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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. b9fruits

    Trinity isn't in the Bible either. however, theologians came up with this term as best describing 3 in 1 God. There is no harm in Christianize as long as a person is respectful of another. Jesus often spoke in unpopular ways.

    September 18, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Jsfraptor26

      The Lord Jesus Christ mentions the Trinity at the very end of MAtthew

      MAtthew 28:19
      "Go therefire and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

      Do not quote that which you do not know.

      September 18, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Les

      He is talking about the term "trinity".

      September 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • crannog

      There is actually some evidence to suggest that the verses in the Bible that most clearly support the 'trinity' were added after the council of Nicea (this includes Matthew 28.19 and I John 5.7). What I find when I accuse someone of being ignorant of the Bible is that there is always someone else who comes along who claims to (and probably does) know more than me. The idea of the trinity has been 'revealed' over the ages and grasped onto as a central tenet of the Christian faith. What is clear in the Bible is that there is only one God. How God choses to reveal himself to his creation is another matter altogether. The concept of the trinity is probably one of the first examples of how concepts can splinter the church when people value opinions over each other.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:09 am |
  2. gunkel,ray

    YES we R so smart we invented a computer now we have to help eveyn one point it responsible TOO!

    September 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  3. CJP

    Christianity in its purest form is great. Too much manmade garbage has infiltrated the denomination world. The evangelicals have their altar calls and pray Jesus into your heart. There is not a single example of someone becoming a Christian by "praying Jesus into his/her heart". The "sinner's prayer" is a manmade doctrine. In Acts 2, Peter told the people what to do: repent and be baptized, why? for the forgiveness of their sins (and the gift of the Holy Spirit). It doesn't get too more complicated than that.

    September 16, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • dmjk

      The term "sinner's prayer" is man made yes but in Roman 10:9- 9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

      10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

      11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

      12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.

      13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

      Please read your bible with an open heart- pray for understanding b4 u open it.

      September 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  4. elvin

    http://www.justin.tv/elisoriano#r=TQHra7w
    http://www.livestream.com/elisoriano

    I sagest this website about the true Bible preacher of our time.. thanks and God bless you all..

    September 16, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  5. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    I find the term "pious parroting" hilarious. Isn't that how religions' self-propagate?

    September 16, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • papalamepimelos

      "Pompous pious parroting", I corrected the article in my mind, as I was reading that line :-)

      September 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      I bet if we could insert pimply pimp in that line it would be 10 times funnier.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  6. Chris Turner

    I found this article interesting. As always, I also leave it with a sense of amazement about the fact that many modern Americans still belive in an invisible man in the sky. How is that possible? How can the U.S. be modern in so many ways, yet still be stuck in the 19:th century and actually listen to preachers?

    September 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Kat

      Religion in its self is not the problem. If everyone kept to themselves, and focused on their own personal salvation in the form of religion or otherwise, rather than imposing their religious beliefs on other people and the society around them, then it wouldn't be so charged a topic. If people were to do that, religion rather than being this thing everyone argues over would probably be more like your preference of ice cream. No one is going to judge you on your favorite flavor, in all seriousness, because its your personal choice that you keep to yourself, enjoy and it doesn't affect others taste buds. I've yet to see someone force a group of people to like vanilla over Rocky road. Why can't religion in our society be like ice cream is in our society?

      September 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • Esteban

      @Chris,

      While we live in a "modern" world, your feelings on Christ are as old as the world. We love our technology, gadgets, ourselves, and things more than wanting to believe in Him. If our iPhone doesn't have access to God, we believe he doesn't exist.

      He does exist as much as you and I do. Thankfully, He will go on doing His work with or without our participation or permission.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  7. John

    September 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • ....

      GARBAGE ALERT – don't bother viewing it, click the report abuse link instead.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • response

      October 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  8. Roneyzone

    It's almost as if you need a translator and a box of Rosetta Stone DVDs to explain all the nuances of Christianity to people that Christians really want to connect to. Too many hoops to jump through to get to Heaven, in my opinion.

    September 15, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • Esteban

      There are no "hoops" to gain eternal life, thankfully. The only thing needed is to believe that Jesus Christ is your savior. One step, no hoops.

      I understand that this concept is difficult for our "Me-Society". Believing in something you cannot see is not easy, nor is it an easy life. It is a much easier life to bash and not believe in something outside of yourself.

      Thankfully, we get a choice. God does not insist we believe in Him. People who claim to be Christians who say "you must" etc. are well-meaning, but off the mark.

      September 15, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  9. Douglas MacIlroy

    It is absolutely amazing that in this day and age humans insist on believing in gods. Do you have any idea how ridiculous the whole concept is? What an odious fate, to be born in such a cultural backwater of the history of our race. One day our ancestors will look back on this era and shake their heads in wonder. Witch doctors and shamans and endless yammering about nothing. Read Epicurus. There is no god. Wake up. You've been brainwashed.

    September 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Blessed & Loved

      I gotta hand it to ya. You've got more faith than I do. I don't have nearly enough to be an athiest.

      September 15, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • Esteban

      @Douglas,

      Your feelings are not new or unique. they have been around since the Roman Empire, Corinth, and Galatia... As in those days, we get our choice of believing in; money, power, Him, gold idols, cars, the size and wealth of our home etc...

      Choose what you worship and take the time to worship that, as opposed to bashing the folks that believe differently. It will be better use of your time.

      I suppose you could believe is "Bashing". In which case, you would be right on the mark.

      September 15, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • kayjulia

      If you find more than one in a hundred that know who Epicurus was and what he taught I would be astonished. Most of these believers in religion posting here won't know and won't care. Logic means nothing to them they have given up logic, reason, independent thought and responsibility for the promise of ..... eternal life in some hereafter full of bliss. The fear of DEATH hangs heavy in the air with these people there is no reasoning with them it is sort of like trying to teach a pig to sign your going to upset the pig and frustrate yourself. Fear drives the religious not love, not knowing the truth, just empty promises to calm their fearfulness of death. The mere idea there is no supreme being to appeal to or follow is to much for these closed minds to endure-if not god what? Silly people we all die and there is no here after, all the prayers, all the rules, all the beating of chests won't change a thing.

      September 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • Esteban

      @kayjulia,

      I would much rather go through life believing God and eternal life exist, only to find out in the end I was wrong. The other option is living in disbelief, only to find out in the end I was wrong.

      Christians are not perfect. Anyone who claims they are (Christian or otherwise) is full of self. It is sad to me that we (Christians) are our own worst enemy. Some, well-meaning, Christians have tried so hard to help others see Him, that they end up turning people off.

      It is, definitely, an easier life to bag on Christ. It is a much harder life to believe. Which is exactly why most people do not want any part of it. In our broken human nature, we all want an easy life. And our Western culture only encourages that behavior.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  10. Bill

    I'm not really sure what's funnier – the fact that you're using Marcus Borg as an authority on evangelical culture, that you're writing about Christians in America – the majority religion – as though they're a bunch of Martians, or that you somehow have convinced yourself that evangelical Christianity is the allpurpose boogeyman while at the same time you've convinced yourself it's fading into irrelevance.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  11. augustghost

    Religious ebonics

    September 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  12. Jeff

    And yet more spiritual ignorance and stupidity... What club and what code words are you talkin' 'bout? Unbelievable!!

    September 13, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  13. JFritz

    The risk? Boring us all senseless with the stupid babble that amounts to nothing more than codewords for the club. Used to be Catholics always found a way to put "mass" within the first few sentences after meeting. Now this. E pluribus unum, people.

    September 13, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  14. King James Bible Society

    King James Audio Visual Bible – and it is free at http://kingjamesbiblesociety.org

    September 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  15. jaime

    ahhh the freedom of speech. Every bonehead can write whatever he wants and be perceived by many to be an expert. Especially if it's on CNN. Don't get me wrong, I love the freedom of speech. We just need to be careful about what we believe from those who speak.

    September 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  16. Monty

    I find it truely sad how pretty much every single article that has something about christian or church or anything people might percieve as christian ends up being a big debate back and forth between believers and people that seem to be against anything religion just stiring the pot by throwing anti religion things in and nobody actually discusses the artlice and things they like and don't like about the article. It says clearly in Matthew 5:43-48 in the NIV 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    I know nobody is perfect I sure am not perfect but why don't we just make our clear statements on what is or isn't true and if there is something in the bible that proves your point put the scripture reference in the post. if it's truely biblical and you aren't just pulling a single verse out and changing the meaning to fit your altered perpose then there is nothing to argue about

    September 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Monty

      and I completely forgot to talk about the article. I think it is very true that christians including myself talk "christianese" all to much. When paul was writing his letter to corinth in 1st Corinthians he says that he hasn't used big language that would confuse them because they won't understand it and that he has used simple words when talking to them. I think we all need to remember outside of church or our group of believers we fellowship with that we need to keep things simple because when you throw out words like the trinity or salvation or the power of the cross or his blood, or so many other things that can be confusing we need to refrain from using them because we will confuse people and it can and will push people away from Christ.

      It's like how alot of people curse and use bad language. Usually most people try and watch what they say around kids so they don't pick up the bad language, and abuse the bad language when they are to young and don't know what it means. We all start off as spiritual babies and as we grow up we need to be careful as to what we say because some of the big words we don't really know what they mean and abuse those words

      September 13, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Mark

      And yet you still manage to come across as arrogant; big words? those are not big words, those are merely words that others may not identify with as you do – that does NOT make them slow or stupid – they merely do not share your beliefs.

      September 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  17. hero blue

    I think this is a great article. I'm an atheist who went to a Christian college and the people there spoke christian to me all the time. I graduated with a degree in history and know quite a great deal about Christianity however when christainity came up they all used those same Christian buzz words. I tried to explain that they had lost the substance of Christainity in favor of a christian snob approach. It is very interesting to see that idea in this article.

    September 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  18. Cam

    While Borg is correct about the 'rapture,' I'm not sure he is the scholar you want to get lessons on church history from. He has done a fair bit of mangling of theological concepts himself, none more so than the concept of resurrection, which he has been thoroughly taken to task for by other scholars. One of the best scholars on the history of church doctrine in Jaroslav Pelikan – he is the most fair, informed scholar on these issues. Please read him!

    September 13, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  19. Emmett O'Riley

    I was born right the first time.

    September 13, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  20. Michelle

    I think the author is right and wrong. He is right by saying that Jesus used parables, stories and metaphors to teach the masses. We call it today -Mass Communications. Jesus was not speaking to the religious folks but the ones the religious folks forgot about. So I agree when Christians use words that are overused it defeats the purpose of the the message is. What I disagree with is some theological ideas the author embraces that does contradict the bible. The idea the "rapture" is a 19th century teaching is completely in correct. This has been a teaching before Christ ever appeared on Earth. Rabbinical teachings pointed to scriptures in Daniel that happens to correlate to Paul's' teachings to the early church. But don't take my word for it. Read the Bible for your self-front and back- the first page and to the very last page.

    September 13, 2011 at 11:44 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.