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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. Chi

    Another article from CNN that demonstrates its liberal perspective. Would such an article ever criticize another religion? Obviously no, the question then becomes:why?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Nargiz

      Shonz14nw Posted on well that is just shtgiart out rude. Why dont people just keep their comments to themselves if they havent got anything nice to say. Bloody meat head (had to say that, and that was being nice LOL) I think they look nice, would love to know what sort of paper that is you have used. Would be nice to see you make one.

      March 1, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  2. myklds

    The question is better would, Do we speak Christian?

    The answer is, YES! We all do. Posting our comments here is the irrevocable proof.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  3. heliocracy

    Stupid people often use buzz words to make themselves sound smarter. Doesn't work though, truly smart people tend to see right through it.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  4. Steve

    Speaking Christian is Simple really, you just use both sides of your mouth. Out of one side you speak of love, compassion and forgiveness. From the other you spread hate, vitriol and intolerance.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • LogicSaysSo

      Yawn, yet another non nonsensical article attacking someone and something that they cannot control. Religion will never seize to exist, so please oh please get used to this. It's only going to grow, it's not going to dwindle.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Sin D Fetish

      Ouch! Well said!...I wish i commented that. Well said Steve. Truth hurts.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Ancient Curse

      It's already dwindling, Logic. The number of non-believers in this country is growing every day. Thank God for that!

      July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • bob

      "Religion will never seize to exist,"
      Yes but it will "cease" to exist just like, apparently, some peoples education.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • maxhedroom

      Those are the phony pretend believers who unfortunately are most prominent. They use Christ for their own personal gain. The real believers fly very low under the radar. They quietly help the poor and sick, and never expect notoriety or personal gain. They live simply, using only what they need to subsist. I know Mother Teresa never never wanted notoriety, but was thrust into the limelight. She would have been content to quietly serve those most in need, because she and the true believers know that is want Jesus really inspired his followers to do.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Les

      You will get the same effect if you worship Amun-Ra or Odin. Point is..All Gods are imaginary.

      September 19, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  5. Russell King

    I think you conflate the language of fundamentalist evangelicals with "Christian" language. Most Christians would not use the fundie terminology. Typical, though, of the media to take the fundies as representative of the religion (they're not). Atypical, however, and worthy of kudos, is the use of Borg as a source. Brilliant guy; much more mainstream.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  6. Raz car mor

    .
    1 Corinthians 2:8
    Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
    .

    July 31, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • I_get_it

      Without the crucifixion you would not have this religion. The whole deal could have been more convincingly handled by a purportedly omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent "God".

      July 31, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  7. Torah101

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

    July 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  8. AQ

    I was interested in this until the article claimed the rapture wasn't anything known until 1850. While the Bible may not have given it the word 'rapture', a second coming where some are taken and some are left behind is *very* Biblical.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Lee Cherry

      No such thing as the secret rapture". The Bible says clearly that "every eye shall see Him"

      July 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Lee Cherry

      The Rapture will be very public. "The dead in Christ shall rise first, then those still living (in Christ) rise after. Those not in Christ will be struck dead untill judgement.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Lee Cherry

      So most people who have ever died are still dead until Jesus returns. Jesus did take some people to heaven when he arose for the last time. They are called the "first fruits"

      July 31, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Windburns

      I completely agree. Also, there is a part of the article where one of the so-called Theologians claim that Christians don't hate the world, that they "love the world and want to change it for the better". That too, is far from the truth. Biblically speaking, Christians are in the world but not of it. The world belongs to the evil one and nobody disputes that. God gave Satan the world. We seek to be lights in the world and to help others, but we cannot change the world. God intends to destroy it.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  9. DC

    I'm pretty disappointed with CNN's posting of such a one sided article. Doesn't seem to be independent journalism to me.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  10. Torah101

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

    July 31, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  11. Lee Cherry

    Different versions of the Bible are part of the problem

    July 31, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Raz car mor

      That is understandable, satan will try everything. It is up to us to believe, have faith, search His commandment, the rest will be guided by Him. Search Him.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  12. The New Testament

    Google Jesus, Horus, Atta and check out the videos concerning paganism and Sun worship....

    July 31, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Lee Cherry

      Most Christians are classiifed pagan as sunworshipers because the observse sunday as the day of rest. Jesus never change the day of worship. You did.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Lee Cherry

      I dont mean you personally, but the church

      July 31, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  13. Tom

    Wow. Start a religious topic and everyone comes out of the wood works. There is no need to denounce a faith in such harsh terms that are used in a public forum. It doesn't serve to better or worsen any bodies frame of mind, it only makes the poster look one dimensional. If a person decides to follow a chosen faith than fine. I don't consider myself religious because religion is man's attempt to reach God. I consider myself a Christian because it's mans attempt to have a relationship with Jesus.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  14. lee sutter

    interesting that Abraham Lincoln's most famous quote.....a house divided against it'self cannot stand....is actually" And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:"Matthew 12:24-26 so he showed what we know christianity really is what we DO not what we SAY.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  15. DIvine Intervention

    "Do you speak Christian?"

    No, I prefer to speak intelligently, and think critically.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Jeff in Illinois

      Yet you manage to be holier-than-thou.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Windburns

      Do you think one of fundamental requirements of Christianity is to undergo a lobotomy? What – did we get in line for the ice pick after the baptismal font? There are small-minded iignorant people aplenty; Christianity hardly cornerned the market.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  16. Jeff in Illinois

    I've gone to church my whole life. I've never heard most of these phrases and I've never heard any of them in casual conversation outside the church. My B.S. alarm is going off big time right now.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • TXinWA

      Yeah, my BS meter was going off big time.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  17. cbcard

    I still remember Dennis Miller's comment about being born again. He was asked if he had been and he said "No, sorry I got it right the first time."

    July 31, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  18. Chi

    This article advocates what it attempts to condemn. Rapture originating from 1850? Maybe that's in name only. The Nicene Creed dates back to 325. Bottom-line is that a topic like this cannot be addressed in one simple article and the author should not be naive enough to attempt to present same.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  19. Raz car mor

    .

    http://esoriano.wordpress.com/

    WON the best website educational to follow by MASHABLE CNN.
    .

    July 31, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  20. Torah101

    It willbe a wonderful day when christians remove MY Torah from the front of their bibles. Seriously, they have no respect for it and they have no right, legally or otherwise having a copy of it.

    They are nto Kings of Israel or Priests, and we are the ones who God gave Torah. That makes the rest of yal THIEVES

    July 31, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Edward

      Yes, but you did kill Jesus ;)

      July 31, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • jumpincats

      G-d was and is your G-d, and He blesses you from the beginning to the end of your life for your people. And also G-d is love to gentiles also.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • jumpincats

      Dear Edward, We killed Jesus. We all response for that.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Torah101

      and I would do it again today given the chance

      July 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      And that's what it's all about for you isn't it. You are the chosen people. I need to feel special and superior too, but I don't NEED to do it that way.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
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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.