A Review of (and Response to)
Learning To Speak God From Scratch:
Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them.
Reviewed by Chris Schumerth
Who among us hasn’t had the experience of uttering, or perhaps hearing, words and phrases that are expected, so much so that they begin to lose their meaning? And then once the meanings are lost on us, and once the fad has run its course, might we just let the words slip right out of our vocabulary altogether? This is the phenomenon Jonathan Merritt takes on his new book, Learning To Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them.
Merritt frames his book with his move to New York City, where, as he describes it, the people he initially encounters just don’t share the same assumptions as he does, and where conversations predictably stumble when the topics he cares most about come up. This “moved to New York” angle repeats at a number of points throughout the book, and it is one of the ways—we also learn bits and pieces of the author’s experiences with chronic pain, a memory in which he is abandoned by a friend for not being cool enough, and the time another writer takes the liberty of declaring Merritt’s sexuality to the world—the book, at times, reads like a memoir. But Merritt is a religion journalist, and the book isn’t a memoir. Merritt also isn’t a linguist, but along with the anecdotes and nods toward various survey data, Merritt delves into the academic field he believes might possess some of the answers he’s looking for. He compares the “Christianese” he grew up with to a dead language, and the analogy becomes helpful in that dead languages—Hebrew, as one example Merritt points to—can be revived.
Merritt warns, though, that a language won’t be revived by fossilization, by sticking only to the old words and speech patterns. Instead, as models, Merritt points his readers to the thinking of Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann; New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright; and Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. All three suggest, according to Merritt, that transformation occurs in three stages. For Brueggemann, it’s orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. For Wright: packing, unpacking, and repacking. And order, disorder, and reorder for Rohr. Merritt doesn’t say this outright, but of course the models also have something in common with resurrection, though that may be precisely the kind of word people shy away from.
Perhaps resurrection is precisely the kind of word with which we need to transform through play. Merritt’s own journey of transformation has led him out of Christian fundamentalism, a background I happen to share with him (if he would even use that descriptor for his own religious upbringing). One particular fundamentalist church from my childhood stands out in my memory, but also many other conventions and conferences and youth group experiences. While in many ways I have been happy to leave that part of me behind, of course it’s also true that I can’t leave it fully behind; it has done its work in and on me already. So, if and when I can get to a place of forgiveness or grace, of a regard that isn’t fully consumed by bitterness and resentment toward certain people and institutions, I suppose it comes, in part, from an insight about some of those contexts: while they were undoubtedly toxic in some ways, they possessed little cultural capital. In other words, while they held plenty of power over me—and that power was more than apt at the task of harming children via the language of false religious certainty—I can now see that this was likely a response to their own powerlessness, economically and politically.
As such, Merritt’s implicit (and, at times, explicit) comparison of his new life in New York City versus his old life in the South felt intimately related to the political and cultural moment we find ourselves in, a reality I suspect he’s plenty aware of. That he mostly stays quiet in the book about class does, however, lead to a few moments in which I felt a bit tricked into moves that were quite clearly a version of X is the old, conservative conception of the word, but then I got enlightened and realized Y, the liberal conception of the word. As a few examples, in his Spirit chapter the old understanding is that God is male and his new one is that God has female characteristics, too; in the Family chapter, Merritt realizes that families aren’t just biological two-parent homes with two kids and a picket fence, that, instead, our families become the people we spend our lives with and perhaps even those we don’t; and in Merritt’s “Neighbor” chapter his old conception is that neighbors are only the people that live next to him but his new definition of the word includes Syrian refugees.
That Merritt somehow used the story of the good Samaritan to conclude that everyone is our neighbor is, in and of itself, a rather poor reading, as it was a specific encounter that made them neighbors. But the larger problem is that the critique Merritt develops late in the book works both ways and why both liberals and conservatives are here to stay. Merritt suggests that his old way of viewing a certain word is too small, and I’m sure it was, at times, as it has definitely been the case for me, too. But we could also come up with just as many examples of words—“marginalized” comes to mind, but there are others—where increasing the bounds of a definition or concept continually risks killing the word. In fairness to Merritt, he acknowledges this problem, albeit in the back of the book, buried in the notes: “This may all feel squishy….Definitions matter…I don’t believe that any word can mean anything you want it to. If a word can mean anything, then a word means nothing” (212).
To see how this might work, let’s play a bit more with Merritt’s neighbor example. If Merritt’s thinking is that a definition of your neighbor as only the person who literally lives next door to you leaves out Syrian refugees so naturally we’ve got to admit that everyone is our neighbor (a larger leap than Jesus made in the parable, it’s worth pointing out), it doesn’t take Wendell Berry to figure out that the problem with this conclusion is that the term neighbor can easily become an abstraction, and a poor one at that, a word we throw around when we want to feel righteous. We can not know the person next door, or—more likely—we can know perfectly well how annoying he is—that is to say we can lose sight of his humanity when he mows the yard at six in the morning with his shirt off, his grey chest hairs and beer belly hanging out—and therefore do our best to either ignore or spite him, while still feeling great about loving our neighbors across an ocean by sending an occasional check or advocating for a certain policy, both of which are actually much easier than loving (and first knowing) a flesh-and-blood neighbor. Again, to his credit, Merritt admits in his book that “In the five years (of living in an Atlanta suburb), I learned the names of only two of my neighbors” (146).
I don’t poke at Merritt’s thinking to suggest that the author is all wrong in his conclusions, but rather to remind myself that perhaps fundamentalists have deeply-entrenched emotional reasons to hang onto their guns or religion. That they, like we all, are trying desperately to hold onto, to prop up, identities and communities and enough financial provision to continue existing in a world where most influencers don’t really value, and in fact are quite embarrassed, by them. And so while poor, uneducated, and under-employed people are surely still responsible in some kind of way for what they teach and how they form children, one can also see how manipulation or control would seem like a solution, sure as they are that many of their own will one day defect to cooler cities, more reputable schools, higher-paying jobs, and even trendier churches, if not (right into Satan’s hands!) into one of those other religions altogether.
Merritt’s strongest chapters, though, have something to say to Trump voters, to Hillary voters, and to everyone in between. “Life is something of a chronic pain condition,” Merritt writes. We project our expectations onto God, he tells us, and when God fails to meet them, we are crushed by our disappointment. Well, if we trust Merritt, there is a “way forward,” not in denying the pain but in learning to pray not as a laundry list (old model) but as a rhythm of listening and being: not too different, really, than breathing. Like the pleasure Merritt learns to derive from chanting the creeds in his New York church, it is here in our being and in our breathing and in our pain and in our longing that we might learn to embrace the mystery of God.
Chris Schumerth is a nonfiction writer who lives on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis. You can find out more about his work at ChrisSchumerth.com