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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. Sydney

    Those who do not believe in God or Christ must have never thought about the universe, its order and continued existance, or thought about the human body and all it's functions and enjoyed a new born baby, or thought about the earth and how it continues to show proof that God did in fact create it like described in Genisis, or thought about hundreds of other examples that prove beyond a doubt that God made all this happen and keeps it operating daily !!!! The only being that messed some of it up is people and that is why God gave us Christ to bring us out of our depraved state and back to the proper relationship with HIM. The reason I know without a doubt that all this is true is the fact that faith in Christ has changed me from a selfcentered human that sins daily into a human, failing often, that is forgiven and living in perfect peace because of God's plan for humanity in Christ. I'll take my peace because of God and Christ over any one of the nonbelievers that I see often who do not have the peace and joy that come from believing. Since God created us, HE has the right to tell us what we need to do to escape this war torn, depraved world and spend eternity with HIM and Christ forever, so I will take HIS plan without reservation and thank HIM for providing the perfect way for here and eternity. No Christian terms, just faith and trust in God and Christ as Creator and Saviour.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      Enjoy those tornadoes that god gave you and watch out for mosquitos or he might give you malaria. Oh, what god gives us.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Torah101

      God also gives good luck and bad luck. Still alive?? Jeez, you must be lucky!! Keep on blaspheming

      July 31, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • stefano

      sydney, with all due respect, saying you know without doubt what is the truth puts you in a position of still being self-centered.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • EKM

      On the contrary, I've thought about them quite a bit! I just don't have to have all the answers. Human knowledge is ever changing and growing. Before we understood lightening, it was considered a manifestation of the 'divine'... now it's just a big electrostatic discharge. What we don't understand, we tend to attribute to God. Personally, I will never be smart enough to understand EVERYTHING in the universe and that's okay for me. You believe in whatever makes you happy.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  2. Rich

    Religion is delusion.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  3. Hypatia

    Yea, verily, I speaketh God's tongue: Elizabethan English, like a pukka Episcopalian.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  4. atheist

    Isn't time that we stop treating religious illusions as if they were true? wake up ans smell the athos.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • extreme centrist

      be careful – your post may get deleted!

      you know, the lord works in mysterious ways

      July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  5. 7times7

    This article implies that talking the talk makes you a Christian. The Pharisees new what the Old Testament siad and the prophesies – and could talk the talk! But in the end they killed Christ. They did not understand what they were reading or "saying" – or how to "walk the walk". In the same vain, to say that GWB spoke "Christianity" (it was his writer that put that phrase in) made him "one of us Christian's is ludicrous – like the Pharisees, he doesn't know how to "walk the walk" and live what he claims to be is his Faith.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Torah101

      It was my Sadducee brother that put the blaspheming rebel to death, not the rebel pharisee mob that conspired with Rome to destroy the Priesthood

      July 31, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  6. James Brickley

    Abraham Lincoln, had two books and only two books until he was a young adult. Those two books were the King James Bible and ASOP's Fables. The man, knew his bible forwards and backwards and could quote verse after verse. He was religious but there were not many churches in the remote areas where he lived. People would meet and pray in small groups but it was all in the family on a remote farm until a traveling Evangelical would pass through with a tent. When he first travelled down the Mississippi river to the deep south, he had his first contact with slavery and it disgusted him.

    Don't tarnish Abraham Lincoln and say he was a false Christian. He was more a Christian than those around him because he knew the Word better than they did. He was also very humble about it.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  7. TG

    The language of Christianity is seen at Zephaniah 3:9, which says that in our time period, called the "last days" or Jesus (invisible) "presence"(Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39), that "then I shall give to peoples the change to a pure language, in order for them all to call upon the name of Jehovah, in order to serve him shoulder to shoulder.’ "

    Thus, the language of true Christianity is called the "pure language", whereby individuals learn to "call upon the name of Jehovah, in order to serve him shoulder to shoulder." It is not tainted with the "world" and it's unclean language.(1 John 2:15, 16)

    It does not promote the political arena, nor the churches pagan holidays, not the "world's " divisiveness.(Matt 12:25) The language of Christianity give full voice to the sanctification of God's name of Jehovah and the request for God's kingdom to come to restore the earth to a paradise, as Jesus said in the Model Prayer at Matthew 6:9, 10.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  8. Ian

    Before believers kick into a knee-jerk defense of what they perceive is being discussed, realize this article is about linguistics within a Christian tradition, not a critique of Christianity...the same is true of all groups, traditions, races, and tribes...language shapes our world view..each with their "verbal passports"...Borg is saying that the Bible calls us to reach out, not isolate.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  9. thegadfly

    Thanks for the advice, CNN. I'll remember this if I ever need to infiltrate one of those terrorist organizations.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  10. believerinHIM

    It always amazed me that a world that is so open minded and we should be so excepting is so hateful, angry and abusive when it comes to true christianity. Very revealing if you ask me.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  11. Torah101

    @Colin writes "The god of the Torah is a genecidal, murderous, woman-hating old pervert who only the super-stupid would believe in today."

    Point exactly!! Thank you for noting this. The god of the christian is NOTHING like My God Creator. We excuse you negative impression

    July 31, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  12. GottaLuvCNN

    I just love how CNN always choses Sunday mornings to run this kind of story......They never passively bash other things as hard as Christianity.....Why don't they just come out and say they despise it and move on?

    July 31, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  13. Gumby

    Christians not only make up their own language they make up their own religion as well. "Born again" and "rapture" doctrines are both of relatively recent manufacture, both based loosely on a couple of fragmentary verses. This whole "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion" stuff is recent kerfluffle as well. I guess when the whole religion is based on wildly creative storytelling, it's no big deal to just keep adding to the already-fake mythology.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  14. Riche

    I say suck yourself dry Holder as you pick your favorite bible verse, despite any potential I may have, because I respect a separation of church and state so my trash does not desecrate it by making it the social arm of my perverted and concealed military rule.

    OH, the human element and celebration of my proud and brave people is as transparent as my nation's classification system.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  15. Raz car mor

    There's a lot of Christian denomination, but there is ONLY ONE CHURCH that God will save.

    Only one Church will be save.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Gumby

      Yeah, what church would that be? I'm guessing the one you happen to affiliate yourself with, right?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  16. Enigma-X

    As soon as I saw you reference Marcus Borg, I stopped the video.... he is a quack.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Gumby

      Borg is a highly respected biblical scholar. You probably just don't like him because he doesn't totally agree with your particular flavor of Christianity. Religious bigotry always cracks me up.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  17. mike

    It's here in the US that Christianity is distorted. We have the biggest churches, best seminaries, best theologians and big mouth. Just like in the sphere of economy, we have lost our influence. The God of the Bible will not wait on us. God's move is happening somewhere else and it's mighty and we here in the States are still fighting over non-essentials. Look unto Jesus the author and finisher of faith and not on religious leaders. Get a Bible and study it for yourself, the great Teacher is there to illumine. Get back to God America. Revive us Lord that we may live and love you.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • TRUTH KEEPER

      Amen.
      Let God be true and every man a lier.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • CantonRealLife

      You talk like a crazy person...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  18. fastball

    Sorry, you lost me the first time I was told I was going to hell because I didn't go to church. You told me that even though I've never killed anyone, never stole a thing, never disrespected my parents, and did good things for people – the fact that I didn't get up and publicly state that I took JC into my heart, that I'd be going to hell.
    You lost me the first time I heard that OUR god was better than THEIR god. You lost me when I saw people smiling when they saw some poor doctor getting blown up, just because he performed an abortion on a woman. You lost me when you got up and sang on Sunday morning about not judging other people until we walked a mile in their shoes – yet denied a gay couple a chance for a happy life together. You lost me when some minister thought God would like it if we burned a copy of the Koran. You lost me when people picketed and chanted at some dead serviceman's funeral in front of a grieving family. You lost me when it was alright to keep multiple teenaged wives.
    So forgive me (if possible) if I just keep walking on here...I'm not interested in the hypocrisy of Christianity. I will continue to not steal, not kill, respect other people, and live by the golden rule...and I wlll sleep very well at night without your official blessings.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • GottaLuvCNN

      Being "nice" is the false religion....you can never be "nice" enough.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  19. TJCIII

    Religion, mans last excuse to be a bigot and stay in the stone age.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  20. Roman

    Christians are mentaly ill people.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:32 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.