Author and religion columnist Jonathan Merritt has just released a new book titled, “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — and How We Can Revive Them.”
In it, the writer, whose father is the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, argues our language as believers has drifted and in order to retrieve it, we must be willing to reexamine the ways we use and interpret our most sacred words.
Merritt takes 19 words — words with sacred definitions and connotations — and seeks to explain what they mean, from a biblical worldview, in today’s increasingly secular society. For some of the words, though, like “family,” Merritt seems to dance around redefining, or perhaps evolving, the term. Instead, he leaves arriving at its final understanding to the reader.
It’s perhaps the ambiguity that has already caused a bit of controversy, but as Merritt will quickly tell anyone who asks, he’s no stranger to tough conversations about today’s most debated topics.
I spoke with Merritt about the new book. It should be noted some of the answers below have been edited for both length and clarity.
What inspired the book and why did you decide to write it now?
I made up my mind that I was not gonna write again until I had an idea that was so important that I had to write a book.
Shortly after that decision, I moved to New York City five years ago, and when I did, I ran into this language barrier: I still spoke English, but I could no longer speak God.
When I began to investigate, I found there were a lot of people out there who were just like me. And in fact, when I dug deeper, I realized that sacred speech was in massive decline across America. That’s when I decided I was onto something that was important enough that I needed to pick up the pen again and write another book.
How can sacred language build bridges between people with opposing worldviews?
When you look at human history, you find that almost every civilization has a notion of God and a notion of spirituality. So in many ways, sacred speech should be one of the most unifying things about us. It should be one of the things that can connect all of us as human beings.
And yet, it isn’t. It’s often very divisive.
What I’m not arguing for is that we should all think the same thing. But I do think that the pursuit of truth through spirituality — or in my case Christianity — is something that can connect me to a person who maybe votes differently than I do or has different beliefs about various doctrines than I do.
In that sense, sacred speech can be a unifying thing. Spiritual conversation can be a unifying thing.
Why has faith — and the language of faith — fallen by the wayside in America?
In some ways, you might even say, the rise of political correctness has contributed to that because the primary reason that people give for not speaking God is that these things create tension or arguments. Other people will say that they believe using these words will make them look like an extremist, so in many ways, religion, and by extension, religious language, has become radioactive in America to a lot of people.
There are also a lot of other influences, one being the politicization of religious language — a problem that, by the way, affects both the left and the right. Bill Clinton used religious language perhaps more frequently than any other president in my lifetime. George W. Bush used religious language with impunity. Barack Obama was surprisingly religious in the way that he spoke.
So yes, you have the sort of Trump phenomenon, in which religious language has reasserted itself within the public square or religious people have reasserted themselves in the public square. But it is an American tradition.
Using religious language for political ends is an American tradition and there are a lot of people who feel that that, in some way, desacralizes religious language — that using religious language for political ends makes sacred speech less desirable.
When politicians use sacred words or use religion for their own ends it ends up contributing to the decline of sacred speech.
How practically can people reclaim sacred language the way it was intended to be used?
I spent a year studying linguistics and what I found was I became obsessed with the phenomenon of dying languages. So living languages die oftentimes. In fact, they’re dying right now in record numbers.
But what I discovered was that not only could living languages die, but dying languages could be resurrected and there was this phenomenon that kept coming across called “comeback languages,” which are languages that went to the brink of extinction and then came back. The most notable example, obviously, is Hebrew.
If you come to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and you go to the south side of the neighborhood, at the Hasidic Jewish border, you’ll here Yiddish spoken, which is an Eastern European language that almost died out with the Holocaust and it has been revived.
Two things have to be present for a “comeback language” to exist, for a language to come back. One, there has to be a renewed commitment among the speakers to use the language. That’s one of the things I hope to happen in this book — that I wake people up to what’s happening and they would begin to renew their commitment to sacred speech, to spiritual conversations.
The other thing is there has to be a willingness among the speakers to allow the words within their language to change, to transform. So when ancient Hebrew came back, it came back different. Modern Hebrew is different. Same thing with Yiddish. Syntax has shifted, meanings have morphed. These languages have changed, and the same thing is true when it comes to Christian language.
We have to allow the meanings of these words to change to some degree, and that will make a lot of people uncomfortable, but it’s just the way language works.
Linguists don’t agree on much — they’re like theologians — but they do agree on this: Every language will either change or it will die, that every language is always trending toward either extinction or evolution and there are really no exceptions to this.
How has writing the book changed or challenged your faith?
Words are merely vehicles — they are never a destination. Words are carrier pigeons of meaning, they are empty boxes. So a word like “God” has no meaning in and of itself; it only has the meaning we ascribe to it. It’s what we put inside the box. It is the idea that the words points to that has meaning.
So when you rediscover words, you’re not just rediscovering letters strung together in a specific order. You’re rediscovering the ideas that those words point to.
As we learn to reimagine the word “God,” we reimagine the concept of God. When we reimagine the word “pain,” we reimagine the concept of pain. For me, as I rediscovered the vocabulary of faith, it allowed me to rediscover faith itself, and that’s what I hope [the book does for readers] — not just to help people speak God from scratch, but to help people rediscover the God of that language.
That certainly is what happened for me.