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July 31st, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Do you speak Christian?

Editor's note: Kirby Ferguson is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and speaker who created the web video series Everything is a Remix. His videos, like the one above, can be found on Vimeo, an online community where artists share their films.

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - Can you speak Christian?

Have you told anyone “I’m born again?” Have you “walked the aisle” to “pray the prayer?”

Did you ever “name and claim” something and, after getting it, announce, “I’m highly blessed and favored?”

Many Americans are bilingual. They speak a secular language of sports talk, celebrity gossip and current events. But mention religion and some become armchair preachers who pepper their conversations with popular Christian words and trendy theological phrases.

If this is you, some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about. They say that many contemporary Christians have become pious parrots. They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort.

Marcus Borg, an Episcopal theologian, calls this practice “speaking Christian.” He says he heard so many people misusing terms such as “born again” and “salvation” that he wrote a book about the practice.

People who speak Christian aren’t just mangling religious terminology, he says. They’re also inventing counterfeit Christian terms such as “the rapture” as if they were a part of essential church teaching.

The rapture, a phrase used to describe the sudden transport of true Christians to heaven while the rest of humanity is left behind to suffer, actually contradicts historic Christian teaching, Borg says.

“The rapture is a recent invention. Nobody had thought of what is now known as the rapture until about 1850,” says Borg, canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.

How politicians speak Christian

Speaking Christian isn’t confined to religion. It’s infiltrated politics.

Political candidates have to learn how to speak Christian to win elections, says Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in North Carolina.

One of our greatest presidents learned this early in his career. Abraham Lincoln was running for Congress when his opponent accused him of not being a Christian. Lincoln often referred to the Bible in his speeches, but he never joined a church or said he was born again like his congressional opponent, Leonard says.

"Lincoln was less specific about his own experience and, while he used biblical language, it was less distinctively Christian or conversionistic than many of the evangelical preachers thought it should be,” Leonard says.

Lincoln won that congressional election, but the accusation stuck with him until his death, Leonard says.

One recent president, though, knew how to speak Christian fluently.

During his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush baffled some listeners when he declared that there was “wonder-working power” in the goodness of American people.

Evangelical ears, though, perked up at that phrase. It was an evangelical favorite, drawn from a popular 19th century revival hymn about the wonder-working power of Christ called “In the Precious Blood of the Lamb.”

Leonard says Bush was sending a coded message to evangelical voters: I’m one of you.

“The code says that one: I’m inside the community. And two: These are the linguistic ways that I show I believe what is required of me,” Leonard says.

Have you ‘named it and claimed it'?

Ordinary Christians do what Bush did all the time, Leonard says. They use coded Christian terms like verbal passports - flashing them gains you admittance to certain Christian communities.

Say you’ve met someone who is Pentecostal or charismatic, a group whose members believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues. If you want to signal to that person that you share their belief, you start talking about “receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost” or getting the “second blessings,” Leonard says.

Translation: Getting a baptism by water or sprinkling isn’t enough for some Pentecostals and charismatics. A person needs a baptism “in the spirit” to validate their Christian credentials.

Or say you’ve been invited to a megachurch that proclaims the prosperity theology (God will bless the faithful with wealth and health). You may hear what sounds like a new language.

Prosperity Christians don’t say “I want that new Mercedes.” They say they are going to “believe for a new Mercedes.” They don’t say “I want a promotion.” They say I “name and claim” a promotion.

The rationale behind both phrases is that what one speaks aloud in faith will come to pass. The prosperity dialect has become so popular that Leonard has added his own wrinkle.

“I call it ‘name it, claim it, grab it and have it,’ ’’ he says with a chuckle.

Some forms of speaking Christian, though, can become obsolete through lack of use.

Few contemporary pastors use the language of damnation - “turn or burn,” converting “the pagans” or warning people they’re going to hit “hell wide open” - because it’s considered too polarizing, Leonard says. The language of “walking the aisle” is also fading, Leonard says.

Appalachian and Southern Christians often told stories about staggering into church and walking forward during the altar call to say the “sinner’s prayer” during revival services that would often last for several weeks.

“People ‘testified’ to holding on to the pew until their knuckles turned white, fighting salvation all the way,” Leonard says. “You were in the back of the church, and you fought being saved.”

Contemporary churchgoers, though, no longer have time to take that walk, Leonard says. They consider their lives too busy for long revival services and extended altar calls. Many churches are either jettisoning or streamlining the altar call, Leonard says.

“You got soccer, you got PTA, you got family responsibilities - the culture just won’t sustain it as it once did,” Leonard says.

Even some of the most basic religious words are in jeopardy because of overuse.

Calling yourself a Christian, for example, is no longer cool among evangelicals on college campuses, says Robert Crosby, a theology professor at Southeastern University in Florida.

“Fewer believers are referring to themselves these days as ‘Christian,’ ” Crosby says. “More are using terms such as ‘Christ follower.’ This is due to the fact that the more generic term, Christian, has come to be used within religious and even political ways to refer to a voting bloc.”

What’s at stake

Speaking Christian correctly may seem like it’s just a fuss over semantics, but it’s ultimately about something bigger: defining Christianity, says Borg, author of “Speaking Christian.”

Christians use common words and phrases in hymns, prayers and sermons “to connect their religion to their life in the world,” Borg says.

“Speaking Christian is an umbrella term for not only knowing the words, but understanding them,” Borg says. “It’s knowing the basic vocabulary, knowing the basic stories.”

When Christians forget what their words mean, they forget what their faith means, Borg says.

Consider the word “salvation.” Most Christians use the words "salvation" or "saved" to talk about being rescued from sin or going to heaven, Borg says.

Yet salvation in the Bible is seldom confined to an afterlife. Those characters in the Bible who invoked the word salvation used it to describe the passage from injustice to justice, like the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage, Borg says.

“The Bible knows that powerful and wealthy elites commonly structure the world in their own self-interest. Pharaoh and Herod and Caesar are still with us. From them we need to be saved,” Borg writes.

And when Christians forget what their faith means, they get duped by trendy terms such as the rapture that have little to do with historical Christianity, he says.

The rapture has become an accepted part of the Christian vocabulary with the publication of the megaselling “Left Behind” novels and a heavily publicized prediction earlier this year by a Christian radio broadcaster that the rapture would occur in May.

But the notion that Christians will abandon the Earth to meet Jesus in the clouds while others are left behind to suffer is not traditional Christian teaching, Borg says.

He says it was first proclaimed by John Nelson Darby, a 19th century British evangelist, who thought of it after reading a New Testament passage in the first book of Thessalonians that described true believers being “caught up in the clouds together” with Jesus.

Christianity’s focus has long been about ushering in God’s kingdom “on Earth, not just in heaven,” Borg says.

“Christianity’s goal is not to escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better,” he writes.

For now, though, Borg and others are also focusing on changing how Christians talk about their faith.

If you don’t want to speak Christian, they say, pay attention to how Christianity’s founder spoke. Jesus spoke in a way that drew people in, says Leonard, the Wake Forest professor.

“He used stories, parables and metaphors,” Leonard says. “He communicated in images that both the religious folks and nonreligious folks of his day understand.”

When Christians develop their own private language for one another, they forget how Jesus made faith accessible to ordinary people, he says.

“Speaking Christian can become a way of suggesting a kind of spiritual status that others don’t have,” he says. “It communicates a kind of spiritual elitism that holds the spiritually ‘unwashed’ at arm’s length."

By that time, they’ve reached the final stage of speaking Christian - they've become spiritual snobs.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Culture wars • Episcopal • Evangelical • Faith • Fundamentalism • Politics • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,878 Responses)
  1. beleiver

    How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
    In a believer's ear;
    It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
    And drives away his fear.

    ~John Newton

    July 31, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  2. beleiver

    They gave him a manger for a cradle, a carpenter's bench for a pulpit, thorns for a crown, and a cross for a throne. He took them and made them the very glory of his career.

    ~W.E. Orchard

    July 31, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  3. Kelly

    Jesus Christ is The Way, The Truth & The Life....you have to have faith and believe that The Bible (also known as The Word) was written by God using men and that it is all true and it does all apply to us....your article sounds to me like you've been hurt by Christians who were snobby....walking in humility is a choice for all Christians....hopefully you will see humility instead of arrogance or pride....blessings to you and may you come to know Jesus through a real relationship with Him....

    July 31, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  4. beleiver

    Every character has an inward spring; let Christ be that spring. Every action has a keynote; let Christ be that note, to which your whole life is attuned.

    ~Henry Drummond

    July 31, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Isaac

      I am really moved by your words. I pray God gives understanding of His Words and let us embrace His Way Everlasting, God be with you. Amen

      July 31, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  5. Mike Hipp

    drivel

    pander

    ignore

    July 31, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  6. Evolved

    Well, Christian News Network, you've lost another reader.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • joe

      CNN shows how they are biased and misinformed they are. Ye must be born again. John chapter 3. The people who do not believe in Christ and who have heard of him will suffer everlasting fire. How do you like that Chrstian speech lulus. Christ's words will be here wayyyy after anything any of us say.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • montypone

      But Evolved – the collection of books we call the Bible didn't even exist until several centuries after Christ's death. He did not preach from a book or demand people worship a book (idolotry). Seek Christ within and you have no need for ancient texts. This language you use will lose its value.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  7. cindy lo who

    CNN's hatred toward Christianity always makes me sad.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • montypone

      Where is there hatred here? Pointing out historical facts is now a form of hate? Perhaps you were just deceived by these modern preachers and writers and are now upset with yourself. No need to blame the messenger.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Antonio Leal

      It´s really sad how ateistic people can be so boring and blind...The real enemy of spirituallity (you may call religion, if you want), is not the SCIENCE (which have its own creed that nature ends in itself) but the DOUBT. Mister Ferguson: I do bealive in the whole spiritual structure of the Bible and it´s beyond the borders of science...by the way, your article is prejudiced and full of mistakes and distorcions...GO BEYOND THE BORDERS, CNN.From Brazil, with the love os Jesus!!!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  8. Ed

    How dare someone judge whether or not someone else is "Christian enough"

    July 31, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • montypone

      This article is about language, not judging whether someone's Christian enough. Did you even read it?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  9. beleiver

    If those of us who professing to follow 'Christ can strive to be like him and reach out in love and compassion, we can live out our Faith in action.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  10. Myself

    Message

    July 31, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  11. Jeus Is Lord

    Jesus Christ is the answer. He is the ONLY way to the Father in Heaven. Believe, repent and be saved!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • montypone

      Jesus never actually demanded to be worshipped. He simply demonstrated what people are capable of becoming for themselves. There is no judgment awaiting.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Reality

      Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

      Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts to include Professor Borg after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

      Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

      So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  12. telemander

    I'm rather tired of evangelicals getting all the press about Chrisitanity. I've encountered people who actually believe this new denomination is actually the "one and only". As someone raised in the original Christian church allegedly founded by St. Peter, Catholicism seems to get pushed aside for these trendy Americanized groups.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  13. Lauren

    For me, these types just don't have any other topic of conversation. They do not read, do not watch movies, do not have opinions informed from any other sources. So, they have already have committed a sin in my book: being dull. Some of the most Christian people I know, real Christians, don't talk about it all the time. Because they have nothing to prove and no one to impress. Christianity for them is not a posturing, it's real. So they don't have to talk all the time about being blessed, or the Lord working through them. People who speak Christian, as this writer put it, are trying to impress others, which is directly against Jesus' teachings.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  14. Myself

    fyi

    July 31, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  15. Wifey

    Fyi

    July 31, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  16. Ben

    BREAKING NEWS: PEOPLE DON'T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  17. MilitaryMOM

    This article is neither NEWS or TRUE. There are crackpots in every known "religion" and apparently there are crackpots at CNN too.

    As bad a shape as this country is, looks to me you would be doing articles on the effects of meth head parents on chidren or the effects of poor education on the future of our children..both are major problems in this country – not Christians – not Christianity.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • J.S. Fowler

      You don't think Christians are a problem in this country? Who else is bringing illiteracy and a wholesale lack of respect for learning in this country? Who else is trying to infiltrate government and impose theocracy? Who else is trying to silence debate about religion and demonize other belief systems as "unsaved"?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  18. Patrish

    I so don't want anyone to speak Christian or any other religion to me. I find it irritating when visitors to my place of work, say (as they leave) "have a blessed day". It only comes from the people that are trying to impress other with how 'religious' they are. A simple 'have a nice day" works fine.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  19. Reality

    Speaking 21st "christianity":

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

    earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders/reformers of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems in the reformed movement:

    Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    July 31, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Bo

      Reality...sounds like you know a lot, but if I were you, I would check your sources. You're right about what they say, but you might be misguided about their attempts to discredit the authenticity of Scripture. I would challenge you to pick up a book by Lee Strobel, maybe The Case for Christ. If you're really interested in learning about the authenticity of Scripture, he's worth reading. Borg has taken some ancient texts written long after the apostolic authorship of the New Testament and created a theology and belief system bent on dscrediting Jesus' Messianic claims and the Messianic claims his followers made of him. I hear your complaints and there's credit to much of what you say, but your perspective and opinions are not accurate of us all.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • tocha

      YOU PRETEND TO BE INTELLECTUAL BUT YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!!! THAT'S REALLY FUNNY!!!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • joe

      lol. ok whatever you may think. His words will be here and his life story will be here waaayyyyy (forever) after your lil comments float away into the nothingness of internet drivil

      July 31, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • Youngest1

      To Reality...........You used many, many words in your post and yet said nothing. Rambling on endlessly, as you did, is pointless. Try again.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • midogs2

      Well said, Reality. Heaven wasn't meant to be the exclusive country club for future christians when the OT was developed.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • joe

      You copy/paste this constantly. Do you have the intellectual mettle to write anything new or your own?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  20. Cyphonix

    Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true. Hence the name of this blog. It's silly how people who have NO belief whatsoever, try to comment and make sense of something they do not possess. I'm sure there a blogs for atheist, and non believers, God haters, etc. They are just not significant enough or relevant to humanity to have their own blog on CNN.com, or any other major news organization in the world for that matter. So, FYI: you can't argue about something you don't have and will never have!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:17 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.