It’s happened a million and one times. I’m getting my nails done, picking up take-out, or making small talk in the line at the post office. Someone will ask where I work, and I’ll get to tell them about all the brilliant people I know at Duke, the students I love, and the church people I learn from at every interview. But I find myself qualifying the words Divinity School with words like historian, study, and research. I need people to know that while I am a professional ponderer and researcher, Christianity has not made me shallow or obsolete.
Maybe it happens to you, too. Around the Thanksgiving table, at the supermarket, or in a taxi. Maybe speaking honestly about your faith feels a little odd. Which words are appropriate to use with this stranger, or this friend?
Talking about our faith (or doubts!) means navigating a cultural landscape of divergent belief, where even the word “God” can evoke pain and comfort in equal measure. And while I am not ashamed of my faith or my God, it can be so risky to go deeper than polite, tepid discourse.
For many of us, talking about our faith is a strange endeavor. We are losing a common, sacred vocabulary. What happens to a generation who might feel limited or afraid of speaking about God?
How can we describe our faith without resorting to “Christianese,” full of sentences like “I am saved by faith in the forgiveness of my sins on the cross”?
How can we broaden our understandings of words we think we know, like “mercy” or “grace”?
How can someone who has been hurt by the church rediscover sacred words?
Jonathan tackles what he calls “spiritual lockjaw” head on. Through a mix of sociological research, personal anecdote and theological reflection, Jonathan unpacks three reasons modern people of faith fail to engage sacred language: indifference, ignorance, and avoidance.
If you don’t already know Jonathan, get your coffee and your notebook ready. I guarantee time will collapse after a few clicks or pages into his writing, and you will surface hours later with more knowledge about the wild things happening in American faith than you thought one brain could hold.
And lest we decry that the internet is poisoning the porous cavities of young minds with cat videos and circular comment-wars, Jonathan’s research actually reveals that more millennials are having conversations about spirituality than any other generation.
Words shape our perception of how we move in the world. What are we really saying when we use words like “brokenness,” “lost,” “saint,” or my favorite, “blessed”? How can we recognize and deconstruct words saturated with 20th century cultural meaning, and engage the past and future of sacred language? As Jonathan writes, “Words are fires we carry to each other, but the embers do not originate with us. They were handed to us by messengers from generations past, and now we pass them onto others.”
Learning to Speak God from Scratch empowers me with the imagination and courage to revive some of this sacred speech in my own life. What will it do for you?
Learning to Speak God from Scratch is available August 2018 from Convergent Books. Pre-order now!
Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning writer on religion, culture and politics. He currently writes for The Atlantic, The Week, and is a senior columnist for Religion News Service. As a respected voice, he regularly contributes commentary to television, print, and radio news outlets and has been interviewed by ABC World News, NPR, CNN, PBS, MSNBC, Fox News, and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”