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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 • Evangelical • Faith • Fundamentalism • Politics • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,878 Responses)
  1. Prase Jesus Be Thy His Name

    Hey atheists, watch this!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Alex

      Wow you are stupid. Morality can be summed up in one SIMPLE phrase. Do to others as you would want done to you. This is a universal moral rule. If its followed at all times, the world would be a generally peaceful place.. There is absolutely no need for God in this ideology. Honestly I get tired of proving you delusional idiots wrong. but someone has to do it i guess...

      July 31, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • L R

      What you are basically arguing here is that the one that has the knowledge dictates morality. But knowledge is imperfect, many times manipulated, and found wrong after a few years. Your reasoning is circular. Try again.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Cranston

      LR,

      Take an ESL course then watch it again.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Doug

      Umm. Did you actually view this video? It explains why religion is unnecessary in society. It is an excellent position statement, but one I don't think most Christians would support.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • ritamweep

      Alex...
      Leviticus 19:18

      New American Standard Bible (NASB)

      18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  2. AvdBerg

    Hey guys be sure to check out our site's online store for our new dvds,
    "The Muscular and Demanding Moorish Shepherd"
    "Expiation by the Rod"
    and my favorite,
    "Rapture in the Bath-House!"

    July 31, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  3. brent

    Terminology changes. But for the real religious grab this.

    Christianity is not a biblical term. Christians were called that by non believers. Therefore rapture is not a bad term, it describes what is in the bible with a single word as it would be 'rapturous'.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  4. Bill Fitzgerald

    Non believer, Your comment is exactly why God the Father and His Son our Savior visited Joseph Smith in answer to his prayer. With hundreds and maybe thousands of different churches and the same number of translations of the bible, how could anyone know the truth when all churches,even in the same denomination teach and believe differently. Confusion is not Gods way. There is one translation of the Book of Mormon. One Prophet of the resoration of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith. Most of the leaders of the mobs who persecuted the Saints and eventually murdered Joseph and his brother Hyrum, were preachers and pretenders of Christianity. Study the life and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and you can find out as I did when the Holy Ghost confirmed the truth of which I have just written to me and continues to as in our meetings today at church.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Christian Warrior

      Oh good, here come the mormons. The craziest church since scientology.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • The Other Guy

      Gotta say, dude, this is the first time I've seen a Mormon comment on one of these religious articles. Not intending any offense to Mormonism or anything just that, I'm only making an observation.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Alex

      Ha ha, glad you decided to comment Bill BC if any logical readers are paying attention to what you have to say then you are helping us reasonable athiests out.. Most people understand that believing in a "holy ghost" is no different then believing in Santa Clause, because they are both equally unsupported by evidence...

      July 31, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      Actually, Christian Warrior, the Mormons weren't SINCE Scientology, they preceded them by a good century. In between were several sects even crazier (Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists, to pick just 2), and since then we've had some that are screwier yet (Branch Davidians, Moonies, the Heaven's Gate cult, and whatever that screwball Jim Jones called HIS tribe of Kool-Aid drinkers).
       
      Each and every one of them claimed to be just as devout and just as much in possession of the Great Truth as the most ardent Christians posting in this forum. Every one of them had just as much evidence to back up their beliefs — namely none whatsoever. Kinda makes you stop and think, doesn't it?
       
      No, I guess not. That would be hoping for too much, wouldn't it?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  5. JesusFreak800,000,942

    This video is rediculuse. They are 1st not taking the ancient greek and hebrew and Latin that the Bible was written in! whose meanings are solid. 2ndly They say it "puts your brain through tiring gymnastics" wich is'nt true. If you believe that God is real, and he can do all that the Bible says, including MAKE THE WORLD, then it's not hard at all to believe that he can walk on water, or keep a man alive in a whale, or split seas. 3rdly The Bible places great emphasis on the rapture, and salvation. For imput on the rapture, look up Gary Freeman, Elmer Towns, and some poeple like that. also READ THE BIBLE!! the word rapture The Koine Greek text of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 uses the verb form ἁρπαγησόμεθα (harpagēsometha), which means "we shall be caught up" or "taken away", with the connotation that this is a sudden event. The dictionary form of this Greek verb is harpazō (ἁρπάζω).

    July 31, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Answer Man

      Stop spamming this facile garbage.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Fred1

      As I recall there is only 1 single verse in the entire Bible that suggests the rapture will happen. Mighty slim thread to hang ones philosophy from

      July 31, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  6. Juses Warrior

    Watch thisi non-believer! REPENT THE NIGH IS END!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Muneef

      Ok, yes we believe in Islam that man was taller than specified here and that man is becoming less in tall from generation to another...but which I doubt most is that from Adam time to present time is only 6000 years???

      July 31, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  7. reed

    anyone with a picture of author please post

    July 31, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Moron Patrol

      Oh look, here come the Christian Terrorists. Too stupid to use Google.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  8. Jeff

    Why are the atheists at CNN worrying about something they do not believe in?

    July 31, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Amswer Man

      Because morons keep trying to shove their imaginary pal down out throats?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Wanderer

      I have not seen any atheist here showed they are worrying, until you ask this question that may have just popped up in your mind? If so, do you know what kind of mind of yours?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Fred1

      Because you do your best to make Draconian laws to force your beliefs on the rest of us. Bush's ban on stem cell research for example

      July 31, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  9. ritamweep

    Borg simply attempts to confuse the pious lemming left, John.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  10. JesusFreak800,000,942

    This video is rediculuse. They are 1st not taking the ancient greek and hebrew and Latin that the Bible was written in! whose meanings are solid. 2ndly They say it "puts your brain through tiring gymnastics" wich is'nt true. If you believe that God is real, and he can do all that the Bible says, including MAKE THE WORLD, then it's not hard at all to believe that he can walk on water, or keep a man alive in a whale, or split seas. 3rdly The Bible places great emphasis on the rapture, and salvation. For imput on the rapture, look up Gary Freeman, Elmer Towns, and some poeple like that. also READ THE BIBLE!! the word rapture The Koine Greek text of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 uses the verb form ἁρπαγησόμεθα (harpagēsometha), which means "we shall be caught up" or "taken away", with the connotation that this is a sudden event. The dictionary form of this Greek verb is harpazō (ἁρπάζω). So in this verse, God is saying that Jesus will return and "take us away" from the earth.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  11. Hello

    Thanks AvdBerg I will check out your gay Christian site.....

    July 31, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  12. Diogeron

    Too bad a lot them never seemed to learn to speak English properly and think anybody who is "trilingual" is a pervert.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  13. Skippy

    The 11th Commandment needs to be "Keep thy religion to thy self". Haven't enough people been killed, maimed, and tortured in the name of God since the beginning of recorded time? And why is any religion better or the "right" religion? Anyone that doesn't accept Jesus Christ is going to Hell? Says who? The Bible? But what about other religion and their views?

    You mean to tell me God gave us 200+ different way to worship him? Or just one and the rest are made up? What if you picked the wrong religion? Are you just making him mad every day by doing that?

    Its all crap. The basis of religion is that "Its true because we said so." Look no further than the Crusades and what they did to Galileo and Copernicus to see how great religious minds work! Its all about fear, controlling power, and the almighty dollar.

    I believe in God, but I certainly don't need YOU telling me how am I suppose to believe in him or that not pulling out my wallet for him is a sin.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  14. reed

    does anyone have a picture or know where one is posted of the author john blake, or if this is even his real name ?

    July 31, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Scott

      Oh-oh, here come the Xian terrorists. Are you going to track him down and blow him up?

      July 31, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  15. Laurie

    What he says about the rapture being a recent invention is utter nonsense and heretical...although the word rapture is not itself in the bible the concept certainly is...and is throughout the entire bible, both old and new testaments...the word bible isn't in the bible either but we refer to it as the bible...Grant Jeffrey does an excellent job of refuting this whole rapture being a recent invention idea...get a clue people, don't take anything a theologian says on its face...think for yourselves...do your research and don't ever assume someone speaking "Christian" is actually meaning the same things you mean...if more people actually read the bible there'd be a whole lot less confusion and we could all more readily discern Truth from lies.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Tim

      *bangs head in desk*

      Yes, just make up whatever nonsense comforts you.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Tim

      I agree that everyone should read the bible especially Xians.

      Why?

      Because nothing creates atheists faster than a thorough reading of that ugly book.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      Entirely true. Isaac Asimov once remarked that reading the Bible, more than any other book, successfully brought people to atheism. For that very reason, I encourage EVERYBODY to read it, cover to cover.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Rick

      Sorry sir, but you are incorrect. As a teenager, and a young man in my early 20s I considered myself to be a staunch Christian. I studied the bible from front to back (old and new testaments). At first I thought that I had just incorrectly interpreted the passages that I read, and the inconsistencies that were strewn throughout the teachings.

      Like many intelligent Christians before me, actually reading the bible allowed me to see it for what it is. A work of fiction with bits of wisdom here and there. Believe it or not, it actually doesn't take much reading to see its fallacies. Just read one book, it's very short. The book of Job. By the end of the story, you'll be so disgusted with your god that you'll never return to church again. The god of the bible is a jealous, conniving, self centered, frivolous god without a hint of benevolence. The problem with the Christian god is that his forgiveness runs very shallow. For example, an enlightened monk would love those who hate him from the deepest part of his soul, but your god would cast you in to hell.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  16. JD

    Kim, just because you don't believe something doesn't mean it isn't so. It only means you are not aware while others are.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Tim

      I make the very same claim only more forcefully for the one true god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

      Worship him or he will simmer you forever in a garlicly marinara sauce!

      July 31, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  17. Jesus is the only way

    ATTENTION Atheusts, Jews, Mooslims, Hindoo, and Boodists!

    ACEEPT JESUS"S LOVE AND MERCY OR ROAST IN HELL FOREVER!.

    It's that simple.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Tim

      http://i.imgur.com/V4aAB.png

      July 31, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • JD

      I'm a Christian but I know it's not that simple. You need to stop listening to the 'hellfire & brimstone' preacher and start researching the Bible on your own. I did and it was amazing what all I discovered.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Jesus is a fraud

      Hell would be spending the rest of eternity with people like you.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      Yeah, burning in hell forever is sure consistent with MY conception of love and mercy. You aren't by any chance in sales, are you?

      July 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Wendy

      Start your research here: http://evilbible.com.

      That will help you to an understanding of why god would be a complete as-shole if he existed like the Christians claim.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Anon

      You're all screwed up in the head.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  18. ritamweep

    Do you speak Spanish any better than you do Christian?

    July 31, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  19. BroadCasting

    Reminds me of a lady who cursed me up one side and down the other over the phone and then ended with "and you have a blessed day".

    July 31, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  20. gary

    god is pretend .... all silly myth

    July 31, 2011 at 7:46 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.