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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. Colin

    Which of the following groups believes that an invisible being in the sky is watching their every move and monitoring their thoughts, who will punish them if they are bad:

    (a) Small children, too young to know that is silly
    (b) Delusional schizophrenics
    (c) American Christians
    (d) All of the above

    July 31, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Old Fool

      Love your take on this.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  2. Ryan

    This article is a joke, obviously you haven't read the Bible if you believe these claims about Christianity and the way the various terms are explained here.

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

      I agreee with you Ryan, this is a flat out joke...Salvation is being delivered from sin, and people who confessed such deliverence from such doesnt mean that they dont know what they are not talking about. people claim deliverence from a car crash and owe it all to the Lord. I call my self a Christian and a follower of Christ, but Iam not gonna split the 2 up, I dont care what day and age we live in, iam what Iam..........Let this guy stand up to one of the Top Christian Apologetics, they would punch all kinds of holes in this story........

      July 31, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  3. Torah101

    If christinas believe in a wonderful world when dead, why don't they all die???

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

      Judaism is the belief that an infinetly old, all-powerful super-being, capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, has an interest in how much skin I have on my di.ck.

      Atheism is the belief that the above belief is ridiculous.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Torah101

      That was your belief THEN. Now you met me and now you are educated.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Hesalive

      I think we're all going to die, don't you? The issue becomes what comes next.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Torah101

      Aren't you in a considerable rush to enter your paradise??? Hurry along now

      July 31, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • KingdomCome

      I agree, die to yourself and your selfish thinking, ways and start living for Christ and usher the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as it is in Heaven...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Dave

      .......Don't know!, what's a "christina"?....check your spelling.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Torah101

      If I were you "DAVE" I would change your name. David (dave) was one miserable character. Why not call yourself herod or hector ??

      July 31, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Pastafarian

      Torah: I'm confused how the OT gets more validity from you than the NT. I'm a fan of the OT. Even read from the torah for my bra mitzvah. Just not sure why it can be believed any more true than the other stories out there.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  4. DD

    This article is everything that's wrong with the perception & practice of religion.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  5. Woody

    Jesus if he was was born on the continent of Asia , at Asia Minor . And Jesus was not a Christian but rather a Jewish man . If he was and the Jewish people considered him as no more than a common man . Your religions are only two thousand years old . Why was it that man did not bother with your God for the other 1,000,000 years we have been on the planet .

    July 31, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • extreme centrist

      and on somewhat of a tangent to your thinking,

      the universe as we know it is at least 13.7 billion years old; so does that mean god sat around for 13.699 Billion years playing solitaire until he decided it was a good time to create someone in his own likeness. Man, I would have gone stir-crazy being by myself after the first billion years.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Dave

      .........Good question to ask God....how would anyone know the answer to that?

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

    Why would CNN run anything on Christianity? That's like the Tea Party doing a peice on the Government's role in taking care of people. It's just a shot at someone that does not agree with the left's opinion's.

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

    The phrase "born again Christian" has REALLY been abused by both the media, and Christians themselves.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  8. MJNYC

    Can CNN please stop with the religious crap already?? News = truth/facts. If we wanted horsesh**,we'd go to Foxnews.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  9. EKM

    Heaven is the 'Frat House in the Sky', where only those who pledge and know the secret handshake get in! I refuse to believe in a God that juvenile.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • TRUTH KEEPER

      Maybe you idolized heaven, this is NO true heaven mentioned in Biblical Christianity.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • EKM

      Idolize heaven? I don't even BELIEVE in heaven... you missed the point.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  10. Jason

    I don't even care to attend church anymore for similar reasons. I get a whole lot more by reading an apologetics Bible on my own free time. I personally find it really fascinating once you really understand what is being said, as well as the context of what is being said and the background from which each book is written. Ironically, it appears the Bible does warn you of the very people that are in your face all the time with the sayings and beliefs that are nowhere to be found in the Bible.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • TRUTH KEEPER

      true temple of God is NOT man-made buildings but true believers in Christ.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  11. George Carlin

    "I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a man nailed to two pieces of wood. "

    July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • TRUTH KEEPER

      he served satan knowingly, ...he thought he was above all too puffed up with pride but before pride comes fall.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  12. TRUTH KEEPER

    IT is NOT WWJD [What Would Jesus Do]

    but

    WDJD [What Did Jesus Do] !!!!

    Get It Straight World !!!!

    July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  13. Hesalive

    No matter what you've done, God forgives. He's seen you at your worst but is not shocked. The blood of Christ atones for every sin you've committed and ever will commit. The wall that separates you from God is your pride. You're too proud to admit that you need Him. We're so corrupt that sin seems normal but it's not and God will, in fact, eventually judge you for it. Don't let it go that far. He's available right now to forgive your every sin. The ball is in your court,

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

      No forgiveness per Torah. In your gospels your jc god may have mentioned it, but he's an entirely different god

      July 31, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • CantonRealLife

      Does anyone actually take you seriously when you speak like this? Your nuts (and I mean that in the most respectful way)...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  14. Beth

    I really am shocked at the number of Atheists who take precious time out of their day to not only read these articles, but respond to them.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Another Beth

      Why not? I'm not in church on Sunday mornings and this is just something to read while drinking my coffee.

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

      You are in the midst of Church while reading this blog

      July 31, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Beth

      Don't worry Kingdom Come. My church starts late today.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  15. CantonRealLife

    People need to just grow up and stop believing stone age mythology. One can be very 'spiritual' and yet not stupid at the same time.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  16. 123

    1

    July 31, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  17. Raz car mor

    .
    .
    If you don't believe with God, who do you believe in to or what do you believe.
    .
    .

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

    raz car mor: so what is the reason that you would support the decision of a bunch of men, vying for political power, to choose what goes into the bible. and then to kill some of those who disagreed?

    July 31, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Raz car mor

      If some part of your body like your foot has a cancer and if you live it attached to your body and you know will let you cancer spread to all your body, would you cut it to save the rest of your body.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  19. Woody

    Church is for people that are trying to get their mind cleared from all the evil that they have done and will continue to do . When I was going to a Catholic school and I was an altar boy by the way we were taught that to be a christian was to be white . Only now that the church is in a financial pinch they will accept people of color . We were taught that we were better than everyone else . After I figured that one out I left the corrupt politics of religion . Its all a show folks ! People pray to a God for an absolution , that will never come ! When we die so does our brain and any thought about religion . Its all man made to control the animal we call a human ..

    July 31, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • scp

      Just maybe you, yourself were so corrupt that you thought that was the way the church was.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  20. BL

    Christ was great, Christians absolutely suck. I don't think there's one "Christian" who has any clue (or even cares) about what Jesus actually taught.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • DD

      What Jesus taught has been so effed up in the retelling over the centuries that no one knows anymore. Agree.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:48 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.