Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them is a book that takes a deep dive into some of the most commonly used spiritual words and phrases in churches today. Jonathan Merritt examines the history, current usage and Biblical references for the spiritual words he has chosen to discuss. He presents arguments as to how we maybe misunderstanding and misusing spiritual terms.
After author Jonathan Merritt relocated from the Bible Belt to New York City, he discovered a language gap. Instead of struggling to understand Spanish or Chinese, he had trouble translating the spiritual words he heard in conversation. Is a creed “a dirty word… a ritual, and evangelicals often steer clear of anything ritualistic.” Or do “creeds ground us in a our true identities as children of God who can lovingly disagree on most matters.” And why are we arguing about the recitation of a creed? Does it make one church better and another church less?
How about the word neighbor? Does it just include the people are in near proximity to us, using actual distance as the only measure? It appears that the Bible is telling us that anyone in need is to be considered our neighbor and worthy of help in anyway we are capable of giving it. Plus, he references Mr. Rogers in the definition, so you know it has to be right.
Merritt challenges the prevailing usage of about 20 spiritual words in this book. Words we use in everyday conversations such as yes and pain and words that are alienated almost exclusively to spiritual circles like sin and confession.
Who is spiritually lost?
One chapter I found particularly thought-provoking was about lost as a spiritual word. It’s a term that if tossed around in Christian conversations and refers to the “people who aren’t part of their religious tradition.” It’s patronizing and condescending, rarely meant to make the object of the lost-ness feel understood or seen. Merritt takes a deep dive into the parables of Jesus where Christians claim this term originated. Those lost sheep and the lost coin- they are all inanimate objects. They don’t choose to be lost. It’s not a coin’s job to be found. The owner of the coin will have to seek out and restore that lost item.
In the parable of the lost or prodigal son, based on Merritt’s research, the father welcoming the son home with open arms is the expected response. It would have been a blight on the reputation of the family to have a son disappear to wantonly spend money on frivolous pleasures. Perhaps on second look, the “lost” son is the older one who is upset by the praise and celebration of his sibling. The point seems to be that sometimes the one we think is found is actually the lost one.
What is prayer?
My other favorite part of the book is the section on prayer. This book has one of the best definitions of prayer I have ever read. As opposed to the traditional ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication) formula of prayer, Merritt flips this on its head. Prayer is not a business transaction where we give something to God (praise) and expect something in return (a solution to our problems). This is a spiritual word in desperate need of a make-over.
There is neuroscientific evidence that prayer and spiritual practices can change our brains and our bodies. But that only happens if we lose the focus on ourselves. There must be a “softening of the boundaries of the self.” Maybe, as said in Romans, prayer actually could “renew our minds.” It’s about a relationship, communication and transformation–not getting our way all the time. It’s about fusing our thoughts and emotions to the Creator in order to be better people here and now.
Change Your Spiritual Words
So, what do we do with all of these new definitions, besides impress our friends with our knowledge? Merritt give a very practical five-step process to bring these spiritual words back to life. Using the acronym SPEAK, we can practice speaking God with a new intelligence.
Stop- Awareness is the first step. Think about how often you use these spiritual words and in what context. Think about which spiritual words make you uncomfortable or confused. This gives you a perfect place to start honing your language so you say exactly what you mean.
Ponder- Make a list of the spiritual words you need to re-define. Go ahead and write down your current definition and connotations. That gives you a great place to start. Spend some time considering if your thoughts on the word help your spirit feel closer to God and bring others into communion as well. If not, they need to be revisited.
Explore- Take it apart. Look it up in a variety of sources. Ask other people. Do what you need to do to start redefining this spiritual word for yourself.
Apply- Merritt calls this step “wordplay.” Take your new word for a spin. Keep trying until you get it right. If you are unsettled, return to the explore phase to get some new input.
Keep talking- This is not a solitary activity! Large swaths of the population need to speak God if the language will survive. Languages die from dis-use every year. If the language of God is to thrive, we need to use it–in every setting and with diverse groups of people.
Is it a valuable self-help book?
Absolutely! The deep dive into the spiritual words he chose give lots to think about. And the process is invaluable. While Merritt may have chose 20 spiritual words to include in the book, I’m sure as people read and process it, there will be a lot of conversation about other words that need to be restructured. The best way to be part of this conversation is to start with the book. And I would buy it. It’s one that I will be referencing again and again as I work out how to use the words of God’s language.
Buy it here: