Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing-and How We Can Revive Them



Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing-and How We Can Revive Them As America Rapidly Becomes A Pluralistic, Postmodern Society, Many Of Us Struggle To Talk About Faith We Can No Longer Assume Our Friends Understand Words Such As Grace Or Gospel Others, Like Lost And Sin, Have Become So Negative They Are Nearly Conversation EndersJonathan Merritt Knows This Frustration Well After Jonathan Moved From The Bible Belt To New York City, He Discovered That Whenever Conversations Turned To Spirituality, The Words He D Used For Decades Didn T Connect With Listeners Any In A Search For Answers And Understanding, Jonathan Uncovered A Spiritual Crisis Affecting Tens Of Millions In This Groundbreaking Book, One Of America S Premier Religion Writers Revives Ancient Expressions Through Cultural Commentary, Vulnerable Personal Narratives, And Surprising Biblical Insights Both Provocative And Liberating, Learning To Speak God From Scratch Will Breathe New Life Into Your Spiritual Conversations And Lure You Into The Embrace Of The God Who Inhabits Them

10 thoughts on “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing-and How We Can Revive Them

  1. says:

    Do you love language Do you love learning about faith This book will check both those boxes Learning to Speak God from Scratch is for anyone interested in religious dialogue in these secular times Though the author is a product of an Evangelical home, the issues he raises are not specific to one faith community As a rabbi, I am always looking for ways to engage others in meaningful conversations about God and other faith topics Jonathan Merritt provides, in his warm and engaging voice, way Do you love language Do you love learning about faith This book will check both those boxes Learning to Speak God from Scratch is for anyone interested in religious dialogue in these secular times Though the author is a product of an Evangelical home, the issues he raises are not specific to one faith community As a rabbi, I am always looking for ways to engage others in meaningful conversations about God and other faith topics Jonathan Merritt provides, in his warm and engaging voice, ways to encourage others and one s self to become comfortable with sacred language I found the book compelling while being inviting at the same time The only reason it took me so long to complete it is that I wanted to savour every bit of wisdom

  2. says:

    I can t get enough of Jonathan Merritt s thoughts, mostly because I find myself on the same page with him, 1000% If you find yourself needing to redefine certain sacred words, his book is a must read Loved, loved, loved it.

  3. says:

    Merritt the Younger Again Proves He Is His Father s Equal Jonathan Merritt and I grew up in roughly similar church traditions at roughly the same time in roughly the same geographic area His father would eventually become President of the Southern Baptist Convention, my pastor would later become President of the Georgia Baptist Convention Growing up, while not knowing of Jonathan specifically, his father was among the most respected men I had ever heard As in, there was a deacon or two in Merritt the Younger Again Proves He Is His Father s Equal Jonathan Merritt and I grew up in roughly similar church traditions at roughly the same time in roughly the same geographic area His father would eventually become President of the Southern Baptist Convention, my pastor would later become President of the Georgia Baptist Convention Growing up, while not knowing of Jonathan specifically, his father was among the most respected men I had ever heard As in, there was a deacon or two in my own small church, there was Charles Stanley, and there was James Merritt.I began reading Jonathan s own work a few years ago with the release of A Faith of Our Own, and both it and the next book Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined were as though Jonathan was in my own head, even while speaking as he does here of lessons he has learned in his own life.In this particular book, Jonathan again teaches us using lessons he has observed over the last few years of his own life and winds up touching on many issues of our day even while speaking to eternal truth At the end of the first part of the book, when he specifically tellsconservative thinkers that they may not like all that is to follow and brings up the Hebrew concept of midrash, my fears were raised I just read another ARC of another contemporary that grew up a couple hundred miles away from our home region but in a similar background and time who had used the concept quite a bit in her new book, and let s just say I wasn t impressed with that effort.Jonathan quickly dispelled the fears though, and actively sought to explain his own new understanding of the various sacred words we use in religious speak, particularly among Christians He never claims authority, he just claims conversation and what he has found the words mean for him, and invites the readers to consider for themselves Yet again, it turns out that he largely sees them exactly as I have come to even without me realizing I had been on my own similar journey over the years In one particularly poignant moment, he speaks to a word he used around the time of the publication of his last book and what he now thinks of it In another, he uses Fred Rogers to explain the concept of neighbor And in another, he exposes a revolutionary concept for thinking about a word that Christians have used far too long as a divider between the righteous few and the pagan hordes My words in quotes there, not his In the end, Merritt the Younger winds up finding a truth that I had tattooed on my own skin nearly a decade ago, and he exposes it in a new, fresh way for things that I had never considered That truth Jesus didn t define our words so much as redefine them in revolutionary ways Ways that still speak to us 2000 years later, if only we will consider them anew.Won t you join us in unpacking, examining, and rediscovering the ancient sacred words all over again

  4. says:

    This is the kind of book we need right now Jonathan Merritt delivers a thought provoking and yet incredibly practical work that any person of faith would benefit from reading I loved the organization of the book, exploring each religious term in its own chapter By doing this, he proves that a simple definition fails to capture what religious words really mean Instead, he explores them with stories, illustrations, and metaphors, which bring so much color to the conversation I absolutely love This is the kind of book we need right now Jonathan Merritt delivers a thought provoking and yet incredibly practical work that any person of faith would benefit from reading I loved the organization of the book, exploring each religious term in its own chapter By doing this, he proves that a simple definition fails to capture what religious words really mean Instead, he explores them with stories, illustrations, and metaphors, which bring so much color to the conversation I absolutely loved this book and I know that Jonathan s thoughtful writing will offer readers a lifeline to reconnect to the practice of speaking God Plus, I believe the chapters on The Fall and Sin are worth the price of the book A great read through and through I was given an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher

  5. says:

    3.5 stars This is a tough book to rate, partly because I highly value Jonathan Merritt s writing and observations even when I don t always agree with him theologically, and partly because I think his purpose would have been better served by stating some of his assumptions up front For lovers of language and Jesus, this is an insightful work about the words we use to talk about faith and what they mean It challenges believers to hone the words we use to speak God intotruthful and meani 3.5 stars This is a tough book to rate, partly because I highly value Jonathan Merritt s writing and observations even when I don t always agree with him theologically, and partly because I think his purpose would have been better served by stating some of his assumptions up front For lovers of language and Jesus, this is an insightful work about the words we use to talk about faith and what they mean It challenges believers to hone the words we use to speak God intotruthful and meaningful terms that will deepen our faith conversations within our faith communities, and allow us to communicateeffectively about faith matters with people outside our communities It s well written, it s highly engaging, and it s thought provoking I think it s an excellent starting point for group discussions Merritt isn t a linguist, a Biblical scholar, or a foolproof theologian, and it shows in his occasional falterings while writing about these topics But he is an ordinary Christian with a gift for words and a love of God, struggling to make sense of his faith in today s world while rejecting some of the extremist fallacies held by both conservative and progressive evangelical Christian camps He is clearly a man committed to his faith against all odds, who isn t afraid to speak unpopular truths, and who wants to seek the truth Part 1 draws on a sociolinguistic framework to examine God talk as a language group, specifically as an isolated linguistic community that is, in many ways, dying out in contemporary America as religion and spirituality become less commonly spoken of in the public sphere He identifies some of the effects of this cultural shift, describes various responses from believers to this shift, and proposes a framework for Christians to examine and hone the language we use.Part 2 is a series of essays centered around various faith related words, meditations based on the author s life experiences and his process of spiritual maturation Many are based on his gradual exposure to Christian traditions outside his Southern Baptist upbringing Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will probably grin a bit at his sudden embrace of creeds, liturgy, and prayer traditions like lectio divina that his alma mater, Liberty University, dismissed as pagan and unspiritual Welcome to the dark side, Jonathan Many of these are deeply thought provoking and devotional, inspired by and grounded in the Bible Others arejournalistic in nature, based on personal experience, interviews with contemporary writers, and drawing on modern scientific understandings of human nature While I don t always agree with the meanings Merritt has reinterpreted for these sacred words, I do appreciate his perspective and his willingness to start the conversation by sharing his process of growth and challenging other Christians to do the same Overall, this is a great book, but throughout, I had one major quibble, namely the way he left out a critical detail in Part 1.Merritt proposes a framework for transforming language so that our religious vocabulary can survive and be passed on to future generations This framework contains three steps 1 Start with the terms we know and accept Merritt rightly points out that many Christians, especially from conservative Protestant backgrounds, get stuck here and never fully examine the meanings of faith related terms 2 Unpack these familiar terms, break down their meanings, and challenge our preconceptions about what they mean Merritt also rightly points out that many progressive Christians get stuck at this stage and embrace a deconstructed Christianity where religious terms no longer have an authoritative meaning 3 Rebuild these terms intothoughtful, richer,helpful termsI fully agree with Merritt that Christianese needs to be examined and our understanding of these terms as signs representing our beliefs should be clarified, but his framework leaves out one crucial point as Christians seeking to grow closer to a living God who has revealed Himself to us through the Scriptures, we are not simply free to reinvent religious language in ways that make us comfortable In approaching theological concepts and the words we use to describe them, our measuring stick must always be the Word of God Language does change, and words as used in our contemporary American setting, such as judge, blessing, sin, and love do not mean the same thing to us that they meant to ancient writers working in the languages of Greek and Hebrew However, to be authentic seekers of the truth, our task is to uncover the intent of the Scriptures by digging into the world of the Bible, its languages, its cultures, and what these words meant to them From there we can let these fresh understandings of religious language inform our understanding and bring new meaning to our faith and how we speak about it Without this commitment, any attempt to speak God from scratch is doomed to fall prey to the idolatry of our own priorities, cultural lenses, and personal feelings.I was ready to roll my eyes and toss aside this book entirely based on Merritt s omission of this crucial aspect, especially since he repeatedly criticizes progressive Christianity for a similar lack of commitment to the authority of the Bible But in reading further, this principle does in fact appear, albeit buried in individual essays about particular words In Chapter 11, on disillusionment, he finally brings up the exchange of falsehood for fact p 123 and writes that we must take a lie about the world, about yourself, about those you love, about God and replace it with the truth p 121 The concluding chapter of this book, a How To Guide for Seekers and Speakers, also contains this crucial step as part of his 5 step process of reimagining words, as he recommends that exploring the meanings of words should not be a process of ex nihilo creation but rather a process of growth or maturation Take time to explore early meanings of the word in history, in your religious tradition, and in the sacred Scriptures It may be helpful to search online for the etymology of the words or search a concordance to survey its usage in Scripture Root yourself here as you explore fresh meanings p 207 This really should have been clarified and emphasized up front, rather than hidden in the back of the book Perhaps he didn t want to alienate progressive or non religious readers by stating a commitment to the authority of Scripture too early At any rate, the lack of clarification on this point left a shadowy question mark over much of the book Overall, though, this book is well worth reading and discussing with some good friends over coffee

  6. says:

    Finally, a thinking book for people of faith to open a dialogue about why we use the words we use when it comes to talking about what we believe Well thought out and artfully written, Learning to Speak God from Scratch combines data driven research and memoir to trace the how and why sacred words are slipping from the lexicon or have lost their original meaning If you are fearful about opening a conversation about God with a friend, coworker, acquaintance or neighbor, this book coaches you thr Finally, a thinking book for people of faith to open a dialogue about why we use the words we use when it comes to talking about what we believe Well thought out and artfully written, Learning to Speak God from Scratch combines data driven research and memoir to trace the how and why sacred words are slipping from the lexicon or have lost their original meaning If you are fearful about opening a conversation about God with a friend, coworker, acquaintance or neighbor, this book coaches you through understanding words often misused or rarely used at all If you re confounded and confused by words often associated with Christianity, Merritt traces their origins and original intent If you ve long spoken and sang words you didn t understand, Learning to Speak God undergirds and refreshes what may not be fully understood Humorous and touching storytelling mark every page of this book What could be a stale or boring topic springs to life in Merritt s hallmark style of crafting narratives.I received an advanced copy of this book However, I ordered one for myself after reading it because I know I ll want to revisit its concepts

  7. says:

    With clear and thoughtful language, Jonathan Merritt tackles a deeply personal subject belief in God and how we communicate about that His premise is that our language about God has become distant, stilted and full of what feels like ticking time bombs and it is time for us to rethink hope fully how we can reengage with authentic words about God and thus invite anyone into the conversation What resonated with me was his discomfort with the language of evangelicalism from his childhood charge With clear and thoughtful language, Jonathan Merritt tackles a deeply personal subject belief in God and how we communicate about that His premise is that our language about God has become distant, stilted and full of what feels like ticking time bombs and it is time for us to rethink hope fully how we can reengage with authentic words about God and thus invite anyone into the conversation What resonated with me was his discomfort with the language of evangelicalism from his childhood charged words like blessed, mystery, grace and brokenness Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he thoughtfully examines different ways to look at the language of Christianity and thus invites all of us into the conversation about a God who has withstood the test of time, who is trustworthy and about whom we don t have all the answers I especially loved the stance he took regarding openness and bringing the language about faith under a bright light of examination finding joyfully, that God is bigger than our questions about him Our past hurts over the language of faith that may have left us hurting and confused can withstand examination and growth until we find a way through leaving us with a deeper, richer view of God and not a fear based distance Well thought out book and I really hope many read it and the conversation begins I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this book

  8. says:

    Read this in one sitting Easy to read through and thought the words chosen were great to explore As Bob Dylan sings The times, they are a changin and as they change, so does the vernacular If anything, this book should encourage those that read it how they would define Christian words when talking to non Christians I largely appreciated Pain and Disappointment

  9. says:

    Jonathan Merritt does in this book what he s been teaching us to do for years through his RNS and Atlantic writing to be thoughtful speakers and generous thinkers Part I is a robust, researched look at spiritual language and it s contemporary use This is not a one track thesis, but a six lane highway toward understanding language and obtaining the courage to employ it for human flourishing He s included a profusion of endnoted citations to tempt you to load up yourwish list whic Jonathan Merritt does in this book what he s been teaching us to do for years through his RNS and Atlantic writing to be thoughtful speakers and generous thinkers Part I is a robust, researched look at spiritual language and it s contemporary use This is not a one track thesis, but a six lane highway toward understanding language and obtaining the courage to employ it for human flourishing He s included a profusion of endnoted citations to tempt you to load up yourwish list which is a definite plus for any book I enjoy I wished foroptimism in the chapter on the Possibilty of Revival and forimplications on transformation in chapter 5 Both of these chapters seem to end just as I was enjoying their main point But there is plenty of other information and application in this book that I wasn t expecting A discussion on Jewish midrash It s in there A fresh look at imago dei See Chapter 3 Part II allows your brain to play a bit Sit with each short section and see how your desire to make sense of spiritual words begins to break forth into possibility Would I come to all the same conclusions No But am I grateful that someone has guided me out of rutted thinking and usage Absolutely Language is a tool of abundance rather than scarcity and Merritt helps us take the shackles off

  10. says:

    s been a long time since I wrote a book review and it s time to get back on the horse I am starting with this book as I have recommended it to everyone who asks me what I am reading.Jonathan Merritt is someone for whom I have respect and jealousy in equal measure, mainly as it relates to his writing I am sure there are subjects on which we disagree, but Learning To Speak God From Scratch Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them under s been a long time since I wrote a book review and it s time to get back on the horse I am starting with this book as I have recommended it to everyone who asks me what I am reading.Jonathan Merritt is someone for whom I have respect and jealousy in equal measure, mainly as it relates to his writing I am sure there are subjects on which we disagree, but Learning To Speak God From Scratch Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them underscores our alignment.The premise for this book comes from the author s story of relocating to Manhattan from Atlanta where he was born and raised He recalls an experience in the subway where he was speaking with another rider.I realized this linguistic chasm en route to visit a church in Manhattan on my first Sunday in New York Waiting on a subway platform, a woman standing next to me asked where I was headed I explained that I was going to a worship service She asked for clarification, having never heard that phrase I clarified that I was new to the city and was going to visit a church She perked up and said she practiced the Baha i faith She held up her crystal amulet necklace and explained that it protected her from evil spirits If I was spiritually curious, the woman said, she d read my chakra and access the invisible energy fields around my body.As we talked about our respective religious practices, it became clear that neither of us understood what the other was saying I glanced down the dark tunnel in hopes of spotting a train, but rescue wasn t in sight.Jonathan came to the realization that words he has used all of his life, words that had shaped him, in ways he probably didn t fully realize, were unknown, or worse, laden with baggage because of irresponsible misuse What should he do Jonathan partnered with the Barna Group to commission a study to get data on spiritual conversations around the country The results were shocking.More than one fifth of respondents did not have a spiritual conversation in the last year.Six in ten only had a spiritual conversation on a rare occasion.7% of Americans say they talk about religious matters on about a once per week basis.But wait, here is an unexpected silver lining Younger generations including Millennials are havingconversations about religion or spirituality than any other generation.So, what does Jonathan recommend in this climate of reduced spiritual speech juxtaposed with frequent spiritual conversation amongst younger generations It s time to revive sacred speech.Ours is an expedition to rediscover a love for consecrated terms and discover why speaking God matters nowthan ever To express our spiritual stirrings, to articulate our transcendent experiences, to share our truest selves with friends In these pages, I hope you learn to speak about faith with greater confidence than ever before.The world needs a revival of these sacred words And so do we.Jonathan wrote about words you might expect such as God, prayer, creed, sin, fall, and grace along with many others you wouldn t such as pain, disappointment, mystery, neighbor, pride, lost, and pride I appreciated the vulnerability and care he demonstrated as he shared not only about his experiences as it related to these words, but also the experiences of others.Here is one example from the chapter on Blessed.After spending a decade studying the prosperity gospel, Kate Bowler received horrific news she had stage IV colon cancer As a young mother, she struggled to understand how the prosperity gospel s understanding of God, illness, and blessings made sense of her condition Dying from cancer and leaving behind a husband and child doesn t look like God s favor.In addition to the content of the book, I want to highlight some resources Jonathan included in the back matter including footnotes, a list of recommended book for God speakers, and a how to guide for seekers and speakers You can t learn how to speak God from scratch by reading a book Most people, including myself, learn by doing The guide outlines a five step process Merritt uses the acronym SPEAK to make it easy to remember to get us started.After moving to New York, I realized the need to play with the words I d unconsciously been avoiding I decided to begin living aware of the linguistic tensions I felt I refused to place sacred terms in liquid amber, fossilizing them and accepting the status quo I committed to keep playing with the lexicon of faith When I stumbled across a word that I previously resisted or that I had become overly familiar with, I would stop to notice it I would pause and ponder it Each time I encountered a term that made me squirm and prompted confusion, I named the meaning I d given it, confronted the meaning s shortcomings, and then reimagined how I might understand the word afresh.My takeaway from this book is not just the words that I should or should not use, but the lens through which I see the world Jonathan is calling us toward a broader view where we see the world not only through the lens of our experience but through others as well I am not suggesting that you change your theology, but adopt awelcoming position toward the women and men we come into contact with and allowing that to influence the conversations you have and the words you use.I heartily recommend Learning To Speak God From Scratch, but please do with an open mind and heart Pray for the Holy Spirit to help you understand the words you currently use, those you should consider not using, and those you can reclaim for the glory of God and the common good.In closing, please do me a favor If you re interested in picking up a copy of Learning To Speak God From Scratch, please contact my friend Byron Borger at Hearts Minds Books He and his team have been selling books forthan 30 years They will take good care of you

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