7 Questions Before C21: Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt

In just two months, 21 provocative religion thought-leaders will convene in Denver to share their “big ideas” on the future of Christianity as part of the unique Christianity 21 conference. (Special Patheos reader $50 discount here.)

To give you a taste of who’s coming to speak, we’ve invited several of the presenters to respond to seven questions about their life and what they’re most excited about in their work as part of our 7 Questions Before C21 series. This week, we’re talking with Jonathan Merritt, a faith and culture writer and Senior Columnist at Religion News Service.

I started encountering the divine presence in ways I never considered — in silence and tragedy, waiting and mystery, honesty and absence, and yes, even church. From being held at gunpoint in Haiti to a visit to a Benedictine monastery in the New Mexican desert, I noticed Jesus was everywhere I wasn’t looking. — Jonathan Merritt

What do you do in the world?

I’m a faith and culture writer, which is to say, I explore the intersection between faith and politics, current events, public opinion, music, film, and the like. Most of my columns are published by Religion News Service where I serve as senior columnist.

What are you most excited about in your work right now?

I’m very excited about my forthcoming book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined. It basically asks the question, “Is the God who created us better than the God we created?” And the answer I propose — spoiler alert — is a resounding “yes”.

The book draws a lot from my own spiritual journey, particularly during the last couple of years. I’m like a lot of people who came to believe that there were certain spaces and places and ways to connect with God. I went to church, prayed prayers at meal time and night time, went to Bible study groups, and sang spiritual songs. And yet, I found that I wasn’t having the fresh encounter with God that I wanted.

I looked at the Bible and found a God who appears in floating axe heads and talking donkeys and burning bushes and God-made-flesh. I saw a God who comes in unexpected ways to unexpected places to unsuspecting people. And I wondered if maybe, just maybe, this God was still out there. So I prayed for God to show up in my life and then left out on a journey to meet God. What I discovered blew my mind. I started encountering the divine presence in ways I never considered — in silence and tragedy, waiting and mystery, honesty and absence, and yes, even church. From being held at gunpoint in Haiti to a visit to a Benedictine monastery in the New Mexican dessert, I noticed Jesus was everywhere I wasn’t looking.

So the book is an invitation for readers to open their eyes and encounter a Jesus who exceeds their expectations, and I’m very excited about it.

What is one word you’d choose to describe the future of Christianity?

The first word that comes to mind is “hopeful.” I’m not nervous about the changes and challenges we’re facing as a faith community because I know that the church has faced similar situations before. And because I believe that God has plans for the church that will not be thwarted by our failures as a community. Of course, if you asked me specifically about American Christianity, my answer would change a bit. American Christianity has both an image problem and an identity crisis that is, in some ways, hampering its growth, suffocating its witness, and impeding its effectiveness. Rather than using this moment as an occasion for reflection about what it might look like to follow Jesus in a new era, I see many Christians who are pining for a world that no longer exists and retrenching in their theological, political, and ecclesial cliques. Meanwhile, the Christian church in other parts of the world is thriving. So I’m hopeful overall, but I also think the American church is facing some challenges that cannot be ignored.

Who are you looking forward to meeting at C21?

Well, I’m excited to see all of my friends who will be there — people like Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Noel Castallanos, and Sarah Cunningham. But at events like these, I have the most fun hanging out with the participants. People who speak at conferences are usually getting paid to show up, but participants are paying to attend. So they bring a certain energy, enthusiasm, and desire to learn that I love to brush up against.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?

I’m a bit of a cinephile, so this is tough, but I’d have to say “12 Years a Slave.” I screened this movie a while back, and it still haunts me. As I said in my review, it portrays religion at its best and worst. The violence and sexuality is not for the faint of heart, but it is an important movie from both a historical and theological perspective and should be a force to reckon with at the Oscars.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a lot of sermons. I’ve particularly been digging into the works of Fred Craddock, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Will Willimon. I’m in a place where I’m trying to be more intentional about my personal spiritual growth. Simple sermons that explore the scripture and remind me of the good news of Jesus have been helpful to that end.

What’s one of your most meaningful spiritual practices? 

After writing Jesus is Better Than You Imagined, I started trying to spend more time in silence. When Western Christians want to encounter God, we often make noise — we preach or sing or have a spiritual conversation. But I’m learning the value of listening for God rather than speaking to God. I think we could learn a lot from contemplative Christians and Eastern ways of encountering God, and now I cherish this literal “quiet time” each day.

Hear more from Jonathan Merritt – and 20 other exciting religious thought-leaders – at Christianity 21, January 9-11 in Denver, CO.  (Special Patheos reader $50 discount here.)

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