Jonathan Merritt explores how he took hold of ‘a thread called grace’
The faith and culture writer talks about the journey to revitalize his faith, the relevance of denominations, the debate over Calvinism and why a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid is living in Brooklyn.
By Bob Allen
In his latest book, faith and culture writer Jonathan Merritt delves into a yearlong inward journey to recover a faith that had grown spiritually dry. ABPnews/Herald asked him what led him to write Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and his view on other issues.
Your first two books dealt with social issues: politics and creation care. How is this one different?
This book is far more personal and confessional. I often say, “I didn’t write this book; it wrote me.” I actually contracted a completely different book with the publisher that was titled, Losing Our Religion, Finding Our Faith. It was supposed to be about the difference between religion and unfettered faith (some of the material influenced one of the later chapters).
But as I was writing this, I was taking an incredible spiritual journey. One morning, I woke up and said, “That is the book I should be writing.”
In one chapter you speak honestly about being sexually abused as a child and later on in life dealing with questions about your sexual identity. How have people responded to that part of your story?
Mostly, people have been gracious. I’ve been really pleased by how even conservative Christian friends have responded. Most said, “We don’t need to hear every detail of how you’re working through this. We love you anyway.” The only push back has come from some gay and lesbian people who were rankled that I included the story of sexual abuse along with the story of processing my sexual orientation in adulthood. They felt it played into the popular misconceptions that all sexual minorities must have abuse in their past. I’ve said repeatedly that this is not an idea I promote or believe, and I think it is damaging to assume such things.
But if I am going to share my story, I want to share all of my story. I accept that wading through the details of that will be messy for readers on all sides of the issue.
You had differences with Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land about climate change, and you’ve been critical of his generation’s tendency toward partisanship and single-issue politics. How do you feel about his successor’s approach to those issues?
I think Russell Moore is very sensible on the matter of climate change. I don’t think he denies that it is real and largely caused by humans. But Dr. Moore is a bit hamstrung on the issue because he is paid to represent the views of Southern Baptists at large. And many Southern Baptists are neither educated on the matter nor as sensible as Dr. Moore is.
But you and Russell Moore have different views, for example, on the question of a Christian wedding vendor refusing to serve a same-sex couple on religious grounds. Why is that?
I don’t agree with Dr. Moore on everything, and that seems about right. He has argued his case on the matter, and I think he’s done so ably. But I still don’t agree with his position. In my view, Christians should never support discriminating against a class of people in the marketplace. I think one can make a solid case for this position based on biblical principles as well as our shared American values. I think several decades from now, political science students in college will be reading opinion columns by Christians arguing for these discriminatory laws in wonderment. And I think older Christians at that time will pretend they were never for them in the first place.
But I hope we all remember that many Christians were for these discriminatory laws. Many Christians did support refusing service to our gay and lesbian neighbors in the marketplace and they did it in the name of the Christian religion. And if Christians become a persecuted class of religious minorities who are unwelcome in the marketplace — like many conservative doomsday prophets predict — may we also remember that we got the very thing we tried to doll out to others.
A few years ago voices in your generation were questioning whether the Southern Baptist Convention had any relevancy for them. How would you answer that question today?
The SBC grows increasingly irrelevant in terms of its influence over the broader culture or even its influence in the lives of its own congregations. I’m saddened by this because, well, “those are my people.” I am a product of an SBC church. I memorized Scripture and fell in love with Jesus in an SBC church. I’m grateful for the way the SBC faithfully sends and resources missionaries around the world in accord with Jesus’ Great Commandment. I puff up with pride when I hear stories of our disaster relief efforts. The SBC does a lot of good.
But the denomination continues to be an unwelcoming place for young leaders who do not fit the mold or genuflect to the powers that be. The SBC still requires young leaders to run the gauntlet, climb the ladder and prove their theological and political bona fides in order to achieve inclusion. I could tell you story after story of how I and others have been treated by SBC elites that would have you picking your jaw off the floor.
But in the digital age where there are infinite paths to influence and in a world where other Christian groups and organizations and conferences invite young leaders with open arms, the Southern Baptist Convention is the one that loses. Some of its best and brightest leaders have walked away to be a part of more hospitable organizations and have achieved great things. And until this mechanism of exclusion that seems hardwired into the SBC gets repaired, many young leaders will continue to saturate the denomination with their absences.
What do you think of the debate over Calvinism that seems to be engaging at least some of a younger generation?
Let’s be clear that Calvinism is not monolithic. You’re likely referring to what has been called “neo-Calvinism” or “the young, restless and reformed movement.” But there are a lot of other Calvinists — unaffiliated Kuyperian Calvinists, Dutch Reformed, others. — who have as many issues with neo-Calvinists as Arminians do. My personal opinion is that the movement is a mixed bag, like most Christian sects. They are rigorously theological in their thinking, and that is something I can appreciate. But they also are tribalistic, insular and, quite honestly, come off to many like arrogant jerks much of the time. These problems will need to be addressed if the movement wants to become sustainable over the long-term.
By the way, what does a faith and culture writer do?
I can tell you what he doesn’t do: shower before noon. But seriously, my job is to explore the intersection between faith and culture (politics, public opinion, current events, film, pop culture, etc.). More specifically, I hope to curate conversations at this nexus that others may be afraid to have.
How did you get into this line of work?
After graduating with an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry and feeling burnt out with science, I prayed through what God would have me do. I felt a distinct calling to write in that moment, and have spent the last decade doing just that. I started out doing book and movie reviews for a few Christian publications. This morphed into short news pieces and then feature stories and cover stories. Before long, I moved over to the general market, and I’ve been there ever since.
I hear you’re living in Brooklyn, N.Y. What’s that like for a preacher’s kid from the South?
It’s the best decision I’ve ever made — though as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid I’m probably obligated to add next to accepting Jesus Christ into my heart, I think. New York City is expansive and diverse and anyone can find their own version of it.
Because I live in Brooklyn, my version of New York is probably a little less “Seinfeld” and a little more “NYPD Blue,” but it is still wonderful. The city provides me with energy and peacefulness in equal measure. And if you dabble in the business of ideas like me, New York provides you with much fodder.
This interview originally appeared in the May/June issue of Herald, our bi-monthly magazine. To find out more about the magazine, click here.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.