will release mid-August. It regularly sells for $15.99 but we have it at a BookNotes special sale price of $12.79. If you PRE-ORDER it now we will send it to you FREE SHIPPING. We will continue to sell this great new book at our 20% off deal, but will pay the shipping costs for you only if you order it before the release date on August 14, 2018.
We are eager to let our diverse Hearts & Minds tribe – what else to call us? “Customers” is too clinical; “Fan base” sounds cool but is a bit much; “demographic” (please no!) – about some of our favorite writers and trust that whether you’ll fully agree with them, you’ll appreciate hearing important voices and learning about significant authors.
Well, if I have a hard time finding words to describe our bookish community nowadays, sensing that words like customers or fans or readers mean different things to different people and may or may not fully capture all we’re trying to do among those who read our reviews and support our work, then Jonathan Merritt has an even bigger quandary on his hands.
As you can tell from the title and important sub-title of his soon-to-be-released Learning to Speak God from Scratch:Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them is exactly about how the meanings of ancient religious expressions and previously understood sacred terms are up for grabs in much of post-modern America. Heck, forget the hip and diverse postmodern enclaves of Brooklyn, RINO in Denver, Portlandia, or keeping it weird Austin, even in fairly white-bread, middle-American small towns the older religious consensus is long gone. We don’t have to rehearse here the contours of our post-Christian age (and will only give a quick shout-out about our BookNotes review a few weeks ago of the very thoughtful cultural study Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.)
In this great new Speaking God book, Mr. Merritt tells a bit of his own story. His father has long been a major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention and Jonathan grew up devout, deep in the Bible belt. He went to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and although he has moved significantly to the more mainline Protestant tradition/ethos and in some ways to the political left, he still maintains great respect for his conservative theological roots and the broadly evangelical vision of a robust personal faith rooted in the Biblical story about the saving work of Jesus Christ. In the last few years his voice has been increasingly recognized as a fresher, more culturally engaged evangelical one, offering a younger, perhaps more open-minded perspective within emerging, new evangelicalism. But then he moved from the south to the secularized and diverse New York City and now seems to be the very embodiment of the truth from the Judy Garland movie line, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.)
Jonathan isn’t the first to try to translate historic Christian ideas and ideas into fresh language that even the spiritually-alienated might appreciate. Older writers have done this recently as well – just think of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by the contemplative Kathleen Norris, or the popular “dictionaries” Wishful Thinking and Whistling in the Dark by clever Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner, or Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Power by Marcus Borg. We still carry the under-utilized Talking the Walk: Letting Christian Language Live Again by our friend Marva Dawn. Even the elegant Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book called Speaking of Sin.
Jonathan Meritt’s guidebook is more groundbreaking, though, it seems to me, as he is both deeply evangelical in his background and is exceptionally aware of and a part of the younger post-Christian milieu that is shaped by a wild pluralism.That is, he has found from experience, in his Brooklyn neighborhood and in his working relationships with contemporary journalists, writers, and rising media stars, that we simply cannot assume people know what we mean when we use phrases from theology or church life. And he knows of scores of people who maybe have heard (or once believed) certain theological phrases or religious notions but have grown confused as those words are weaponized and used to exclude and marginalize. He really gets that and has earned the right to be heard on this re-thinking of the words we use to express faith’s dearest truths.
Just the other day I had a moving conversation with a campus ministry worker who had a young collegiate join her Bible study on the gospel of Luke; this lovely young student was shocked – shocked! – to find out that people wanted to hurt Jesus. Wait; what? she cried. When one fellow student said to her that they not only were angered by Jesus but, later in the story, actually killed him, my friend quipped: and just wait to you hear what happened next!
Despite the ubiquity of national civil religion, celebrities giving shout-outs to God during awards show, chatter about so-called faith leaders supporting the President, and popular Christmas and Easter celebrations (and TV specials) it is sobering to know that many don’t know a thing about the basic facts about the life of Jesus. What people pick up from the media is piecemeal and convoluted, as best. Forget talking about most Biblical stories or grace or sin or covenant or Reformed this or that, or Wesley or Ignatius, or the many in-house words we use to describe our church facilities or ministerial positions. (Do you really think people want to meet in the narthex to be introduced to the vestry or session? Or, conversely, do you think folks get that when you talk about your worship band on a stage that they have a clue that this means something more or other than what is experienced at a standard rock show?) If they are confused about the lingo we use in our churches, imagine what happens when we start talking about more important, deeper, words of sacred meaning and substance?
So, it’s complicated. Urgently so. And Jonathan uses his great gift as a storyteller (who has his fingers to the pulse of the generation John Seel calls “the New Copernicans”) to explore the conundrums of contemporary communication and guide us towards helpful ways to breathe new life into your spiritual conversations. Or to perhaps equip you with deeper confidence to have conversations about things that matter most.
One reviewer of an advanced copy of Learning to Speak God from Scratch writes that:
For too long, people have been left out of conversations that hold life-or-death weight, especially about who God is, because of a cultural language barrier. If the message you love is worth it, this book is for you.
Is the message of the gospel important enough to you to wish to be able to talk to unchurched friends and co-workers in ways that they understand?
Jonathan writes with uncommon eloquence, curiosity, and compassion about the ever-evolving role of religion and faith in our culture, with the hard-earned wisdom of one who’s been both scarred and healed.
That puts it well, which is what makes this book so good – not only the illustrations and stories but Merritt’s own character, forged by this very stuff. (A wonderful earlier book called A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars shows his early ruminations on this; more recently he wrote the lovely Jesus is Better Than You Imagined which, again, helps express good news to the unchurched skeptic who may still yet be curious about things of faith or those who reject the gospel because of the legalism and harshness of the Christian right.) His podcast colleague and friend Kirsten Powers, a USA Today columnist and CNN political analyst, assures us that the new book is engaging and “will appeal equally to the devout and the spiritually alienated.”
I couldn’t agree more.
That promise from Powers is important and says something about Merritt’s heart, his proclivities, his talents: he really does want to see the gospel proclaimed in relevant and contextualized ways here in the post-Christian West, especially among some who have developed allergies to our God-talk. He does want us to be able to get around those biases and barriers that keep people from caring about the plausibility of a real and rigorous faith. He knows that words like sin or lost have become so negative that they can end conversations. But he really does want to revive our sacred language and historic words, not scuttle them or redefine them beyond recognizable meaning.
In a way, this book is the result of Jonathan’s on-going project of exploring the American reluctance to talk about faith, good stuff that he’s discovered about what people do and don’t know about conventional Christian faith and what people do and don’t respond to in conversations about religion. There’s data, too (that he commissioned with questions he helped design with Barna Group’s Roxanne Stone and David Kinnamen.) Merritt explains and evaluates findings that “reveals a quiet crisis effecting millions.” I want to suggest this isn’t only a fun and interesting and useful book, but that it is urgent, important, necessary.
Jonathan is a good thinker and great writer. He draws on lots of sources, sharing personal episodes from his own life and faith journey but also on other scholars and thought leaders, ancient and modern. For instance, the book opens with two epigrams that invite us to his vital project.
The always astute David Brooks puts it succinctly:
Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.
And from American Public Radio, the beloved Krista Tippett gives the perfect precis of the book:
A lot of the words we need the most have been watered down by overuse and cliché in politics and culture, and this includes words that are very meaningful for many Christians: love, peace, faith, and justice, to name a few. I don’t think we can expect these words to necessarily convey what we mean when we say them, so we must surround them with an ecosystem of vocabulary – and both words and practices – to carry the richness of our meanings when the words themselves need reviving.
The first six short chapters are really, really, good, as Jonathan explores the nature of this crisis of our sacred words. There’s a chapter that is very important called “Why Speaking God Matters” and another (that I wish I had written) called “Our Divine Linguaphile.” (Yep, let that sink in!) He offers a chapter called “How (Not) to Speak God and another few on the possibility of a revival of our speech and a way forward. These first 60 some pages are fantastic, will be both entertaining and make you think. You don’t even have to agree with his assessment, of course, but I’m sure you will resonate with much of this.
The next 20 chapters are short reflections on key words, each coupled with a fabulously creative and pithy subtitle/by-line that is nearly alone worth the price of the book. For instance, in a chapter called “Pain” the sub-title is “Chronic Conditions and Other Metaphors” and in one called “God” the by-line is “Tattooed Jesus and a Full-Narrative Deity.” Who wouldn’t want to read a chapter called “Blessed – Hollow Hashtags and Marble Toilets.” You’ve got to read “Family – Changing Households from Munsters to Dunphys.” I really liked the one on “Brokenness” with the by-line “Reparative Therapy and Our Aversion to Responsibility.” His storytelling shines in “Confession – Internet Vulnerability and Grace the Doorman.”
In Merritt’s description of the theological word “fall” he describes “Scientific Quandaries and the Beauty of You.” In the chapter called “Lost” he writes of “Microaggressions and Our Common Condition.” From “Grace” to “Pride” to “Spirit” to “Creed” (subtitled “Heresy Hunters and Twitter Farewells”) and on through a lovely chapter on “Neighbor”( described as “Mister Rogers and the Global Refugee Crisis”) he does this marvelous, magical thing, talking about classic theological words, vulnerably sharing stories and anecdotes, and offering new ways to hint at solid truths and deep mysteries to those for whom these words do not have orthodox Christian meaning. He’s a theologian working from pop culture, political affairs, and the everyday “hopes and fears of all the years” that point us to the truths of Biblical faith. From “tiptoe terms” to “pronoun wars” to “necessary nos” he offers us wonderful, stimulating essays that are well worth reading and well worth sharing. Speaking God would make a great book club selection – I know there will be parts you simply will have to discuss with others.
There is a wonderful, wonderful and vitally important concluding chapter – more substantive than a conclusion, but with the emotional satisfaction of a beautiful afterword – called “In the Beginning Was the Conversation.” Jonathan follows that up with an appendix-like “How-To Guide for Seekers and Speakers.” This is just great stuff.
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