Ari Johnson: More Than Enough

00:00 00:00
00:00

What to Read When You Can’t Talk About God

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
Leave a Reply

avatar
12 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
14 Comment authors
lowtechcyclistdon salmonRachelAnn O'Malleykaty Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Kit Carlson
Guest

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.

Jim
Guest
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,… Read more »

Diane Stranz
Guest
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… Read more »

Rachel
Guest
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”.

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser
Guest

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… Read more »

Ken Allison
Guest
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… Read more »

Erica
Guest

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!

Leonard Braun
Guest
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.

Maureen
Guest
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!

Wendy
Guest
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.

katy
Guest
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.

Ann O'Malley
Guest

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… Read more »

don salmon
Guest

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… Read more »

lowtechcyclist
Guest
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… Read more »