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.
Two things CNN very clearly fears – Christianity and Apple Computers.
Of course we fear Christians. Aren't you paying attention? Didn't you see what one just did in Norway?!
That shows what you know about Christianity or the Norway tragedy. That man was not a Christian by any stretch of the imagination.
Bear in mind that when a Christian commits mass murder, he is an aberration and not a true Christian. When a Muslim commits mass murder, he reveals Islam for what it is.
billp, I sure hope you're being sarcastic, because the hypocrisy and ignorance of that statement speaks volumes if you really believe that.
Congratulations CNN! Thank you for posting this wonderful article and video. I respect your ability to cater to those of us who know how the world works. You have earned my admiration and I am gladly sharing this article to my thousands of friends around my social media network. CNN A+
I love how anyone who disagree with this guy doesn't know what they're talking about or is just wrong. Isn't that exactly what he's accusing the others of?
isn't what you normally accuse others of?
Religion = divine justification to hate others of different faiths.
No, not all. The people who say, "all religions are bad" are no different than the people who say, "non-believers are going to hell." I am a member of a left-leaning United Methodist church. Our pastor has a bumper sticker that says, "God is too big for one religion." Another pastor friend of mine uses looking at the Grand Canyon as an analogy. One person looks at it at one place and sees things from one perspective. Another person looks at it from a mile down the rim and they see completely different things. One is not right and one is not wrong – they are both looking at the same Grand Canyon. Religions look at the same God from different perspectives – different cultures, backgrounds, histories and experiences.
if that is the case, have you ever been to a mosque or a hindu temple? have you prayed to their gods?
There is NOTHING "christ" like with the heathons that Christans have become. I spit on them, their religion and their divisive and hateful beliefs. They are the reason the world is such a mess. Look at history: Christians destroyed the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Mexican Empire – all in the name of their demented "god."
Christians = the antichrist.
I'm sorry for you, that you are so blinded by hate that you cannot see that you are the very type of person that you accuse others of being.
I'm certainly no fan of the biases and atrocities that are a part of Christian history, but stop short of blaming them entirely for the falls of the Roman, Ottoman and Mexican Empires )as if the falls of those empires was a bad thing). :)
"Atheism is a disease of the mind caused by eating underdone philosophy." – AUSTIN O'MALLEY, Keystones of Thought
Atheist are fooled by their own beliefs. Do they really use Darwin as a counterpoint to the discussion of God? Are they really that stupid? Darwin is not a counterpoint to the discussion of God, since his theories are billions of years LATE.
FORGET philosophical waffle, let me shove some science down Atheists' throats.
The discussion of God begins with the Big Bang and the pre-exising state of the universe's existence. With all of the variables considered, the odds of a life-sustainable universe existing by chance has been calculated at 10^10^123 to 1 (that's 1 followed by 10^123 zeros). This figure was calculated by Roger Penrose a very well-respected mathematician and cosmologist WHO IS AN ATHEIST HIMSELF ironically. Edward Tryon's theory, reconciled with the Heisenberg principles, has shown that subatomic particles can transpire and cease to exist randomly without a divine cause. The absence of Boyle's law and Penrose's quantum cosmology in his assertion calls its validity into question.
The odds of subatomic erraticism being the catalyst for the big bang and subsequent events are impossible as defined by Boyle's law at 1^50 (with infinite time)!
The question is: How can W. Craig's H-H model and Tyron's quantum electrodynamics observation possibly jive with the rudimentary mathematics as devised by Penrose? In layman's terms, it is patently obvious that quantum cosmology must coexist with its corresponding mathematical calculations.
Atheism is only relevant to a criticism of Religion per se; it does not have any authority in disproving something that is as unfathomable as the Big Bang's catalyst.
In the present-day scientific realm – the Big Bang's catalyst is open for ontological debate. Arriving at premature conclusions is frivolous and voids your credibility.
If you want to say "God does not exist" you need to put aside Darwin and start reading some of Tryon's theories and learn rudimentary cosmic natural law. Radical Atheists are an embarrassment to the scientific community.
Need a tissue? Spitting in to the wind like this occurs then you don't know.
@Erik, the big bang was proposed by a few scientists (not all) as one of the possible models. This was the fifties. The catholic church found it fit perfectly with their creationist view and so immediately endorsed its approval. That's how the big bang model gained acceptance among the christian audience.
It is funny to see christians lap up the big bang model but run away from Darwinism.
You spit on us! Now that is the true picture of ignorant hate.
yeah, uh, speakin of hate
So, because Chrisitans fought against empires, we should all be blamed for destroying them? Are you serious?
Annnnnnd ... this is news, HOW??? What is such a majorly subjective piece doing on the front page of a NEWS WEB SITE? Just because one person can't deal with religion, he gets his own 5-minute plug on your site? Geesh. CNN, dumbing down America.
Actually, the chief protagonist in the dumbing down of mankind has been organized religion.
It's a featured living piece,on the weekend. And it's Sunday, a day often associated with religion. If you don't like how the website is set up, why aren't you working there so it can be fixed?
If it weren't for "organized religion" we'd all be atheists by now, so I'll disagree with you – as the Lord said, "Those who are for Me are not against Me" – and that also means "organized religion"...
If it weren't for "organized religion" we'd all be atheists by now, so I'll disagree with you – as the Lord said, "Those who are for Me are not against Me"...
Why is this being asked on a "news" website, this is not news, and even if it were is CNN really the place for this type of advertisement? This is offensive, America was built on the idea freedom of religion, many people came here to escape religious persecution and now this? Hasn't what happened in Norway last week taught you anything. If you are going to promote religion why not promote them all (it's impossible to do, because there's so many). Would people be happy if the article asked "Do you speak Islamic or Judaism?" Probably not, I might expect this from a Christian website and that would be an appropriate location for something like this, but a "News" site is not. If you are trying to indoctrinate people or proselytize that is shameful, I know that most people in America are Christians, but that doesn't mean that everyone is, or that everyone should be. Most of our founders weren't Christian and I'm sure they would not like to see any faith rammed down the throats of the people.
You're correct, the pilgrims arrived here centuries ago because they wanted to have freedom of choice. That same freedom is still available to you; hence, IF YOU DON'T LIKE CNN'S RELIGIOUS MEDIA, YOU DON'T HAVE TO WATCH/READ IT.
It sure would be nice if CNN had a Christian author write their articles about Christianity.
Just like it would be nice to have a child molester write articles on faith.
Amen brother. Christ Jesus bless you
Took the words right out of my mouth.
I think maybe your rapturous, born again mind can't grasp you have been espousing thoughts from the late 1800's. Truth hurts.
Why, one does not have to be an athlete to be a sportswriter, a communist to do a bio on Mao, a Fascist to write about Hitler, or even a Muslim to write the history of Islam; ie Karen Armstrong.
Why? Can't handle a different POV?
"When Christians develop their own private language for one another, they forget how Jesus made faith accessible to ordinary people, he says."
Jesus didn't create faith.... just desperate fools looking for simple answers to difficult questions.
Jesus didn't invent faith, He lived in, breathed in, and existed as faith. Desperate men killed him, mocked him, and shunned him and his faith...
From personal experience, when I meet people who speak in heavy "Christianese" they generally fall into one of two categories:
1. People who are so clueless about what they're actually saying that referring to it as "parroting" is an insult to parrots.
2. People who, if they find out you're non-Christian, gay, or atheist, my only advice to you is this: run.
If someone who describes themselves as a "Christian" or "Follower of Christ" wants to talk to me about their faith I would be happy to do so. I have had a number of these types of conversations and the vast majority of them have been both interesting and quite pleasant. Though if someone wants to have that same conversation and the introduction is "I have been cleansed of my sins by the blood of our Savior and reborn into His grace and everlasting Life", then I'm going to be doing my darned best to make a hasty exit.
Exactly. I don't really care if the words they use are not "correct" according to another version of Christianity. I find them warning words. Too many of them and I know I'm speaking to an intransigent force and I'm wasting my time.
In all fairness though, there is another type. Those who believe so hardily is what they preach that they can't help but spread it around. They honestly do fear people burning in hell.
As a Christian myself, I agree with you.
Conventional Christian dialogue is not only frivolous, but a contravention to logic and sanity. The problem is that the average storytelling Christian Joe, who was "saved by the cross, and freed from the devil's chains" more than likely lacks the ability to shuffle compromise between 21st century intellect and the Bible's metaphysical doctrine.
Hence, these diverging and fairy-tale like interpretations of a supreme being have fostered a refuge of denial called Atheism. I would really like to see more Christians put their money where their mouth's are and start reconciling their beliefs with science.
Darwin is not a counterpoint to the discussion of God, since his theories are billions of years LATE. The discussion of God begins with the Big Bang and the pre-exising state of the universe's existence. With all of the variables considered, the odds of a life-sustainable universe existing by chance has been calculated at 10^10^123 to 1 (that's 1 followed by 10^123 zeros). This figure was calculated by Roger Penrose a very well-respected mathematician and cosmologist WHO IS AN ATHEIST HIMSELF. Edward Tryon's theory, reconciled with the Heisenberg principles, subatomic particles can transpire and cease to exist randomly without a divine cause. The absence of Boyle's law and Penrose's quantum cosmology in his assertion calls its validity into question. The odds of subatomic erraticism being the catalyst for the big bang and subsequent events are impossible as defined by Boyle's law at 1^50 (with infinite time)!
For real. It comes off as pompous and holier-than-thou. The "highly blessed and favored" people are the worst. I've even seen license plates with that little brag point on them. Sorry, but isn't being humble a good thing?
Let's keep in mind that when it comes to beliefs and movements (yes Atheism is a belief, and so is choosing to just exhist Agnostics) there are people whom, choose to be an ambassador where the elegant and perceived appropriate delivery is missing. So instead of pointing them out as a 'prime example' of what to run from, or to depart, why not be courageous and honest with them and tell them how their words make you feel. Communication 101.
Here we have an Episcopal "theologian" telling us what is "correct." We have over three hundred denominations, creeds and sects of Christianity in this country and each will give you their version of what is "correct." If you really want to understand the linguistics of the Bible you need to read it in Hebrew and Koine Greek.
Thank you. They missed this critical point.
Maybe taking a quick second to look up what the word christian means, then learn what kind of example he set, and what his major work here on earth was will drive some to re-examine themselves as "Christians."
All "Christian" means is a person who believe Christ is divine. Everything else is simple nuance that only has meaning to the person believing it.
I believe Bill's point was the biblical definition of christian being that they follow the example of Christ. Biblically speaking, someone is not a christian if they do not pursue to love Christ more in their hearts and actions:
But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
There is no God. You're wasting your time. Now, go do something valuable with your life besides wasting it on a empty, pathetic dream.
If you're living like there is no God, you better hope you are right.
MP, which God?
Trolling the Internet and attacking any religious idea you can find is your idea of living a fulfilling life?
I feel sorry for you .
Wow, MP, that sure was original. I think I saw that on a bumper sticker somewhere.
Do you REALLY want to win people to your faith by threatening them with damnation?
Joe, such kind words although a waste of time for many. When you can talk something of substance...let us know.
Just typing it out to convince ur self? I understand
Isn't this highly subjective? It's religion, it's not science. If one group of religious types want to use a term in a certain way isn't that their prerogative?
You're so pathetic. All of you friggin' religious psychos.
The rapture is an essential part of Christian teaching; the Episcopalians, much like the Catholics, do not know their Bible; the word for rapture is in the Septuagint directly translated from the Greek; There are a lot of Christians who are teaching and living by sound doctrine; why don't you report on that; and if you are going to report on either one, you should know what you are talking about; you should also present both sides.
The Catholics don't know their bible? Uh, just where the heck do you think the Bible came from? And how do you think Christianity was preserved and taught until there was the Bible? Oh, yeah – the Catholic Church... you know, the one that was founded by Christ himself. Sheesh. Anti-Catholic bigotry much?
ummm , perhaps you should look up who the first pope was dude, after that come back and talk about Catholics more intelligently.
If you're waiting for the Rapture, don't hold your breath.
BL.....I think he SHOULD hold his breath. I mean, it's coming along any time now, right?
UHHHHHH sorry rapture is not an essential teaching. The term was created in the later 19th century. And then some real creative guy wrote a series of books that sadly many Prostestant branches preach as truth. Not every Christian believes in the rapture vacuum.
Leave it to a self righteous protestant to bring Catholics into an article that has nothing whatever to with the Catholic Church.
Also, I would suggest that you refigure your statement as a great number of Catholics do know THEIR bible (the true bible).
Jesus mows my lawn.
ya jesus would do anything for your love
Don't all religions have their own language? Why target Christianity?
They aren't "targeting" Christianity in as much as they seem to be pointing out that Christianity isn't a singular idea. There is a rainbow of versions of Christianity. Seems their interviewee doesn't agree...but fact is fact. There are many many versions of Christianity and all are as subjective and rational as the next.
The word for rapture is in the Septuagint directly translated from the Greek. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek. A lot of you idiots and I say idiots because you have no clue on how to exejesis the text of the Bible. You speak empty words and boast as you are an authority. You are an authority of nothing and half of you spend less time studying the bible than you have won a lottery. Until you understand the Bible was not written by liberal anti-god white men and women, you will remain in your state of sin as well as ignorance. Find a true teacher of the Bible and study to show you are approved to comment on it. otherwise – STFU....
Frankly, I have no idea what to say when people speak religion at me. I try to be polite about it, but I find religions so astoundingly silly that I have no idea how to react when it becomes apparent that whoever I'm talking to actually takes it seriously.
A word of advice to people who take religion seriously: Keep it to yourself with people you don't know.
I find it awkward and embarrassing. I try to empathize. I know religious types find their particular God to be interesting and of the utmost importance...but I find it boring and uncomfortable.
Henry what good is that to us who are christian? God tells us to make disciples of the world not keep it to ourselves. We evangelize because we love you and people because God does the same for us and we should thank him because he is so graceful. We dont want to see others not see heaven, not experience his glory and go to hell. If we arent telling people then what good are we doing on Earth. God put a purpose for us on earth. Take it this way. If we had no purpose to share the gospel to share Jesus with others, then wouldnt we just die and go to heaven when we are saved? no we are called to minister to people. Yeah people get offended because they could care less, or they think Jesus limits the fun you can have with your life. I understand that, i grew up in a non-christian household but thanks be the god that came to save me from a life unholyness and bondage to sin, i live a life for him and not to myself. theres more to life than ourselves
@Aaron J: I understand what you are saying there Aaron, but there are PLENTY of folks who are just as impressed by "SOAP ON A ROPE" but you don't want them coming to your house and handing out tracts and witnessing it to you.
As he said...keep it to yourself.......-and have a blessed day.
Aaron, your heart is in the right place, that's clear. But Jesus didn't say to bug the crap out of people. If someone seems interested, then by all means...but the Average Joe wants you to keep it to yourself. Really.
"Spreading the word" is exactly why this nonsense won't disappear. I wish people would stop spreading the word and start learning new words. Read different books, learn about other religions, learn about other cultures and civilizations and stop assuming (like every other society does) that your god is the correct one and everyone else is wrong.
Yikes. Leave it to CNN to cite Marcus Borg for information on Christianity. He's as knowledgeable and unbiased about historic Christianity as a Vegan would be about spit-roasting a pig. Borg, like his partner in crime John Shelgy Spong is an atheist – he just doesn't want to admit it because there's more money in the gig he's got now..
CNN is becoming incredibly biased. This feels less like a news channel and more like one of my sociology classes.
ALL news stations are biased in some way. It isn't a matter of finding one that isn't, it's just a matter of picking your bias-of-choice.
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.