By Emily Wells
On Wednesday, October 3, Montreat College hosted Jonathan Merritt as the week’s chapel speaker. Merritt is an award-winning journalist, writing on religion, politics, and culture. He has written for Buzzfeed, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and has published multiple books. His most recent book, which he discussed in chapel, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, attempts to answer the question, “Why are sacred words vanishing?”
During chapel, Merritt was joined on stage by Montreat College History Professor Ben Brandenburg and Dean of Spiritual Formation Rachel Toone for an interview-style conversation. The first question asked pertained to why Christians today should care about “speaking God.” For Merritt, “speaking God” means how Christians speak about their faith and use religious terms in their everyday language. Merritt answered by saying that language serves two functions: 1) It expresses. 2) It forms. Without using faith terms in our language, we miss out on being attuned to the spiritual realities of life. Terms of love and compassion like mercy, grace, and love are important to all people, religious and unreligious, because they are words that should be used to build stronger communities.
In his book, Merritt references a survey of 1,000 people that shows that only seven percent of Americans “speak God” in everyday life—and only one out of eight Christians. When asked why this happens, Merritt said that the number one reason people aren’t having religious conversations is because they tend to create tension and arguments. Another reason is that people claim religious language has become too “politicized.” Many words, like “sin,” have been given a negative connotation in our society and people are wary of using them. Yet positive words like “grace” and “blessed” have been used in the wrong way so often that they don’t have a concrete meaning anymore.
Later in the service, Professor Brandenburg asked Merritt to explain how languages are fossilized, a term he discusses in his book. Merritt said languages disappear every year for a number of reasons. However, some languages make a comeback. Hebrew is a good example of this. Merritt says there are three approaches people take to bring a language back to life. The first method, he says, is the typical evangelical approach of fossilization, which is treating words as static things. He also says that this is the fastest way to kill a language. The second approach is the idea that if one doesn’t like a word, they can just stop using it. Merritt said that this approach is commonly taken by progressives. Instead of using a word like sin, it is substituted with a less harsh word like “messiness” or “brokenness.” The problem with this is that it strips the language of the ways that make Christianity unique. The last approach, which he said he believes is the only way to bring back language, is language transformation. This means getting together in communities and wrestling with the words that are hard to understand in order to determine their meaning and how they represent God.
After the chapel service, students were invited to a lunch Q&A with Merritt. The content of the service inspired a thought-provoking conversation in the lunch session and in classes afterward. It is important for students to hear the thoughts and opinions of speakers like Merritt so that they can develop a well-rounded understanding of what worldviews are out there. It is also exciting for Montreat students to have the opportunity to listen to experienced, accomplished professionals in their field. This conversation with Jonathan Merritt created a buzz across campus, and it is exciting to see what similar speakers can bring to campus in the future.