Learning to Speak God from Scratch: How to Talk about Religion in the 21st Century

What’s always off limits at dinner parties and family gatherings? You know it: talking about religion and politics.

And yet, it’s difficult to catch a news cycle that doesn’t mention both. From the scriptural basis for immigration policies to supreme court decisions, belief and policy are intertwined and above the fold on every news outlet this year.

But in our daily lives, we still avoid “speaking God.” In his new book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Jonathan Merritt addresses this deficit with compelling evidence, including the overall decline of religious language. He writes that only 7 percent of Americans actively and purposefully talk about religion once per week (xxi). Certain words, in fact, plummeted in use in the 20th century, including “faith” (5). Sixty-three percent of us avoid religious dialogue altogether; the remainder of us plead ignorance (11). There are many reasons for this; but, Merritt, who lives in Brooklyn, lands on the most pertinent: we live in a pluralistic culture where sacred words can be perceived as divisive and insensitive.

Though I’m an ordained Southern Baptist clergywoman, I skipped Sunday School the day they handed out gifts of evangelism. I have never been what I call a “God-talker,” Christians who prattle on with Jesus jargon in a tone received as hell, fire, and brimstone preaching. I would have been a failed missionary, as I’m of the Saint Francis opinion Merritt quotes: “preach the Gospel at all times–if necessary use words” (37).

But Merritt and I hail from the same Southern Baptist roots, an evangelical tribe of God-talkers guilty of turning “holy phrases” into “tools of manipulation” that can marginalize, oppress, hurt, and outright hate (xix).

As a result, many “recovering” Southern Baptists (I count myself among them—Merritt may not), struggle with the path that emerges—one that Merritt began to see when he moved to New York City, which is “diverse enough that citizens can curate their own vision.” Amid such diversity, comes complexity—especially in matters of speaking faith.

“My problem,” Merritt writes, “was that I could no longer ‘speak God'” (xvii). While honoring the city’s pluralism, as well as his own experience having been on the receiving end of harmful words, Merritt could have tossed in the towel. No one would have blamed him. But, instead of giving up the Bible and its sacred words altogether, as many of us have done with a “language in peril” (58), Merritt invites his readers into his own critical thinking process of wrestling with troublesome terms. Then, he reframes them.

“Words are one of God’s holy gifts to humanity, and speaking them should be a sacred act.” –Jonathan Merritt

In lieu of declaring sacred words dead by fossilizing them or watering them down by substitution, Merritt opts for transformation (59). But how? He writes: “We begin with what we have accepted [the words/theology]. Then we break it down, challenging our preconceptions. Finally, we build it back up in a way that is more helpful, richer, and beautiful” (68).

Merritt insists this is not a static process. We don’t stay in stage one of acceptance; he suggests with move through all three—and on repeat. From order to disorder to reorder; from orientation to disorientation to reorientation; packing, unpacking, and repacking in a cyclical, rather than linear journey (68).

Learning to Speak God from Scratch is about this reclaiming and transforming words that have left a bad taste in our mouths. Merritt doesn’t shy away from the tough ones, either: “fall,” “sin,” “brokenness,” and “pride” “confession” and “lost” are among those he transforms.

“Having no beginning or end, the practice is perpetual and perennial.” –Jonathan Merritt

Through this process, Merritt says we engage the text and its meaning inherited from our ancestors and its meaning for our descendants, each new generation joining in accepting, challenging, and reorienting (190). It’s not easy, to be sure. “Speaking God from scratch, like moving to a new city, involves labor pains but results in the birth of new life” (191). Merritt doesn’t deny the work it takes to transform a language held hostage by those who intentionally or unintentionally use it to cause harm. But, he remains hopeful–and practical.

How can we talk religion in the 21st century without everyone running from the room? Merritt gives us plenty of tools. In this book, he walks us through a thorough process of awareness, wonder, exploration, and application (193-195). It’s the very same journey he embarked on as a Southern Christian transplant to the big city. This is what makes Learning to Speak God from Scratch so compelling—it’s a memoir and linguistic ethnography of a man and a language mid-transformation.

Don’t miss Merritt’s latest. Pre-order here so that you’ll have it by the official launch day, Tuesday, August 14th. Snap a photo and tag Jonathan and me using #SpeakGodBook.

How to Get Your FREE Copy of One Breath at a Time, Chapter 1!

This year’s Wild Goose Festival did not disappoint. Enjoy the photos here

Attendees got a FREE sneak-peek of my third book, One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation. 

Now, it’s your turn! We’re emailing out the first chapter, “Head Clutter: Reluctant Beginnings,” out FREE this Thursday at 8:00 a.m. Want your free preview? Click here to sign up.

Dana with the one-and-only Rev. Vanna Fox of Mix 101.5 and Wild Goose Festival fame, sporting their meditation (temporary!) tattoos

If you enjoy what you read, please let me know and pre-order your copyOne Breath at a Time releases from Upper Room Books on January 1, 2019—just in time for those New Year’s Resolutions!

Wild Goose book-signing following the “Sabbath for the Activist” workshop

Enjoy—and please share the sign-up link with friends!


Come Breathe and Sabbath with Upper Room Books at the Wild Goose Festival

The annual Wild Goose Festival is less than one week away!

Fred and I are delighted to join Upper Room Books authors Hannah Shanks, Whitney Simpson, and Kristen Vincent, as well as Acquisitions Editor Joanna Bradley for this year’s fun.

Pre-order here!

If you’re headed to the festival for one day—or all weekend—drop by the Upper Room Books Tent and get your FREE goodies, including a preview of One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation Chapter One, “Head Clutter; Reluctant Beginnings.” The entire book is now available on Amazon pre-order; reserve your copy so you’re guaranteed to receive it by the release day: January 1, 2019.

We’ll also have FREE temporary tattoos from One Breath at a Time as well as from fellow Upper Room Books authors Hannah Shanks and Whitney Simpson. You don’t want to miss this, y’all.

Drop by our Wild Goose tent, get your FREE (temporary!) tattoos. Post a photo using the hashtag #UpperRoomBooksTattoos

Please join us for our workshops! Here is the schedule of all Upper Room Books’ authors’ talks:


Friday, 10a, “Sabbath for the Activist,” with me, Episcopal Tent with For Sabbath’s Sake book signing to immediately follow

Friday, 11am, “Guided Meditation,” with Upper Room Books Team, Chapel

Friday, 1p, “This is My Body,” with Hannah Shanks, Healing Arts Tent, with This is My Body book signing to immediately follow

Friday, 3p, “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga,” with Whitney Simpson,  Healing Arts Tent, with Holy Listening with Breath, Body, and Spirit book signing to immediately follow

Friday, 3p, “One Breath at at Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation Guided Meditation Break” with me, Chapel

Saturday, 10a, “Exploring Breath Prayer for Healing,” with Whitney Simpson, Youth Tent

Saturday, 10a, “One Breath at at Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation Guided Meditation Break” with me, Chapel

Saturday, 12p, “Beads of Healing,” with Kristen Vincent, Healing Arts Tent, with Beads of Healing book signing to immediately follow

Saturday, 3p, “One Breath at at Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation Guided Meditation Break” with me, Chapel

Saturday 4p, “What is the Future of the Church Beyond the Goose? Podcast with a Jew and a Gentile,” Goose Cast Tent

Saturday, 4p, “Exploring Breath Prayer,” with Whitney Simpson, Healing Arts Tent, with Holy Listening with Breath, Body, and Spirit book signing to immediately follow

Share your photos using #WildGoose2018 #UpperRoomBooksTattoos and #OneBreathBook!

Not going to Wild Goose? Don’t miss out on the fun.  Sign up for my monthly newsletter to receive your FREE copy One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation Chapter One, “Head Clutter; Reluctant Beginnings.”