Managing Editor: This is the text of an interview CrossPolitic did with Jonathan Merritt about his book Learning to Speak God from Scratch. The video of the interview can be found here. The text has been slightly edited for sake of smoothness and clarity. Otherwise, this is the transcript of the interview. The other parts can be found here: Part 2 and Part 3.
Toby: I’ve been looking at your book, I’ve got this pre-published copy and I gotta say right off the bat, man, I start getting nervous and so I’m just gonna read a short paragraph and then I’m gonna ask you the question and hopefully you can alleviate my nerves. So this is in “Sacred Words in Crisis” which is I think the first chapter. Yeah, and it says: “I have friends who say that the most loving thing they can do is to tell their lost friends that they’re going to hell. The use of their words defines a meaning I cannot accept. Love is drained of compassion and forged into a machete and ‘lost’ no longer describes the inability of all humans to find our way forward on our own. Their words separate a lesser ‘them’ from a better ‘us’.” And immediately what comes to mind, though, is Jesus words in the gospel where he says “I came to seek and save that which was lost.” Or in similar language, like, where he says “I didn’t come for the well I came for the sick.” So how do we learn to speak God and echo the language of Jesus there, using “lost” of people who really are lost and going to hell, if you say that doesn’t a chord with your understanding of the meaning of the word “love”?
Jonathan: Well–thanks for that. It’s a good question. In fact I have a whole chapter devoted to the word lost that attempts to exegete Jesus’ most robust teaching on lostness which comes in a trinity of parables that talks about a lost coin and a lost son. And so I talked about it there a bit where the way that Jesus seems to be using lostness is not in a way that divides an “us” from a “them” necessarily. So when you read that section of parables it seems that what Jesus is saying is that oftentimes it’s the people who think they are found that end up being the ones who are lost. Here’s a great example: if you think about the parable of the prodigal son, what you realize at the end was that the one who was with the pigs wasn’t the one ultimately who was lost at all. It was the one who never left the house: the one son who said I’ve done everything that you’ve said. And when Jesus says he’s come to seek and save that which was lost, I think we also have to square that with where Jesus uses his toughest barbs and criticisms which is not for what we would call sinners or non-believers but for people who were among the most righteous.
Toby: Wait, wait. So hold on. That’s actually helpful but I just want to go back to what you just said a minute ago. So the son that took his father’s inheritance and squandered it in riotous living and ends up in the pigpen, you’re saying he wasn’t really lost?
Jonathan: Yeah, what we find in that story and it’s actually sort of—there’s a great Jewish scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt school theology that writes about this—that Jesus sort of has this storytelling trick. Essentially what Jesus does, is he says well, there’s this item that was lost in this one story and then there’s an item that was lost in the second story and then there’s another item which is a son that’s lost in the third story and so all of the listeners they’re sort of thinking ‘oh the son’s lost that’s the problem. The son’s lost and now the son’s found just like the coin was lost and the coin was found and just like the sheep was lost and then the sheep was found.’ But Jesus has this sort of sleight of hand in that story because he adds something at the end: he tacks something on at the end, the older brother. And then you start to realize where the real problem in the story was: it was the one who never left home. In that story there’s a critique, right? So you get like religious folks, even good Presbyterians who love stories about sheep and coins but they get a little shaky when you start talking about older brothers.
Gabe: Well, my problem is actually both of them were lost.
Toby: Sure, yes and I agree with you about the point that they he adds a little twist at the end and says watch out Presbyterians. Like I’m cool, I’m cool, I’m cool with that. But that doesn’t then mean though that the prodigal—you know the younger son who goes out and squanders his living—he was totally lost though and he did have to come home. And I don’t know how you get—you can’t tell that story and say well actually he’s not really lost. No, he was full on lost.
Jonathan: Yeah, they’re critiquing…Amy Jill Levine writes and I will read from the book. She says “The father is convinced that the younger, the prodigal is the one who is lost and in many respects he is correct, however we find out at the end of the parable that the son who is in fact lost is the elder. The owner spots the missing sheep among the hundred and the woman spots the missing coin among the ten. The father with only two sons was unable to count correctly.” And I think that’s fascinating. It’s a different way of reading those parables and what I’m not doing—I don’t write at any length about—you know whether Hell exists or who goes there or anything like that. And what you read in the beginning of the book, is merely that we don’t often think about the way that we use our words and the impact that that has other individuals. So I think folks will read this and what I’m trying to say here is not that lostness doesn’t include spiritual lostness. I think that’s a totally legitimate expression of lostness, but what I try to do with that word is, to sort of, level the playing field and help us to see ways in which we ourselves are also lost, those of us who claim to be Jesus followers.
Toby: So let’s take Jesus’ words to religious people.
Gabe: We’re learning to speak God.
Toby: And in the Sermon on the Mount for example he’s talking to Jews—people who know the law—and he says “I tell you the truth if you lust after a woman in your heart, you’ve committed adultery” so I mean, he’s talking to religious people who care about the law , care about adultery. And he says you’ve committed adultery, if you’ve lusted in your heart. And then he goes further and he says, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It would be better for you to end up in eternal life missing an eye, missing a hand than to end up in hell with both your hands, both your eyes. How do we learn to speak God? How do we learn to speak that kind of Jesus language in our modern culture, where Jesus is talking about plucking out eyes, cutting off hands, so you don’t end up in hell?
Jonathan: Yeah, well I think that the first thing that you have to do—and I talk about this in the book—we’ve sort of fast forwarded it—well we first bring up an issue I don’t address in the book, but what I talk about is the way that language works and I start with the problem of language. So the dominant way of talking—of speaking God—in America is sort of the way you speak God. And unfortunately it’s just not working. Only 13% of practicing Christians now say they’re confident enough to do it. Only 7% of Americans, despite widespread religiosity, say they can do it. The number one answer that they give is that these things are tense. They cause arguments. Many people say they’ve been hurt by these words. That these words have had all the grace drained out of them and now they’ve become sources of pain.
Gabe: So they’ve been hurt by Christ’s words?
Jonathan: At a pragmatic level, if we continue to speak God the way that Americans have always spoken God then sacred speech, it appears, will die.
Toby: But I’m asking about the way Jesus speaks. I mean Jesus is talking to religious people, religious Jews, and he says pluck out your eye, cut off your hand, or you’ll end up in hell. That’s the way Jesus is talking.
Jonathan: But see, you’ve done something really interesting there because you’ve taken—you’re asking me a question about the way we should speak to “lost” people and then you take Jesus’ words to “religious” people.
Jonathan: And I think if we actually had religious people speaking to religious people with that level of harshness we wouldn’t have to have all these conversations about how we could condemn “lost” people even harder than we already do.
Gabe: Well Jesus did that too. I mean he condemned the lady, I mean he’s calling her dog, sitting at the table, eating bread crumbs.
Jonathan: Of course, you bring up there, one of the most controversial statements in all of the Bible.
Gabe: Right, he was making a racist statement basically.
Jonathan: But what you wouldn’t do, if you wanted to do responsible hermeneutics you wouldn’t take the outlier of Jesus’ speech and say, see what he did there, that’s how Jesus always talks.
Jonathan: Right, if you look at Jesus’ rhetoric overwhelmingly his barbs—he’s not going around calling lost people dogs. We do have one reference to that in the New Testament, but to take the exception and pretend it’s the rule is just doing hermeneutics in a way that’s really irresponsible.
Gabe: I know. What I’m doing is I’m taking God’s speech and language to us in the scriptures that He’s given us and trying to figure out how to apply it now. Which means I want to take all of Christ’s words and not just half of Christ’s words or three-quarters of Christ’s words.
Jonathan: But that’s like saying see there Jesus said he said hate your mother and father so what do you do with that? Jesus is anti-family and I would say, yeah. And I get though, like you know, we provide the clichés and the whole counsel of God and the Word of God and the inspiration, all those things…
Gabe: But the question is let’s figure out how to apply it.
Jonathan: It’s irresponsible hermeneutics to take a verse out and say “look, gotcha. See what Jesus said here he called the woman a dog.”
Jonathan: When I’m really trying to pull from the entire text and show you actually the way that Jesus talked, it is sort of overwhelmingly in one direction. And just pulling out the exception that scholars—you go to any evangelical seminary—they’ll have a hard time agreeing on what that even means. It’s not really a responsible way to handle the text.
Toby: But that’s actually why I went to talking to religious leaders. So you pointed out that there’s a difference between people who are lost and people who are in the church. So I’m trying to do you the kindness of bringing it back to talk about who does Jesus use most of his barbs for, most of his sharpest language for. And you’re right it’s actually aimed at religious people, religious scholars, religious leaders, pastors, priestly lawyers, Pharisees and so forth. And that’s why I used the example of pluck out your eye, cut off your hand, so you go to hell…
Jonathan: Right, so then the question there would be to you and to your co-hosts, who are religious people: what are the eyes you need to pluck out? and what are the hands you need to cut off?
Toby: Amen, amen.
Jonathan: We’re not talking about that. What I think you’re doing there is you’re using the scripture there in reverse. Where the scripture there is intending to be a mirror and you’re using it as a window. And when you try to do that, you are not using the text in a way that’s very helpful. If you’re a religious person the question is: in what ways are you lost?
Toby: Right. Sure.
Jonathan: In what ways do you have something in your life that needs to be excised? And I think that’s a helpful way to speak God.