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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. FaithScent

    For the individual salvation, one needs to place the working faith in Jesus alone. Claiming the name "Christian" is nothing, indeed, unless accompanied by real Christian life. Americans would not have gotten anything great or valuable without Christianity and the Bible, though. America had a good teacher.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:49 am |
    • Larry69

      Read the Treaty of Tripoli. America is NOT a christian nation. I'm happier for it.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  2. FaithScent

    Read I & II Thessalonians in the NT Bible. The rapture has been there for 2,000 years.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  3. The Daver

    Modern American Christianity isn't so much a religion as it is organized delusion.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  4. FaithScent

    Americans are not bilingual; that's the problem. Americans should learn Chinese and read the Chinese Bible. They'll discover how Christian the English language and the American courage are.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  5. Jonathan

    Borg is to the FAR left (don't think politics) of biblical scholarship. The Bible NEVER insinuates that salvation can be worked for...just the opposite actually. Borg is anything but representative.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • Geno

      Correct. CNN seems to have agenda here – go find the the person with the most extreme views to trash millions who love Jesus and follow the Bible. Pretty obvious.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • stefano

      so who does 'represent' christianity? the pope? tv evangelist? a particular denomination? some bible translation?

      July 31, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  6. FaithScent

    Americans, don't lose your ID. Remember America is thoroughly Christian except for your sense of humor, secret clubs, what the present nasty godless Americans say and do, inclination to immorality and absurd claims to murder rights(abortion).

    July 31, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  7. David Liao

    The article points out a lot of these exceptions and what the author thinks are wrong uses of certain terms. Whether or not they're true or not isn't for me to judge but I don't think they should be all condemned as heresy; terminology has never been the greatest barrier to accepting Christ as making a personal decision to believe.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:40 am |
  8. FaithScent

    Americans should learn Chinese and read the Chinese Bible. They'll discover how Christian the English language and the American courage are.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  9. Zapatta

    It's a hoax folks. When you die, you will be as awake, and remember as much as you remember before you were born. If you believe this stuff you must believe in Santa as well. Jesus, God, nor Santa saved the Jews from Hitler, America did. Who cares if Anderson is gay?

    July 31, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  10. Billy

    The Bible is not talking about salvation in the here and now. It is talking about about salvation from a hell to come. Otherwise, thought provoking piece.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  11. Zia H Shah

    Consider visiting the Muslim Times, for greater insight into Monotheism and the Abrahamic faiths!

    July 31, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  12. Jake

    Screw religion. I do what I feel is good because I know it is. All that comes from religion is people who believe in it so much, they aren't afraid to kill themselves. If god does exist, I doubt he would favor a certain religion over another. Because if I was born in the Middle east, chances are I'd be a Muslim right now. Now most Muslims or Christians I talk to, believe that no matter where they were born, they would always believe in the same religion. If people are going to believe in their religions this strongly, then all we are going to do is disadvantage ourselves. For example, if we had no religious infrastructure in this country (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) and no one pays into religion, there would be so much money saved, that we probably wouldn't have this financial crises we are having right now.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:35 am |
    • WiscBadger

      "For example, if we had no religious infrastructure in this country (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) and no one pays into religion, there would be so much money saved, that we probably wouldn't have this financial crises we are having right now." Are you really that stupid?

      July 31, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Jim

      You certainly have the right to view religion in whatever manner that you wish to do so.

      As for me, I find it unrealistic to consider that the earth and its vast variations of life and the complex interactions of that life to be the result of happen chance.

      I am comforted to know, as a result of my belief system, that there is an architect of this variation. I am strengthened by my beliefs in a compassionate, loving, yet expectant God.

      This knowledge and belief allows my life to have enhanced meaning and purpose ... much more than it would as a believer of random evolvement.

      My life has demonstrated behaviors which are other than God would expect me to demonstrate. In the life of mankind this is forgiveable as anyone comes to a point in life where we are mature and honest enough to accept responsibleity for the behaviors. The actions on our part are met by God's loving nature to sustain our understanding and willingness to live lives of purpose in the manner that He subscribes. He only expects our honest, sincere full-hearted acceptance of Him as a material part of our lives.

      He expects our lives to be filled with communication with Him and our active involvement in learning more about Him. His name as He has revealed it in my life is Jesus Christ.

      I will hope and pray that you experience this same transformational experience during your lifetime.

      I will expect many to respond in a derisional manner to this post but still I take comfort at my meager attent to affect the conversation today.

      Thank you for considering this point of view.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  13. Grashnak

    This was a really interesting article.

    Now excuse me while I go believe myself up a ham sandwich.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:30 am |
  14. David

    Hey, will you guys do me a favor and visit HelpFaye.ORG , about a friend of mine who is fighting for her life... Thank you

    July 31, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  15. Lewis

    1 Thessalonians 4:17 says "Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord." The phrase "caught up" is where the term "Rapture" comes from. This is not a modern concept as Borg claims. There were believers in the 1st Century who thought they had missed the 2nd Coming of Christ and that is why the apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonian believers. It appears this theologian Borg practices his own version of "speaking Christian".

    July 31, 2011 at 6:26 am |
    • William Shelton

      Lewis, how do you know that your Bible actually says that? Have you read the untranslated original of the text you cite? If not, you are merely reading someone's interpretation of what the original say, no matter how widely accepted and used your translation is. Get a grip. Your concept of Rapture is new; you just use someone else's interpretation to justify your claims.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • Lewis

      Yes, I have read the Novum Testamentum Graece text. It is the oldest known Greek text available to Biblical scholars.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • Shona

      Lewis, The rapture and the 2nd coming of Christ are two different events. Christians cannot agree to the timing of the rapture for example if it pre, or post trib. The 2nd coming of Christ was always preached in the church, rapture was not. Most Christian sects that started before 1850 do not preach or believe in the rapture (ex. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Greek & Russian Orthodox, Amish and many more) but all preach and believe in the 2nd coming of Christ. It is only in younger interpretations of Christianity (ex. Baptist, Nazareen, Pentecostal, nameit and claim it churches, and many more) that rapture is even spoken of and believed. In these groups of Christians rapture has also now become the 2nd Coming of Christ to the point that a Lutheran can not even talk to Baptist about the Lord's Return because the words do not mean the samething to each person.

      I am personally happy to be a Lutheran and attend a church that preaches the 2nd Coming of Christ but not the rapture, and I am happy to send my son to a Lutheran School where he can get a Christian education without rapture. I was saved by the Lord in 1997, but I have never believed in the rapture and do believe in the 2nd Coming of Christ.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • Lewis

      Shona, I respect your choice of eschatology. You are correct that there are many different opinons on this issue. I have believe the best approach to understanding Biblical text is a literal approach unless the text indicates otherwise. While it is true that many denominations throughout Church History have not adopted this view, it is false to state that my view has no long term historical validity. Some of the early Church Fathers left writings that indicate they believed in a "rapture". Based on a literal reading, the point Paul is making in the passage is that believers did not miss the 2nd Coming because there is an event that must first occur that people today call "The Rapture". I also agree with you that the great deal of ignorance among Christians today makes having a meaningful theological conversation next to impossible. God blless

      July 31, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  16. 8andSkate

    Wow, Ted. Now you are pushing this "You're a wrong Christian" message. That's just swell. Way to go.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:21 am |
  17. Kay Osisek

    Wow, never really heard of “speaking” Christian until I read this piece! Christianity has not, and never will be about “speaking”, it is about doing. Doing the will of God and becoming all that HE intended us to be. As far as Salvation goes, according to the bible it is a FREE gift from God that can never be earned (Ephesians 2:8-10). Whoever claims to be a Christian must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:6) and not focus so much on “speaking Christian”.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • Victor

      You should learn a little reading comprehension.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  18. DrMabuse

    Way cool! A way to secretly communicate with other delusionists. Now all we need is a secret handshake and a secret tree-house meeting place.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:18 am |
  19. Monty

    Get this kind of religious bull crap off of CNN's main page! It's the 21st century damn it.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:02 am |
    • Slumberjack

      The more religion is spoken of openly and honestly, the greater the chance that someone sitting on the fence between belief and the irrevocable suspension of belief, belief in the sense that many know only too well as the product of habit, family/communal indoctrination, fear, etc; that which causes people to invest their energy, time and capacity for thought and enlightenment into a condition whose origins are patently false, perhaps they might stand up on their own two feet and finally absorb a healthy dose of what some of us like to refer to as the truth, and finally shed the remaining vestiges of their supernatural beliefs once and for all. They may very well come to appreciate how over the course of human development, many of our most primitive customs have been jettisoned along the way, as successive generations can look back and honestly evaluate the truly horrible practices that were once insisted upon by society. The burning of witches at Salem would be just one example. Even so, the zeitgeist has really only begun to catch up with Religion. We can see it in the drastically reduced attendance within many of the traditional churches in Western society, and the corresponding rise of evangelical movements in response, where we can readily liken them prehistoric mastodons thrashing about for their lives in a primordial quicksand.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  20. AJ

    CNN: Colon Nuggets Non-stop

    July 31, 2011 at 6:01 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.