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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. what

    width="560"height="315"src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/2idR1cC1Qtk"frameborder="0"allowfullscreen>

    October 6, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  2. what

    width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/2idR1cC1Qtk" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>

    October 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Mariposa

    Hey everyone and anyone reading this...please watch this!!! IT IS SHOCKING!!! I promise you wont regrett watching, it's a very well done video. Make some time for it though.

    http://www.180movie.com

    Enjoy!!!

    October 5, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  4. virtus

    These are not trendy phrases. They have been around for decades, even centuries. They are the phrases used by generations of people to distinguish themselves as people who had experienced, and knew the had, a Regeneration (an actual theological term) of their spirit, only attributed to the power of Jesus Christ. The culture has learned and co-opted the phases only in the last 20 years. No one would have used them before the last generation unless they considerred themselves part of the group that had experienced such a Regeneration and were compelled to live their lives for Jesus Christ. The culture uses the phases to "prove" that they are just as "religious" as those who claim to "know" Jesus Christ. They feel left out and defensive. And politicians use the phrases to manipulate the naive.

    Maybe the culture should give Regenerated Christians their language back.

    October 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
    • toandfros

      I thought christianese was talking in parables, riddles and analogies, which nobody understood, except the one's God chooses to interprate it to.
      God, Christ, King David, King Solomon and Samson did in the old and new testament.

      October 5, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  5. Dan Schwertner

    Here's a novel idea for those of us who call ourselves Christians. Less talk, more action. You know that coworker of yours who is struggling financially? Stop at his house and drop off some groceries. See that guy changing a flat tire in the rain? Stop and help him out. Take your kids fishing. Buy your wife some flowers because its tuesday. All in all, Be a light in the world.

    October 3, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  6. Debbie

    It always amazes me that people think they can manipulate a Being so intelligent He created DNA–which took us 30 years of constant research to figure out. We are created in HIS image; He is NOT created in ours. He has the power to crush us like bugs, but He chooses not to..."For God so loved the world, that He gave His Son." Sometimes we strut around thinking we own the world; we're in control; we're the big Boss. We exist ONLY because of His love and mercy–understanding that is true humility.

    October 3, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  7. themadjewess

    @Adou
    'The new testament has now taken the role of the old testament'

    No such thing is written. You are making up junk as you go.
    Jesus says you are WRONG:
    "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them'
    Matthew 5:17

    Keep talking, you look more stupid by the minute.

    The Koran and the Torah are **NOT** the same books, and since you are an assumption oriented fellow, please explain the mass murders of Muslims in comparison to Jews and Christians WHO have BEEN victims OF the mass murders of INSANITY (Islam)

    October 2, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Galaxygirl

    I find that with faith, as with other life issues/events, it's the ones who "talk big" who have the least.

    People who have money don't feel the need to tell you what everything costs. Wannabees brag about how much they pay. People with true faith are usually the silent ones. The Wannabees are the ones with their jaws flapping Christianese to anybody unfortunate enough to have to listen.

    It's human nature, sadly, that we are talking about here. You can apply this to anything, pretty much: The people who truly have "it" don't feel the need to talk about it.

    October 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Dan Schwertner

      You are dead on in your comment. In 1st John it states, "let us not love in word and tongue but in action and deed". Talking to a struggling single mom about Christ isnt going to put food on the table. Better step up

      October 3, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  9. tsa

    This is the problem, there is a huge difference between religion and relationship..to love the Lord..love like the Lord, give like the Lord, is not a religion. When we are judged we wont be asked, what religion are you? or what words did you use to talk about me, to show my love, to lead by my example. Yes there are his commandments to follow, and be obediant, and why not? who thinks its ok to murder, lie, steal, etc??? this is why this world is the way it is, it has taken God out of it... and yes the rapture is in the bible, 1thessalonians 4:17. Everything going on in this word was prophesied a looonnng time ago...I encourage those who think they know it all just by reading the bible as a story book to study an learn.

    October 2, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  10. AvdBerg

    For a better understanding of the use of terms like ‘Born Again’ we invite you to read the articles ‘Judging ~ Born Again’ and ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You’ listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    Also, to give people a better understanding of the issues that divide your country and this world we have recently added the article ‘CNN Belief Blog ~ Sign of the Times’ to our listing of articles.

    It is unfortunate but nevertheless the truth that man(kind) 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 and what mankind must do to be reunited with 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 kind of religion is a form of self-transformation and is 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).

    October 2, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  11. eagl006

    Umm... the rapture a recent invention of the church. I would pray that you start searching the Bible as both the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are clearly in the Bible. Or do we just want to stay naive about scripture so we feel spiritually unresponsible when those days come?

    October 2, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • eagl006

      Just thinking about what I also heard on the radio the other day about how a using a word incorrectly may offend others. Well when I was younger saying the phrase "that is so "gay" was not considered offensive to any being. Now the phrase is being broadcasted on the radio as an offensive phrase. Well then how about when someone takes the Lords name in vain that is not broadcasted on the radio as possibly being offensive. Why dont we stop worrying about who is using words correctly, incorrectly, offensively, non offensively and look ourselves!!!

      October 2, 2011 at 7:26 am |
    • Keenan

      A secret rapture is not in the Bible. Rev.1:7 says when Jesus comes every eye will see Him. No secret there. 1Thess.4:16, 17 says He's coming with the voice of an archangel and trumpet of God. No secret there either. So what are you talking about?

      October 2, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • eagl006

      Keenan: In Matthew 24:39-44 it speaks of a rapture. The second coming is when God comes and puts judgement on the earth and is after the tribulation period which the book of Revelation speaks. But the most important thing is to be ready either way right?

      October 3, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  12. jan

    Funny, he didn't mention that the name of Christ (Yahushua.. Joshua in English) means "Yah is our salvation" He is our salvation and in knowing Him, we are saved. The problem is, many claim to "know Him, that don't." Borg is right that words have lost their meaning, and the word "know" is one of them. It means to have intimate relationship with, as in 'Adam knew Eve and she conceived.' Jesus (Yahushua) said Himself, "Many will say, I did this in your name, and that in your name, and He will say, "Depart from Me, I never knew you."

    October 2, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  13. MashaSobaka

    Sometimes I get a sick sense of pleasure out of explaining Christians' own religion to them. But most of the time it just makes me sad that people really can be that blindly loyal to something that they don't understand.

    October 2, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  14. dan

    Every religion goes through a violent phase, give the muslims time to grow out of it..

    October 2, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  15. Paul

    Matt – We see what a society of Secular Humanists looks like in Communist Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea. Secular Humanism WILL NOT save humanity! Only a faith in Jesus will save humanity.

    Also, the video mention's Jehovah Witness as a Christian faith. It is NOT! It is just another cult or false religion!

    October 1, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Christian

      LOL this article is entirely amusing. Kinda like a car salesman is going to write about the US's foreign policy.

      And who's Borq? I've never heard of him. Honestly, I don't find him to be a great representation of Christianity at all. The Episcopalian church does not believe in everything the Pentecostal church believes in. I find this to be a big mis-representation of Christianity.

      Why did he not speak with Rick Warren? Ravi Zacharias? Lee Strobel? Benny Hinn? Why not speak to one of the popular top dogs of Christianity? Why pursue a guy who wrote a book where in he states "Christianity’s goal is not to escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better" which is a total biblical contradiction. Christian's don't love this world, we love the people in it and we seek to try and change ourselves to be more like Jesus everyday.

      CNN should really screen the articles they post before they post them or at least have someone who knows about Christianity to make sure that their articles have some sort of factual coherrence.

      October 1, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Alex

      There is just one problem there Paul. God does not exist. If you think about it carefully, you'll realize that you've been dooped into an irrational believe that fortifies and re-insures egotistical motivations within all of us. Every person is burdened by the weight of mortality, and it's not an easy question to answer. So generally, we take the easy way out: religion.

      October 1, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  16. Matt

    The sooner we all become Secular Humanists (for those who need to be told what to think) or just plain atheists the better mankind will be

    October 1, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Paul

      Matt – We see what a society of Secular Humanists looks like in Communist Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea. Secular Humanism WILL NOT save humanity! Only a faith in Jesus will save humanity.

      Also, the video mention's Jehovah Witness as a Christian faith. It is NOT! It is just another cult or false religion!

      October 1, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  17. Scrollman

    This is something that the readers of this blog would be interested in.....my novel, The Fallujah Scrolls. Maybe everything isn't as cut and dried as it seems. If you would like a free e-book version, send a request to scrolls2010@hotmail.com. I will honor the first 15 requests.

    October 1, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  18. Tom

    Christians are retarded.

    October 1, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Paul

      Funny Tom. Yes some of us Christians are weird. But not all of us. I'm guessing the weird ones were weird or what you Retarded, even before their faith in Jesus. Peace to you.

      October 1, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  19. aldoushuxley

    Actually, the law has been fulfilled. The new testament has now taken the role of the old testament(or the torah, or the first part of the koran) Your new savior is here and now. 2000 years from now, archeologists will find this post and it will assume the role of the new "word of god". Praise Jamesman92976! Get thee behind me Satan. You will all kill in my name someday!!!

    October 1, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  20. themadjewess

    @Anne but utterly wrong about the heart of Christianity.

    As is ALL left wing rags.

    September 30, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.