Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing--and How We Can Revive Them

Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing--and How We Can Revive Them


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In a rapidly changing culture, many of us struggle to talk about faith. We can no longer assume our friends understand words such as grace or gospel. Others, like lost and sin, have become so negative they are nearly conversation-enders. 

     Jonathan Merritt knows this frustration well. After moving from the Bible Belt to New York City, he discovered that the sacred terms he used to describe his spiritual life didn’t connect as they had in the past.  This launched him into an exploration of an increasing American reluctance to talk about faith—and the data he uncovered revealed a quiet crisis of affecting millions. 

     In this groundbreaking book, Jonathan revives ancient expressions through incisive cultural commentary, vulnerable personal narratives, and surprising biblical insights. Both provocative and liberating, Learning to Speak God from Scratch will breathe new life into your spiritual conversations and invite you into the embrace of the God who inhabits them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601429308
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 306,622
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Merritt is one of America’s most prolific religion and culture writers. An award-winning contributor for The Atlantic, he has published thousands of articles in outlets such as USA Today, Buzzfeed, and The Washington Post. As a sought after commentator, Jonathan has appeared on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, and NPR. He holds two graduate degrees in religion and resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Read an Excerpt


Sacred Words in Crisis

Winter arrived late the year I relocated to Brooklyn, which meant I had a little extra time to enjoy New York City's autumn magic. Some days, I picked my way around my neighborhood with the goal of getting lost and striking up conversations with fascinating strangers. I once chatted with a girl who managed Barbie's social-media accounts for a living. Another day, I listened to the tales of a ninety-two-year-old woman who served as a nurse in World War II.

On chilly nights, I snuck onto my rooftop wrapped in a down comforter. Sitting under a low, dark sky, I stared for hours at the brightly lit windows of apartment buildings and commercial skyscrapers, and then concocted stories about the people I spotted.

The man sitting next to the four-foot-tall pile of file folders who hadn't gotten up from his desk in more than an hour? He lost his soul mate in a traffic accident and worked late nights to self-medicate.

The young woman thumbing through a stack of paper at her kitchen table? An associate editor at a high-powered publishing house convinced she just discovered the next Harry Potter series.

The pacing guy who seemed to be talking to himself? He was rehearsing his lines for a Broadway theater audition the next morning.

Or so I imagined.

As I settled into my big-city life, enchantment waited around every corner. I loved the way the ruby sunsets bounced off the sapphire surface of the East River. I almost fainted when I ran into my favorite Saturday Night Live cast member in the security line at LaGuardia Airport. Oh, and what about that time Snoop Dogg showed up to deejay at my friend's birthday party?

But the autumn magic did not linger long. Winter fell on the city like a hammer, and I was unprepared for the season's harshness. A winter coat in Georgia is an autumn jacket in New York. On far too many days, I found myself tripping through muddy snowdrifts in wet pants and soaked shoes. Most New Yorkers hibernate indoors during the frigid months, and because I hadn't made many friends yet, the coldest days were also the loneliest. Each morning I woke to yet another gray sky, the depression inched closer like a lion stalking prey.

Miserable and on the verge of admitting that my move had been a terrible mistake, I reinvested in my search for New York's magic. I ventured down to my favorite coffee shop and sat near a window, where I watched snowflakes fall. The white powder enchants even the darkest corners of the city and has the power to lift the fog of my soul.

On my darkest days, I would order a latte and an almond croissant, then unfold an old-school ink-and-paper version of the New York Times. (When in Rome and whatnot.) I'd flip to the opinion section, a personal favorite, where I'd search for David Brooks's latest. He wrote a column that year titled "What Our Words Tell Us," which revealed something about the language barrier that so many people of faith have encountered.

Brooks constructed his argument on Google's Ngram statistics, a collection of millions of books, newspapers, and printed materials published between 1500 and 2008. This is, by far, the largest collection of literature in the history of the world. With a few keystrokes, anyone with internet access can search how frequently different words were used in literature at any point in human history. What Brooks found is that we're not speaking God as much these days as we once were.

In the Western world, religious and moral terms have significantly declined over the course of the twentieth century. One study in the Journal of Positive Psychology analyzed fifty terms associated with moral virtue using Google Ngram data. They discovered that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century.

"Grace" ... declined.

"Mercy" ... declined.

"Wisdom" ... declined.

"Faith" ... declined.

"Sacrifice" ... declined.

"Honesty" ... declined.

"Righteousness" ... declined.

"Evil" ... declined.

One might expect meaty theological terms like atonement or sanctification to fade, but basic moral and religious words are also falling out of use.

Language about the virtues Christians call the fruit of the Spirit — words like love, patience, gentleness, and faithfulness — has become much rarer. Humility words, like modesty, fell by 52 percent. Compassion words, like kindness, dropped by 56 percent. Gratitude words, like thankfulness, declined by 49 percent. I don't know about you, but I miss these words and the virtues they express.

Ngram data is complicated and susceptible to misinterpretation, of course. But it suggests that our society's difficulty with speaking God is not a recent problem. This sweeping cultural shift stretches back at least a half century.

* * *

My Barna poll demonstrated that less than half of all Americans speak God regularly. But what was holding people back? I decided to take a closer look at those who speak God infrequently — only a few spiritual conversations in the last 365 days — to uncover the obstacles. When asked why they didn't have more spiritual conversations, respondents offered some surprising answers.

The most common reasons given for not engaging in conversations about religion and spirituality appear to fall into three broad categories: indifference, ignorance, and avoidance.

Nearly a quarter of respondents said, "I'm not religious and I don't care about these kinds of topics" (23 percent). Much ink has been spilled by cultural commentators explaining why fewer Americans are affiliating with religion these days — they feel religion is often judgmental, hypocritical, unwelcoming of doubts, oppressive to women, opposed to science. Regardless of their motivations, they are apathetic about religious language because religion itself is unimportant to them. And people don't talk about what they don't care about.

Indifference to sacred speech has a built-in positive feedback mechanism. As people become more apathetic about religious conversations, the topic of spirituality comes up less frequently. People are less apt to identify spiritual forces at work or wonder about a "higher being" or even discuss morality. Unless something is done to stoke interest in spiritual matters, apathy will become a driving force in the death spiral of spiritual speech.

In addition to lack of interest, some people avoid religious and spiritual conversations due to a lack of information. Seventeen percent of respondents said, "I don't feel like I know enough to talk about religious or spiritual topics." This answer implies a level of ignorance — that is, a lack of knowledge or exposure — for different reasons.

Given that the numbers are so high, I can only assume that some of the ignorance is shared among those who grew up religious but left, as well as those who still practice today. When I first received this data, I phoned my Christian friends to ask them how often they speak God in their daily lives. Most replied "rarely" or "almost never." When I asked them why not, they said they didn't know. Spiritual conversations just didn't come up, they told me. But I suspected more was going on.

Some admitted they felt confused about what spiritual words actually mean. In many cases, the confusion doesn't necessarily result from lack of knowledge or experience with speaking of God. Sometimes, it's the opposite. People in insular religious communities might have used some words so often they don't know what they mean anymore. The words have become shopworn and now slip through their fingers.

Before he died in 2015, theologian Marcus Borg noted that Christian words had lost their meaning and power in modern society — in part due to "Christian illiteracy." People were using words they didn't understand, he said. They had learned the twentieth-century cultural definitions of Christian language, but they had little exposure to the centuries of history behind these words.

"The problem is not simply unfamiliarity," Borg wrote. "Many of us have heard Christian language since childhood. If we are still part of the church, we continue to hear it in biblical readings, sermons, hymns, prayers, liturgies, and creeds. We are steeped in it."

Part of the problem in American society is the proliferation of Christianese, a term that refers to the common slang used inside Christian communities. These words do not always translate well in secular spaces or make sense to those from other religious traditions. Which means, ironically, that the word Christianese can itself be classified as Christianese.

Sometimes this term is assigned to sacred terms used by Christians throughout the centuries — sin, salvation, baptism, the blood of the Lamb. But most often the label is attributed to weird phrases that are unique to modern forms of Christianity but rarely or never appear in sacred texts or Church history.

Have you ever given a "love offering" or started a "prayer chain"? Have you asked God for "traveling mercies" or a "hedge of protection"? Do you ever talk about "doing life together" or "seeing the fruit" of someone's life? Have you ever had a "quiet time" or confronted someone with "truth in love" or labeled someone a "backslider"? If so, then you may be fluent in Christianese.

The reasons for disliking Christianese are legion and many are legitimate. These words and phrases give the appearance of authentic spirituality while fostering the opposite. Clichés, Christian or not, are unable to convey the true heart of an individual's story.

Christianese can also draw a troubling line between "insiders" and "outsiders." In his book Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals, William Graham Sumner demonstrated that as communal habits and customs (like the use of Christianese) form over time, an in-group develops favoritism toward other insiders and heaps contempt on outsiders. In this way, Christianese can nurture unhealthy perspectives among its speakers and create an unnecessary chasm for nonspeakers.

It's not just the strangeness of Christianese, but its familiarity, that is problematic.

I asked my friend Kathy what she meant when she said, "I asked Jesus into my heart." Where did the image of Jesus entering an artery and aorta come from, and what was she trying to express exactly? Kathy paused in confusion — she had never been asked that before. Finally, she said this phrase meant she's "saved." What did the word saved mean, I asked her?

Kathy looked confused for a moment. "Saved," she explained, meant she'd accepted God's "gift of grace." But what does that "gift" mean, I pressed. Exasperated, she circled back, "It means that I asked Jesus into my heart!"

My questions didn't invalidate my friend's sincere belief system. But many people — even devout believers who speak God with apparent ease — define religious words using religious words. A series of questions about what they mean leads back to where the discussion began.

No wonder spiritual language can feel so awkward.

Most people's lives teach them that language — whether sung or spoken — is important. The words we choose and the way we use them matters. But we do not often quiet ourselves long enough to ask, What am I saying when I'm saying what I'm saying?

* * *

In addition to indifference and ignorance, many respondents said they shrink back and avoid spiritual conversations for various reasons. Some said speaking God always seems to create tension or arguments (28 percent), while others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent). In this tense cultural climate, you've probably encountered social conflict due to talking about religion or politics or some combination of the two.

Others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent), or seem extreme (5 percent). Maybe you had a neighbor stop talking to you because she was put off by your religiosity, or perhaps a coworker avoids you because he is afraid you're going to douse him with spiritual-speak.

In total, a whopping 63 percent of respondents fell into the avoidance category, saying they steered clear of such dialogue, albeit for various reasons.

Even a lifelong God-speaker like me can empathize with the reasons some people avoid spiritual conversations.

The Politicization of Sacred Words

For every American who is reticent to speak God, there is an American politician with the opposite problem. Sacred language has been politicized, which is why many people say they are abandoning it.

Turn on your television in any election season, and you'll likely hear a candidate speaking God. The ubiquity of religious language in political speeches is an American tradition, but the way these words are twisted for partisan ends can leave you holding clumps of your own hair.

During election years, political hopefuls make appearances at influential churches, often offering invocations or even preaching sermons. On the campaign trail, politicians co-opt the vocabulary of faith to attract religious voting blocs. Their words may seem harmless or coincidental, but many point out that these appeals are often used as dog whistles that the faithful respond to.

In 1999, when I was a senior in high school, George W. Bush released a book as he made his bid for the presidency called A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House. To the nonreligious ear, the title may sound poetic, perhaps innocuous, but its meaning is clear. Drawn from the Charles Wesley hymn "A Charge to Keep I Have," in which the first stanza reads,

A charge to keep I have,
Neither the hymn nor its themes are the subject of Bush's book. But the title proved recognizable to many Christians. Before I flipped to the first page, I felt like this George Bush guy must be "one of us."

President Bush continued to use religious language and hymnology regularly while he was in office. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, he identified "wonder-working power" in the values of the American people. The secular audience might have appreciated the alliteration but little more. Yet many Christians recognized the famous hymn, which declares there's "wonder-working power" in the blood of Jesus.

Donald Trump carried on the tradition of becoming more outwardly religious when running for office. Because of his well-documented personal history, his attempts have been more noticeable and more awkward than those of his predecessors. The real estate mogul–turned-politician confessed he's never actually asked God for forgiveness. Even his church denied he was an active member. Yet Trump played the Christian card with impunity. He waved his Bible at a voter rally and accused the IRS of auditing him because of his religion. On his first National Day of Prayer, Trump stumbled through a religious speech and jokingly asked the nation to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger's low ratings on The Apprentice.

From Ronald Reagan and both Bushes to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, presidents of both major parties have used sacred language with the seeming intent to manipulate and mobilize the electorate. This is an American political tradition. But when high-profile politicians speak God in the most perfunctory manner possible, it's no wonder supporters and opponents alike avoid speaking God altogether. Many Americans are put off by the way the vocabulary of faith has been manipulated for political ends.

The Exploitation of Sacred Words

Religious leaders who mishandle or misuse sacred words can deeply damage people's lives.

Consider Danielle Campoamor. After being physically abused by her husband, her pastor told her that she just needed to "pray more." She started to realize that trusted church leaders had used sacred language to control her family. Words that hurt Danielle over the years included being labeled as a "doubter" (an epithet in her community) and a "nonbeliever" (even worse). When she asked questions about her faith, she was accused of "missing the point."

Danielle quit religion altogether and concluded, "the Christian faith has failed to lead by example. It's failed to stand for its principles. By positing itself and its followers as the purveyors of the moral high ground, it's allowed cowardice in the face of blatant immorality. It happened when my pastor came face to face with an abused woman. It happened when a Christian friend called me a murderer after I had an abortion at 23. It happens now, today."


Excerpted from "Learning To Speak God From Scratch"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan Merritt.
Excerpted by permission of Convergent.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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