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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. Sapster

    Who cares how we talk. It is not you as a new organizations job to report what you feel is right or wrong in our "FAITH".

    August 1, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • Randy

      Uh, this is a religion blog. What did you think they were going to be talking about before and during your reading of the article?

      August 1, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • PDT484NMA

      @Randy – "Religion blog"? I would call it more of an anti-religion blog.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  2. Sapster

    Every time I turn to CNN you are attacking Christians. Man, maybe I should go to Fox.......So tired of it. Leave our Faith alone and write about true world news.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Da King

      Sadly the battle of good and evil is big news. Little of the final battle will be able to be recorded. Glad I won't me here.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • Cass

      Amen! Glad someone said it :)

      August 1, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • Da King

      CASS, SEE YA UP THERE.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • Thackerie

      Maybe you should not read religious forums if you get so upset by opinions that differ from yours and your pastor's.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Da King

      WHO'S UPSET. IT IS WHAT IT IS, AS I WAS TOLD.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  3. biblical truth

    Todd Beaucoudray
    go read the book of revelations its all about the 7 year tribulation.
    gaunt
    the Norwegian dude was a racist who hated non whites period. he praised hindu fanatics in his ridiculous manifesto. the bible is the most widely circulated book in the whole damn world go pick one up and read it , instead of reading some toxic garbage that spews crap.

    August 1, 2011 at 6:49 am |
    • Thackerie

      I did read the thing, two and a half times through, and I also studied its history. That's how I became an atheist.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Da King

      "YOU MUST COME TO GOD BELIEVING THAT HE IS". so you are stuck.

      August 1, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  4. AvdBerg

    For a better understanding of Christian Terms such as Born-Again, mankind need first to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4) and come to the understanding what it means to be a Christian. For a better understanding what it means to be a Christian we invite you the articles ‘Born of God’, ‘Judging ~ Born Again’ and ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You? listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    Our latest article ‘CNN Belief Blog ~ Sign of the Times’ also speaks of the 128 million so-called Born-Again Christians.

    It is unfortunate that man in his natural state is unable to understand the Word of God, in fact he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned: meaning to be able to discern between darkness and light (1 Cor. 2:14,15, Acts 26:18). On our website we explain what mankind must do to be reunited with God. The Bible is true and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

    There is a natural body and a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). The only element that separates the Natural body from the Spiritual body is the Baptism of Repentance (Mark 1:4). To repent means: to change spirits and to turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan, whose spirit mankind is of (Luke 9:55), unto God (Acts 26:18). This is not an interpretation.

    We depict the natural body and the spiritual body on top of every page on our website. The spiritual side represents the Tree of Life. A Tree signifies a person and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil refers to a person that is able to discern (judge) between darkness and light (1 Cor. 2:15; Acts 26:18).

    Many people search the Bible for in them they think they have eternal life, but when we bring them the Scriptures they don’t believe us (John 5:38,39). Confused? There is no need to be confused any longer. For a better understanding of the mystery of God we invite you to read all the pages and articles of our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how this whole world has been deceived as confirmed by the Word of God in Revelation 12:9. The Bible is true in all things and is the discerner of every thought and the intent of the heart (Hebrews 5:12).

    So, before mankind will be able to understand the Word of God, mankind requires to be converted and transformed by God and only then mankind is able to understand the Bible, as it is God (John 1:1). Any form of religion is a form of self-transformation and like putting new wine into old bottles or like putting a new piece of old cloth into an old garment (Matthew 9:16,17; 2 Cor. 11:13-15).

    Please ignore any messages that inform you that we are on a troll and that ask you to activate the abuse button or even refer you to a gaychristian website. It is an attempt to discredit the work of our Ministry, which is for the edifying of the Body of Christ – His Church (Eph. 4:12).

    These distorted messages are provided by individuals that do not agree with our views on certain issues. One of the issues is posted on the Current Events page of our website (top item). These individuals go by the User Name of Observer, LOL, Expert, etc., etc. and their goal is to control the dialogue of this forum with their distorted and vile messages. As a result they have turned this dialogue and the Word of God to no effect.

    August 1, 2011 at 6:42 am |
  5. ihavepeace

    Christian by definition means to be a follower of Jesus the Christ. Who is the way the truth and the light. Nobody can be a follower of Jesus without faith. Many believe themselves to be a Christian for various reasons when nothing is further from the truth. But the main reason is believing the lies of Satan. The only way to be a Christian is by faith which is a gift from God. Only then will one realize they are lost and need a Saviour at which point that person will do well to confess they are a sinner and ask Jesus to come in. For without faith it is impossible to please Him.

    August 1, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • O RLY?

      "The only way to be a Christian is by faith which is a gift from God."

      So what you're saying here is that non-Christians have not been given God's gift of faith, yes? This begs the question: why would God, who supposedly loves all of his creation, not bestow the gift of faith to all, so that all may be saved? Being all-knowing, he would know exactly what each individual would need to believe. Being all-powerful, he could easily provide such faith without violating free will. Yet the very existence of non-Christians means that he has not done so. Why? Is he malevolent or non-existent?

      August 1, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  6. Josh

    For everyone who read this article please read the following Bible and ignore this erronious article...

    "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you brothers and sisters, to keep away from every person who lives idlely by and does not live according to the teaching you received from us in the Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thessaonians 3:6)

    God bless you all and may Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit teach you exactly how to act and speak and not this ridiculous article!

    August 1, 2011 at 5:20 am |
    • Josh

      *erroneous*

      August 1, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • Rick

      For everyone who reads the article, ignore the article? Logic not your strong suit, is it?

      August 1, 2011 at 5:30 am |
    • Enough

      Actually, Rick, he said for everyone who read (red) this article – as in past tense. Comprehension not your strong suit, is it?

      August 1, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • Rick

      Enough: The way to ignore it is not read it in the first place

      August 1, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • Enough

      How could you ignore the contents of an article without knowing what they were by reading it in the first place? Talk about illogical. He was talking about ignoring the message of the article not about ignoring it before it was read. Seriously, comprehension is a lost art.

      August 1, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  7. renato o. admana jr.

    There is a wrong assumption here! Not because a religious group uses a Bible it gets categorized as Christian. I see the ignorance and the arrogance of the writer to over simplify a religioius belief. I agree that a lot of these so-called Christian groups use and abuse some Biblical words and phrases. Often misused words: Jehovah, Lord, YHWH, Praise the Lord, Rapture,

    August 1, 2011 at 5:16 am |
  8. henry

    The belief is not about how you speak,but what you believe and how you do.I am Chinese Christian,actually we Chinese should say thanks to many Apostles from Eu or America,they bring Jesus' salvation news to this land and some died here.Even Chinese bible is translated by an America team.
    Today,more and more people don't believe God's words,and act agaist it.No matter how,many Christians still lead a life full of "Hope,Belive and Love",Isnot so great for this sadly and unhopeful world?
    thanks Lord,God bless America and China too,and God protect this world and his people.

    August 1, 2011 at 4:54 am |
    • F_c_ Y_u

      NO islam NO christianity No Jewish... No NO NO.. get the H_ll out of the dark ages Since is replace.. dont believe me? Ask your kids!

      August 1, 2011 at 5:09 am |
  9. jane

    Leonard has no idea what he is talking about.....sorry I wasted me time.....

    August 1, 2011 at 4:35 am |
  10. LOL

    And somehow this article is a top news story, why..?

    August 1, 2011 at 4:35 am |
  11. Dennis E Chandler

    > I wish you peace, serenity and happiness, although I am well aware many reading this post will not wish me the same. Such is the charity of the self-righteous.

    Pot, meet kettle.

    stormsun, you actually do bring up a valid point, that a whole lot of "Christianity" isn't wildly Christian. This problem is hardly novel; before the completion of the books that would be gathered into the Bible, Paul had some pretty hard things to say to some Christian churches that had already lost their way.
    However, if you should someday yield to a whim and check out what the Bible has to say about sin and redemption, you'll find that at its core, Christianity is nothing whatsoever like you describe. Yes, we're absolutely held accountable for our sins, and one of a would-be Christian's greater mistakes is to miss that point. "Repent," the Bible tells us, again and again, demanding that we turn away from our sins and seek to live as Christ would have us live.
    Again, though... yes. You describe with fair accuracy the antics of an awful lot of self-proclaimed Christians in the world. But then, I can call myself Marilyn Monroe. Doesn't mean that's who I am. (le shrug)
    You go in peace and various other groovy things, too, okay? And may we both have the courage to seek wisdom. It's a difficult thing to go after, and a terribly unpopular course as well, but the payoff is exquisite. Cheers!

    August 1, 2011 at 4:27 am |
  12. Biblical truth

    To the guy who posted this krud i dare him to criticize Islam , even though he lives in a liberal society a secular country thats supposed to be christian, he wouldn't dare. therefore take cheap shots at Christianity coz Christians are non violent
    that's just sad dude ;(

    August 1, 2011 at 4:22 am |
    • Gaunt

      Make sure you tell any Norwegians you meet ALL about how non-violent Christians are.

      August 1, 2011 at 4:27 am |
    • renato o. admana jr.

      What's your real name Biblical truth?

      August 1, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  13. Biblical truth

    when judgement day comes all you non Christians when ur thrown in the lake of fire are gonna so regret what yall said today
    and torah boy only 144,000 jews will go to heaven the rest of yall will burn in hell

    August 1, 2011 at 4:18 am |
    • Rick

      How do you expect people to fear the wrath of beings in which they do not believe?

      August 1, 2011 at 5:36 am |
    • Todd Beaucoudray

      Thanks, Hitler.

      August 1, 2011 at 6:25 am |
    • JimF

      Why is your god so insecure? Believe in my or go to hell. Kill someone....as long as you ask for forgiveness and believe in me it's all good. Live a life helping people and your community but don't believe in me....your going to hell. Sounds like a bully in high school.

      August 1, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  14. Juan

    Weak article. I would challenge this fellow to read the bible and not rely on secondary sources. Is he brave enough to criticize other beliefs–say Islam?

    August 1, 2011 at 3:37 am |
    • Rick

      Juan: Have you read the Koran?

      August 1, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  15. UmmYeah

    Lemmings!

    August 1, 2011 at 2:35 am |
  16. Salero21

    "Many Americans are bilingual. They speak a secular language of sports talk, celebrity gossip and current events."...

    I think the inmense majority and with all probability, almost all americans in that sense, are bilinguals.
    Even if they don't use those mentioned in the quote above. Almost all americans use slang and Foul language in addition to the daily curses.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:16 am |
  17. Sheila

    So the guy (Marcus Borg) is actually bringing controversy as a means to SELL HIS BOOK for his own financial gain and attention to his rebellion against the true teachings of God. I suppose all the anti-christians will jump on this like fools instead of studying the Holy Bible for themselves.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Sheila

      Hey -Sheila...

      You Said: "the true teachings of God."

      It appears that you all claim to know 'the true' teachings of God. All ~38,000 denominations.

      Why don't all of you believers get together and figure it out... you know, what God is 'really' all about, and those alleged 'true teachings' and get back to us.

      Come to a consensus or something like they did at the Council of Nicea around 313 C.E.

      Oh... and I have studied the Bible for myself.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 1, 2011 at 2:33 am |
    • Rick

      Spend a lot of time on your knees, do you Sheila?

      August 1, 2011 at 5:38 am |
  18. Sheila

    Borg could use some more serious bible study himself as he fails to understand certain teachings. However, I will agree with his last statements in this article, and am glad someone spoke on this.

    f 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.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:05 am |
  19. Ruslana

    May God have mercy on all your souls that mock God.

    August 1, 2011 at 2:00 am |
    • ssolilrose

      and the Goddess

      August 1, 2011 at 4:02 am |
    • Gaunt

      May Ra have mercy on your souls that mock Ra.

      August 1, 2011 at 4:29 am |
    • Rick

      We are not mocking God. We are mocking the pompous fools who purport to speak for God.

      August 1, 2011 at 5:39 am |
  20. Brickell Princess

    I am not dumb enough to believe in religions.

    August 1, 2011 at 1:59 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.