Q&A: Jonathan Merritt talks religion journalism


Photo courtesy Jonathan Merritt.

Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt spoke at Calvin’s Festival of Faith & Writing in April. He writes for The Atlantic, The Week and Religion News Service, and he’s the author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars” and “Jesus Is Better than You Imagined.” His upcoming book, “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” will be released on Aug. 14. Chimes spoke with him this week about what it’s like being a religion journalist.

Chimes: How did you get started in journalism?

Merritt: I’m a true evangelical in that my vocation is a result of a calling. I graduated from college with a degree in science and went to work for a chemical company, and a few months into it, I just felt something inside of me saying, “You’re going to write.” That was weird because I didn’t have any experience or education in it. I ended up going back to school — I got two graduate degrees in religion because I knew I wanted to be a religion writer. I quit my job when I felt that calling, and began pursuing it full time, and here I am 12 years later.

Chimes: What is the hardest part of religion journalism?

Merritt: I write about religion for mainstream publications, and that comes with a whole set of difficulties, because your audience is not always conversant in what you’re talking about. Imagine if every time a political writer wrote a story they had to qualify who President Trump was and why he mattered. When it comes to religion you have to do that.

I think one of the other hurdles I face is this belief among Christians that you should stick together. It is a belief that flows from the notion of Christian unity. And so when you speak honestly about the faith and institutional religion, you’re often criticized, because even though you’re telling the truth, that truth may not always reflect positively on the broader community. So to be a religion writer in many ways is to be a somewhat despised individual.

Chimes: What do you find is the most difficult religious concept to explain to the general public?

Merritt: The most difficult topic to write about right now is probably these so-called “Trumpvangelicals.” It’s difficult because I can’t fully make sense of it myself. There is such a large amount of cognitive dissonance in that movement that it astounds even me. Trying to reconcile how a movement with a rich history of claiming that principles reign supreme and character counts can support a man like Donald Trump is simply baffling. Often I have to write with the goal of merely communicating my own disbelief rather than trying to make sense of something that is so beyond my understanding.

Chimes: What is the most rewarding part of being a religion journalist?

Merritt: I believe I have the best job in the world. It’s a dying job, but people essentially pay me to articulate what I think and to name what I see, which is what I would be doing anyway, but I get paid to do it. I feel like I have a job that is in service to the truth, while a lot of people have a job that is in service to the bottom line.

Chimes: How do you balance that service to the truth with getting people to read your work?

Merritt: There’s always a temptation to be a sensationalist. Provocative headlines and punchy writing is not a new phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that is more apparent because of the internet, but if you study American journalism, you’ll find that this has always been something that journalists have always wrestled with.

I believe that God has called me to do what I’m doing. And I believe that God is leading me to say what I’m saying when I write. And if you believe that that’s true, then you should want people to read it do everything ethically possible to get them to read it. Misleading people with a headline is never okay. Creating clickbait is never okay. Being provocative for the sake of provocation is never okay. And that’s a fine line, so you have to keep yourself accountable. I have a group of people in my life who I have significant political and theological disagreements with, but I almost always get their feedback on an article before publishing it.

Chimes: You’ve been involved in a few sticky journalistic situations over the past few years, from reporting on Jen Hatmaker’s views on gay marriage to Eugene Peterson’s back-and-forth on that issue. How do you handle writing stories that you know will upset or offend some portion of your readership?

Merritt: Religion is like politics in that no matter what you say, if it is worth saying, it will offend someone. So I’m never taken off guard when I get negative feedback. I think that the best way to handle that situation is to create policies that guide your work that are established before controversy arises.

In the case of Jen Hatmaker and Eugene Peterson, I’ve always seen my calling to be at least partly an act of asking the questions others are afraid to ask. And people know when they agree to do an interview with me that I hope to ask some of those questions that are uncomfortable but illuminating. That may anger people, but it will ultimately lead to a conversation that is important and needed. So when I encounter criticism or resistance for doing that, it’s a reminder that I’m doing my job well.

Chimes: Can you give some examples of policies you hold yourself to?

Merritt: I always seek wise counsel from people I trust. I always pray over every story that I publish. I always attempt to read the story through the eyes of my critic and to make changes accordingly. I am always willing and ready to apologize if I do something wrong.

I wrote an article defending Tim Keller after Princeton Seminary rescinded an award they were going to give him. I called Tim Keller “marginalized.” And I had women and people of color come to me and say, “a white male is not marginalized,” and they were right. And so I said on social media, “I wish I hadn’t said this, and I’m sorry.”

Chimes: Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists or religion writers?

Merritt: Diversify your revenue streams. Most journalists hope to become staff writers, working in a big newsroom for a big organization. Those jobs are few and far between, and they’re becoming more scarce every day. But, there is an incredible amount of opportunity for freelancers and contractors. Having multiple revenue streams allows me an amount of independence and stability I might not have otherwise.

Chimes: What do you like to read?

Merritt: I think that every writer should read three kinds of books. One, they should read books within their genre. So I read books about religion and culture. Two, they should read books outside of their genre. There are words and literary devices that are more popular in other genres that I can borrow. This year I took on poetry. The third one is: read good books. Pick up books that have stood the test of time and have continued to resonate with human hearts over 40 or 50 or 150 years. Writers should always have books in each of those three categories on their bedside table at all times.

This interview has been condensed and edited.