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Q&A: The Spiritual Consequences of the Death of ‘Sacred Language’

Q&A: The Spiritual Consequences of the Death of ‘Sacred Language’

Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning writer on culture, religion and politics. He was recently named one of “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership” by Outreach Magazine, and frequently speaks at colleges, conferences and churches.

We caught up with Jonathan regarding his most recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, where he answers the question: Why don’t people talk about their faith anymore?

RELEVANT: You grew up in the Bible Belt and spent a lot of your formative years there, but in your adult life, you’ve been in New York and have traveled in multiple different circles. Being in these two different worlds, how did you encounter people who were different when it came to God and faith?

When you grow up in the deep south, if you tell someone you’re saved or born again, there’s no follow up question needed. When you’re living there, nobody asks what you mean by “God.” There is this cultural Christian vocabulary that basically everyone understands, whether they use it or not. But about five years ago, I moved from the Bible Belt to New York City, and that was sort of a shocking experience for me culturally, because when I got here I ran into this weird language barrier.

I no longer felt confident in sacred words that I had taken for granted all my life, and I no longer felt comfortable having spiritual conversations.This was sort of a disorienting experience for me because as a faith and culture writer, I sort of fancied myself an expert in “post-Christian culture,” but one thing I realized after moving to New York is that it’s a lot easier to pontificate about post-Christian culture than it is to live in it.

What are some examples of phrases we may take for granted, but are more loaded then we realize?

It’s not just Christianese, and if it were just Christianese it would be a much more limited problem. It’s really a sweeping cultural crisis. You can search the frequency of word usage on Google and, what you find is that nearly all sacred words, words of virtue, moral and ethical words are in decline by up to 50 percent or more. Even some of those words on the periphery have dropped significantly over the last 6 years, and most of us aren’t even noticing.

What I then did was I conducted a national survey with Barna Group with over a thousand Americans and I asked them, “How often do you have spiritual or religious conversations?” Shockingly, despite widespread religiosity in America, only 7 percent of people said, “I have a spiritual religious conversation about once a week,” which is not that many.

When I looked at practicing Christians, that number was only 13 percent. So if you went to church and the only people who showed up were the most faithful people you know, only about one in eight people in that room feel confident enough to have a spiritual conversation once every seven days. This was something that really shocked me, and it was the thing that caused me to pick up my pen and say, “OK, I need to write a book about this.”

Why the decline? Barna has published studies over the years on the decline in church attendance, especially among younger age demographics, but is there a correlation there?

The decline in religious engaging statement words is something that pre-dates the decline in church attendance, and church attendance has gone up and down while these words have decreased pretty steadily over time.

The bigger question is why? Why do people no longer feel confident? I knew I had to answer that question. So what I did was, among those thousand Americans, I took all the people who said they spoke to God infrequently and said, “Tell me why.”

They gave a range of answers. A bunch of people said, “You know these kinds of conversations just cause tension or arguments.” Some people say, “I don’t even know what these words mean anymore, maybe I’ve used these words so often that they’ve become hollow hushed. They are things that no longer hold meeting for me.” Some people said, “Religious language has become politicized.” There were a whole range of reasons people gave for this but for one reason or another, people no longer feel that the vocabulary of faith is competent enough to express what they’re experiencing in their spiritual lives and mixed company.

Are there ways to initiate these conversations in a way that disarms it from the baggage it carries?

One of the number one reasons young people leave churches today is they say my questions aren’t welcome here, my doubts are not welcome here. And this is one of the fastest ways to kill a language. Some people won’t talk about faith at all because all of their words off limits. What I’m striving for in this book is a process of transformation.

We could build communities that welcome questioning, that welcome wrestling, that invite your doubts, that sit around all of these sacred words and think, “How have we understood this word in the past, and what are the problems with that? How have we used this word that has oppressed others?” I think if we can begin those kinds of communities, not just in our churches but in our homes, around our kitchen tables, in our small groups, in the various community groups that we are a part of, I think we can see a revival in sacred speech in the 21st century.

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