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.