Why it's harder for him to "speak God"

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In "Lexico-cultural decay" (10/9/2018) and "Lexical orientation" (10/12/2018) I discussed Jonathan Merritt's 10/9/2018 argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018).

Yesterday, a related piece by Merritt was featured in the New York Times — "It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God". This time he adds polling results to numbers from Google Books:

More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time. […]

As a student of American Christianity and the son of a prominent megachurch pastor, I’ve been sensing for some time that sacred speech and spiritual conversation are in decline. But this was only a hunch I had formed in response to anecdotal evidence and personal experience. I lacked the quantitative data needed to say for sure.

So last year, I enlisted the Barna Group, a social research firm focused on religion and public life, to conduct a survey of 1,000 American adults. This study revealed that most Americans — more than three-quarters, actually — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations.

More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly.

It's not clear what the percentages would have been 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. And Merritt's hunch seems to have fostered more by a geographical than by a historical change:

[E]ven someone like me who has spent his entire life using God-talk knows how hard it has become. Five years ago, I moved from the Bible Belt to New York City and ran headfirst into an unexpected language barrier. Sure, I could still speak English as well as I always had. But I could no longer “speak God.” […]

By this I mean that spiritual conversations, once a natural part of each day for me, suddenly became a struggle. Whether I spoke to a stranger or a friend, the exchange flowed freely so long as I stuck to small talk. But conversations stalled out the moment the subject turned spiritual.

Before relocating, I worked as a part-time minister at a suburban congregation outside of Atlanta. Before that, I had attended a Christian college and seminary. All my life, I used religious language daily in my home and community, rarely pausing to think about the meaning of my words. But I was not in Georgia anymore.

Whenever I used religious terms I considered common — like “gospel” and “saved” — my conversation partner often stopped me mid-thought to ask for a definition, please. I’d try to rephrase those words in ordinary vernacular, but I couldn’t seem to articulate their meanings. Some words, like “sin,” now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat. Others, like “grace,” I’d spoken so often that I no longer knew what they meant.

This Op-Ed clarifies why the (in my opinion, unconvincing) Google-ngram data matters to him:

A deeper look reveals that the decline in sacred speech is not a recent trend, though we are only now becoming fully aware of it. By searching the Google Ngram corpus — a collection of millions of books, newspapers, webpages and speeches published between 1500 and 2008 — we can now determine the frequency of word usage over the centuries. This data shows that most religious and spiritual words have been declining in the English-speaking world since the early 20th century.

Merritt believes that more Americans should have more frequent conversations about Christian theology, but he also wants to argue that the current situation is the result of a historical trend away from the religious culture that he prefers.

No doubt Georgia and New York City are different in this respect, especially when the move was apparently associated with the transition discussed in Azariah Southworth, "Why I outed a Christian star", Salon 8/12/2012:

Ever since I outed an up-and-coming evangelical leader named Jonathan Merritt on my blog on July 23, one sentence has been running through my mind: I might have destroyed his life. […]

In 2009, I emailed Jonathan Merritt to simply say I found his Op-Ed in USA Today to be interesting. He is a Christian whose writing on religious and environmental issues has been featured in two books and a variety of publications, from the Atlantic to the Washington Post. Along with frequent appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Fox & Friends” and “CNN News,” Merritt has become a star among young people of faith. Oh, and his dad is the former president of the world’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Southworth describes a sexual encounter with Merritt at a religious conference in 2010, and adds

Outing Jonathan was not an easy decision. I mulled it over for more than a year and discussed it with friends. Those conversations always ended in, “Yeah, it’s probably not a good idea.” So, what changed my mind?

I was tired of the lies. I was tired of hearing Jonathan say that being gay is not “God’s best.” Meanwhile he enjoys the company of men. Jonathan’s approach to LGBT people and issues may be less extreme than that of the late Jerry Falwell, but in the end the results and message are the same: Your sexual orientation is a sin and you need to change with God’s help. It’s all lies — and the conversation not only needs to change but the leaders as well.

I’m tired of my humanity as a gay man being invalidated by hypocritical leaders like Jonathan, who then expect my support in return.

Merritt's current website has a tag "Homosexuality" whose posts present a viewpoint that Southworth probably finds more congenial. But it seems likely that Merritt's personal experience of difficulties with "God talk" have more to do with the personal, social, and geographical fall-out from Southworth's revelation than with overall historical changes in American culture.



  1. Jenny Chu said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 7:47 pm

    "All my life, I used religious language daily in my home and community, rarely pausing to think about the meaning of my words. But I was not in Georgia anymore. Whenever I used religious terms I considered common — like “gospel” and “saved” — my conversation partner often stopped me mid-thought to ask for a definition, please. I’d try to rephrase those words in ordinary vernacular, but I couldn’t seem to articulate their meanings." –> this seems to me to be not a bad thing: ideally, it should force someone to explain what they mean, well, and creating insights for both parties.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 8:05 pm

    … and because this is Language Log and not Politics and Religion Log, I'll add: this does indeed sound much more geographical than historical. If I go to Georgia, I might struggle to explain terms I use every day here in Hong Kong: face, tai-tais, typhoons, dim sum, etc.

  3. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

    I am not familiar with Merritt in particular, apart from what I have read here, but really now: He's surprised to find that once he moves outside the Evangelical bubble, he finds less Evangelical jargon? Really? And make no mistake: this is Evangelical jargon, not Christian jargon in any broader sense. I am a cradle Lutheran. The first time someone asked me when I was "saved" I could only blink in incomprehension. Um…. About two thousand years ago? The theological concept of the Evangelical usage only really became a thing in the 18th century, and is pretty much gibberish to older traditions. Even apart from the methodological problems here, Merritt seems to have had a very insular upbringing, and is confused by what he sees once he left home.

  4. Vicki Rosenzweig said,

    October 14, 2018 @ 9:10 pm

    The person who asks "what do you mean by 'saved'?" isn't refusing to talk about religion or spirituality–they're trying to have that conversation, and the best chance of communicating. The person who doesn't want to talk about religion may say any number of things–"I'd rather not talk about religion," "you can't seriously believe that," and "so how about that Local Sports Team" are examples–but if I asked someone what they meant by "saved" it would be because I genuinely wanted to know, and if I asked "what do you mean by scripture?" it might mean "what books do you count as scripture?" or something like "what does it mean for something to be scripture?"

    Based on this excerpt, it sounds as though Merritt may be the one who is refusing to have religious or spiritual conversations. Yes, he's willing to ask someone "are you saved?" (a yes/no question that can mean "are you part of my group?") but if they try to actually the question with them, he can't or won't do so.

    I no more "admit" that I rarely talk about religion than that I rarely talk about curling or the War of the Spanish Succession–he assumes both that people who rarely talk about spirituality should be having those conversations, and that we agree with him on this.

    Also, there are topics of conversation other than religion and small talk..

  5. AG said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 1:28 am

    Just here to agree with the first three comments.

  6. Lameen said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 5:35 am

    Independently of the particulars of this case, there are vast differences in the frequency and public acceptability of "God-talk" across parts of the world. In rural Algeria, to take an example I happen to be familiar with, it's hardly possible to speak politely without using all sorts of religious formulae in which the presence of "God" is very obvious and felt as such – saying please ("God grant you success"), saying thank you ("God bless you"), hedging ("God willing"), expressing admiration ("mashallah")… Even not particularly religious people use many of these routinely, because that's simply the way you talk. In southeastern England, by contrast, almost any kind of overt reference to God will get you tagged as some kind of religious freak, and the word tends to disappear even from the vestigial formulae ("bless", "bless you", "bye") left over from a more religious era. I can well believe that something similar applies between Georgia and New York.

    [(myl) Indeed — and as an American regional example of how God-talk is not always actually talk about God, consider the interpretation of "Bless your/her/his heart" in the American south. Or for that matter the general English-language use of curses invoking various nominally-sacred names.]

  7. Grover Jones said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 7:34 am

    I'll freely admit to being a white evangelical straight male. It seems to me that if I want to talk with someone else about my faith, and my interlocutor does not understand the terms I'm using, that's on me, not her or him. Christianity for two thousand years has sought to present its claims in a way relatable to the surrounding culture.

    If Merritt thinks that this is suddenly a bad thing, such a conclusion seems to speak a lot more to his lack of desire to "be all things to all people" (as the apostle Paul says in First Corinthians 9:22) than to any supposed decline in the world around him.

  8. KeithB said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    When I moved from Southern California to Albuquerque, I was amazed at how forthright people were about religious matters. In California, it was just not done.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 8:24 am

    There are obviously strong regional variations (and ethnic and social-class variations within at least some regions) operating here, but as I noted in a comment to a prior thread, it is easy to find distinctive phrases associated with the evangelical subculture (or, to be fair, some particular subsets of that subculture not necessarily endorsed by other subsets of that subculture) that have increased in frequency over the 20th century per the google n-gram viewer, such as "prosperity gospel" or "slain in the spirit." And if you switch focus to a numerically smaller and less politically salient subset of Anglophone Christianity that has its own distinct lexicon (Eastern Orthodoxy), it is equally easy to find lexemes that likewise increased in frequency over the 20th century: pretty much all of the first few I tried (iconostasis, Theotokos, theosis, Palamas) showed that pattern. But how much you will or won't hear those lexemes in conversation or see them in writing depends very much on who you're talking to and/or what you're reading — they're not evenly distributed throughout the Anglophone population.

  10. Just me said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 8:43 am

    Upon clicking that link to Merritt's homosexuality section, the browser let me know the content is "not secure", which is in perfect agreement with the rest of this piece.

  11. AntC said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

    More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian,

    And it's said the current President is there because of the evangelical vote — certainly the Vice-President.

    And over the past two years, America has become the most hypocritical, god-awful godforsaken embarrassment for anybody who believes in democracy. (Although the rot started long before that — particularly with the voter exclusions in the Southern — i.e. evangelical States.) Hasn't Merritt got bigger things to worry about?

  12. Chris C. said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

    @Vicki Rosenzweig — Yes, he's willing to ask someone "are you saved?" (a yes/no question that can mean "are you part of my group?")

    I'm no longer a believer, but when I was, I was an Eastern Orthodox communicant. I once ended up in a chance conversation with another customer while waiting for a to-go order in a restaurant. She had been talking about something relevant with her companion, and I remarked positively on the Christianity of the family that owned the restaurant. She then asked me, "Are you a Christian?" I actually hesitated for a moment before answering, because a simple "yes" clearly would have given them the wrong impression. Yes, I was a Christian — but I was clearly NOT a member of her group, which I guessed was the actual significance of the question, and a good proportion of what I actually believed and practiced would have been misunderstood.

  13. c said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 2:42 am

    On my first trip to NYC a decade ago, the most startling aspect of religious language was the bios in the Broadway programs. In both the shows we attended, the vast majority of the cast included a reference to God in their short paragraph. I doubt Broadway actors are the most traditionally religiously observant group in the US, but most mentioned God. Sometimes passing thanks for him helping them achieve their dream, but sometimes it was a short personal testimony to the power of God in their life. I go to London theatres regularly, and I don't think I have ever seen that here, even twenty or thirty years ago.

  14. Jim said,

    October 16, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    As a preacher's kid, I know way more about the Bible and Christian belief systems than most people, and I have *thought* about them way more as well. (Many don't give much thought, just belief.)

    As such, I almost *never* have religious/spirituality discussions with people. The percent who are able to hold reasonable conversations is so tiny. It's mostly "I hate religion" or "I know this tiny bit and that's all that I need" or "I am going to pound you with contextless verse quotes to prove my superiority and shut you up" — it's all argument, no debate or discussion. You can only get "discussion" by being inside their bubble.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    October 17, 2018 @ 4:12 am

    Jim ("As [a preacher's son], I almost *never* have religious/spirituality discussions with people".) Then I think you give up too easily. I am a non-believer who believes that in direct contradiction to the Christian bible, man created God in his own image, rather than vice-versa (created, that is, the concept of God and postulated and promoted the idea of the existence and omnipotence thereof, rather than a real entity of course). I also believe that there is no reason to believe that the belief system into which one is born is any more likely to be valid than any of the other belief systems that are endemic on this planet (or even on other planets, if such planets and such belief systems exist). And finally I believe that we (mankind) created God in our own image because each of us has an innate need for some power to whom/which to appeal when all other recourses appear to have failed. And the reason that I believe (as I wrote at the beginning of this message) that you give up too easily is that when (e.g.,) members of the Church of Christ and the latter-day saints, or the Jehova's Witnesses, come to my door to attempt to convert (or save) me, I invariably end up discussing my beliefs with them, and we then have an interesting and worthwhile exchange of views. I treat their beliefs with respect and they do the same with mine.

  16. bratschegirl said,

    October 18, 2018 @ 12:09 am

    Mr Merritt says "Whenever I used religious terms I considered common — like “gospel” and “saved” —… " Those are not "religious" terms, they are Christian terms. I could talk about Judaism forever and never need to use either one of those.

  17. Bill Benzon said,

    October 18, 2018 @ 1:48 am

    Here's the 1st in an interesting tweet stream about the NYTimes piece:


    Second tweet: "2/5 While this statement could certainly be true, raw n-gram data is not able to support the claim due to underlying non-stationarity. The author is likely referring to trends like figure 5h in the original Culturomics paper, “God” is decreasing."

    Third tweet: "3/5 However, we’ve shown that the English n-gram data is corrupted by an increase in scientific language from textbooks and academic publications during the 20th century. The trend disappears when looking at English Fiction alone."

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