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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. lee s

    ALL RELIGION IS POISON. Is, what this guy is trying to say. Keep it to yourself, no one cares. You only end up with a judgement on you after you tout your religious beliefs around a group of people who could care less. Self righteous hypocrites.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Torah101

      Are you saying all law is poison too? Because Torah is LAW

      July 31, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • What?

      It is l;aw written by plutocrats and Misogynists.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Llamaman

      "Religion: 4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion." – Sounds like you are religious in your anit-religiousity, maybe you should stop sharing it. Did it ever occur to you that just as you believe no one wants to hear another's rants about their "religion" that no one wants to hear your rants about your "religion" against "religion."

      July 31, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  2. MisunderstoodGOD

    Is there any wonder why people to want the religion's God. He is two faced (He forsook His Son but won't forsake us) He schizophrenic (He loves but send to hell for eternal punishment). Many times we talk about that which we do not personally know. There is a difference in knowing ABOUT Him ratther than knowing Him. But the great thing is..He is patient, kind, longsuffering.... He gives us for all eternity to come to know Him...and we all will- not in fear but in sheer love for the God who loves all men with reservation, without condition - He does win you know....He wins all

    July 31, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Antarius

      Don't forget the most important thing: he is also a faerie tale built up to scare people into doing what a corrupt church says is "right."

      July 31, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  3. mg

    Am I the only one who hates this posting format? I wish CNN wouldn't use it.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  4. kaka

    They will be ever seeing and never see; they will be ever hearing and never hear.

    Those that know him; know who he is and how much he does love us. We don't have all the answers, we don't always understand but we have strength to endure all to the end of days.

    He who confesses me to men, I will confess to my father in heaven. Eventually, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess "Jesus is Lord".

    I pray for this world which needs it more than ever. God bless ths country and turn us back to you.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • lee s

      BLAHBLAHBLAH this is what this guy was talking about. Just because YOU believe one particular format of a faith doesnt make it the right way for everyone else to live their life. I know your preacher, or whatever, has pumped you up to believe that what your doing is right, but really, youre just showing everyone how good you follow directions.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  5. Raz car mor

    We baptist last week about 700 for just one week, normally every week people join to this Church are approximate 50 to 200. Last 5 months ago for one week almost 2,000 join to this Church. Last year February to be exact who join to this Church for ornly one week is 3,638, take note, that 3,638 is just one week.

    This telling me that there is something on this Church.
    .
    .
    http://esoriano.wordpress.com/archives/

    July 31, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • What?

      Yes, that they can convince people to be dunked into water and act like fools.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Raz car mor

      The facts that a lot of people don't know. Read and try to understand.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • lee s

      Unfortunately the number of idiots breeding outnumbers the number of sane level headed people breeding. So theres your answer.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  6. William fitzwater

    I know this is a odd analogy but is akin to a Star Trek episode from the original series where the crew landed on a planet of Yangs fighting for their freedom from the combs. Not understanding the words of freedom or what it meat. In some ways Christianity and many other things in our culture is mixed up . where the words have lost meaning & purpose. Christianity ; some speak it some just blend in . Wheat & tares. Grace ; forgiveness of sin belief but them comes hell , prayer ; fasting certain rituals ;penance certain meeting reading verses ; join the Republican be a good Conservative they are saved protection of life in the Womb but what about every one else ? . Standing on your toes wiggling your ears ; are we there yet ? are we saved ?
    That's the perplexing and contradictory world of Christianity where salvation is conditional ? If you know how to play the game or not ?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  7. GAW

    Any subculture has cliches and jargon and the usage of those terms becomes a litmus test of who is in the group and who is out. Evangelicalism is no exception. Some terms are loaded and come in the form of questions such as "Are you born again?" There could actually be many questions behind this question such as Do you believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible? Are you a creationist? Do you believe in the rapture? Are you against abortion? Do you vote Republican?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  8. Jeff

    Religion is the most effective form of mind control EVER invented. End of story.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • GAW

      I always feel uneasy when someone ends a post with "End of Story" It's like they're saying don't question me.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  9. JOHN

    If Jesus were to appear now, I am sure he would have some very choice words for so-called Christians who apparently don't have a clue as to what he really taught. What passes for Christianity today is a far cry from Jesus' original teaching.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  10. Chuck Gaffney

    It's very tough to speak in nothing but "herp" and "derp"

    July 31, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  11. Hesalive

    Torah101: You're wrong and the sooner you admit your mistake the better it will be for you. God's Son was and is a cosmic figure who totally and eternally changed the spiritual landscape. Reject Him and things will only get much worse in the next life. You should visit the nearest Messianic Jewish temple and find out why and how these folks came to believe.

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

      2000 years of good fortune they christians have lived. This is the type of follower it has spawned.
      What now?
      What will you do blind follower when your luck changes?
      We will see

      July 31, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  12. Bill

    I have to sadly say that I've never heard anyone speak "Christian". But, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't hear someone say " G.d D..n!", or "J...s C....t!, which I detest.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  13. Derrique

    I stopped reading after "...is a New York-based writer..."
    It's okay to bash religion, but let's go ahead and legalize gay marriage.
    There's a word for THAT one, too: 'Hypochristian'.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • lee s

      All religious types are hypocrites, its even condoned in christianity. What do you think a confession and forgiveness is?

      July 31, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  14. Raz car mor

    .
    .
    We baptist last week about 700 for just one week, normally every week people join to this Church are approximate 50 to 200. Last 5 months ago for one week almost 2,000 join to this Church. Last year February to be exact who join to this Church for ornly one week is 3,638, take note, that 3,638 is just one week.

    This telling me that there is something on this Church.
    .
    .

    July 31, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Lee

      Spiritual truth is not created by a majority.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  15. Torah101

    God of Torah kicked stupid mankind out of the garden because we are repulsive and left a flaming sword (flame but not gay) with two cute little babies with wings, TO GUARD IT FROM US. Geeze God really loves us eh

    July 31, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  16. What?

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eqKb5ViN_Q&w=640&h=390]

    July 31, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Torah101

      LOL – My Job is to JUDGE mankind. Read Torah and see who My God of Torah chose to JUDGE – pizzants

      July 31, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Torah101

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYNg28BAxro&w=640&h=390]

      July 31, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  17. Reality

    While I am an agnostic, I have the courage to say that I don't have all the answers. Atheists are just as bad as the fundamentalists. Neither of you have any proof to support your assertions. Remember, science has not provided an inkling of proof for the non-existence of God. While that is true, it is also true that the religions of the world have not an inkling of evidence for the existence of a supreme creator. Bottom line, I think that the reason that people are so anti-religion is that people have trouble submitting to a higher power. People don't like being told what to do. Of couse, I could expand upon this until the cows come home, but I dont have the time or data space. As the previous poster stated, most of our morals have come from religion, but science continues to make our lives better.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • What?

      Common sense is what you need. If you lack it, it makes you a moron. Moron.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Colin

      I am an agnostic, too. I have the courage to say that I don't have all the answers. People who don't believe in Leprechauns are just as bad as the fundamentalists. Neither of you have any proof to support your assertions. Remember, science has not provided an inkling of proof for the non-existence of the Leprechaun King. While that is true, it is also true that the religions of the world have not an inkling of evidence for the existence of a supreme Leprechaun. Bottom line, I think that the reason that people are so anti-religion is that people have trouble submitting to a higher power. People don't like being told what to do. Of couse, I could expand upon this until the cows come home, but I dont have the time or data space. As the previous poster stated, most of our morals have come from religion, but science continues to make our lives better.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Rhonda

      Wow, Reality, you have actually said some things that I agree with. A lot of people seem to be uncomfortable with mystery to the point where they are driven to submit what they consider to be absolute proof to support their point of view. It's OK to say, 'I don't know for sure', and still not be wishy-washy or uninformed.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • @What?

      If you have "common sense" then you'll know that if you're still living, then you can't say with any certainty that there is or is not an afterlife. If you have "common sense" you'll know that all we have here in life is conjecture, and conjecture is hardly proof. There is no proof to the yes or no answer of the afterlife, and choosing one or the other makes you a moron. Moron.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • WhiteDove

      If you're an agnostic, you ARE an atheist. A-theism... the absence of theism.

      Always cracks me up to hear people who want to be cute cuddly widdle agnostics but not NASTY BABY-EATING ATHEISTS!

      If you don't like radical in-your-face atheists, then don't be one. But at least own up to what you are... a cute cuddly widdle agnostic atheist.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Rhonda

      @What
      How much 'common sense' does it take to call people names and think you have said something useful?

      July 31, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • TJCIII

      Atheists are just as bad? Really? Are you out of your mind?

      Lets all be serious for a moment.

      The god written about in the bible is just a made up tale to fear monger people into a mindset and make them follow blindly.

      If this is such a loving god, why would any deity act so passive aggressively and create an imperfect being, demand that being be perfect, and if he fails to be perfect, throws him into a hell for eternity? Sounds like a sociopath to me. Err, I mean loving god.

      If there was a god, one would think that this god would be around to guide his creation a little more, unless of course he is taking the GWB way of leadership and constantly go on vacation.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Money

      Well Rhonda, I guess these people think that they are more intelligent than the rest of the world. We all know that the opposite is probably true. To the idiot above who thinks agnostism equals atheism – Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable. I think it is a more valid position. If you say something with absolute certainty, then you must have proof to back it up. Until M theory is proven, it is reasonable to have faith. If that faith brings you to a god, then so be it.

      July 31, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  18. derp

    I am also fluent in unicorn, sasquatch and santa claus.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  19. TheTRUTH

    They DON'T know...

    July 31, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  20. Hesalive

    @twiddly: Apparently so. If you want Him He wants you. Do you want Him?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Torah101

      Male male sax is an abomination

      July 31, 2011 at 11:12 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.