Twitter led me to Jonathan Merritt. During a recent dust up in the seemingly never-ending culture war debate surrounding gay marriage I came across a rather heated debate in my Twitter feed. It included Merritt along with supporters and critics. I was vaguely familiar with his work as a journalist and columnist but hadn’t read any of his books. With this as a background Jesus Is Better than You Imagined intrigued me:
After following Jesus for nearly two decades, Jonathan Merritt decides to confront the emptiness of a faith that has become dry, predictable, and rote. In a moment of desperation, he cries out for God to show up and surprise him, and over the next year, God doesn’t disappoint.
In JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED, Jonathan shares vulnerable, never-before-shared stories of how he learned to encounter Jesus in unexpected ways. Through a 60-hour vow of silence in a desert monastery, he experiences Jesus in silence. When a friend dies of a rare disease, he sees Jesus in tragedy. Through confronting childhood sexual abuse, Jonathan discovers Jesus in honesty. In an anti-Christian-themed bar, he finds Jesus in sacrilege. And when he’s almost kidnapped in Haiti by armed bandits, he experiences Jesus in the impossible.
Though Merritt finds himself in places he never dreamed of, he doesn’t lose his way. Instead, these experiences force him back to the Bible, where he repeatedly offers fresh, sometimes provocative, interpretations of familiar passages. Along the way, he throws back the covers on the sleepy faith of many Christians, urging them to search for the Holy in their midst.
Conveniently, I was able to get a review copy from NetGalley so I could read it on my Kindle. I found it to be an earnest and heartfelt exploration of Merritt’s spiritual journey but also an odd blend of Southern Baptist evangelical culture and progressive attempts to rework faith in light of modern experience and perspectives.
In some ways I can relate to the author’s perspective and exploration. I too grew up in an conservative evangelical household, although not a pastor’s son like Merritt and in the Midwest rather than the South, and often felt both attracted to and suffocated by that culture and world. Notably, I don’t share Merritt’s history of abuse which I am sure in some important ways colors all of his experiences.
The good: the honesty and good will that comes through. Merritt is sharing his journey and is willing to admit his faults, temptations, weakness, etc. I think many readers will find this refreshing and helpful; particularly if they have struggled with similar issues. Merritt clearly has a big heart and writes well about his experiences.
The bad: it struck me as another example of modern evangelicalism’s focus (particularly the progressive variation) on individual psychology and experience with all of scripture and faith seen through that lens. It is also often a rehash of the other obsession of modern evangelicalism: legalism versus grace. In his defense, if you grew up in this culture and time you can’t help but be engaged in the debate to some degree. But it strikes me as rather stale at this point.
This is not an academic book by any stretch of the imagination, nor did I expect it to be, but I nevertheless found some of the discussion oddly vague; particular when he is “reinterpreting” various Bible stories and passages.
For example (and admittedly this might be just an unfair offshoot of my peculiar biases and interests), Merritt offers no awareness of how something like the New Perspective on Paul, and the resulting debates, might change the discussion about the Pharisees, hypocrisy, and legalism. His approach is all mid-twentieth century southern evangelicalism.
And that is the problem I had. It is an heartfelt, winsome, and at times engaging memoir but this short work feels a little thin by the end. If you like the author and/or his writing style, or wrestle with similar challenges, it is an easy read. But I am not sure it ads much insight or clarity to theology, ecclesiology, or spiritual practice.