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.
If you aren't Christian in action, all the "right" words are meaningless
okay, so making cheap wine from water, giving your money to your god jc and performing miracles isn't enough?
okay okay, how about leading the masses away from God of Torah?? Good enough to be a true christian???
The idolotry of worshipping a book (the Bible) has reached fever pitched. We can only pray such Christians evolve into an awareness of the unity of all life rather than continue to worship false idols.
The statement is ludicrous. How do you worship a book that says doing such a thing would be idolatry? It would be a sin, according to the book, to worship the book.
– _ –
Do you all know what has reached a fever pitch? The universal ignorance and lack of knowledge regarding these religions and their relationships with each other. And any information regarding Christianity and the history of it beyond Roman Catholicism's...
"Do you speak Christian'? How about this question: "Is your understanding of Christianity based off a gross misinterpretation of contemporary translations or men who use religion to make a profit?" Because according to this same book, in these times of evil (and even the most positive-minded atheist should know something is WRONG with our environment) men will distort the teachings for their own gain. They're called false teachers and prophets. I guarantee all of you that the majority of those who call themselves Christians (sincere or not) are under the tutelage of false teachers and profiteers.
Ever heard someone say "I've been born again?" Did they act like a new creation or a human with a conscience? Because you don't need to be Christian to have a conscience. What differentiates those "born again" from those who aren't? If there is no observable difference, than their statement is false.
The majority of you who have words to say against Christians tend to reference points based off a misinterpretation of the Bible perpetuated by those who wish to profit off of it. Few realize that not everything is to be taken literally from the book.
bobcat2u brings up Noah and uses the text as a scientific explanation of the history of mankind. He already made a mistake. What if I told you that Noah and his ark is a type of "shadow" or prophetic sign of what is to come at the end of the world: a "flood" which cleans the lands of those which pollute it and only those who are in the ark (can you interpret it?) will make it through?
It is of a different nature and must be approached that way. The Bible is not written for the benefit of telling you how the universe works and how, supposedly, electrons (in quantum physics) will act as a wave when unobserved but as a particle when observed. It is not concerned with any of that. It's not there to satisfy a curiousity. It is a book designed for your mind, heart and soul, to guide your thoughts and actions for the sake of – according to the book – making sure that when your body decomposes into dirt, your existence will not be in a place of darkness. Call it outer space. Call it hell.
Dear John Blake,
While you've written an interesting article, your attempt to highlight specific "Christian" words –especially rapture–only highlighted your own lack of knowledge regarding biblical phrases and words. Paul wrote the letter to the Thessalonians talking about being "caught up together" in the clouds to meet Jesus (1 Thess. 4:17) TWO THOUSAND years ago! It's not new. John wrote the book of Revelation TWO THOUSAND years ago where Jesus tells believers they would be "kept out of" the hour of trial the world would one day experience. (Rev. 3:10) Before the 19th century, most people didn't read the Bible for themselves. They relied on clergy members to tell them what it said and lots of clergy liked keeping their congregations reliant on them and focused mainly on hell and damnation sermons. Read it for yourself, John. Then write another article about what you've learned.
Hey, all I had to do was read your post to tell you what I'VE learned, namely that the Bible has been wrong about the rapture for TWO THOUSAND YEARS!
Excellent response. It is clear the author has know idea what the Bible actually teaches.
"what the Bible actually teaches." = what I (only) think it "actually" teaches
John Blake is right. Every president has fallen prey to this insidious practice of fooling the public by using the words they want to hear. At the end of his speech concerning the congressional debt crisis, President Obama believably said, "God bless the United States of America," as if it's a foregone conclusion. His comments are insensitive, presumptuous, and unfounded.
Huh? What did you say? Did you say that christinas, jews, and muslims stole my Torah??? Is that it?? Thieves I tell you
I believe Mr. Obama says those words because the brainwashed masses expect it, and would get their panties in a wad if he didn't. It's a capitulation to the pressure to be politically correct.
That doesn't make him a bad President, just a smart one.
Hitler had every women, every religion to choose from, but who did he choose? Little blonde Catholic Eva Braun. His ma would be so proud of little Hitler marrying a Catholic. You go Hitler!
Most Prophetical Christians yearn for the word so to speak but they do not truly follow thru with much Inspired Truths. As a "Secular Christian Fundamentalist" my staunchiness Stance is repudiated by many including Christians who know not why they think and are here for! :(
I Thessalonians 4:17 describes what Christians now refer to as the rapture. Now perhaps the term "Rapture" was indeed authored in the 19th century, as the article states. But Paul wrote about the concept in this letter to the Thessalonians in the First century AD. Remember that 'ordinary' folks did not even start reading the Bible until the 16th century, and even then it was a minority. It really didn't catch on until the 18th century. And then the intensive study of the BIble did not start until the 19th century mainly in Germany. So this article really is unbalanced about semantics. It also is incredibly cynical. How does John Blake know what any individual person means when they use certain words? He cannot know. The point of this article is that most Christians do not understand the words they use and are therefore either stupid, ignorant or misled. Well, as a Christian and a follower of the Bible, I am confident that what I feel in my heart and think about the Bible is just fine, even if some egghead professor wants to split hairs about the English, Latin, Greek, Aramaic meanings of certain words or phrases. Even when you break the Bible down to interpretations of translations, Christ still comes through in shining glory. His will be done and God Bless.
"Catchy Praseologies" are the Norm these Days Kenny, didn't you know that? By GOD and Of God I am AS a god but what about our goddesses those of the feminine aspect? Are they a goddess of a Goddess of the main GODDESS? Who Truly Cares? I DO I DO!!!!! :)
How typically anti-Christian in your words and behaviors, Kenny! You disparage the scholar, in favor of your "conversant" studies. You hold dear one interpretation of one sentence in one book out of MANY that speak of the same times, yet mention nothing similar. You hold as true, the words of the ONE "apostle" who never met Christ at all, indeed had persecuted and killed Christians for years.
So, you find your way into the same mental trap that the tea party has fallen into: IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
Newsflash, it isn't. Ignorance is a weakness.
Live your live however you want to live it, and dont allow anyone tell you how to practice your religion. The Holy Bible's only interpretation that counts in your life is your own. As long as you can read, then you can create your own thoughts, and understanding will come to you...after all..isnt that what religion is? Your personal connection with your beliefs, so dont let anybody else tell you otherwise...
"In the final analysis, it is between you and God: it was never between you and them anyway."
~ Mother Teresa
It's funny how nuns would tell me far more about religion and the HISTORY of the faith than any hundred priests, even when directly asked. One would think that nuns actually are not Catholic, to listen to the history of the faith and church.
Mother Theresa was a evil bi-tch who prevented people from using condoms in Africa. She caused a lot of spreading of STD's. Africa suffers even more because of what that bi-tch did.
As I said "down Below", Of GOD, By God, I am god! :)
@boris – you are making this up, and it is stupid. MT worked in India and ministered to the poor. She did not offer any preaching.
Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.
I say "Jesus Christ!" when I am annoyed, and add the f-word in the middle of that when I am really upset. Does that count ?
I add " H" in the middle. I think it stands for 'holy', but I'm not sure
lol, Now more than ever huh? More so than when people were beheaded for their faith. People swear they are persecuted for being Christian in a predominately Christian country. Shut up, dude.
My long ago ex married one of these loonies. Now he is stuck for eternity "speaking Christian" with this broad who never leaves the house and worries about such things as whether or not a Christian woman should do yoga. Does anyone think that people who focus their energies on this nonsense are just trying to check out of a difficult, scary, and problematic world and the many real world problems left to solve? Hey, you know who you are: like your life now?
Enough of the babble. Shep, what is the history of the bible ? Was is founded on any other traditions or legends of the region in which it supposedly happened ? Can you offer any evidence that Jesus existed, any contemporaneous history, not something written two or three generations later ? Yarah, you say the Rapture is clear in the bible ? Then it is also clear that the rapture will only be for 144,000 either virgin or gay males. You see, when you try to selectively pull quotes out of the bible, you play a fools game.
Yes, I have read the bible, several versions. As well as the history of the bible. Speaking "Christian" is as valid as Orwell's double speak. It serves the person who is using it.
What's more surprising is how often Christian's speak Pagan and don't even know it. Most of what passes for Christmas traditions are in fact Pagan/Heathen, like the lighted and decorate tree, candles in the windows, wreath on the door, caroling from door to door, exchanging gifts, etc. These are ALL taken directly from the pagan/heathen Yule holiday, which predate the arrival of Christianity in Europe. Easter with it's colored eggs and bunny are based on the celebrations for the goddess Ēostre/Ostara. Then of course there are the days of the week, like Tuesday (Tiw's Day) , Wednesday (Woden's Day), Thursday (Thor's Day) Friday (Frigg's day), etc. Even the central story of the Christian gospels bear a striking resemblance to older Pagan myths. So is speaking Christian really...speaking pagan?
Good points. The whole scapegoat thing also came up many times before Christians borrowed it to hoist their own dead thing on a stick. Scapegoating is absurd to begin with and Christianity is based on it. What a fscking joke of a religion.
You forgot Saturn's day, Saturday. SUNday.
Quite true, as the Catholic church advanced, it incorporated cultural and religious celebrations and spun them to reflect their increasingly diluted faith.
Good Friday is no longer celebrated as it originally was, but instead is a regular day with church and dinner for SOME, a day off for some and Easter is about some magical, candy giving rabbit. Though Easter bread WAS a traditional feast food, the rest is nonsense. The ORIGINAL Good Friday meal was a passover meal.
Fun fact: puritans, whom most American Christians hail as the ideal image of how a Christian should live, outlawed the celebration of Christmas. This celebration was not in the Bible, it was pagan, and therefore heresy.
Yes, puritans, the 'true' Christians outlawed the celebration of Christmas!
Abandon the scapegoat. I prefer my goat either on the grill or in the pot. :)
Only Christians truly believe in God!... But only protestants are truly Christian. And only Americans are truly protestants. And only republicans are truly Americans. And just to be safe, let's exclude moderate republicans, gay republicans, any republican who doesn't come from a small town or a red state... Sarah Palin is the only one who believes in God!
Exclude, exclude, exclude, just to feed one's own vanity. It's funny that these people who claim to hail from the most humble religion only ever use it to feed their superiority complex.
"Of GOD by God I am god!"
HITLER WAS CATHOLIC – A TRUE CHRISTIAN
Hahaha wow . Christian do not "worship" the sun Were did you get that from . ? Before you open your mouth to say things like that get your facts staright !
yeah, Christians don't worship anything that actually exists.
Actually, many Catholic, hence Protestant traditions DO date from Roman sun god worship. Assimilate a tradition and spin it to your replacement religion.
That said, Christians worship the SON, not sun. As in the son of God. A concept that took hundreds of years to develop, to the point where a vote was held as to the divinity of Christ.
I was at the beach last week, and I saw a lot of hot babes worshiping the sun. I am going to guess many were Christians.
I wish some of them had never been born in the first place.
For a good comparison of Christianity from a Muslim's point of view please surf to: http://www.themuslimtimes.org
WoW, exactly what we need, the opinion of people with thousands of brutal fighting years, including with each other and every neighbor, The Cavemen's Club point of view. Try this dude: 1) Respect women as you do any men. 2) If you like to betray, take advantage and abuse, go where betraying, taking advantage and abuse is openly allowed and stay there. 3) Realize that your religion is no different that many Christians that recruit the ignorant and tell them that information that is not convenient to the religious leaders is bad and sinful. 4) Realize that killing people is bad, no matter what your religion is. Having to kill to save a physical life is very sad, but killing for religion is plain stupid : Christian, Muslim or whatever. 5) If you want to see what freedom taste like, read outside what you are told and find the truth in different places, don't too comfortable. Reading your comment I can tell that what you know, you probably learned by being manipulated. 6) Do not disguise or sell hidden hatred as love. 7) Do not do to others what you don't want people to do to you. 8) You cannot worship money and claim you know what love is. 9) Heavy drugs that alter the central nervous system affect the mental state of a human. Do not follow any guidance from anybody that uses heavy drugs.
This article was one of the biggest phony bologna pieces I have ever read. If one refers to themselves as "Christ Follower" or "Christian" than by faith alone, their relationship with Christ is between them and he. This VERY article is why there are so many non-believers these days. You really think, PTA or SOCCER are the reasons why people aren't church-going as often? Think again. Sincerely, -Christ Follower
Amen. I love how all the articles on here say what people want to hear, instead of truth.. oh wait..
No, the reason there are so many non-believers these days is because humans are evolving beyond the need for religion. Science is beginning to be able to explain mysteries that early humans could only attribute to god/gods. Also, the more exposure the Bible gets, the more people notice all the contradictions and brutality in it. Stephen Fry is attributed with a quote that all religious people need to hear and reconcile with themselves: "I assert we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you. Once you understand why you dismiss all other gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
This article is more right on than many "Christians" may like to believe. Raised in church, I turned away from religion for almost 18 years. During that time, I often had to speak what I refer to as "Christian code language" in order to communicate with those in my life whom I had grown up with...including my mother; otherwise, these people would have no idea what I was talking about. And YES...once I surrendered my life to Christ, it took me over a year and a half to even be comfortable using the word "Christian" to describe myself. I actually prefer the term "holy roller." Also, the article was saying that PTA and soccer (ie. The busyness of our schedules) is perhaps the reason there are less altar calls at church... It was not blaming those activities for a decline in church-goers. The reason for the decline in church-going Christians is the lack of Love those in the "world" experience at church or by so called "Christians" ...IMO. Anyway, wake up church! They know us by our LOVE...not our lingo<3
Please don't confuse us with the facts. :)
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.