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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. Atheists4Jesus

    http://www.youtube.com/user/atheists4jesus

    July 31, 2011 at 2:56 am |
  2. Jews4JesusChrist

    http://www.youtube.com/user/jews4jesuschrist

    July 31, 2011 at 2:55 am |
  3. As usual

    "Christians" commenting on these articles feel that they know more than the person writing the article.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • checkyofacts

      That's because the guy that wrote the article doesn't know much about Christianity.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:16 am |
    • Erm

      checkyofacts...I'm assuming you know allllllllllllll about it, right?

      July 31, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Jimmy

      Maybe they do, maybe they don't. No more blanket statements please.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  4. checkyofacts

    Article:
    "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."

    Bible:
    1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 – For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (NIV)

    So, the Bible contradicts historical Christian teaching?

    July 31, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Brian

      No, that verse refers to the second coming according to historic christianity.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • checkyofacts

      @Brian 1 Thesselonians speaks of the Rapture (Jesus taking Christians out) while Revelation 19 speaks of the 2nd Coming (bringing Christians back).

      July 31, 2011 at 4:00 am |
    • Erm

      Do you believe everything you read?

      July 31, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  5. CF

    No, I don't speak talking snake, burning bush, or godspeak. Yes, I do speak logic, facts, and empiricism.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Amistavia

      Clearly that means you have the common sense required to not be a Christian.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:56 am |
    • CF

      Nor any other primitive belief system.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  6. RightTurnClyde

    Whether to comment or not? Well there are (it is true) many people who claim to be Christian and yet are not. But if you are practicing you also know many many more who are Christian (and who live the faith). So once again CNN is posting merely to create talk. The article itself is meaningless. Americans have an inclination to act out artificial roles .. ex..CPAs in cowboy clothes with boots and hat line dancing (women too), yacht captains in captain jackets, garage bands, Star Trekkers .. and Christians. It's pop culture.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:53 am |
    • Michael

      Perfectly said, thank you.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:05 am |
  7. Al Stefanelli

    I speak a little Klingon and am working on my Na'vi

    July 31, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  8. Islam2Christ

    http://www.youtube.com/user/islam2christ

    This writer DOES NOT KNOW what he is talking about!! Rapture is in the Bible – but it words as "being caught up" – which is a Latin term. This writer apparently does not know the Bible nor has ever read the Bible...he is very ignorant when he just comes out of the blue and just starts disproving Christians...The "Name it Claim It" is the Prosperity Gospel and IS IT NOT SCRIPTURAL. I don't blame him to think negatively towards that doctrine...but I am born-again and the HOLY SPIRIT IS REAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Revelations 3:20....Jesus Christ has changed my life and the Word of God is more powerful than a two-edged sword. This writer will one day stand before Christ and we'll have to give an account for his life...this article is an attempt to mislead many people from the TRUTH!!!

    July 31, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • thes33k3r

      Thanks for exclaiming "I am born-again and the HOLY SPIRIT IS REAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!". With all-caps and all those exclamation points, I'm sold. I wouldn't have taken you seriously if you had used lower case and only one exclamation point. I can't stop laughing about this.

      I got an idea: why don't you tell us where little baby jesus is going to throw me (and the majority of people on the planet) when I die since I use my brain and refuse to accept a ludicrous story dating from a time when a wheel barrow would have been a technological marvel?

      July 31, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • CF

      I once had a conversation with a born again who thought that the earth was 6000 years old. When I pointed out that there was substantial evidence to the contrary, he replied: "God put that evidence here to test our faith." Well, you can't argue with that. Personally, if I were god, and I put all that evidence here, and having created man in my image, I would be a little upset that that some of those created in that image were too stupid to reason things out.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:18 am |
    • Erm

      You know, they make meds for this sort of thing....

      July 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • BJP

      thes33k3r,
      Trust me, he will not have to tell you anything about where you are going. In your foolish heart you really believe in Hell but your arrogance and pride will be your demise. Your ignorance is leading you like an ox going to the slaughter.

      August 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  9. Say What?

    Help us. If you believe in the God of Abraham read about Him, get to know Him and show it and stop arguing with people who will never believe except by God. Remember, Rev. 3:20-22 the knock at their door must be answered for themselves. If you don’t believe what are you arguing about? According to you there is no argument and time will eventually prove you right. Or so is your hope? Psalms14:1

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • Erm

      Why are you preaching at people on CNN? Go away and take your imaginary friend in the sky with you.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  10. thes33k3r

    I used to speak some Christian. I gave it up and now speak Intellectual Honesty. It's a rare language on this planet that most people aren't familiar with. One catch is that you can't speak both languages. Speaking I.H. also means that you don't speak Islam or any other religious language for that matter. There are many good reasons to believe that the languages of Christian and Islam are on their way to becoming what linguists call dead languages.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Does the language of intellectual honesty end sentences with a preposition, e,g,, "people aren't familiar with." Wouldn't have been more intellectually honest to say "with which people are not familiar>"

      July 31, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • thes33k3r

      Clint Eastwood, thanks for the grammar lesson and the red herring, a term you may be familiar with. I'm glad that you were educated enough to understand what I meant anyway though you did give me many things to think of.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • saaaly

      your post is fake and your mothers a ho

      July 31, 2011 at 5:48 am |
  11. Marc

    The comments about "salvation" nicely illustrate the arrogance and stupid sense of self-importance that a lot of Christians love to show off. The word is of a Latin origin that predates Christianity. So to come around and claim that people who use that term don't know what they're talking about, because they don't know enough about Christian theology or history, is just plain ridiculous.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • Say What?

      So you are saying Christians should have come up with a totaly new word to say salvation? ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! So lets try aporoanahhyf! That is a nice word for salvation insted of just using salvation??? Wow!

      July 31, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  12. cbhartness

    a wake up moment for me was at a caedmon's call and jars of clay concert in virginia in 2003. in between shows the performers discussed that the culture of christianity needs to be broken, that the natural exclusivity of any lingo/religion needs to be dissolved and cease to become a thing, so that inclusivity and openness takes form. they suggested simply returning to the example jesus gave us – to love. i wonder if jesus sees our such intense efforts to win him over or win each other over or impress one another with piousness/holiness and simply sighs, and thinks, "man. i guess they werent paying attention." that goes for all of us, almost 7billion strong.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  13. HarvardLaw92

    Not only do I not speak it, I avoid it like the plague. Get these people started and they just will NOT shut up. I used to try to politely listen, and found myself wishing I could gnaw off an arm in order to escape. Now I just politely decline and extricate myself as quickly as possible.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  14. John

    'How can you say, "We are wise because we have the word of the LORD," when your teachers have twisted it by writing lies?" said Jesus himself. How come no where in the Bible there is a mention of Jesus son of Mary being God? and yet some called him God, does he fake eating since he was seen eating. God is Self-sufficient. No teaching nor writing anywhere can provide a proof of Jesus saying he was God. Religion welcome Science, and Reason, not lies and misconceptions.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • Amistavia

      God doesn't exist fool

      July 31, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • John

      More than 4billion people believe otherwise, so sow yer mouth and go check yerself out.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:02 am |
    • HarvardLaw92

      A lot of children believe Santa Claus is real as well. There are even books that say he's real.

      That doesn't make him real. It's amusing that the human is the only animal capable of deluding itself.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • CF

      At one point, virtually every human being thought the earth was flat, that disease was caused by spirits, and that the gods' whims ruled nature.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:07 am |
    • John

      Funny Really. You guys need to sell me your brains of a dime a piece. Figure it out ahead before I hand your receipt.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • Erm

      A lot of people believe a lot of things. Believing something doesn't make it true for everyone.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • ChristopherAP

      @HarvardLaw, Santa clause differs ontologically to a being with all causal power and who we draw conclusions about from the world and his word. That comment is just one of the most comments that make me see Atheists as philosophical novices and people who like to make bare-assertions with no substance, I think atheism lives on more faith than Christianity.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  15. Bonnie Half-Elven

    By that time, they’ve reached the final stage of speaking Christian – they've become spiritual snobs."

    THIS.

    Many have posted that mainstream Christianity is not like the extreme represented by those "Speaking Christian." While there are many individuals in all denominations who represent true Christianity, most of the mainline churches have hypocrisy written in their Book of Discipline, or whatever they call it. Pick the group that is seen as less-than. RIght now, it's gays. In the future it will be someone else. The churches either fight against that group's civil rights, and use their Bible to back up their prejudice, or they stand by and say nothing in protest of those who perpetuate that fight. This, more than anything else, is why I have turned my back on organized religion.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:46 am |
    • HarvardLaw92

      I think maybe that the article should have used the word "evangelical" instead of Christian. They are their own special brand of crazy.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:09 am |
    • Erm

      Amen, Harvard. Amen.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Erm

      I'm just glad I escaped from that cult.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Jon

    I myself don't speak Christian, I speak spiritual and faith. Organized religions over the past few centuries have killed too many people in the name of their "God".

    July 31, 2011 at 2:45 am |
    • Amistavia

      What makes you any better? Faith is a mental disease.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:46 am |
    • Jon

      I don't recall asking your opinion

      July 31, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • Amistavia

      Is this the part where you start killing me? Christians like that you know.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • Jon

      Troll somewhere else.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • Amistavia

      Perhaps you can pray me away faithhead.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Jon

      I don't pray, might help you tho.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:55 am |
    • Erm

      So you posted something on a public message board, but no-one is allowed to give their opinion on your post? What's the sense of that, then?

      July 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • cm

      Amistavia, clearly you are severely undermedicated. Wow, glad I am not you.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Jon

      @Erm, I don't mind someone having a counter opinion with some basis, fact and knowledge about the subject. The problem I have is being personally attacked and this person offered nothing to the subject.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  17. Mrs. White

    Yes. Yes, I did it. I killed Yvette. I hated her, so much... it-it- the f – it -flame... flames. Flames, on the side of my face, breathing-breathl- heaving breaths. Heaving breaths... Heathing...

    July 31, 2011 at 2:41 am |
  18. billp

    "I like your Christ. Christians, not so much." – M. Gandhi

    July 31, 2011 at 2:41 am |
  19. Unikraken

    The only people who don't know anything about the Bible are Christians. If they knew, they wouldn't be Christians. Pretty simple.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  20. Matt Slick

    This guy did NOT know what Christianity was. He included Jehovah's Witnesses in the mix (Roman Catholicism is another topic-think "Reformation"). It is not Christian. It is a cult. I get tired of hearing and reading reports about Christianity from NON Christians or "christians" that are so liberal, they don't know what the Bible REALLY says. When will CNN and other agences interview REAL, knowledgable Christians who know what the faith is? Don't worry, i won't hold my breath. matt slick from carm.org

    July 31, 2011 at 2:37 am |
    • Unikraken

      No true Scottsman would do such a thing!

      July 31, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Al

      What makes their brand of christianity a cult and yours not? Isn't is fair to say that all religions really are cults and all adherents, to greater or lesser degree, are cult members?

      July 31, 2011 at 2:56 am |
    • Joe

      I loved TheoreticalBS's dismantling of your pet argument.

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

      Christian means "follower of Christ". Last time I checked Catholics were followers of Christ.
      I don't recall anywhere in the bible anyone commanding people to be judgmental and pious, but there ya go.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • ChristopherAP

      @Joe That is pretty funny considering that TheoreticalBS is a complete philosophical novice just like most atheists. You must have sub-optimal academia.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:26 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.