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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. Kyong

    Mark ThompsonLiving in the Great Southland Downunder (ie Australia) we are vrltualiy off the map by way of visiting people down here. Are you going to come to Australia in the near future. A couple of years ago John Spong came and recently Gretta Vosper came.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  2. Ummm...

    People have been warning about raptures that were going to happen or the world coming to an end since the 2nd century. They just weren't called raptures until the 1800s.

    February 25, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  3. Barbara

    Absolute perfect example for the truth that OUR ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN OUR WORDS, or should I say OUR ACTIONS SPEAK FOR US1

    January 17, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  4. mineisjesus

    Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

    John 3:5 (KJV)

    January 6, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • rjw918

      "Born of the spirit" – It would interesting to know if he was using the word for breathe, pneuma (πνευμα), and thus referring back to Genesis 2:7: "Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."

      Jesus did that a lot, making references to the Hebrew Bible, which was, after all, what he and his contemporaries meant when the referred to scripture.

      Ywp: here it is: "pneumatos"

      January 28, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  5. creative writing

    Excellent post! I think you've encapsulated the mission of this blog and our challenge.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  6. jeremiah

    Romans 14:11 It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'" jesus is coming soon and we all must repent and be reborn may god have mercy on world is going mad........and crazy

    January 2, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  7. faith and reason

    I'm afraid this opinion piece suffers from a deplorable lack of non-specificity. Our information age, acronym-laden sound bite society is developing short-hand phrases indeed as the author only briefly alludes to in talking about any number of topics including sports. Politicians are adept at many forms of double speak, and learning a few Christian phrases again is not unique for they also learn to reach out to ethnic groups and geographic groups with similar means. Christians are no more guilty of making up short-hand notation for their beliefs than others. And they generally do it when they know they are speaking to fellow Christians who understand them. Do some Christians use a term incorrectly or not understand it with the depth someone else might? How is that different from a sports fan who doesn't know nearly as much about the game to which they play arm-chair quarterback? No, ultimately, this piece is a thinly veiled rant on the author's very personal dislike of hearing Christian phrases, which speaks to their own biases, or at least to their need to find a product for the belief blog so they could get a paycheck just like the person writing the gossip column blog.

    December 21, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Grumpyoleman

      Of course, the article, to be reasonably brief, lacks specificity, it elicits you to buy and read Borg's book.

      January 27, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  8. Larry

    Physics and God? Check out http://www.PhysicsOfReality.com

    December 19, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  9. DEBBIE ORTIZ

    Thanks for the so informative blog.... Your all team members done a very great job. i really very liked your blog..

    December 19, 2011 at 5:15 am |
  10. Eldon

    Wrong religion predates modern politics. Most Laws are based off of biblical ones.

    December 11, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Rick

      The Greeks were around before the Bible

      December 14, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  11. Jim

    Do you speak psych-bable?

    December 4, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  12. David

    I think all Christians can learn from this article. As a Christian, I sometimes mistakenly assume that a non-Christian understands certain Christian terminologies.
    However, I must disagree with the author on one point. Concerning Pentacostals and Charismatics, the author interprets "receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit" to mean "A person needs a baptism “in the spirit” to validate their Christian credentials." This is actually not what most Pentacostals and Charismatics believe [other than Oneness Pentacostals- one specific branch of Pentacostalism]. As a Charismatic [one who believes in the continuation of the various miracles and "gifts of the Holy Spirit" such as prophecy and tongues that were described in Acts], we do not believe that the baptism in the Holy Spirit "validates" our Christian credentials. The only thing that "validates" us as a Christian is faith in Jesus Christ which ultimately causes us to love and obey Him. The "baptism in the Holy Spirit" is NOT something that validates our faith. It is simply a gift that God wants to give to those who are believers to be more effective in telling others about the Good News of Jesus Christ. [Acts 1:8]
    It is only a gift that God has for us- the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not "mandatory" to be a Christian because only by having faith in Jesus [instead of in our own good works or abilities] can we be Christians. We ought to be marked by love. Of anything that "validates our Christian credentials" [though I do not like this phrase] it would be love for Jesus and others.
    Other than this theological point, I truly like this article and believe that all Christians can learn a good deal from the reality that nonChristians really don't and shouldn't be expected to understand "Christianese."

    November 29, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • David

      Just to clarify on my statement:
      "It is not "mandatory" to be a Christian because only by having faith in Jesus [instead of in our own good works or abilities] can we be Christians."
      To be more specific, I meant that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is not mandatory to be a Christian.

      November 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  13. Newtoblogging

    This was a very interesting read. I have a few problems with the conclusions made. This notion of a 'private language' is a false statement. When Christians congregate to speak about Christ and his teachings, they may often speak of parables and even cite specific scriptures. If a non-Christian or non-believer wants to gain insight, he or she can simply pick up a bible or start attending religious services. The writer of this article makes it seem as if this information or 'language' is non-acessible to people when in fact, this is simply not that case. It seems as if the message the writer wants the reader to extract is this idea that through this secret language, Christians carry themselves with an air of superiority. I would have much preferred the writer make this statement than to skirt around the issue.

    November 21, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  14. Newtoblogging

    Not sure how to find my comment :-/

    November 21, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  15. Todd D Buono

    The Language of the Bible os Obedience. Gen 3:22, 23 says "God sent man from disobedience away from the garden. Now in Revelation 22:14 says "Blessed is he that keeps my commandments that he may enter in and have rights to the Tree of Life" IT'S ALL ABOUT OBEDIENCE. Pray that the Lord help you keep all His commandments throught our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember – We can do all things through Christ who strenthens US.

    November 20, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  16. Samuel

    The video is quite misleading presenting comments on the words as if those who use them differently are incorrect.

    For example, to believe the bible is defined as merely 'Holding it dear', this is clearly a liberal view of Christianity and millions of conservative Christians would strongly disagree with this.

    Salvation was also presented in a liberal manner without making this clear that it is a disputed and liberal view, again millions of conservative Christians would appreciate the extra biblical content offered considering salvation but would also see salvation as far more than just the here and now. To quote the use of the word 'Salvation' from a passage in Exodus and apply it to a completely different context is irresponsible.

    The concept of the video is a good one (to consider language used within Christian sub-culture) but it was poorly executed and extremely misleading.

    I advise that CNN should not broadcast such biased content.

    November 14, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  17. Matthew

    Question?

    Is Christian Marketing a Sin?

    http://on.fb.me/uikI3x

    October 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  18. tonelok

    @BillyAZ
    In the verse is the Bible describing the rapture? All I see that it states is that those that are dead will rise to heaven, and those that aren't will go too... eventually but does not say when. But that doesn't say anything about the modern and commonly accepted definition of 'rapture'. In fact, it doesn't say anything more than what most already believe, that when you die you go to heaven, and those who are alive and believe WILL go to heaven.
    .
    Neither of you are right, the writer left out facts, and you look for facts that aren't there in "black and white" as you say. Agree to disagree and move on.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Emily

      I agree with the fact that the writer left out facts as well as Christians talking the talk but not walking the walk. But I do have some discrepancies. Re-read 1 Thes 4:16-17. It says, "the DEAD in Christ will rise first, then they who are alive and remain will be caught together to meet Him in the air." There is no dead if when you die you go to heaven. Everyone is forever alive if that were true. Which 1 Tim 1:7- says, "Only God is immortal". Read Rev 19:5. This is talking about the 2000yrs when the devil is chained to this earth. It says, "The rest of the dead did not live again until the 1000yrs were finished. There is a lot of verses but this is what I understand in my studying. Matt 24 gives us signs of what to look for to know Jesus is coming again, as well as much of the prophecies in Revelation. So we have these signs, prophecies are fulfilled, then bam Jesus comes (At an hr we do not know). He gives a shout and wakes up all the dead(righteous saints), the righteous who are alive still will then shortly join them in the air. The wicked, contrary to the Left Behind idea, do not sit around for a 1000s to have a second change. There time is done. Rev 6:15-17 says, the men (wicked) cried for the rocks to fall on them as they looked upon the "Lamb" (Jesus) coming. Then as in 2 Thes 2:8- the wicked are destroyed by the brightest of His coming. The minor prophets describe this time as "the earth being laid waste." This picture fits much more with Rev 19, when it says the rest of the dead lived not till after the 1000 years. So again. Signs, Jesus Coming, dead raised (righteous), righteous raised, wicked destroyed (not the permanent destruction by fire), earth is desolate, Devil is bound for a 1000yrs. After 1000 years, Satan is released, wicked are raise (Rev 19:7-9). In verse 10, it says they surround the city (New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven, Rev 20: 2). Then in the end of v.9 it says fire came down and devoured them. This is the "Rapture". But I prefer referring to it as the Second Coming of Christ. As Acts 1:11, "This same Jesus who is taken into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven." Jesus is coming again! And I am so grateful for that. :) The teaching that Jesus is coming again is not a new concept as he suggests. The disciples themselves knew and believed this. The reason why it seems is if this is new to Christianity is simply due to the terrible tragedies of the Dark Ages when Bibles were banned and no one understood anything for themselves. So very old doctrines are just now being re-found as people diligently search the scriptures for themselves.

      October 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  19. lastofall

    You are rendering to Caesar the things which belong to Caesar, which are not exclusive to money, but also the ideas and concepts that belong to this secular world. If you had been rendering any slightest thing to God, you would not have condemned the guiltless.

    October 9, 2011 at 3:46 am |
  20. BillyAZ

    I've never seen such a poorly researched story. I'm only going to point out one misleading "fact" that is misconstrued by this writer, leaving the others as fodder for others. The *word* 'rapture' may not be mentioned in the bible, but the author conveniently fails to note that it is in fact clearly described. So if you believe that the bible is the word of God, the rapture is right there in black and white in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. And the Left Behind series which he ridicules did a fantastic job of describing it faithfully to those of us who are believers. And instead of slandering our beliefs, 'bullying' sincere Christian believers, and trying to lump us all together as a bunch of hypocrites, you need to know that there are hundreds of millions of genuine believers that are indeed true Christians. You see, it's not about 'behavior'. It's as simple as one basic belief that God gave his only son to die for our sins. And if you believe that, and confess that you are a sinner, you will have everlasting life. And it says this over and over in the Bible. Start with John 3:16. I suggest the author borrows a Bible and tries reading it before criticizing it.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • AllenS

      It is *absolutely* about behavior. How you treat the lowest of man is how you treat God. Do unto others... I could go on. The Bible certainly does.

      October 24, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • BenFromCA

      Billy, I'm going to suggest that you do a little honest research into your own bible. You could start with a couple of free, online undergraduate courses offered by Yale University, "Introduction to the Old Testament" By Professor Hays and "Introduction to New Testament History and Literature" by Professor Dale B. Martin, both available through OpenCourseware.

      Perhaps, after learning the truth behind your own book, you'll understand why many rational American have come to reject the claims made by a science-ignorant tribe of goat herders and shamans.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:46 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.