There is an ongoing conflict between what Americans say is important about their faith, and how we speak about it to the culture around us. This is, in part, what Jonathan Merritt says in his NY Times OpEd, It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God. I agree with much of what Merritt writes, but while he diagnoses a problem with our “God Talk,” he doesn’t offer a prescription to heal it. To be fair, his column is based on his book “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing — And How We Can Revive Them.” It’s probable there is more in the book that gets to the recovery aspect of the problem, but from what is in the column, he seems to avoid some of the very things that would overcome this problem.
If we’re going to recover God Talk, we need to return to using the words God uses. Ironically, the desire to reach people with the gospel is in part responsible for the downgrade in how we discuss God. Recognizing that many Americans no longer have the biblical literacy of prior generations, the seeker-sensitive churches such as Willow Creek Community Church actively avoided using the words the Bible contains. Reporting about his visits to Willow Creek services, Gregory Pritchard says, “it wasn’t unusual for Hybels to use other terms to communicate the idea of sin, terms such as ‘dark side’, ‘shadow side’, ‘selfish’, ‘sin nature’, ‘evil thoughts’, ‘cosmic treason’, and having ‘not made the grade.'”
Merritt does refer to sin, only to say that it, along with other words he had been accustomed to using, “now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat.” But this is exactly where the recovery of spiritual conversations must begin, by using the words God uses in Scripture to describe the cause of our separation from him. It is not our poor self-image, our social alienation, our lack of feeling validated or affirmed as human beings, it is sin that has separated us from God. Similarly, we should use the words found in Scripture for our relationship with him—reconciled, redeemed, loved.
The authority for our God Talk, the warrant for the words we use, is Scripture alone. All other sources are opinion and culturally situated, and culture of course changes. I recognize that Scripture itself comes with a culture and a set of assumptions, but this is just the point; if we are to have any spiritually worthwhile conversations about God, we must accommodate ourselves to the culture of God’s Word, rather than changing the words we use to fit the culture.
If the words of the biblical culture have become laden with overtones and connotations, the solution is not to give up on those words, but to bring people back to what Scripture means when it uses them. We need to re-enter the lexical atmosphere of Scripture, where God has used words like justification, sanctification, righteousness, and yes, sin, to talk about the state of our souls. Evangelical populism has conflated many of these words with American civil religion, and that has made the task more difficult for Christians wanting to use God’s words in our conversations. Those who believe the gospel is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinful humanity must patiently correct those who believe the church exists to further a political agenda.
Significantly, Merritt does not refer to Scripture in his column. Though he does mention the fruit of the Spirit, he says these are words Christians use, rather than saying these are what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5. There is specificity in these words, and thus honesty in what God is saying about us. Understanding that God is the authority behind these things, that they are not simply good ideas, that culture does not affect truth, this is what provides both confidence and humility when we discuss God/ One of the basic exercises of the soul before God is repentance, which means quite literally, to change one’s mind. Coming over to God’s side of a question, thinking his thoughts, means using his words to describe something. Christians need to repent of their functional biblical illiteracy, of preferring words that are not the ones God uses, and of thinking we can improve upon what he has written in Scripture. Only there will we find help for how we should rightly speak of God.
G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Evaluating A New Way of Doing Church, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1996), 177.