When was the last time you had a spiritual conversation?
If recent research is any indication, it’s been a while. Only seven percent of Americans report talking about spiritual matters weekly. One-fifth of respondents had not had a spiritual conversation all year. Surely, self-identified Christians regularly engage in spiritual discussions with friends, coworkers, and family. Right? Sadly, only 13 percent of “practicing” Christians talk about spirituality once a week. As a result, sacred conversations and words such as grace, gospel, God, salvation, faith, sin, and creed are much less common in our day-to-day experience.
Unnerving data like these form the backdrop for a new book from religion writer Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing—and How We can Revive Them, a blend of cultural analysis, linguistic inquiry, theology, church history, and autobiography.
Breaking Down and Building Up
The first half of the book builds a comprehensive case for why we need to start over. Utilizing current data, Merritt asserts that for all our proclaimed religiosity, Americans in general—and self-identified Christians in particular—seldom engage in spiritual conversations. He identifies three reasons. First, many Christians are anxious not to give offense. For them, says Merritt, words like “sin and hell have become so negative they lodge in [their] throats.” Second, Christians who are in the regular habit of spiritual conversation develop a kind of insider shorthand bred of familiarity. Thus, certain words get “uttered so often we don’t know what they mean anymore,” and we forget how they sound to those outside of our religious circles. And third, in today’s combative communication climate, we see spiritual language weaponized against religious and cultural enemies, which makes the rest of us seek shelter in less polarizing forms of interaction.
Essential to Merritt’s enterprise is stripping away our often unreflective use of religious words. The key, he argues, isn’t to abandon them but to re-conceptualize them in more nuanced ways. Merritt’s call to respect sacred words is reminiscent of the Book of Proverbs, which reminds us that “the one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered” (17:27).
In the second half of the book, Merritt gives vivid and often deeply personal examples of how he has reconceptualized sacred words. “My word choices,” he admits, “are incomplete and subjective, and I feel that they chose me rather than the other way around.” Some of the words that have arrested his attention will be familiar—words like God, fall, sin, grace, pride, and lost. Other, less obvious choices, such as brokenness, disappointment, and pain, offer a surprisingly candid look into Merritt’s own faith journey. The key to “speaking God from scratch,” he writes, is to take common religious vernacular and “break it down, challenging our preconceptions.” Once the word has been broken in this fashion, it can be rebuilt in a form that is “more helpful, richer, and beautiful.”
A few examples should suffice to capture the flavor of Merritt’s approach to breaking down, and then rebuilding, particular words:
Sin. Merritt has come to associate this word with vitriolic expression and a judgmental spirit. For many Christians, he writes, sin is “a word shouted and screamed and fashioned into a bludgeon to beat down and beat up.” After tracing earlier conceptions of sin as a stain, weight, or debt—all of which have biblical warrant—Merritt explores the possibility of a revised understanding “roomy enough for all these metaphors and more.” What if sin is reconceptualized in light of the abundant life of flourishing that Jesus promises to all who submit to his loving Lordship (John 10:10)? Sin, in this telling, is “whatever contributes to life something other than what God intends.” Viewing sin as anti-flourishing affirms that God hates sin not because he is an “angry rule-maker” but because wants us to live under divine shalom.
Pain. This word barged in on Merritt’s life when he awoke one December morning not being able to feel his arms or hands. Numbness led to anxiety, which fostered severe panic attacks and debilitating insomnia. Countless trips to neurologists only left him fatigued and discouraged. Merritt’s conclusion: “I was helpless like Job.” Left to ponder the problem of pain, the author researched religious traditions that treated emotional, mental, or physical pain as either a tragedy or an unlikely gift. Between these two options, a third began to emerge, building upon a theory from psychoanalyst Carl Jung: If you kill or silence pain before you answer its questions, you inadvertently kill yourself. What if chronic pain could be conceptualized not as a gratuitous tragedy or a severe mercy, but instead as “an unfortunate, terrible teacher?” Adopting this perspective taught Merritt that he wasn’t as omnipotent, infinite, or compassionate as he had assumed.
While Learning to Speak God from Scratch is deeply thought-provoking and surprisingly moving, I did come away with some concerns. The field in which I teach, communication theory, is rife with postmodern thought. Most of today’s communication scholars subscribe to the idea that meanings are in people, not words. For them, a word is defined primarily by the person receiving the communication, not by the person speaking. Seen in this way, all words are by nature arbitrary and ambiguous.
The Bible sits uneasily with the postmodern view of communication, in that the meaning of God’s Word comes from God, not from its hearers. While I heartily applaud Merritt’s project of recovering a more nuanced understanding of sacred words, I wonder how readers will interpret the following admonition: “Speaking God from scratch means planting the vocabulary of faith in the fertile soil of the present moment so it can come back to life and even grow into something more beautiful than we can imagine.” We’re encouraged, in other words, to think “about what sacred words might mean to you in the here and now.” Doesn’t this open the door for reconceptualizing sacred words in ways that may be more relevant to contemporary controversies or personal problems, but less faithful to the intent of the biblical writers?
For many readers, Merritt’s reconstruction of words may be unsettling and perhaps even a bridge too far. For example, in considering how to start from scratch with the word Fall, Merritt is comfortable leaving undetermined whether the first act of human rebellion against God was indeed a historical event involving a literal human couple. In a chapter titled “Fall: Scientific Quandaries and the Beauty of You,” he gives a sympathetic hearing to arguments dismissing a literal Adam and Eve as “genetic impossibility.” Merritt would rather focus on the tragic and undeniable results of the Fall—crossing boundaries, resisting authority, hiding mistakes, seizing control of our destiny. While he is not certain the Fall occurred, he is sure “the notion of the Fall is one of the truest I’ve ever encountered.”
But how can we square this understanding with that of the apostle Paul? He seems convinced that the rebellion of Adam and Eve was a historical event with deep implications for the church (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45–49; 1 Tim. 2:13–15). Of course, different Christians bring different interpretations to the first chapters of Genesis. But Merritt’s example reveals how his method of “speaking God from scratch” runs the risk of taking us beyond Scripture, not deeper into it. His methodology becomes even more concerning when he explores brokenness and sexual orientation and offers an all-inclusive definition of family.
Merritt states that his goal is not to write a “definitive spiritual dictionary,” and he doesn’t expect readers to agree with him on every re-envisioning of sacred words that he proposes. His purpose isn’t to impose his own answers but to model the process by which readers can come up with their own. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, the journey is well worth the effort. (The book concludes with a useful how-to guide that helps readers select, ponder, and explore the sacred words that mean the most to them.)
In a shocking passage, Jesus informs us that we’ll be held accountable for all the words we’ve uttered (Matt. 12:36). He specifically singles out “empty” words spoken in a careless manner. In light of this sobering warning, we should be grateful for Merritt’s insights into biblical language—but wary of the door he opens for extra-biblical innovation.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University. He is the co-author (with Rick Langer) of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (IVP Academic).