Jonathan Merritt wins awards for his writings on religion, culture and politics, which can be found in publications such as The Atlantic, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and Christianity Today.
You also may have seen him interviewed on ABC World News, NPR, CNN, PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
On Oct. 14, Merritt, whose new book is "Learning to Speak God From Scratch," will be speaking at Walker Baptist Church. In anticipation of that visit, we got on the phone with Merritt. Our conversation has been edited for length.
What’s a writer with a national following doing speaking in Walker?
I’m coming to hang out at a church there and speak a little bit and do some Q&A and just hang out with those people. And on Saturday I am also going to go to the Georgia-LSU game 'cause I am a Georgia fan. I was raised a Georgia Bulldog from birth. I’m talking to you right now from Missouri, and on Saturday, I got a chance to go see Georgia play Missouri. The family has season tickets, and we grew up going to all the games. And I’m a big SEC fan, so when LSU is not playing Georgia, I try to pull for LSU.
Tell us about your latest book.
It is a book I lived. I didn’t think I was going to write a book again. … I’d written three books by the time I was 30, and I was self-aware enough to know that a 30-year-old doesn’t have 150,000 words of wisdom to give the world, so I had already given the world more than I had in my possession.
So I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to write again unless I came across something that was so important I had to. That happened when I moved to New York City and, as I said in the book, ran into an unexpected language barrier and could not have spiritual conversations. They were either too tense or too confusing, too uncomfortable, and I ended up avoiding them altogether.
What I came to realize is that this was not just a personal problem — it is a cultural crisis.
Millions, perhaps tens of millions, of Americans claim to be people of faith and are even passionate about that faith but no longer feel comfortable or confident talking about that faith. And I wanted to know why that was, whether it mattered and what could be done about it.
Can you summarize your conclusion?
Sacred words are rapidly declining in America, and spiritual conversations are an endangered species. If current trends persist, religious and spiritual language will be nearly extinct by the end of my lifetime.
According to Google Ingram data, the majority of religious and moral words have been in precipitous decline since the beginning of the 20th century. … This doesn’t just include meaty theological words like sin or salvation but also basic ethical terms — words like grace, mercy and God have been declining in usage at a startling rate.
Additionally, spiritual conversations have been in decline despite the fact 71 percent of Americans claim to be Christian. Only 7 percent of Americans say they talk about their faith on a regular basis, which is only once a week. This is a problem that is now infecting Christian communities. Among practicing Christians, only 1 in 8 say they talk about their faith on a regular basis.
As human beings, we talk about what we care about. If you care about your children, you talk about your children. If you care about the LSU Tigers, you talk about the LSU Tigers. And yet the majority of Americans say they care about God and faith, but they do not talk about that faith. That to me is startling.
It’s startling for other reasons. There’s emerging research that shows the words we use or don’t use shape our thoughts and society in ways we never realized before. So if we don’t talk about God or faith or spirituality, we end up becoming a society that does not think about or behave with God or faith or spirituality in mind.
You are on the internet and in a lot of publications, thus receiving a lot of feedback and pushback. How do you handle that?
My experience is the type of people who criticize most often and most loudly online are the people who are the least credible. So I think what the internet often forces us to do is to give the most credence to the least credible, and I refuse to do that. When people call names, when they are nasty, when they hide behind the cowardly veil of anonymity, I immediately mute them and cease listening to them.
However, every writer, every thinker, should value constructive criticism from wise counselors, and so I have many people in my life, including those who disagree with me on a number of issues, who I have granted permission to offer criticism of my work and my witness. I take their criticisms very seriously. In fact, before I publish articles that I know will be divisive, I often send a draft to those individuals for critique and typically make changes to that article based on those recommendations before it publishes.
I believe in the spiritual discipline of speaking wise counsel. I do not believe that placing one’s self in the public stockade is a good idea or a recipe for emotional health.
What is the one message you want the public to hear from you?
The American church is facing unprecedented challenges in terms of its public credibility and its internal stability. It is facing both an image problem and an identity crisis, and yet there are still many reasons to believe that the church can and will persist and even thrive in the 21st century. There are many good people rising to leadership, and there are a diverse range of voices being heard. And I also believe that God always keeps his promises, and God has promised his church will prevail until the very end.
What are your plans for the short and long term?
I am under contract again with Penguin Random House to write another book. I’ll begin researching that at the end of the year. I'm not sure what that will look like yet. In the near future, I’ll be on this book tour. I’ll continue to create dialogue with churches across America. That will continue into next year, and you can always count on me to continue to write columns that are hopefully courageous, thoughtful and provocative at a variety of outlets in American media.