What to Read When You Can’t Talk About God

posted in: Faith, Resources | 14

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?

Insert Jonathan Merritt’s new book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch.

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.”

14 Responses

  1. Kit Carlson

    Those of us in the mainline, the “frozen chosen” Episcopalians, Presbyterians, UCC, etc., have always had a problem speaking about faith. That’s why I wrote “Speaking Our Faith: Equipping the Next Generations to Tell the Old, Old Story.” (Church Publishing, 2018) I heard Jonathan Merritt at the Festival of Faith and Writing and I think we are both trying to address this thorny problem of using “God” words in a secular culture.

  2. Jim

    From my lazy-boy recliner (if only they were in style again) our so-called culture synonymously creating the playground with so many playground safety and behavioral rules, that by the time you end up reading them all, playtime is over and it’s time to go home. The result is the sanctity and simplicity of having fun and just being a kid was robbed.

    Such is the case with being transparent. True human authenticity is in reality not celebrated. It has in the last 10 years been culturally suffocated and put in time-out. It’s not safe to be authentic. Being culturally sensitive, politically correct, spirtually sensitive/pluralistic – has robbed the celebration of just being an authentic human. (Exhale…I’ll pause so I don’t get going here.)

    True authenticity can be thorny and uncomfortable. And like this rambling post, can even be slightly off-topic and in the hope of grace-filled ears.

    • Diane Stranz

      I completely agree with Jim that there is no need to “learn how to talk about God” if you 1) have a genuine personal relationship with God, 2) refuse to be anyone but your genuine, true self at all times, and 3) respond to people you encounter with openness, transparency and authenticity.

      Most people who self-identify as Christian do not actually pray the prayers God desires and answers (i.e., a prayer asking God to show them how they need to change in order to be the person He wants them to be; a prayer asking God to conform their characters into that of Christ so that they can grow in holiness and, thus, become more capable of establishing God’s Kingdom on Earth; a prayer that communicates, “Thy will be done, not my own; so please help me perceive what You want and need for me to do, Lord”).

      This sort of private personal prayer — to God the Father, not himself, the Son — is what Jesus was attempting to model when he said the prayer we now memorize and recite as The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9). It would never have been Jesus’s intent that we memorize his personal address to God — as beautiful and meaningful as it is — in order to recite it by rote, repeatedly, while deluding ourselves that we are somehow, thus, ‘engaging in prayer’. Jesus was illustrating the SPONTANEOUS, HEARTFELT way he addressed God, sharing with God the thoughts that were in his mind and heart, and those thoughts were primarily, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” The only thought for himself was that minimum needs be met, so he could continue doing God’s will: “Give us this day our daily bread, protect us from temptation, help us forgive others as You forgive us.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get my drift.

      Note, Kate, how absolutely opposite this is from any heartfelt prayer ever made by those who subscribe to the Prosperity Doctrine! (And they wonder why their prayers for blessings go unanswered. God is not our genie in a bottle who exists to fulfill our desires! Our fulfillment lies in the advancement of His will on earth — period. That is what it means to lay down your life and pick up your cross as Jesus did.)

      Personal prayer is the only way to establish a genuine relationship with God, and someone with a genuine relationship with God will not feel self-conscious talking to others about Him when it is appropriate and comes up naturally in conversation.

      Finally, with regard to your promotion of Jonathan Merritt’s new book. I read part of Merritt’s book ‘Green Like God,’ and he appears to be a thorough researcher and an able, engaging writer — but the hypocrisy with which he has dealt with Azariah Southworth’s outing of his homosexual tendencies [see the Aug. 12, 2012 Salon editorial by Southworth titled, “Why I Outed A Christian Star”] bothers me greatly.

      Merritt says he was sexually abused as a young boy and that this damage has caused him to develop homosexual appetites — which is completely understandable. A large amount of homosexuality results from the psychological damage caused by some form of early abuse or neglect, and Merritt deserves nothing but sympathy, understanding and compassion for having been so victimized. Horribly, sexual abuse is rampant in the world.

      I understand Merritt’s reluctance to speak publicly about something so personal and private — but, still, it was he who chose to go to the media to tell ‘his side of the story,’ yet instead of telling the truth, he ‘spun’ and downplayed what happened to keep his homosexual tendencies hidden and in order to maintain his evangelical following. This strikes me as hypocritical, and unworthy of a man of God.

      Bottom line: do we want to learn about how to speak about God from someone unable to be open and transparent about the facts of his own life? I’m just saying. I feel empathy and sorrow for anyone who feels shamed into living a lie — which means I feel empathy and sorrow for Jonathan Merritt, and I hope he makes time in his busy life for personal, private dialogue with God about this issue (as well as, probably, psychological counseling). But at the same time, I question his fitness, at this time, to be a public authority on topics central to a life of discipleship and personal relationship with God.

      • Rachel

        ” A large amount of homosexuality results from the psychological damage caused by some form of early abuse or neglect”

        That’s an interesting theory. And by “interesting” I mean “unsupported by scientific evidence, descriptive of your pre-existing bias, and representative of a mindset that is deeply harmful to an awful lot of real people out there in the world”.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Interesting post, and I’ll be looking for Jonathan’s book.

    Talking about God is something I do all the time, but my vocabulary’s really been changed by pancreatic cancer and non-H lymphoma. The old words didn’t mean anything; I had to word-picture their meanings into a woven strand while standing on a tightrope over the abyss, because that meaning was the only lifeline I could reach.

    And that meaning is a braided cable made of one material, the fact that ‘something’ was so important that God wouldn’t spare His own Son.

    We all have our Gethsemane Meltdowns when life seems like crap (literally – I didn’t now that pancreatic cancer came with incontinence, and would have preferred not to learn). But I think that the meaning comes from how we face the trial and the scourge and the Via Dolorosa. Cancer is the steel, pain the flint, and the spark of our dying is the birth of our Christ-life, if we’ll but nurture it.

    How do you nurture that spark? Easy to say, hard to do; just remember that it’s not about you, and that no matter how much illness does a high-gravity smashdown on your body and soul, you can still love. And love changes everything.

    And that’s how I talk about God

    Yeah, and I think I’ll read your book too, Kate.

  4. Ken Allison

    I just finished “Everything Happens for A Reason, and other lies”. I can not imagine how difficult it must be to deal with the “hand” you have been dealt.
    My suggestion is “don’t over-think it”. Consider the warning the author of Ecclesiastes has for his son, “of the writing of many books there is no end and great study is a weariness to the soul”. Festus tells Paul in Acts 26:24 that Paul’s great learning has made him crazy. Again, don’ t overthink it.
    I find great joy in a flower, a lake, a tree, a loving fuzzy cat and most of all in a wonderful wife, great kids and grandkids.
    My fate and destiny will be as God allows or directs and I can only surrender and be thankful for what He has provided.

  5. Erica

    I am currently reading your book-the audio version “Everything Happens for a Reason” and it is so heartful, so candid….

    This post is great because language is everything. It is definitely a torch we pass on as Jonathan states and so that we do not get our message mixed up and tossed away, it is important to be sensitive to one another and explains things using exact terms and not just the “Christianese” we know and understand. I will definitely have to get Jonathan’s book.

    Thank you!

  6. Leonard Braun

    Thanks for sharing your story in Guideposts. I’ve also had the good fortune of being born and raised in a southern Manitoba Mennonite community. I’m much inspired by how you deal with your circumstances.

  7. Maureen

    Yes, agree with Leonard. Thank you for Guideposts inclusion. So brave and strong you are, Kate, and such a positive mentor for others. What more could you impart in Life? Thank you!

  8. Wendy

    I wish I knew you. I love you though. Thank you for being and for being present. Thank you for your courage and your kindness. Thank you for showing me what incurable optimism looks like in action. I hope you know how unique you are. You make humanity better.

  9. katy

    I read a short note from Bill Gates telling us about your book: Everything happens for a reason…, I am part of a book club for the past 28 years and decided to suggest it to my friends. We will be discussing the book this Friday evening, I will send you another note after our meeting. I was marveled by the quality of the writing, and admired your courage to go forward. Glad to know you.

  10. Ann O'Malley

    I’ve always struggled with how to talk to others about God. I blame it on my evangelical background. (Yes, it’s also my own social awkwardness, but it’s nice to have someone else to blame, too!) Most of my fellow evangelicals stress talking about the gospel (You’re a sinner. You can’t save yourself. You need Jesus.) to the exclusion of any other conversation when they’re in the kinds of situations that you described.

    In forty-plus years, I’ve had very little instruction in evangelical churches (but a few good role models) on how to meet people where they are, how to listen to their questions and doubts, how to be honest about my own struggles in order to connect with them on a deeper level, rather than diving into a monologue on God’s saving grace after the first hello. My frustration with evangelicalism comes out in the title of my blog, “Those Who Weep: Not-Quite-Evangelically-Correct Thoughts on Suffering.”

    I so appreciate your openness and honesty in this article, and in “Everything Happens for a Reason.” I would definitely categorize your book as not evangelically correct, but biblical and helpful and well said. It has a power to touch hearts that doesn’t happen when we shy away from that honesty.

    I hadn’t connected the dots between the prosperity gospel and Christians’ hesitation in talking about pain and suffering, but it makes sense. It sounds like it’s not just evangelical correctness (as I’d thought), but the influence of the prosperity gospel that prevents us from allowing people to express their pain and doubts without trying to fix them. Thanks for sharing this insight.

  11. don salmon

    I thought I’d share a very different perspective about using Christian-based “God” language (I notice the blog post and the comments all assume – understandably! – that readers take for granted Christian language).

    I was born to a very secularized Jewish family, attended Unitarian church until age 11 when my parents, assented to my fervent wish to stop attending church all together.

    I had some run-ins with Plato, Kant, e e cummings and William Blake in my early to mid teens, but at age 17, I realized there was nothing in existence but God (panentheism, not pantheism, for the scholarly among us)

    The one thing I found – that astonished me – is that all the priests, ministers and rabbis I assiduously questioned over the next 6 to 7 years seemed very interested in the words used in this blog post but seemed to have not only no interest, but for the most part, utterly no clue as to what religious experience might be. I found it unfathomable at the time that they could have devoted their lives to “religion” without having any real interest in the Spirit.

    I have studied 10 years with an individual (former professor of philosophy) from the broad Indian tradition (“evolutionary panentheism,” if one wants an academic label), 2 years with Cynthia Bourgeault’s Sufi teacher, 1 year with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher of the Gelugpa order, 10 years of informal study of the Christian contemplative tradition with a priest at the Spanish Catholic Church where I was music director in the 1980s, and 12 years of tradition Advaita Vedanta study with a teacher who embraced the fact that I disagreed with most of the fundamentals of Advaita as being overly “illusionist.”

    One more background fact is relevant – most of the artists I associated with in New York City in the 70s and 80s were either atheists or what now is called “spiritual but not religious.” To the best of my knowledge, I never had a conversation with a religious fundamentalist until I moved to Greenville, SC in 2002. Hearing God language excessively used in the unctuous, self-righteous way I had heard it in the media and read it in books only served to strengthen my then-35+ year spiritual-but-not-religious orientation.

    I think for those who never felt drawn to the institutional church, God language as used by modern day Christians feels one dimensional, flat and without flavor.

    I understand now, having lived in the South for 17 years, that people who grew up in religious communities may have a genuine spiritual “feel” for this language, as clearly evidenced both in this blog post and in the comments as well. Honestly, I do. And I apologize if what I write is difficult.

    But the world is in such terrible shape, if we don’t figure out how to speak of That, of the infinite vastness which we are and are not, which embraces and goes beyond all that we perceive and so foolishly label as the “physical” universe (do you know that as of this day, there is not one contemporary scientist or philosopher who can coherently identify the word “physical” – yet religious folks still get lost in apologetics and try desperately to show they are “keeping up with the times,” when no religion in history has ever been as incoherent, supernatural and superstitious as fundamaterialism)

    Martin Laird, in his masterpiece, “Into The Silent Land,” has written a book fully in the mainstream of the Christian contemplative tradition. Yet B. Alan Wallace says, somewhat tongue in cheek, that Laird has written the best Christian version of Buddhist Dzogchen practice he knows.

    Interfaith, inter spiritual, spiritual but not religious – the times are most definitely changing, and unless we emerge into the new global renaissance, humanity may not have long to live.

  12. lowtechcyclist

    “Be who you are,” more than one friend of mine has said. I’ll add to that: “find your own words.”

    Don’t expect others to know what the churchy words mean. Find your own. Your own words will enable you to speak the truths you know by heart.

    I can speak of God because certain things have happened to me. But using someone else’s words, even if they’ve been blessed by generations of churchmen (almost entirely men, sad to say), is absolutely useless for conveying anything about that. My own words – hell, *any* words – are insufficient to convey something as powerful as the presence of God. But my own words at least have a fighting chance.

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