S5-EP19: Jonathan Merritt on Personal Transformation and the Complicated Intersection of Faith and Culture

Jul 7, 2023


Debbie invites renowned writer and speaker Jonathan Merritt onto the show to talk about the complicated intersection of faith, culture, and personal transformation.



Today, Debbie speaks to Jonathan Merritt, one of America’s most renowned writers on faith and culture.

Debbie met Jonathan in the hot tub in Baja Mexico, but don’t get the wrong idea.

They were both in Baja to attend a weeklong workshop organized by Modern Elder Academy. And as you’ll hear in this episode, “change and transformation” were very much on the agenda.

You may have heard her talk about MEA. It’s billed as a midlife wisdom school whose core mission is to shift our negative mindset about aging. MEA is also a little bit of paradise. The campus, bursting with pink bougainvillea, sits on a wide, surf-pounded beach near Todos Santos, MX, just north of Cabo. 



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Debbie and Jonathan were part of a group of about 20 in a recent workshop, pondering how to use sensory experience in the here and now to map out their futures. Debbie was intrigued with Jonathan’s thoughtful comments. She was also drawn to his Atlanta accent which she couldn’t quite place at first but which she recognized. She has a bunch of Georgia cousins.

In the hot tub, Jonathan revealed a bit about why he had flown from New York to spend a week at MEA. She wanted to find out more so she invited him onto the show. And she wanted him to explain things to her, a non church-person. 

Jonathan is best known as a writer on the complicated intersection of faith and culture — as it applies to LGBTQ intolerance and evangelicalism  — and much more.

The son of an evangelical leader and a former pastor himself, Jonathan was outed as gay a decade ago. He moved to New York City and has since become an award-winning contributor to The Atlantic, a senior columnist for Religion News Service; has authored several books (including the critically-acclaimed How to Speak God From Scratch); has been interviewed on ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR and PBS; is a literary agent; has ghostwritten or collaborated on more than 50 books (with several titles landing on the NYTimes, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists); speaks and teaches at colleges, conferences and churches; has just finished writing his first children’s book; and is writing a TV series about religion and popular culture.

Oh, and he just turned 40.

Despite — or perhaps because of — his achievements, Jonathan is working on a transformation, his own “what’s next.” He’s an old soul, he tells Debbie, so he’s approaching this with intentionality; his week at MEA was just one step.

On the podcast they talk about:

  • The urge to embrace spirituality (and religion) as you get older.
  • Why Sunday service at Yale’s Battell Chapel felt like a safe place for Debbie to weep after her mother died recently — even though she is not a church-person.
  • The definition of evangelicalism.
  • The connection between evangelicalism and fundamentalism and far right conservative ideologies.
  • The Rev. Tim Keller and his untimely death in May 2023 at age 72 (in his obituary, the NYT dubbed him Manhattan’s Pioneering Evangelist).
  • Jonathan’s personal story of being outed as gay  just days before his 30th birthday, and then moving from Atlanta to NYC to start a new life.
  • Appreciative inquiry and the art of asking ourselves the right questions.
  • Jonathan’s adaptation of The Ignation Examen as part of his daily intentional practice.
  • And, despite his notable success as a journalist, speaker, literary agent, ghostwriter, creative and more, why he’s feeling the need to transform himself at age 40.

As Debbie tells Jonathan, she could listen to him explain things all day — especially as they relate to religion, church, community, identity, intolerance and more. And yes, it’s okay to go to church, he told her. Even if you don’t believe in God, per se. She loved this conversation and hopes you will too.


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Our Media Partners:

  • CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org)
  • MEA and with thanks to Chip Conley
  • Next For Me (former media partner and in memory of Jeff Tidwell)

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Thanks to our media partners

Encore.org, our newest media partner, is an ideas and innovation hub tapping the talent of those 50+ as a force for good. Founder and CEO Marc Freedman is an award-winning social entrepreneur and author, most recently, of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations. Looking for a great gap-year transition program? Check out Encore Fellowships, which match skilled, seasoned professionals with social-sector organizations in high-impact, paid assignments.


Modern Elder Academy is a program dedicated to navigating mid-life transitions. MEA, based in Baja California, Mexico, provides the place and the tools to start reframing your lifetime of experience. Grow whole, not old. Founder Chip Conley is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning hospitality entrepreneur and a rock star of the mid-life transition movement. His newest book is Wisdom @ Work: the Making of a Modern Elder.


Next For Me is an important new resource for the 50+ crowd focused on rewriting life. Taking a gap year or timeout may be the best way to figure out "what's next" when you're in this stage of life. Founder Jeff Tidwell explains, Next For Me "connects and inspires our generation to evolve our post-50 lives through new work, a new purpose, or a new social contribution."