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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. arthur

    Hello,as you say "they".You are not a christian.You can not understand,because,we are a different culture.We have our own linguage.God bless you.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  2. mort

    Politicians should never quote religious nonsense. Religion should NEVER be a part of our government.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Godless

      Religion has infected out government a long time ago. Hell the days of our week and holidays are based off of Christianity. The year is based off of Christianity. Christianity has successfully infected the world.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Da King

      THAT'S RIGHT MORT. AND JESUS IS OPPOSED TO RELIGION. BUT WITHOUT HIS GOSPEL THIS COUNTRY WOULD NOT BE HERE.

      August 1, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • petercha

      Actually, Mort, I'd be afraid of a government without religious morals. Very afraid. Look what Stalin, Mao-Tse Tung, Pot Pol, etc., did. They were non-religious and they killed many, many millions of their citizens.

      August 1, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Kindness

      The calendar is based off of Pagan Roman rulers. The holidays are based off of Pagan Holidays....Easter – Goddess of fertility.....Christmas......Roman Saturnalia........

      August 1, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  3. Hmm...

    This a good representation of why the number of true believers is shrinking dramatically in the US. Saying "the sinners prayer" and "name it and claim it" are why our churches are filled with thousands of unsaved people! Where's the repentance/turning from idols toward God? Where's the regenerate heart? Worse yet are all these people with no good fruit, running around calling themselves Christians.....which only disgraces our Savior, Jesus. There is absolutely no good work you can perform to get to heaven. It is a gift freely given to those who believe "IN" Jesus. But....what you don't do can prove that you don't believe. There's a difference between believing about Jesus and believing "IN" Jesus. Read your Bible if you are interested in seeing what true believers are to be doing. Unfortunately, if you are looking for scriptures to support I’ve said a prayer so I have “free fire insurance and can live like hell” you’re not going to find them.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  4. MikeTX

    This is what passes as journalism on CNN? I miss Walter Cronkite...

    August 1, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  5. Buddy R

    CNN LOVES to bash Christians. Their opinion writers don't have a clue about the Bible or Christian doctrine but they love to act like they they do.

    CNN would not dare bash Islam like they do Christianity. They are about as far from a fair and balanced network as you can get. Maybe that is why their ratings are going down the toilet.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  6. LEB

    How to speak Christian: Act like everything you say is right, even when others can overwhelmingly prove you wrong.

    August 1, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Buddy R

      No, no, that is atheicrat speach.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • popseal

      Pastoring conservative churches for 20+ years has taught me that too many professed Christians don't know what they might believe because of self induced Biblical illiteracy. Most people outside the fold only react to the shallowness of pop culture rock 'n roll religion (see any TV broadcast 'ministry'). The salt has lost its flavor due to both. A genuine spiritual, regenerative experience via trusting in the historical Christ produces an undeniable and profound change in the believer's life. That simple possibility goes way past the contemporary attention span time limit........bring on Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, even Depak Chopra and get your daily dose of foolishness.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      To Buddy, Oh, you mean like every word that came out of President W's mouth?

      August 1, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  7. mindset0

    Nope don't speak crazy.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  8. History

    Summary: Americans have this stupid grudge against Christianity as if it took away their fun or something, when in fact it gave them everything good and kept the nation from collapse. America is crumbling down now because it's more like communist than Christian. Americans should stop bashing their parents and ancestors. They were far better than present Americans in everything except for racism. But racism is strong in every nation and every race still now. If the liberals feel sorry for American Indians, they should move out of USA so that the Chinese can rightfully have the land.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Ace

      Huh?

      Did you and I just read the same article?
      What the heck are you talking about?

      August 1, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Rick

      Racism...Child Labor Laws....Protections for the poor....Women's Rights...Labor Laws in general....Religious Persecution....Voting Rights...oh wait, the past sucked and the future can only be better as long as we embrace progressivism and abandon all that Dark Ages crap.

      How can any Christian say that works aren't the path to Heaven? You're bringing it back before Martin Luthers' time. Do you seriously believe that you can do all the evil that you want, so long as you believe, and you'll go to heaven? I don't want any part of your religion.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  9. Nichole

    Why do we need an entire article trying to tell us right vs wrong in biblical teachings whenever all that matters is you believe. I am a born again christian and have many friends and family who come from a different religious background....Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. It all boils down to the fact that we are all worshiping the same God. We go to church to glorify his name. We are to build eachother up. Not to condemn one another. Instead to love on another and help eachother as we are all brothers and sisters.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The Muslims, Jews and Mormons worship the same God too.
      Have you invited your local imam over for coffee?

      August 1, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Kindness

      It is more than just believing. you have to obey God's law.....Man can't run around and create his own laws and say that God loves him. Once saved not always saved. You have to have works that prove you believe......Faith without Works is dead.

      August 1, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  10. Brian

    I prefer to speak a clear spoken language that does not tie up a persons faith to eternal wars that GOD warns us against the new world order but those same fundie evangelicals are the ones who go against the BIBLE and builds the events of the end times in GODS name ven thogh GOD says he is against it anyway! This tells me that fundie evangelicals are the true satanists.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  11. Jeff Hall

    Rev Rick read Acts 9:5 please. Paul did meet Jesus so I'm not too sure what you are referring to. Thank you.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  12. Noah

    Just learn Hebrew and read it as it is. I disagree with how this video interpreted; It causes my brain to go hay-wire? well i guess you should put believe and faith in the same equation and realize that your brain DOES not screw up about walking on the water, walking through the sea, feeding 4000, etc.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  13. Reality

    The 21st century Christian: based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:44 am |
    • Buddy R

      You have nothing but your own delusions to back up your anti-Christian claims. Typical atheist hate speech.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • Audio-Ecstacy

      Right on – frankly, as an American I wish all this Christian talk would just go away, especially given we are supposed to be a nation that allows religious freedom, yet our government has obviously forgotten that by including "In God We Trust" on our dollar bills.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • JimF

      Buddy R. You have nothing but your own delusions to back up your Christian claims. Typical Christian hate speech.

      August 1, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  14. Koji

    Every time a christian claims they are being prosecuted in the US, a gay teen is beaten in the street.

    Until you are in the minority and your liberties are ACTUALLY threatened, don't play that card. You have not earned it.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  15. Janie

    "Rev" Rick Jesus IS the way the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but by him. He IS THE Messiah and fulfillment of the law. The king they were waiting for will actually be coming back at his SECOND coming to reign on earth during the millennium. The FACTS are in the Bible which is divinely inspired by God and his true word.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  16. Eumir

    This article is a crock-o-poo. There are many, many, many different denominations of christianity and this article focuses on the crack-pot fundies. Give it up CNN. How 'bout another APPLE marketing article.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  17. Bonita

    Read American anthems and national do-cu-ments. They are filled with Christian vocabs. Americans read neither the Bible or their historic do-cu-ments but only blasphemous cartoon novels or watch cartoon movies. No wonder Americans talk about Christianity as something foreign. Those Americans should move into China and pay debts where they belong.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  18. norman

    hey dont remove this statement i retyped now True True Jesus Christ see jerusalem it is key of our earth end... better call israel people to flee from holy old city, as same as jerusalem . we can bomb it. Jesus christ ll come quickly. God ,Jesus Christ and Holy Ghost have new jerusalem .

    August 1, 2011 at 7:27 am |
  19. TheSuspectMessenger

    This writer says Christians have gotten away from their foundation, in this he is right. But Christians are judged by two things their works good or bad in the world and of course living their life as Jesus tells us in the bible. Jesus never said you are free to sin, he said he would FORGIVE IT. And he definitely never rewrote sin but again FORGAVE IT.
    In short the Bible is the Christian guide something this writer never tells you to consult. I guess he would have you tune into CNN to get God's word.

    August 1, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  20. Janie

    Approximately 400 LITERAL old testament scriptures were fulfilled when Jesus came to earth as a baby and was consequently crucified by The Jews missed it because they didn't take scripture literally. I'm not making the same mistake. There are many more LITERAL scriptures still to be fulfilled!

    August 1, 2011 at 7:11 am |
    • TheSuspectMessenger

      They had their own version of CNN back in the day telling them God did not really mean what he said. They were taking obscure scripture to justify why it is okay to ignore God's word because after all, how do we really know what God meant anyway? When someone says, "How Can We Know What God Wants From Us" be weary as they are about to make and excuse not only to sin but to deny in fact you are sinning.

      August 1, 2011 at 7:26 am |
    • Rev. Rick

      @ Janie – actually you got that backwards. The Jews DID take their scripture literally, which is why they are still waiting on their messiah. The early Christian writers of the gospels had to twist and embellish the event of the New Testatment in order to make it work out so Jesus Christ appeared to be the messiah. In truth. scholars have no idea who even wrote the synoptic gospels. But we do know they wrote the gospels decades after Jesus' death, and none of them ever met Jesus. Even the disciple Paul, from whom we get most Christian (Pauline) doctrine, never met Jesus face-to-face. Check your facts before you post.

      August 1, 2011 at 7:32 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.