Recently Jonathan Merritt sent me an email letting me know about his recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them. I was intrigued, but paused for a few seconds before buying the book because I was already in the midst of several book launches and had another book or two slated for review.
I am so glad I hit the button to buy the book. If you were to look at my copy (not likely), you would discover it is liberally highlighted and there are numerous flags on pages I especially want to revisit. That says a lot about how this book has provoked a lot of thought. Beyond that, it has inspired and challenged me to contemplate words with fresh eyes and understanding (especially sacred words).
As believers we tend to know a fair number of sacred words. The bravest of us speak them with regularity, but Jonathan Merritt’s new book exposes a truth we need to consider carefully. How often do we really use such words, feel comfortable with our understanding of their meaning, or have a clue about how often we speak or write in such religious clichés that the words have lost their significance to us and are hard to interpret for others.
Words matter. They have significance and how we express them can make all the difference.
As Jonathan writes:
“When we lose our spiritual vocabulary, we lose much more than words. We lose the power of speaking grace, forgiveness, love, and justice for others.”
In this book some new research by the Barna Group is cited that should cause us all to take notice. Let me quote just a few points of what the research shows:
- Millions of Americans – more than three-quarters of them – are not speaking God often
- More than one fifth of the respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the last year
- Only 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters on about a once-a-week basis
- Only 13 percent of practicing Christians had a spiritual conversation more than fifty times last year (This means that only one in eight identifying Christians speak God with regular frequency.)
- Younger generations are having more spiritual conversations than older generations
- Millennials are having more conversations about religion and spirituality than any other generation
- The older you are, the less likely it is that you will have a spiritual conversation
What did Barna discover and Jonathan share about why we are not engaging in such conversations as much as we once did?
“The most common reasons given for not engaging in conversations about religion and spirituality appear to fall into three broad categories: indifference, ignorance, and avoidance.”
Jonathan points out that theologian Marcus Borg noted before he died in 2015 “Christian words had lost their meaning and power in modern society – in part due to ‘Christian illiteracy.’ People were using words they didn’t understand…”
Before you disagree with the research or Jonathan, it’s important to take a clear-eyed look at how often we speak in Christian jargon and clichés without much thought if we are speaking God these days. It may well explain why those who are not believers have challenges understanding who we are or what we are saying. It can almost be like we are a part of a secret club with secret words that only someone in the club understands. But if the club member is asked to define the word with clarity to anyone who asks, most often the answer will leave the hearer scratching his or her head.
Jonathan gives words to one of the problems:
“…even devout believers who speak God with apparent ease – define religious words using religious words. A series of questions about what they mean leads back to where the discussion began.
The words we choose and the way we use them matter. But we do not often quiet ourselves long enough to ask, What am I saying when I’m saying what I’m saying.”
As believers perhaps it’s time we stop speaking in circles.
Doing so will challenge the truth of what we believe and we may not feel comfortable with that. We like our oft-used words and phrases that can sound like we are certain of what we are saying and meaning. To “start from scratch” will require that we need a bit of courage at the outset, but offers the possibility of a much deeper understanding and level of intimacy with the Lord than ever before.
“Human beings speak more than fifteen thousand words on an average day, but we rarely stop to consider the definitions or connotations of the terms themselves.”
You may not agree with everything Jonathan writes, but you’ll miss a significant book that opens new windows of understanding beyond your regular lexicon, your concordance, or your Greek or Hebrew dictionary.
I won’t open my copy to show you the highlighting, but the pic below will give you a glimpse of how many flags I used to mark pages to revisit.
15 thoughts on “Learning to Speak God from Scratch”
I am so grateful for this review! I have never considered how my language (even within my Christian circles) could be diluting the conversation that Jesus might be steering me to have. And this idea is especially important as I begin Seminary in a few weeks and will be meeting non-believers regularly within my ministry for years to come. I definitely will be adding this to my “to-read” list!
Thank you! I think what you describe is true for most of us. It is one reason I appreciated the way the book challenged and provoked my thoughts. Sadly, some Christians would be offended by some of what Jonathan unpacks, but whether or not every line is one that can be agreed with, I believe the book is a strong one we need to read and consider. I counseled too many before I retired who were wounded within the church membership and from believers to those outside the body to think otherwise. Blessings on your adventure in seminary. Praying the Lord will use it and you!💕
I’m so glad to see a review of Jonathan’s book here, Pam! I heard him speak on a podcast last week (can’t remember which one), and I wrote down the name of the book to look for it later. It sounds right up my alley. I love all the quotes and stats you shared. I do love a good spiritual conversation so I hope this book will help spark many!
I think you would appreciate this book while others may be offended by it. I think our faith and convictions grow stronger when we are provoked to think about things we just imbibe or serve up to others without a lot of thought or reflection. Jonathan has and is often a lightening rod when he writes and speaks. As you see by all the flags on my copy….he gave me much to ponder and consider and I love an author who does that. Hugs to you on a very steamy day in OH, my friend!💕
I have never given the language and words I use as a Christian a thought. I am sorry but I am missing the point the author is making.
I think the author is seeking to remind us that as believers we might not be and as a result we might not see that when we use words we know and believe we understand quite well, others who don’t know Him may not “get” what we mean. Additionally, sometimes we have used the words so long that if someone asks us to define a typical word related to our faith, we can sometimes falter and not be able to express well what that word means.
Sounds intriguing Pam, I call the Christian clichés & words used in Christian circles… Christianese as most non Christians can not understand it, as it has it has become a exclusive language unto itself! :-/
This sounds like a fascinating book, Pam! I know that for me, I didn’t grow up in a tradition of talking about God with other people outside of church, so it took a very long time for me to feel comfortable bringing God into daily conversations (we felt it was important with our kids, we we learned as they grew up 🙂 ).
Such a powerful post and challenge to us, Pam. The eye-opening statistics are both sad and rattling. I feel like I regularly engage in spiritual conversations, but I rarely do them with unbelievers. My life is so cloistered–being always in the presence of believers but rarely in the presence of the lost. I need to make a better effort at finding those spiritually hungry folks in my life.
I was challenged similarly, but frankly now that I am not in full-time ministry I have more opportunities to have time to connect with the believers that surrounded me every day and night. But there is a hidden point there as well. In my counseling office it was not unusual to discover a believer sitting in my office who routinely used Christian jargon or cliches with little understanding of their meaning or application in their lives (even if they were true biblical realities). Stephen Saccone’s recent book, Talking about God: Honest Conversations about Spirituality is also an excellent resource. Have a blessed day Beth!💕
Hello Pam, I heartily agree that we should know what we’re talking about when we use Biblical words. And what we say we believe should have a bearing on the way we live. All my bells and whistles began ringing however at the citation of Marcus Borg on the meaning of words. It’s important to realize that when we read ‘theologians’ they may not mean what we think they mean. If you’ve had opportunity to read Borg you will know that he has redefined Christianity and pretty much every key term it uses: God, Jesus, sin, salvation, The Bible, Faith… to make them more palatable to modern sensibilities, more ‘persuasive and compelling’. You’ll find his books in prominence in secular libraries for a reason. According to his book: The Heart of Christianity, he believes that:
God does not directly intervene in our lives to answer prayer. He is not primarily a personal God
Jesus did not literally die for our sins.(p.96 The Heart of Christianity, Borg)
Sin is not the best way of identifying mankind’s primary problem
The Bible is not a divine product with divine authority. (p.15)
In short, Borg edited Christianity to come up ‘with a way of seeing [it] that does make persuasive and compelling sense to me’ p.39.
My point is not so much to villify Borg as to add to your challenge, that we become students of the Word of God and know how it defines the terms we use. Let us never, never settle for what a ‘theologian’ tells us God means when He speaks, unless we have studied the Word that backs it up for ourselves. We, as humans, are all to clever at twisting meanings to suit our tastes and sensibilities rather than letting God be God and bowing to what He has spoken in His Word for our benefit, now and forever after.
Thank you for letting me get a caution in edgewise here ( :
Thanks for sharing this comment. I am not nor would I only take the words of any theologian as gospel, but I have sometimes chosen a quote in regards to a point without meaning to imply I endorse or agree with all he may say. I respect your concerns and observations. I think we also must be aware that as we read His Word and study it that we ask He give us His lens to read and understand it since our lens is impacted by our own experiences that sometimes also shade our understanding causing us not to see as clearly as we might. Thanks again.
This book sounds so fascinating. I went through a similar shaking up as my Vietnamese daughter-in-law entered our family. All of the words I was used to speaking in order to share my faith were basically not understandable. Not only because of the language difference, but also because of the cultural difference. It has really caused me to pray about loving and living out my faith in terms that may not sound like what I was used to in the past. I am so thankful that God, through His Holy Spirit, will make Himself understood, if we will follow His leading. Blessings to you!
That’s a great example, Bettie!! Thanks!! By the way, your book shipped Thursday😊
Yay! I’m looking forward to reading it!