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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 • Faith • Fundamentalism • Politics • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,878 Responses)
  1. prophet

    jesus is not the name of OUR Saviour neither is christ

    July 31, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  2. Bonita

    Americans will be bilingual when they learn Chinese and read the Chinese Bible!! ^^

    July 31, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  3. believer

    The message of Christ is not Christianity. The message of Christ is Christ.

    ~ Gary Amirault

    July 31, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • believer too

      Amen to that believer. Everything is in Christ. And Christ is everything.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  4. Jednoucelovy

    The trouble with religious words is that they often have no specific meaning. What is the substance of being "blessed" (and being "not blessed" btw)? Politicians love meaningless buzzwords and religion is a generous donor of those.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  5. Kay C

    Shame on CNN for attacking real Christians, you don't need religion to have personal relationship with Jesus. Shame on you for sharing the wrong info about Salvation. The Salvation we Born Again Christians talk about is a gift from Jesus so you don't have to be in Hell all your afterlife. You know what I have been watching your News for years I am going elsewhere.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • 3X07

      You are correct Kay C. Cnn still finds a way to twist the truth into deception.

      .....Check out theblazedotcom for news. Facts are video based

      July 31, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • John

      While I don't believe there is an attack on Christians in this piece, how is it that you claim to be watching this news site for years and only now feel the way you feel? Surely there are many other opinion pieces on the Belief Blog that would get you hot and bothered. Of course there is the possibility that you are only seeking the kind of response that I am giving thereby fullfilling a base desire...oh well, peace.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • CrazyOwlLady

      I heard that Fox could use some more viewers. Please go over there. You'll like their message.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • mike

      hahahaha

      July 31, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • TRB

      @ Kay C.

      While I consider myself Christian I must say I agree with this article. For one born again Christians can not be in the flesh and blood. Born again Christians will come when God raises the spirit out of the body to enter his holy land. That is on misconception that is being thrown around everywhere! People seriously read scripture in the fullest read every scripture in the bible that pertains to the topic. God tells you to let scripture interpret scripture which means he puts it all out there for you to figure out the truth. Sorry you find this article offesive but think about the white horse of revelation, what does it stand for? Figure it out and you will be shocked to find that it represents false christianity!!! And trust me its running rampant faster and faster everyday cause of people who refuse to find the truth, thus allowing satan to decieve the whole world!! Yes I know im an idiot, go ahead and make fun but at least im seeking the truth and studying everyday diligently and seeking God to lead me to the truth and to open it up to me and I have had to go through studying much false to finally start seeing the truth, and it is only strenghing my faith in God instead of breaking me apart from him!! God bless Kay C and have a great day!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Kay C

      Yes I heard of the blaze and I been noticing for years that CNN has been picking sunday to pick on Christians. Its not just article its other things. Also Fox news is not even better.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  6. Wasted1

    Like AA, "take what you can use and leave the rest behind." For me, anyone that smacks of "Christian" fundamentalism is just as bad, if not worse than their counterparts in other religions. I believe Jesus had an excellent moral compass (although "organized religion" twists it to their own ends - as do Republicans and tea partiers!). I don't recall Him protecting the rich at all costs to the poor.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Berean

      One thing is certain, he condemned stealing, and any tax that is used to transfer wealth is just stealing. He also taught through his apostles that if a man won't work, he won't eat. And the scriptures explicitly condemn coveting, something that the redistributionists encourage and depend upon.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Berean

      Jesus declared that he is the only path to heaven, and that anyone who doesn't believe in him is under God's wrath. He also taught much regarding hell and the agonizing suffering there.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  7. believer

    “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you".

    ~Jesus Christ

    July 31, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Bryant

      Oh yes ...thats right..Christ said that when he came down from the mountain with the 10 commandments...idiot.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Dan

      Very true, but can we really give JC full credit for this bit of insight?

      July 31, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Berean

      Bryant: was "idiot" your signature? The golden rule was not delivered at Sinai!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      Wow, that must have been a real revelation. After the same moral statement had already been out there for hundreds of years before the guy on the stick who got picked to be made famous.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  8. prophet

    The Jewish church is not a church as a religion, it is not man made, It is a Nation and this is Historical fact even to those who are non believers.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  9. alsmeer1

    I am a Born-again, Blood-bought, Spirit-filled Christian.
    The word Christian means... little-Christ.
    the article does have some points, but some are also very far off the mark.
    rapture... yes, it will happen, the time is disagreed upon by many. will it be pre-tribulation, mid- or post? no one knows for sure, not even the Lord Jesus. His words are clear... 'no one knows the hour or day – only the Father knows.
    Salvation... is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ. He bought our freedom w/His blood. He is the bridge that re-unites man to God.
    many 'christians' really don't live their life as they should. they get caught up in the 'legalistics' and bless-me clubs.

    The Lord said, you will know them by their fruits.' many can talk the talk, but few actually walk the walk. if you are a true believer in God, then your life will show that in how you act.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Joeymom

      Actually, "Christian" means "Christ-follower." The -ianus indicates a follower in Latin, -ianos is a follower in Greek. The Greek christodelphos was revived in the 19th century to mean "Friend of Christ" (Christadelphian).

      July 31, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Wasted1

      Harold Camping called. He needs you to come wipe his butt at the nursing home.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      There are No True Scotsmen.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  10. Will

    How well I remember in my old evangelical days. We would convince people to say "The Sinner's Prayer", and then they would be declared "Saved". Over 99% of those people just went on to live their lives as normal, and never stepped inside a church again. But they are "Saved".

    July 31, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  11. Rich

    All work up over a myth.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Joeymom

      You use the term "myth" in the popular distortion of the term, which implies falsehood. Myth is about a discussion of the cosmos beyond human logic and experience, using human terms and metaphor. So yes, all about a myth- a set of metaphors that considers the wider working of the cosmos.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      Let's be more specific then:

      Christianity is mostly fiction. The divinity of Christ is not true, there is no evidence for the existence of the god that Christians claim, and there are truckloads of evidence that the bible is a frequently self-contradicting, erroneous heap of dung.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  12. LookAndSEE

    This video/story advocates false ideas about God. I can tell by the comments that has already worked on people's mind. If anybody is curious about TRUTH, go to http://www.amazingfacts.org http://www.amazingdiscoveries.org

    July 31, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  13. Neil Peart

    Religion is B.S.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Johnny A.

      Exactly. Only a complete idiot could believe any of that nonsense.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • alsmeer1

      I agree with you...but not in the way you say it.

      even Christ was down on 'religion'. it is legalistic. nothing but rules.

      but I say I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I am so busy doing the do's I dont have time to do the dont's.
      when you give your heart and life to Him, you actually want to stop doing the things that are wrong. you want to please the Lord. no, you don't have to clean up yourself before... He will do that as you go along the Way. He gives you Hope and trades your past for His future!

      @ Bobb... if you read the Word – you would see that the 144,000 is from the 12 Tribes of the Old Testament. that is separate from believers in Christ.
      and just doing good or being a good person or having christian parents, is not the way to get in to Heaven. You have to accept Jesus Christ into your heart and life. accept Him as Lord and Savior, put away your sinful life, and follow Him.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  14. Joeymom

    How strange. I don't use any of those terms or phrases. Language is a powerful binder of community, but it helps if you use terms properly or with the proper slant.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  15. believer

    [Christ] does not give [men] light but from moment to moment; the instant He withdraws, all is darkness.... God does not give them a stock of holiness.

    ~Johnn Wesley

    July 31, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  16. Dan

    Do I speak Christian? Absolutely not. The mere thought of participating in this disgusting practice makes me nauseous.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  17. Brad

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

    Somehow I suspect the author is a bit hostile to Christianity. Christianity is not about deception, it's about living and serving with fellow believers who know your faith because they know you. Have a good day :)

    July 31, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Joeymom

      There is a minority of Christian circles that practice "spiritual snobbery" and look down on people who are not "in the know" as they consider people should be. It is unfortunate to identify all Christians with this subsect, but often others will associate a whole group with an objectionable minority.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • jangoodell

      Exactly... Christianity is about faith and acts. I practice it, but am not good at it yet. But, tell me this–why do some who have been saved and/or born again tell me that I am not a Christian? I was baptized. I went through confirmation and was confirmed. I am on the rolls of a Methodist church. But, sadly, am not a Christian...

      July 31, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Brad

      Jan, they should not tell you that. If you believe you are a Christian, then that's good enough for me. It shouldn't be about whether you've got the credentials – it's a heart thing. God bless :)

      July 31, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Kate

      I don't think he is hostile to Christianity at all. First, he is speaking based on opinions by many minister and clergy. He passes the same message Jesus did–don't get caught up in the letter rather than the spirit. If you are using phrases about your faith and don't know the origin, history or meaning, then you may be going through the motions. Calling someone out on that can enrich his/her spiritual growth by forcing them to delve deeper into why certain phrases are so prevalent.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • One7777777

      The power of the NORTHERN king

      "And the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt HIMSELF, and magnify himself ABOVE every god, and shall speak marvellous things AGAINST the God of gods, and SHALL PROSPER till the indignation be accomplished: for that that is determined shall be done.

      NEITHER shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all.

      But in his estate shall he honour the God of FORCES: and a god whom his fathers knew NOT shall he honour with gold, and silver, and with precious stones, and pleasant things.

      Thus shall he do in the most strong holds with a STRANGE god, whom he shall acknowledge [and] increase with glory: and he shall cause them to rule over many, and shall DIVIDE the land for gain." Daniel 36-39

      He then goes after EGYPT, LIBYA and then the ETHIOPIANS...To all real posters, pay attention.

      "And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had TWO HORNS like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon"
      Revelation 13:11

      July 31, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Berean

      Jan, the fact that you are on the rolls of a Methodist church is not a good sign. Most Methodist churches long ago forsook the gospel.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  18. Bryant

    Historian Barry Schwartz writes: "George Washington's practice of Christianity was limited and superficial because he was not himself a Christian... He repeatedly declined the church's sacraments. Never did he take communion, and when his wife, Martha, did, he waited for her outside the sanctuary... Even on his deathbed, Washington asked for no ritual, uttered no prayer to Christ, and expressed no wish to be attended by His representative." [New York Press, 1987, pp. 174-175]

    July 31, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Scott

      Thank you, Kay C! The thinly veiled persecution of Christians by CNN and their horde of hateful atheists makes me very fearful for the future of our country, God's country. I am still shocked at the venom with which some readers respond to the thoughts of believers...believers who would rejoice in their accepting Christ, and the attainment of everlasting life. Sadly, many of these will not realize how wrong they are until it is eternally too late.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  19. Deepdiver

    I have a personal relationship with Christ. We screw on the weekends and cook meals for each other. This so phony and stupid it is ridiculous. Religion is grabage!

    July 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • starrface

      Hear hear!

      July 31, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Berean

      Beware that "grabage," it can really get a hold on you.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  20. Bobbb

    rumor has it that the Bible says that when the second coming of Christ occurs, 144,000 Christians will ascend to heaven. As you can see we are not quite there yet.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:33 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.