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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. Cyphonix

    The most powerful thing about being born again and baptized, is that death can't even come near me. My physical body is just a mere vehicle that obeys the laws of gravity. I was alive before my body was born from the female who bore me. And I am alive even after this body passes. No fear, no sorrow, just pure joy and love for everything in this world.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • Nathan

      dopeheads say the same thing. Dude man, that's ironic.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:43 am |
    • Cyphonix

      You mean Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and so on? They're dead... they can't say anything to me.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:52 am |
    • lalverson

      Unfortunate you will not apply that love you speak of while you are just obeying the laws of gravity. Seems you are too busy being happy about being indestructible.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • Cyphonix

      @lalverson, Love is a feeling, intangible matter, unlike the body. They are completely independent. I don't need one to achieve the other.

      July 31, 2011 at 4:08 am |
  2. Sunnye

    And this is why I'm not religious...

    July 31, 2011 at 3:30 am |
    • Maritarita

      but what if there was a God and this God was actually leaving you all of those hints about him to find out more about him? do you want to be something as small as a Cinderella story in 20 pages if there is something like that? never gonna be that simple. And the more God shows us about himself, the more we will have more questions about him. He is so sweet to mankind and does not want people to die, even though this is the justice and what we should get for our sins. But he still cleans us with his own blood that he shed from his only son when he came down and died for us. Don't you think this is a good reason to give yourself another chance to think about being religous?

      July 31, 2011 at 4:01 am |
  3. Seer

    This individual has no idea of what Christian theology is about. One just needs to mention the 333 prophetic statements made in the Old Testament about the coming Christ, most of these revelations given to individuals who were in the throws of suffering. There are two Greek translations for the Word evil, one means to oppose himself to his own defeat, the other speaks of an other who is not happy with his own demise but has a need to entice others in the same folly. Be careful with the things that are not spoken to you or you may be thrown into eternal suffering!

    July 31, 2011 at 3:30 am |
    • lalverson

      Is it painful to be so arrogant and ignorant?

      July 31, 2011 at 3:49 am |
    • Seer

      If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book;  and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:05 am |
  4. JOregon

    Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in North Carolina.
    "Many churches are either jettisoning or streamlining the altar call, Leonard says."
    -
    The altar call was invented by the American evangelist, Charles G. Finney in the 1820's.
    Was Leonard just speaking Christian? Shouldn't he know that?

    July 31, 2011 at 3:29 am |
  5. Randy

    Lol, CNN – what crap is this.

    Way to take many things and turn them around. You seem to be taking many stabs at Christianity over the past few weeks with the one guy and evangelism, God's so called "approval" rating, and now this.

    Hilarious.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:27 am |
  6. Gupta

    Go figure, leave it to CNN to write an article on "Christian speak" in light of another muslim terrorist attack at Fort Hood. These writers are far too afraid to look their muslim colleagues in the eye and write the truth. Christian, Hindu's & Jews are easy prey.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:23 am |
  7. CT232

    It's unfortunate that jargon – used as shorthand within a specific community – may become divorced from meaning when used in a more diverse group. This is true for medical professionals, legal experts, engineers, and also, as the article points out, for Christians. We would *all* do well to realize that listeners may not understand our words in the same way we do, and be prepared to discuss in more detail what we mean. The essayist, however, seems to assume that citing "Borg and others" is sufficient to establish the theologically 'correct' definition of the terms used, which I would seriously question. A second issue: is the essay itself free of 'jargon?' To me, the use of terms such as "elites," "elitism," "change," "justice," and so forth in the essay could be critiqued in the same way that the essayist critiques "Christian" terms – essentially another private language with which to gain credence with certain groups, rather than conveying meaning.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:21 am |
  8. MrOpinionator

    The language of Christianity is the language of ignorance... and insanity.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:20 am |
  9. Q1

    Have a friend who is a christian. he once said, "Atheist and non-believers scare me. Nothing is stopping them from killing someone."

    Anywho...I can translate christian..."I am better than you and whatever you believe, if it is not christianity, it is wrong. if I do something wrong you cannot blame me because i am christian. If you disagree with me, you are wrong because you are not a christian. I can understand what you are saying but it is wrong because it is not christian. I am christian and you are wrong."

    Ummm, yeah.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:19 am |
    • hell

      ummm, yeah. You're going to hell

      July 31, 2011 at 3:26 am |
    • Sebas

      Yes, the religious claim on morality is appalling, not to mention ambiguous. Love they neighbour, unless he interprets the bible in a different way.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:26 am |
    • jnh2misc@yahoo.com

      Are you sure they are a friend? Most people don't talk poorly of their friends to strangers on the internet.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:26 am |
  10. Jaximus

    @ Jesus is the only way: The one point that we can agree on is that the author of this piece fails to grasp Christianity, or any other faith for that matter. The individual meaning of a word means very little compared to the message as a whole. Now I'm sure that what you wrote was motivated by the best of intentions and that your heart was bursting with what you perceived to be the love of God. I have to let you know however that despite your good intentions, you have likened yourself to any other religious zealot or extremest of any other faith from around the globe. This kind of pretentious, self absorbed, delusional ego stroking is one of many reasons why I am and will remain a happy, friendly and tolerant Atheist. How do you sleep at night my friend? With one simple post on CNN, you have proclaimed to the other 5 billion people on this planet who happen not to be Christians and that mostly follow faiths or philosophies very similar to your own...that they are all damned and can look forward to an eternity burning in Hell. Who are you to judge your fellow man? What makes you right and a billion Muslims wrong? What makes you right and nearly a billion Hindus wrong? I don't believe in God as it is offered to us in religion, but I sure as hell wouldn't go in front of the world and tell everyone else in it that they were all screwed and doomed to immortal peril because they didn't see the world as I do. In short, believe what you want and pray to who or whatever you want but please keep your ego stroking restricted to a private place if your going to be condemning everyone around you. And CNN...please try and report on real news from now on.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:16 am |
    • John Rolme

      Jesus was fictional.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:27 am |
    • Brian

      I would be more concerned about the the man who thought that he DID have the cure to man's unworthiness in the sight of his creator AND CHOOSE NOT TO SHARE IT WITH EVERYONE HE CAME ACROSS.

      Now that would be someone who did not care for those around him and was content to let them die. How arrogant and self absorbed would that be?

      July 31, 2011 at 3:30 am |
    • earth2loons

      The objective fact about Christianity, and I don't speak for other religions, is that it is fundamentally exclusive. Jesus made that clear in saying that nobody comes to the Father except through Me. Yes, you are right. That does mean that Hindus, Muslims, and the rest don't make the cut. But ultimately if Christ is right, which obviously an atheist like you scoffs at, then there is no excuse for anyone anyway. It would not be unjust, however, because people make their own decision ultimately with respect to what they are going to do with Christ. I personally take a scientific approach to all teachings and put them to the test. Faith doesn't need to be blind, it can be reasoned. You're an intelligent person, think about that. If there is a God, and there is a way to God, then God will reveal Himself to you. Personally, I have learned to abstain from saying what I am going to do even tomorrow, let alone the rest of my life. I don't mean any offense, and I might even understand your position as an atheist, I work in science. And I think there is more than you are seeing. Best to you.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:38 am |
  11. Peter

    So what??? Jesus Christ...

    July 31, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  12. delbic

    Be Good and Peaceful...Christian or Not....

    July 31, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  13. checkyofacts

    "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."

    The book of 1 Thessalonians was written around 52 AD (That's a few years before 1850 AD). Paul speaks in detail about what is commonly referred to as "the Rapture" in this epistle.

    With all due respect to Mr. Borg, at least one person was thinking about the Rapture before 1850.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:13 am |
    • Brian

      The author is correct. That verse historically has been understood as referring to the second coming of Christ, not the "rapture" as it is unfortunately commonly held today.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  14. DC

    Ignorance and arrogance best describe the writer and the liberal scholar he quotes from. Just because the word "rapture" was not in print prior to 1850 does not mean it was not taught in early doctrines of the Church. Speak simply, honestly, and humbly, please.

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

      I am a christian fundamentalist in every sense of the term. i believe in the inerrant Word of God...Chirst Follower for 30 years. Historical Christianity has held that the verses that are used to support the second coming and the rapture are describing the same event.

      I hope we agree that if this is true, the same event would be the second coming. The rapture is truly a new belief when you study the creads and theology of the great christian writers over the last 2,000 years.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:23 am |
  15. MoeL

    Hey you right religious wing nuts...rapture this! (Use your imagination if you have one). Has your cult not caused enough damage in America? Enough with the religious BS...go away. As for the right wing religious nut in Norway...sorry you people own him...he is all CHRISTIAN...you own him.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  16. trixen

    I speak atheist. haha... Seriously, though, I'm a decent person...contrary to what some of you Christians may believe about atheists, not all of us are horrible people and some of us actually have ethics independent from religion. Just thought I'd throw that out there... it needs to be said.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  17. james

    God is a man-made construct.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:59 am |
  18. Michael

    This is a pitiful article.

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

      HERE! HERE! CNN is going right down the crapper. Articles like these are pathetic "clap trap" hooks for idiots and those wonderful folks who comprise the lowest common denominator. Michael, you summed it all up, sir!

      July 31, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  19. Beverlee

    I found this article to be quite pious...as in: marked by sham or hypocrisy.

    As an individual who strives to understand religion (not having been raised with any), I do not judge the religiosity of others. I love to listen to others talk about their religions without feeling compelled to compete. I became a Catholic after marrying a Catholic to raise our child within a religion. I talk to her about my lack of understanding. I have always been honest with her about it...she is now 18 and embraces her religion. While I don't understand her love of her religion, I also don't judge it. This article was quite judgmental.

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

      Congratulations on teaching your children to literally believe fairy tales, I'm sure it will do wonders for their ability to reason.

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

      Congratulation on giving your children a life long legacy of hope to build on, that will inspire them, long after you are gone, that your love for them will always be there.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  20. JesusLovesAsia

    John 14:6

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

    July 31, 2011 at 2:58 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.