“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Words are powerful. We all know this. We were created with this knowledge. We were created by words. By ‘The Word.’ The Word was with God. The Word was God. The Word took on flesh and lived and taught us love and faith and grace and sacrifice and blessing and truth.
But what happens when these ideas, these words, get lost in translation? What happens when I say, “Faith,” but you hear, “Naïve?” When I say, “Blessing,” but you hear, “Privilege?” When I say, “Love,” but you hear, “Manipulate?”
These are the types of questions Jonathan Merritt found himself asking when he moved from the Christianese-fluent Bible Belt to the more Babelesque lingual landscape of Brooklyn, NY. He was still speaking English, but he was no longer “speaking God.”
From the introduction: “In New York, religious fluency is not assumed. The majority of residents don’t attend church on a given Sunday, and only about three percent of the population is evangelical Protestant like I was raised. I soon discovered people who had never heard the sacred words I’d long taken for granted – and others who used them with wildly different meanings.”
In ‘Learning To Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them,’ Jonathan Merritt brings us alongside in his journey to uncover the history of God-speak in America and why it is on the decline (chapters 1-6) and then invites us to re-discover the language of God and faith with him (chapters 7-25).
The first section (‘The Lost Language Of Faith’) is where Jonathan puts numbers and charts to the decline of God-speak that those of us in the Church in America have been experiencing for at least a decade now. He goes into not just the fact that people are speaking God less but also goes into the why.
It is in the second part of the book (‘Finding Our Voices Again’), however, where the book really shines. Each chapter in this section focuses on one word in the vocabulary of faith: love, sin, lost, yes, and neighbor to name a few. Here, Jonathan opens his heart alongside his mind and shows us that as he was being confronted with the different understandings of “God speak” by those around him, it was also opening his awareness that he had less of an understanding of the meanings of these words himself. He knew what he had been taught they meant. He had the general idea of what “born again” or “love” meant, but he couldn’t always nail down what he meant when he used these words, either. Speaking them was more of a habit than anything else.
“Sacred terms are signposts pointing to sacred ideas.” Is there value in being able to read the sign if you never visit the destination? And what if you get there and realize the image you had of the place doesn’t match up to the place itself? This is the experience Jonathan details in this second part of the book – taking the experience of being a neighbor then re-examining the term “neighbor,” for example, while looking at the Bible and trying to see how Jesus used the term without the cloud of our cultural preconceptions. This is a difficult (probably nearly impossible) task but there is value in the exercise itself. What does “neighbor” mean to me? What does “neighbor” mean to my neighbor? My grandmother? Jesus?
Why is such an intimate, honest, vulnerable understanding of our vocabulary so important? Jonathan explains:
“We must learn to live our lexicons. But we can’t embody a vocabulary we do not know, understand, or use.”
*I received an advance copy of this book for review purposes.