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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. Matthew

    Jesus native and mother tongue language was Aramaic, a semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic. It's still spoken today by around 500,000 people scattered throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America by the Assyrians/Syriacs.

    I speak Aramaic fluent as my first language.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Torah101

      So you agree that Moses and Abraham were NOT Jews, but Hebrews?? Most of the world this of the word Hebrew as a language, but in fact it was a people and a religion for 1500 years up to the destruction of the 2nd Temple which ended the rule and governance of the Priesthood as commanded

      July 31, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  2. prophet

    people following christ, are very misled, they are looking to man their religious leaders and not God.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  3. Various Authors

    This article is filled from top to bottom with all of the cliches of mainstream Christianity; all the things meant to water it down, make it sound vapid and syrupy, and which gives non-believers the false ammunition to mock true Christianity. No, I have never told anyone "I'm born again" because we will NOT be born again until the second coming of Christ and the first resurrection (not trying to convert you, just correcting your misinformation". And no to the rest of the sentimental crap you mistake for Christianity. Why don't you try writing an article asking Muslims if they've ever beheaded someone? You wouldn't dare. But it's just as irrelevent as the nonsense you ask in this article. Stick to secular political topics, CNN. At least there you're as clueless as most everyone else reading your website.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  4. Torah101

    Hey retards! Why not post my comments?

    July 31, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      Um...because your comments are retarded?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  5. David

    Why does rhis riduculous practice continue. I would be embarrassed to tell people that I believe in non-existance benevolant beings. The value and purpose of your life can only be known by those that remain after you are gone. There is no other purpose for life and you are not here for some devine purpose.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Various Authors

      Yeah, so says the all knowing David. I can't blame you since I would feel the same way if the only thing I knew about God was the swill put forth in articles like this one.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  6. chae hun

    No further debates is required than this one (since we believe in our hearts and blessings from Him): The way(door) that leads to Kingdon of Heaven is narrow/ This also applies to Christians (believers and non believers/saved and not saved) too. All others outside opinions (who actually don't believe and threfore don't know truths but words of thinking on their own). Christians aren't all Christians; for it one can't denounce CHRISTIANITY itself^^

    July 31, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  7. believer

    A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.

    ~Mahatma Gandhi

    July 31, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      Oh, those noble scapegoats. Good thing Christianity invented them. Not.

      So your uber powerful big guy up high needed to have something die to remove "sin" why again exactly?

      Hint: the whole cruxifixion think is nonsense, scapegoats are a way for cowards to not do the diligence of looking into real causes, and your god does not exist. Stop being an embarrassment to the world and get past your tooth fairy stories.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  8. Jeff

    CNN, the god hating network.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • John

      Please quote the part of this article that can even remotely be construed as "God-hating."

      July 31, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      Jeff, it's not just CNN. Everyone's out to get you.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Good without god

      Shedding light on a subject by questioning unfounded assertions through highlighting the verbiage that Christians use to assert their faith to other people is Tyne equivalent of hating god?

      July 31, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  9. Chris

    Would CNN have a banner article "Do you speak muslim?"

    I doubt it.

    It's Christianity so CNN finds a way to demean it.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Jeff

      Absoulutely correct. It would be comical if it wasn't so sad.

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

      Exactly. This guy won't do a piece on Islam. It's not a coincidence that the Left has aligned itself with Isam. The two have nothing in common except for their hatred of Christianity.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  10. Steve

    there is no god. to believe otherwise is to be delusional.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • dave

      steve,

      if belief in God is delusional, let me hear your explanation of what life is all about. I haven't found any other explanation that makes any sense. Why would I want to just "crease to exist" when I can live forever. There are no "logical" explanations. It's beyond our logical powers. It's a faith thing and its free to all. The problem is that we want to be in charge of it all.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  11. Hesalive

    Christianity is the Resurrection. When you really believe it your life totally changes. Only He can bring you to that point. For those of us who know, it's like being in a jet that crashes, but surviving even though everybody else dies. But it's even more dramatic than that because we're spared of eternity in hell. What about you? Are you saved?

    July 31, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  12. Lola

    He really dumbed down the concept of the rapture. There is a basis for it in the scriptures. The popularity of the concept has nothing to do with "Left Behind" and I find it extremely offensive that this author would reference the kook who made the rapture prediction. He also inaccurately described the "sinner's prayer" and the "walk down the aisle". He also mischaracterized Baptism. Actually, he didn't get anything right.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  13. CoreyL78

    Have you hated your fellow man? Have you lived and will continue to live an Un-Christ-like life? Will you turn your back to the non-white poor? Does fear, loathing, and avarice consume your day to day life? Congratulations, you're a Christian.

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

      CoreyL78,

      I see by your response that you have rightly observed the hypocrisy that is prevalent in our churches. But, please look at the teachings of Jesus for answers and don't give up on it because of man's weaknesses. Our logical minds are sometimes swayed by inconstancies and we fail to look any further.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  14. Woody

    Most so called Christian that I have talked to do not even know what continent Jesus was born on . When a person starts talking and saying God and Jesus all the time I automatically assume they have very little education and need to show themselves to be better than what they actually are . Many christian churches today have had to turn their buildings into tourist spots to keep up with the mounting cost of being holy than thou ! Religion is only a front for corruption and gives the wealthy something to hang on to when their money no longer makes them happy. Religion is man made and the Quran and bible were written by men wanting power while day dreaming in the desert !

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

      woody,

      When was the last time you honestly and sincerely looked in the bible for meaningful answers to your life instead of flailing around at all the bigotry that you see? This is a sincere question from one who used to be in your shoes! How you handle this reply will tell you where you really are in your life. Give it a try!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  15. Raz car mor

    People who do not follow Jeses, God are not understanding the Bible.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • 3X07

      Yes, you are correct....

      In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. 2Cor 4:4

      July 31, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  16. CrazyOwlLady

    Scary stuff, scary people. Xtians aren't the only ones with little clubs and Secret Decoder Rings and phrases. Fundies of other religious flavors use them too. For myself: "Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace... " (John Lennon)

    July 31, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  17. MR

    Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

    July 31, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  18. prophet

    people following christ are very misled, they are looking to man their religious leaders and not God

    July 31, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • 3X07

      Sorry, you couldn't be more wrong. But that's what you are doing here, spreading deception.

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

      3X07, by all means then, prove it.

      Oh wait! You can't! Even though the onus of proof is on you.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • John

      well...no, not so much

      July 31, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • 3X07

      The burden of proof is on those whose faith rest not on God but upon themselves.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • MCArmstrong

      "The burden of proof is on those whose faith rest not on God but upon themselves."

      Uh. no, sorry buddy, you make the claim god exists, it's up to you to prove it. You cannot.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • dave

      Interesting reply, tell us about your background.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • 3X07

      For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. Rom 1:7

      My faith in God means I have no faith of my own thoughts. My thoughts are broken by sin. God is righteous (right). If you believe in yourself then your faith is in yourself. Your burden of "prove it" will never be satisfied when you believe in your way. Once you believe in God, you will understand that you don't need "proof".

      July 31, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • MCArmstrong

      " Once you believe in God, you will understand that you don't need "proof"."

      Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

      And this is why many people laugh at Christians. "I DONT NEED PROOF ILL JUST BELIEVE IT."

      July 31, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • 3X07

      "And this is why many people laugh at Christians. "I DONT NEED PROOF ILL JUST BELIEVE IT.""

      Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; 2 Thes 2:3

      July 31, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  19. JulioF

    Spiritual snobs – I know them well. At a graduation ceremony at Concordia in Austin several years ago, the head of the Lutheran church spoke of how all the grads must go forth and witness in order to convert all of the non-Lutherans, because the non-Lutherans are all "wrong" and will go to Hell. This was the day of my epiphany, when I decided to no longer be a follower of delusional, controlling men. Now I follow God – not a church.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  20. lefty avenger

    Thou Shalt not Kill. End the middle eastern oil baron wars.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:49 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.