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.