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. RonnieReagan

    Holy carp....here I was thinking that CNN was finally running an article that balanced out all the PRO-ISLAMIC articles that they run, but low and behold they use this as an opportunity to disparage Christianity. Down with you CNN. DOWN WITH YOU! Your biased pro-islamic anti-american agenda is clear.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  2. STL Altar Boy

    People who speak Christian often don't act Chriistian. Talk is cheap.Amen to this article. The more people talk this way, the more you have to look twice as to their real direction. Case in point are theTV Evangelists. They speak real good but....
    Good formula for hypocrisy written here.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  3. Sid Prejean

    This story should have quotation marks around the word "Christian". Most of these so-called "Christians" (or Christ-followers, or Christ-niks) wouldn't recognized the basic teachings of Jesus Christ if they were hit in the head. These folks treat others like dirt, have exalted self-images, and feel that they can decide, "I am saved." Like it's their call.
    Call them phony Christians, with their coded language, created to make themselvs sound pious to other phony Christians.
    Love one another and be humble. You don't need a TV camera to be reverent.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  4. lisa

    Jesus stated that believers would be hated and persecuted. He also said: "I am he way, the truth, and the life. Ask Him and He will tell you. While you idolise celebrities that would sooner have you decked by their bodyguards than exchange a single word with you, the Lord our God (one and the same as Jesus) loves you. Just ask Him. I myself was lost, then found. Lord, my God.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • starrface

      Oh brother, another bible thumper. Hope you're not involved in politics!!!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • chris

      everything in the bible that says jesus said anything is hear say , not one thing is historical evidence that he said anything . or ever existed !!!!!!!!

      July 31, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • luke

      Starrface so anyone who believes differently than you should not be involved in politics? Very democratic!

      Chris you could technically say the same thing about any figure in history that has been written about. How is the historical evidence different for thousands of other figures that have been deceased for over 500 years.

      Just like some Christians judge others for their actions you should not judge someone for their beliefs. No man should judge another.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • AmFem

      Lisa, you are exactly who the article is referring to.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  5. Mic

    Bush's code was satanic illimanati

    July 31, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  6. Ivan Santos

    This article is useless and has no substance. What waste of time!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  7. beleiver

    The dying Jesus is the evidence of God's anger toward sin; but the living Jesus is the proof of God's love and forgiveness.

    ~Lorenz Eifert

    July 31, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • think for a minute

      I believe you've spelled believer wrong. But thanks for giving us a clue of you IQ.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • beleiver

      I must have offended your IQ...hope u got the message though...Peace!

      July 31, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  8. moderndayjonah

    I like how an agnostic, possibly atheist, CNN writer interviews some agnostic liberal preachers and college profs and then tries to pretend he/ they have any clue about a book they have never read (the Bible) or a God they are too blind to recognize. check out the Truth at moderndayjonah,com.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  9. jed

    Wow. I've noticed CNN's ongoing attack on Christianity over the past year, but it seems to be intensifying. After reading this silly article, it seems that CNN has no idea what a Christian is and what we believe. CNN would be the first organization to condemn stereotyping of Muslims, but are all too willing to pick a few examples and then claim to present a clear picture of Christianity to the American public when in fact they are presenting anti-Christian propaganda. Shame on CNN. The editors seem to need a healthy dose of His Truth.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • think for a minute

      The church and the coffin are the same thing. Boxes filled with dead minds.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Edwina

      I glad someone besides me has noticed this as well.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • KingdomCome

      I applaud you John Blake for drawing attention to important points. My hope is that you have lit a fire under complacent Christians who are happy to stay TOO busy for Christ. We tend to talk a foreign language to most because there are two kingdoms in the world. (Look up the verses on the Kingdom of God) The Bible does talk about this... Jesus spoke in parables in hopes that others could understand.
      If we are true followers of Christ we will be sharing inspiring stories about how Jesus is apart of our daily lives and how He is currently transforming our very nature to be better EACH day. Not just the date of our salvation or the day we walked the aisle. People will be drawn to Jesus through us when Christ is actually allowed to live through us. How can Christ live through us?... (you ask)
      Have you asked Him to live through you? Do you pray for Him to use you and send hurting people to you? Life is so busy, we need to get our priorities straight and think about this... what purpose were we made? why were we made? to please ourselves or God? What would pleasing God look like? Probably what Jesus did...

      July 31, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • wow

      full of dead minds? 90% of all scientific knowledge we hold today has its basis in the Bible. But of course, who cares about facts? The atheist answer to facts is just to kill off all the educated people so that everybody is equally dumb (read the histories of your atheist heroes: Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot who literally killed off the intellectuals, teachers, etc. because they realized that only the ignorant would believe their atheist nonsense). But of course, the second we start talking about Atheists being ignorant tyrants the Atheist Peanut Gallery will begin to clamor: "no, Mao was a Christian, he wasn't an atheist. Same with Pol Pot, he was a Christian when he killed everybody, he didn't become an atheist until later in life."

      July 31, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  10. Jacks

    Why is it moral to give a bigger unemployment check to one person over another. They are both unemployed. All unemployment checks should be the same amount. Why should a person on unemployment make more than the person going to work everyday for minimum or near minimum wage? The moral approach to unemployment is to pay each person minimum wage minus the normal cost of gettting to and from work. THAT is moral. Not taking from our children to make us feel charitable.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • ironage

      Unemployment checks are based largely on your previous income and how much your contribution to it was while you were working. Just as some people will get larger social security checks when they retire because they contributed more to it during their working years. You sound like a socialist who wants to receive more than what you have put in.....at someone else's expense!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  11. no but I do speak pig latin

    still tell that utslay itchbay
    Ucksay my ikcday, excuse my igpay atinlay
    But uckfay you igpay

    July 31, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  12. Joseph R Loegering

    Anyone who claims that the Earth is but 6000 Years Old never has believe the truth of the Scriptures from God, not have they acquainted God, they have believed mistranslations and lies from the devil.

    This word ברא, Barah which means "to finish," was mistranslated as "create" by the devil's followers, so that they could deceive People to falsely believe that the devil who creates Darkness and Evil is Yahweh, which is blasphemy against Holy Spirit Yahweh, to falsely claim that Yahweh created Darkness and Evil. Here in Barah used in this verse and you obviously cannot "create" someone with a sword.

    Ezekiel 23:47 ורגמו עליהן אבן קהל וברא אותהן בחרבותם
    "and the assembly shall stone them and finish them with their swords"

    Because the Devil creates Darkness and Evil Yahweh says that he finishes Darkness and Evil!

    Isaiah 45:7 יוצר אור ובורא חשׁך עשׂה שׁלום ובורא רע אני יהוה עשׂה כל־אלה׃
    "framing Light finishing Darkness, making Peace finishing Evil, I Yahweh make all such!"

    But your English Bibles were translated by Followers of the Devil who blasphemed against Holy Spirit Yahweh, and mistranslated that as " I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these."

    And like as Peter says the word of God spoke of former Heights, and former Earth coming out of the water and back down into the water and perished, you English Bibles are mistranslated and you Religions follow nothing but mistranslation and lies from the Devil, for Barah in Genesis 1:1-5 says;

    בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃ וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃ וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

    Within Archruler finish Godships associate the heights and associate the earth, and the earth clash invisibleness and unformed, and Darkness across face wakes, and Spirit Godships' from brood across face the waters, and said Godships, "Birth Light," and birth Light, and saw Godships associate the Light, related good, and classify Godships among the Light, and among the Darkness, and invited Godships unto the Light, Day, and unto the Darkness, invited Night, and birth evening and birth morning, Day first.

    God is Light, and Day his Mate came out from among him, like as out of Adam came Eve, and Paul says of the true believers,
    1Thessaloinians 5:5 "You are all sons of light, and sons of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. "

    Our Father is Light and our Mother is Day, but their Father is Darkness and their Mother is Night!


    July 31, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  13. Stephen

    Ugh! Born again? Please, you are only born once. What is important is being good. Read my blog about "What is a 'good' Christian?" (http://gburgatheist.blogspot.com/2011/07/what-is-good-christian.html). Just be cool to each other. It has been my experience that most "born agains" are using it as if they are bragging.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • mad dog mulligan

      well said dude!!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  14. Gotta Getthere

    Interesting. As a former Wesleyan, I have seen both sides of this. For those of you who think the article is anti-Christian, read it again with a more open mind. It's a balm for the itch of hypocrisy.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  15. beleiver

    We faintly hear, we dimly see,
    In differing phrase we pray;
    But dim or clear, we own in Him
    The life, the truth, the way.

    ~John Greenleaf Whittier

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

    I know of a world that is sunk in shame,
    Where hearts oft faint and tire;
    But I know of a Name, a precious Name,
    That can set that world on fire:
    Its sound is sweet, its letters flame.
    I know of a Name, a precious Name,
    'Tis Jesus.

    ~J. Wilbur Chapman

    July 31, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • Noble9

      Except Jesus's real name was something like Yeshua bin Yusef. Does it still sound as sweet?

      July 31, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  17. Prometheus

    Hmmmm....kinda sounds like they are already on THE SLIPPERY DOWNHILL SKI SLOPE OF SATAN!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  18. Opsamk

    Finally an article relevant to my interests.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  19. Ken Peters

    “Christianity’s goal is not to escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better,” he writes.


    James 4:4 says: "You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God."

    These shallowly written Sunday CNN pieces are so biased most Bible believing (how's that for code words?) Christians easily recognize them as just another cheap shot at the belief on behalf of a anti Christian establishment.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • Prometheus

      You are absolutely right. We should forsake each other and believe in the Harry Potter series and form our culture, thinking, religion, technology and way of life around those books.

      OHHH-SNAP! My bad...

      I meant that other EPIC work of fiction...the bible.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • tknopp09

      Ken, check out Thomas Merton's "No Man is an Island" to better understand what it means to love the world but not give in to it. Also, consider Romans 14:1 & 4, "Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don't argue with them about what they think is right and wrong... Who are you to condemn someone else's servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord's help, they will stand and receive his approval." -Very appropriate reading in today's entry of the One Year Bible.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Isaac

      @Promethus, The bible is not fiction but rather the true Word of God. You see, God Word might be fiction to you but guess what He loves you so much. You are deeply loved and God want you to be saved.

      Let me asked you this, do you think is by chance you commented on this article today? To me, is not by chance. God is doing greater things in the life of many and the greatest of all is: SALVATION. Heaven finest hour is for people like you and I to be saved. God called me at a moment I was about to 'jump the cliff to my death' and I hope you don't get there.

      God be with you and I pray you see the Light of God. Amen.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • think for a minute

      @ Isaac, the bible is full of it and the fact that you can't deal with reality so much that you almost killed yourself and have to delude yourself to keep going doesn't make it true.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  20. Noble9

    I like how every Christian thinks that their interpretation is the only right one and that others aren't REAL Christians.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:38 am |
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About this blog

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.