Learning to Speak God from Scratch
Why Sacred Words are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them
By Jonathan Merritt
Convergent Books, 2018. Pp. 239. $15.99
Review by Christine Havens
It would be an understatement to say that Jonathan Merritt is active in the national conversation about religion, faith, and culture. A graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Merritt is a regular commentator for print, digital, and broadcast media outlets, such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, USA Today, and CNN.
In addition to developing several podcasts, he has written two other books, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. Parishioners at St. Matthew’s Church in Austin were surprised by his youth and casual appearance when he came to speak about his book, yet left impressed with his wisdom.
Merritt, who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, begins the conversation by relating his move from Georgia to New York City. He struggles with culture shock — snow and subway travel, for example — but also is working to further his writing career. As a man immersed in his faith, Merritt finds that he struggles with how to “speak God” in the largely secular ethos of Manhattan but also with those who follow other faiths. As he says in the introduction, in talking with a woman who practices the Baha’i faith about attending worship services, “it became clear that neither of us understood what the other was saying.” This realization made him explore, which helped take Merritt out of himself as he worked through depression.
As Merritt researched the issue, he found that this disconnect between practicing faith and communicating with that specific vocabulary seems to be widening. His concern is that the “fire of sacred speech is fading due to indifference and ignorance and avoidance,” the three broad categories that arose in a Barna Group poll of 1,000 people he commissioned while developing his premise (p. 32). In Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Merritt addresses those broad topics in specific ways.
The book is structured in two parts. In the first section, “The Lost Language of Faith,” Merritt builds his case, drawing from a wide variety of sources, such as David Brooks, Barbara Taylor Brown, C.S. Lewis, and Brian McLaren. In the course of these foundational chapters, Merritt sets out why he feels sacred language is in crisis, and proposes ways to renew our use of a faith vocabulary.
From there, in “Finding Our Voices Again,” Merritt analyzes 19 words from the sacred vocabulary: yes, creed, prayer, pain, disappointment, mystery, God, fall, sin, grace, brokenness, blessed, neighbor, pride, saint, confession, spirit, family, and lost. Merritt draws largely on his experiences, conversations, and other eclectic cultural and theological knowledge to open up each word. There is a certain vulnerability in this as he admits that not each will sit well with readers. As he says, he is not trying to “create a definitive spiritual dictionary. … I encourage you to do what I have done. Dream about what sacred words might mean for you in the here and now” (p. 82).
In Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Merritt has produced an engaging and informative book that mingles memoir and practical theology, and that lends itself nicely to a spiritual formation class. A reader can also easily use it for meditation or devotional purposes. The point, however, is to participate with this book, not simply to read it. Merritt says it best as he closes the first section: “When we speak, we aren’t just saying something — we’re pointing to something. In the case of sacred language, we’re pointing to meaning, to identity, to transcendence, and ultimately, to God” (p. 82).
Do not let the casual format of this book fool you into passing it by. Pick it up and refresh your imago dei.
Christine Havens is a graduate of Seminary of the Southwest and communications coordinator at St. Matthew’s Church in Austin, Texas.