A few things caught my attention right from the start when this book was published in late summer, 2018. First, the book was written by former Religion News Service journalist Jonathan Merritt, and I’ve been a fan for a few years. He is a freelance writer now, focusing his blog on Faith & Culture, while contributing to larger publications like The Atlantic and other news outlets. I am still a fan.
Next, the book was published the same summer as another of my favorites, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” by Rachel Held Evans. There was plenty of cross talk and banter between the two authors that summer. So of course, in fairness, I read both books.
And finally, to be honest, I like words. Ask anyone. I use words all the time. Sometimes more than I should, whether speaking or writing. Thus, I had reason to believe that I might enjoy this book about words. And these were sacred words about God, which made me even more curious.
But I was not prepared to see Merritt as a linguaphile. I suppose it makes sense; he is genuinely intrigued with how people use and interpret words, especially sacred words. Much of the early chapters provide information and research about which sacred words make people uncomfortable, and why that is important. As he mentions, “One might expect meaty theological terms like ‘atonement’ or ‘sanctification’ to fade over time.” But everyday words, words we use in worship, words we sing as lyrics, words as simple as ‘wisdom,’ ‘faith,’ or ‘sacrifice,’ use of those words can’t be fading, right? Yes, their use has decreased about 74% in the last 100 years. Use of words like ‘modesty,’ ‘kindness,’ and ‘thankfulness’ have declined by about 50% each over the same period. What gives?
Merritt posits that there is a yearning among us to recapture this spiritual vocabulary, and the second half of the book focuses on how the use of that vocabulary has changed over time. Why do certain sacred words make us uncomfortable? Perhaps we are uncomfortable because we were raised with one meaning of the word and our current faith journey leads us to a different connotation. Merritt helps us understand those shifts, which can be especially helpful for individuals who are reconstructing their faith.
Merritt feels so strongly about our desire and need to include these spiritual words in our everyday discussions that he leaves us with a ‘How to Guide for Seekers and Speakers.’ At Arapaho UMC, we often use this guide to learn by doing, which Merritt says is the best way to re-learn how to speak God. Based on their experiences, we may create some small groups to learn more about speaking God from scratch.
Read the book. Find out why Merritt is so passionate about ‘speaking God.’ As he shares, “When we lose our spiritual vocabulary, we lose much more than words. We lose the power of speaking grace, forgiveness, love, and justice over others.” What a wonderful power to cultivate in this mixed up world of ours.