God-Talk and Its Discontents

By Burke GerstenschlagerJune 19, 2019

God-Talk and Its Discontents

Learning to Speak God from Scratch by Jonathan Merritt

UNDERGIRDING THE ONGOING CRISIS within American Christianity is a steady cottage industry of confessional and fretful memoirs. Prolific and award-winning columnist Jonathan Merritt is among the latest and highest-profile writers (including the recently deceased Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker) to contribute to the genre. Clearly writing for other evangelicals who have been formed by those very currents of the last few decades, Merritt endeavors to reach out to those who find themselves increasingly marginalized by the church and dislocated from God. Learning to Speak God from Scratch is a memoir as much about Merritt’s desire to untangle from, and deal with, his past as it is his attempt to create something new as he refashions himself.

Given that all theology and theological discourse are ultimately autobiographical, Merritt is writing for a hungry readership who can identify personally with his observations and concerns. The looming problem of discursive failure within evangelicalism resonates deeply; it is not without significance that, in a book focused on theological communication, Merritt largely and skillfully avoids the word “evangelical.” This is a word that has acquired so much detrimental baggage that it seems to have lost for him all useful meaning as both an identity marker and theological category.

In fact, it makes sense that “evangelical” is the one word that Merritt seems to want to avoid, even if his readers and endorsers are primarily from that camp. Over the last 40 years, the word has been weaponized, analyzed, politicized, and pilloried to the point that even mentioning it on Twitter can cause a scuffle among evangelicals. Within and without, the form and function of evangelicalism are in turmoil. Merritt also largely avoids the word “theology,” the formal term for what is often described as “god-talk.” He never explains why. Seeking to circumvent such loaded vocabulary, he instead coins “speak God,” a grammatically and hermeneutically clunky catchphrase reminiscent of the much-maligned “Be Best” mantra urging virtuous behavior for our profane and fallen age. It is a predictable post-evangelical move, desiring something outside his circle. But it is also a confusing move.

Signaling to his people, Merritt waxes nostalgic for an earlier time of theological certainty, and laments the loss of a readily used and understood “vocabulary of faith.” To set up an avenue for recovery, he does what evangelicals do best: create brief studies of key terms imbued with heartfelt and relatable testimony. It is a noble effort from a writer who enjoys a certain status within evangelical and post-evangelical Christian circles; Merritt possesses a rare vantage point of knowledge, understanding, and perspective. But what he accomplishes by the end of his book reveals more about how truly dire and irresolvable this crisis is for him and for his fellow evangelicals than how to begin a revival of significant vocabulary and dialogue.

In a journey of faith and self-discovery akin to Pilgrim’s Progress, Merritt frames his search for meaningful theological discourse within his relocation from outside Atlanta to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He suddenly finds himself a stranger in a strange land, bereft of evangelical presumptions of code and culture. As he awkwardly finds his bearings among his new neighbors, he discovers that he cannot communicate effectively about God — even to himself. Out of his comfort zone, he begins to see the world afresh.

Here we find his gamble where he combines personal memoir with his proposal for theological hermeneutics: either this well-established religion writer who has master’s degrees in divinity and theology, and who is a preacher’s son, is breathtakingly naïve and ignorant of the world and the broader Christian religion or he risks casting himself as unreliable and duplicitous for the purpose of establishing and sustaining his book’s argument. Furthermore, this motif of “stranger” also connotes New York City as a non-Christian world, almost entirely devoid of religious language and meaning, thus necessitating, if not evangelization, then the creatio ex nihilo of meaningful Christian community. Why is Brooklyn, a borough already richly diverse in religious culture and practice, exploited as a foil for Merritt’s own personal crisis?

Well published on Christian matters, Merritt appears equipped to wade into the ecclesial conversation about the decline of active church membership and the church’s struggle to define itself in an increasingly diverse and secular world. However, in Learning to Speak God from Scratch his implicit bias always comes from his default experience of evangelicalism. In this framework, his evangelical folly understands orthodoxy as primarily White Second Great Awakening Protestantism, sidelining through omission the Black, Latino, and Asian church. With this bias is the historic marginalization and discounting of the broader Christian tradition, understanding it as insufficient or even absent until he discovers it for his own novel theological edification. It is a significant pitfall on his confessional journey toward theological hermeneutic. One asks, as one muses about Merritt’s classes at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology: “Did he not learn about this, or did he ignore it?” Though Merritt is framing the crisis for Christianity as broadly as possible, it is primarily about the evangelical peculiarities that are of greatest concern to him. For they are his own.

Merritt’s book is meant squarely for those readers of evangelical background who still have some meaningful connection to their youth’s formative faith, yet who have essential issues with the tenets and direction of their faith’s expression. Knowing his audience’s world, Merritt sets up an altar call. Early on, like a preacher, he offers an invitation to identify with his concerns and goals. Maybe, religious language has been used to shame or oppress the reader; maybe, the reader has been told she must submit to men’s authority because the Bible seems to say so; maybe, religious language doesn’t have the same meaning that it had in adolescence. Merritt seemingly proclaims: “I am one of you, and we can get through this together.” Even if theological language has failed for Merritt and his kind, the call-and-response mechanics and conventions of evangelical rhetoric remain firmly intact. A post-evangelical is formatively still an evangelical.

Merritt is well aware of the damage evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity has wreaked. He should know, as his father was president of the Southern Baptist Convention immediately after the now-disgraced Paige Patterson. (Since the 1970s Patterson has been one of the primary architects of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination.) Part of Merritt’s confessional memoir seeks to sympathize with those whom this brand of theology and culture of patriarchy has driven away because they did not conform.

He paints with a broad brush vague examples of that damage, couching the bad actors in language like “certain groups of people” and “angry religious leaders.” In fact, he only gets specific when the bugbears are the safest targets, like big prosperity gospel preachers or the infamous neo-Calvinist Mark Driscoll. Merritt describes broadly the “politicization, exploitation, and polarization of sacred words.” Yet he seems to throw up his arms and gasp when specific examples of sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are found among the countless personal testimonies in the exodus from evangelicalism and fundamentalism. On the other hand, he does seem to make a strike against evangelicalism, accusing it of not listen very well — especially to those who should be listened to the most: those hurting, oppressed, marginalized, and isolated. Merritt would probably resist casting evangelicalism per se as the perpetrator, stating unconvincingly that Christianity writ large is to blame.

The Southern Baptists’ fundamentalist takeover, along with the sociopolitical rise of the Religious Right and the “non-denominational” megachurch, has entrenched within much of American evangelicalism a peculiar self-preserving worldview: it reifies an exclusive theology that actively resists hermeneutical flexibility and responsiveness. This resistance is toward both secularism and much of non-evangelical Christianity, as well as toward key issues in culture, science, and politics — issues especially concerning equality and authority in gender and sexual orientation. This antagonistic worldview has increasingly caused fissures and flash points, which we continue to see play out through American politics, churches, and society.

All the various reasons for theological dislocation Merritt cites serve as backdrop for his greater goal of “finding our voices again.” One of his great accomplishments is to dare his readers to rethink terms that have lost their weight and significance for evangelical Christians in the current moment. He starts with the premise that “[t]he world needs a revival of these sacred words,” but he then urges that we “learn to speak God from scratch.” Taking redemptive language further, Merritt defines “from scratch” as planting the vocabulary of faith to grow into something beyond our expectations. Except that “from scratch” means not to “transform” (also his desired approach) things already existent, but to start from the beginning with no prior preparation or influence, an incongruence Merritt either does not see or will not admit.

Merritt’s attempt to salvage what he can leads him to pick forbidden fruit from the hitherto-dismissed aspects of the Christian tradition found in evangelical “no-go” zones such as Roman Catholicism, progressive theologies, and “high church” liturgies. It is here that he finds the possibility of the revival of theological discourse. Merritt thus finds refuge in the flexibility of meaning in formal liturgy, humility, and academic curiosity about biblical texts, and the possibility of theological discourse beyond the closed circuit of Christianese.

Throughout the “Finding Our Voices Again” section, it would have been more helpful if Merritt had spent more time dwelling on each topic. In many chapters, he asks a legitimate question, provides a few examples to validate that question, offers a decent reflective observation, and then frustratingly skirts the answer to be dealt with at some later time. With a list of 20-ish keywords like “Yes,” “Disappointment,” and “Saint,” the reader is led through the mountains and valleys to recover how to “speak God.” Unhelpfully, these keywords are never explicitly organized. A basic path can only be inferred.

As if being mindful of travel’s aches and pains, Merritt’s focus turns to the role biochemistry plays in well-being, physical and emotional suffering, and how prayer and religious fervor affects one’s ability to flourish. Discovering the limits of his self, Merritt wanders through the foggy terrain of divine mystery, identity, and action. He then turns to theological anthropology and the Garden of Eden’s all-too-human condition, complete with an unexpected encounter with grace through a muddy Brooklyn puddle. From meditating on how we understand and treat others, Merritt pivots to a grab bag of chapters, complete with finding models for living in Christian saints, the personal practice of confession and wisdom of discernment, God described as both male and female, and the notion that the ideal of the “biblical” family is not so ideal after all. At the end of each chapter, the reader is at last shown something constructive, only to be hurried toward the next spot on the map.

During his exploration of human identity comes an unexpected and arresting meditation on “brokenness,” specifically regarding Merritt’s own sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is the lethal third rail of evangelicalism, and Merritt treads carefully, yet boldly to respond. Though he finds that personal, internal brokenness is something almost never mentioned in the Bible, it is a common theme in evangelical preaching and teaching. Merritt’s experience with altar calls shines through, as he responds directly against such brutal and unforgiving usage of the word. He offers honest and vulnerable testimony about the pain caused by the very real and virulent anti-LGBTQI rhetoric and actions within conservative Protestantism. What is ultimately frustrating is that this impassioned plea seems to be as far as Merritt is able to travel here. Any further recasting of “brokenness” in the theological rhetoric of sexuality would risk too much for the bridges of language he is attempting to build between himself and his community of readers.

It is indeed frustrating that the big reveal chapter is at the book’s end, when it could have been used to set the tone at the end of the book’s first section. Merritt’s use of Erasmus of Rotterdam is significant enough that the whole book could have benefited from its frame. By establishing up-front the essential discursive aspect of his thesis, he could have provided for his reader a much richer examination of each keyword. On the other hand, it does make sense that Merritt would leave his meditation on Erasmus to the end to bring everything together. His 20th keyword seems to be “conversation”: the most important of all for his recovery of theological discourse. It is this Erasmian button that Merritt presses to punch out of evangelicalism’s gravitational field.

Throughout his book, Merritt attempts to shift the unilateral, outward direction of preaching and evangelization of theological words’ distinct, codified meanings to the communal practice of theological discourse. In doing so, he approaches something akin to a Wittgensteinian language game, while ignoring other thinkers who have already covered this sort of ground. It is quite clear that as a religion writer for the general public, Merritt wishes to avoid the conventions of academic theology. However, by the way he frames his project, he makes it look as if he is one of the few people who have engaged in the challenges of theological discourse, which is of course unfair to those (especially feminist, queer, and liberation theologians) who labor to frame for laypeople theological discourse against social injustice and for personal edification. In the end, Merritt never quite escapes the narcissism of white evangelical priorities.

That Merritt’s book has received so much subsequent praise appears to demonstrate that evangelicals are, indeed, in need of new and robust ways to express themselves — at the very least to hear themselves speak meaningfully. Mark Noll famously wrote that “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” How far has evangelicalism come in the quarter century since his “epistle from a wounded lover”? Given the current crisis, the faith tradition within which Merritt was formed and to which he speaks seems to have ignored Noll’s admonition. Because of a weaponized Gospel and puritanical culture that willfully ignores the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition as well as more worldly realities and truths, people with sincere crises of faith are worse for wear.

Merritt exemplifies the precarious situation in which many evangelicals now find themselves: the realization of the paucity and bankruptcy of their belief system and the need to fashion new language to move authentically out of their deadlock. This book is part confession, part catharsis, and part bellwether for a culture and theology that have held considerable sway for the last few decades. In his attempt to create a way forward for his kind, Merritt opens up multiple cans of worms that evangelicals still resist dealing with. “Speaking God” is a stuttering start.


Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor living in Brooklyn, New York.

LARB Contributor

Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He frets about God at his blog, Bleak Theology. As the Classics Digital Reference Editor at Oxford University Press, he launched the online Oxford Classical Dictionary. Burke has written for such publications as Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and Extra Crispy. He earned his MDiv at Yale Divinity School and his BA in Classical Civilization at the University of Texas at Austin. 


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