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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

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  3. Knightrider

    Dont Let your Sanctifaction be your Justification!!! Martin Luther was right.....Justifcation by Faith alone.....You gotta Die 2 Live.

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  6. Atheism is Healthy for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. Teaching kids to be agnostic helps reinforce their understanding of the new real things they can see and learn about in life. It helps them properly separate the known from the unknown without confusing them. They just need to be taught things that are unknown, like god, and things that are made up, like all religion.

    Atheists have strong minds, and don't run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, disserving society).

    We have only begun to scratch the surface in using the mind to its maximum. Damaging it with made-up junk that politicians and salesmen dreamed up long ago is senseless, and limits the mind's potential. These politicians and charlatans didn't even do a good job of organizing and being consistent with the stuff they dreamt up to try to control people. Daddy used to say they were caught with their pants down when the bible was first translated so that common folk could read it. Very true.

    Instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

    mama kindless

    August 27, 2012 at 6:15 am |
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  10. Kindness

    1. For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response
    Accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....
    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeing a new color. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transcend any selfism within you.
    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.
    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.
    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both Christians and non are sinners.
    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .
    Try reading Corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in today’s society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arrogance pride or vanity..
    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revenge, gluttony with food etc .
    Transcend the temporal world.
    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat itself.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagiarized..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transferred back to the rulers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .
    Transcend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change)
    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence.....
    Faith. Above. Reason. In. Jesus. Christ.
    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible. Ask Jesus in faith for discernment and start reading the New Testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how Christ sets an example ... feel the truth....
    Read Ecclesiastes. Read Corinthians.
    You can’t transcend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy/s to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.
    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in Christ.
    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .
    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?
    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.
    Once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new color.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it
    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.

    It’s a personal free experience you can do it free anytime.
    Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >

    It’s awesome… and it’s just between you and Jesus..

    June 6, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "A thought to consider without a typical ego response"

      Your posts reek of ego so the rest of it is moot, especially since you keep posting this garbage over and over again. LOL!

      June 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
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  12. Kindness

    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    May 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "Your all smart people . I tell the truth."

      LMAO! Your all smart people . I tell the truth. = EGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 22, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  13. tim stewart

    Excellent discussion, especially in the comments area. Part of the problem is that there isn't a standard place for people to look to understand the Christian slang language. There is a Dictionary of Christianese currently being written that will help with that. For those who are interested, you can read definitions online free at http://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com .

    May 11, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
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    April 8, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  16. Michael1

    The Lord Jesus Christ is not dead, but is risen! Praise the LORD! I am His and He is mine. Praise the LORD O my soul! Because He lives, I shall live also, and also all my brethren with me! Thanks be unto God, which hath saved us. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost- God our Savior! Amen! Christ is Judge. All judgment has been committed to the Son. Are you washed by the Word? Has Christ spoken to you? Or are you still in your sins, in danger of hell fire?

    March 24, 2012 at 1:16 am |
  17. Michael1

    God commands us to preach the Word. We desire to preach the Word. I'm going to talk biblical language. If you don't like it, take it up with God! Woe unto me if I don't preach the gospel. We ought to obey God rather than men. Some like to please men rather than God. I'd rather have Christ. Jesus Christ is the Lord of glory. He is Eternal God, the Son, and He is my Savior. Do you know Him? If not you stand in danger of hell fire. Fear the LORD and depart from evil. Look, there He is, lifted up from the earth, hanging upon the cross, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Go to Him! Are you able? He that has ears to hear, let him hear!

    March 24, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  18. Heather Strange

    Isn't that 19th Century song called "Power in the Blood"? Just sayin'.

    http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/There_Is_Power_in_the_Blood/

    March 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  19. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • tnmom

      I will pray for you. Jesus loves you too!

      March 17, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  20. Jose

    1:27 am by Monte Young The Holy Trinity of Anonymous have spoken.To #1… can I call you #1? (I feel like Capt. Piccard).Peter's iurtsnction is part of teaching, something with with I personally feel is very lacking in our congregations. This leads directly into the assembling of ourselves together. Also, I have no problem with meeting on Sunday, or any other day for that matter, but you have to admit that more of our "church service" traditions are more akin to later centuries than not. In addition, anyone who thinks they can exist without the rest of the Body is just a foolish as the person who purports the lunacy that every weekly gathering is for maintenance.I would agree with you that more often than once a year good for the Eucharist. But am confused to when we became Protestant. Absent of solid Textual explanation of why we are participating in the process is integral to the process not becoming just another religious rite.Adequate teaching is missing at our gatherings because we're too accustomed to preaching the fire down every chance we get. So much more is accomplished—when dealing with the Body—through solid teaching the intricacies of Character and plan of GOD. I will admit that I fell prey to one the pentecostal colloquialisms which rail against; in referencing "preaching", I am referring to what most pentecostal churches hear at "Sunday services," because that's when we throw down (that last statement was gratuitous humor). I do understand that preaching is the declaration of the Word of GOD. But let's go to the Text, did GOD choose the foolishness of preaching to maintain the saint? If so, please provide me with Text.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:56 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.