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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781601429308
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 66,742
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.

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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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing--and How We Can Revive Them 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
PAE123 9 months ago
Recently Jonathan Merritt sent me an email letting me know about his recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We CanRevive Them. I was intrigued, but paused for a few seconds before buying the book because I was already in the midst of several book launches and had another book or two slated for review. I am so glad I hit the button to buy the book. If you were to look at my copy (not likely), you would discover it is liberally highlighted and there are numerous flags on pages I especially want to revisit. That says a lot about how this book has provoked a lot of thought. Beyond that, it has inspired and challenged me to contemplate words with fresh eyes and understanding (especially sacred words). As believers we tend to know a fair number of sacred words. The bravest of us speak them with regularity, but Jonathan Merritt’s new book exposes a truth we need to consider carefully. How often do we really use such words, feel comfortable with our understanding of their meaning, or have a clue about how often we speak or write in such religious clichés that the words have lost their significance to us and are hard to interpret for others. This book was a treasure trove whose pages I will revisit often.
battlecryleader87 10 months ago
Jonathan Merritt is incredibly smart and a brilliant author! In this book, he tackles the topic of spiritual language and conversation, which quite frankly isn’t something that I would have known needed to be written about, but he sheds light on this important matter that all people of faith need to be thinking about!
KBShank80 10 months ago
Possibly, the greatest misstep in the church today is the silence amongst its people. In Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Jonathan Merritt combats the silence amongst Christians, the loss of their sacred words, and the deafness with which they use their words to exclude the people they’re trying to reach. Identifying 20 sacred words, held closely within the church, Merritt identifies the importance of each word for the church and its believers. He couples scripture and language study, with biblical study to identify the value of each word, its significance within scripture, and how it fits within our current culture. Merritt’s primary purpose is to encourage believers to speak about their faith, about the God they believe, and the words they cherish. He desires a reversal of the declining faith language within the church and world. He challenges believers to consider their words and the reasons they often hold back. This book gives a full view of the power of words with regards to faith. Christians can reach people and repel them with the same words. This book causes readers to consider how their most sacred words are received by others. It also asks the question of why we choose not to speak words of faith with the greater world. Although some of his statements are challenging to closely-held Evangelical traditions, the truth and love with which he shares these statements creates an opportunity for genuine conversation. These are the types of conversations needed greatly right now. Merritt’s book provides a starting point to important conversations. Without words do Christians know what they believe? Can they share their faith with anyone else? This book offers the challenge we need to consider faith within the culture we live.
KHartman 10 months ago
In the 70's, growing up in the south in a small, conservative church, I never gave a thought about sacred words--they were just used as weapons to make others feel guilty, myself included. I still avoid some of those words because they bring bad memories, pain, and judgment to mind every time I hear them. Years later, I am thankful that most of our sacred words do not mean what we were taught, or they have developed new connotations ("matured"), making it easier to have spiritual conversations with friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. Using personal experiences, vivid descriptions, analogies, and humor, Jonathan takes us on a journey to discover how sacred words can be revived so that we can be empowered and equipped to have spiritual conversations with others. Jonathan is young enough to be aware of cultural dynamics, educated enough to share Biblical scripture to endorse his thoughts, and grace-filled enough to think and act as Jesus would in our world today. As a mom of millenials, Jonathan's research shows "millenials are having more conversations about religion or spirituality than any other generation." I am so encouraged by this! My children have diverse groups of friends, and this age group seems more likely to be tolerant, sensitive, and open-minded. "Learning to Speak God From Scratch" will make a great gift for them! I received an advance copy of the book and am well into my second reading. I rushed through it first because I couldn't wait to read the next page. This time, I'm savoring it, highlighter and pen in hand. The copy I bought will go to my child. Blessings as you read and savor this amazing book.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Jonathan Merritt has put together a book that is inspiring, thought-provoking and convicting all at the same time. In Learning to Speak God from Scratch Jonathan makes an excellent argument for reclaiming words that have been misused in our Christian vernacular. Words that have developed vastly different meanings or have been misused. It is hard to pick just one part of this book that spoke to me, but I must confess that his chapter Blessed: Hollow Hashtags and Marble Toilets was a convicting one. I believe the word Blessed more than any other word he covered caused me to realize that there are words I have stopped using as a result of their misuse in the broader Christian community. This is a book that has the potential to challenge and change the reader if they will allow it. Through specifically that one word "Blessed" it has challenged me to once again begin to use words that I had put to the side. As with anything we lay aside for too long learning to use some of these words again can feel awkward and contrived, but Johathan provides immense hope and even guidance in his writing. Along with his challenge to reclaim the words that we have laid aside, there are tools that he points his readers to that will assist them should they choose to rise to that challenge. This review contains my own opinions after receiving and reading an advance copy.
EmilyBoyMom 10 months ago
Alright, I am only giving this 5 stars because there's not more! I think this book is long overdue and brings to light many of the questions we all have about talking about God and faith in the world we live in. Jonathan weaves together stories of his upbringing as a pastor's kid, adult with questions and issues like us all, and the stories of those who have been alienated or excluded from knowing Jesus because of His followers' ineptitude or shortcomings. If you believe in anything, you ought to be able to articulate it, yes? If you want to do so, this book is for you. From linguistic studies, research on the power of prayer, conflicts as to how/why the state of religion is what it is to everything in between, Jonathan gives a well-balanced challenge to us all-- start from scratch and learn as much about God as you can, THEN share about your faith and what it means to you. Don't shy away from tough conversations or give in to the pressure of those who believe differently than you--use that opportunity to learn--and perhaps we will see that the end result is exactly what God asked of us: to grow the Kingdom by loving one another. This is a timely, well thought out collection of thoughts that will call you out, make you sad, encourage you with hope, and explain some of the real reasons we're not always ready or able to share about who God is to us. Of course, you don't have to agree with everything in order to weigh its value in a conversation. Don't be afraid to talk about God. Re-calibrate, restore and redeem words that we've forgotten or neglected. Read the Scriptures and understand the context. I read so much that occasionally books can seem similar, but this is not the case for "Learning To Speak God from Scratch." Starkly original, it feels like you're having a coffee conversation with someone much older than his years, yet wise beyond them. I looked so forward to reading this each evening that I am now saddened that I've finished it and (until I get his other work) there won't be any new moments to share with my honest friend Jonathan. I am seeking out his other books and will continue to recommend this read to family and friends. I received an ARC copy from Convergent books. All opinions are my own.