#ThinkerThursdays is a series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues.
This is the sixth interview of the series, featuring Jonathan Merritt, who is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior columnist for Religion News Service. He is the author of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.
Part 1 focused on Merritt’s thoughts on the central challenge that the church faces for the next decade. This is Part 2, which dives into what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of Merritt’s writing and thinking.
Q. We’ve discussed earlier the trends, challenges and opportunities that the church faces. What is your role in all of this? How do you think of your vocation?
Many voices in the church see themselves as evangelists for the right answer and situate themselves within a particular Christian subgroup. I see myself as an advocate for the right questions, to be an advocate for what I believe is the truth. As a result, people on the left and right politically and theologically often say they find me unpredictable. And I think this is exactly what a columnist should be.
Q. You see yourself as advocating for the truth – what’s your criteria for discerning what is true?
What you will often find in my writing is a re-emerging framework of myth-busting and fact-finding. For example, years ago, individuals were having conversations about transgender people without considering the reality of intersex persons. So I attempted to interject facts about this overlooked topic. Truth, for me, is an attempt to get at an issue while having all the facts available. Often what I am doing is interjecting facts that are absent or placing what I believe is appropriate weight on facts that have been devalued in conversations.
Q. I’ve appreciated that you try to understand a situation first in all its aspects before offering a judgment in your writing. A lot of writing from Christians can be sermonic – a fact or two, followed by a string of verses, and then lots of commentary. But I’m also curious how your personal background colors your search for truth or “facts.”
Every theology and every political opinion is contextual. White evangelicals tend to contextualize everything except for their own. I do not. I fully accept the way that I see the world is colored by being raised in the home of a conservative, Southern Baptist minister in the Bible Belt, as well as colored by my educational experiences, the amount of world travel that I’ve done and even living in New York City now. I represent a fragment of the “capital T truth — a truth that is contextualized by my own life experiences. I think that God intends for a symphony of voices from various perspectives to be heard alongside each other so that out of that the music of the “capital T Truth” can be observed.
Q. Can you elaborate on how your personal experiences have shaped your current vocation?
Many people who were raised in conservative, evangelical homes are reactionary or flat-out bitter. I am not angry about the way I was raised. I am profoundly grateful. It taught me a respect for the Christian Scriptures, and in many ways gave me an appreciation for some would term “traditional values,” such as the power of a stable marriage. I have a great relationship with my dad, even though we disagree on many issues.
On the other hand, I’ve been to 40 or more countries in almost every region of the world. I spent my 30th birthday in Morocco, where I was staying with a local family. During Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to engage in radical hospitality. As a result, the Muslim family that I was staying with attempted to make me an American-style birthday cake and to sing in broken English, “Happy Birthday.” It was a simple but profound act of hospitality given to me after a day of intense fasting, when they were clearly malnourished.
Often, Muslims are caricatured as violent or simply anti-American. It was a moment when I saw that many Muslims are good people who try to love their families and their neighbors, who worship a God who goes by a different name, and who practice a religion that is in many ways dissimilar to ours — but they are so much like us. If only we would take the time to get to know them.
Another thing that has really affected the way that I live out my vocation is my graduate education. I did two graduate degrees — one in Southeastern Baptist Seminary, which is a conservative Southern Baptist school, and one in the Candler School of Theology of Emory University, a moderate, liberal divinity school that is associated with the mainline Methodist church.
Southeastern was a confessional school, which means they have specific and rigid theological convictions in which they attempt train their students. Candler was a contextual school, which means it did not hold to rigid theological convictions so much as it attempted to bring together a host of individuals from various contexts around theological ideas to critique one another. As a result, I see the value of having very strong convictions and defending those convictions with tenacity. But I also see the value of attempting to view issues from other perspectives that are not my own.
So whenever I am thinking about something, I want to make sure that my own convictions are clearly articulated, while at the same time asking the question, “What might a person of color think about this? Or what might a woman think about this? An LGBT person? A non-American? A Catholic? A non-Christian?”
Through this process, sometimes I become more confident in my conviction, and yet at other times I find that my conviction is altered in some way.