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. believer

    He changed sunset into sunrise.

    ~Clement of Alexandria

    July 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  2. AT

    People have hijacked Christianity.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  3. Bryant

    "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."
    – Benjamin Franklin

    July 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • John John

      Well said Ben!
      The masses of people that believe in religion are generally not among the highly educated. Basically, religion is a crutch for people that don't have an understanding of science or mathematics. It helps them try to get a grasp, albeit an incorrect grasp, lacking understanding of how the universe works. I am not sure why it is so important for the uneducated to have the need for that, but they try nevertheless and that is how religions are created.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Berean

      Maybe Ben penned this one too close to his shocking experiment. While his statement may be accurate for man-made religions, it certainly does not apply to the faith taught in scripture regarding Jesus Christ. This is a faith founded on reason and historical truths.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Kate

      In response to John John,

      Your position is not supported by the numbers you so highly value.

      Per this study, there is less than a 4% difference between HS to College grad in belief in God (97% at HS or below, 94% with College degree express faith in God or a higher being. Eighty -Eight percent of those with Post-Graduate degrees express a faith in a higher power. That isn't just a plurality, but a solid majority of the most educated people who believe. Where they differ is more in how they view the role in their lives.

      BTW, most religious have higher level education,often post-graduate.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Scott

      John John, we understand that atheists are incredibly "enlightened" individuals. So much so that you have reasoned away God, leaning on your own understanding. Your ignorant statement could not be further from the truth. In fact, an advanced education in math and science provides even more in-depth support for a creator. Once again, atheists depend upon the typical rhetoric that believers in God are weak, unintellectual, or dysfunctional in some way. Unbelievers are the vocal minority of the world who are leading many to distruction, thanks to your bankrupt philosophy. Math and science? Why don't you use your superior rationalization skills to calculate the amount of time required for Creation to have evolved from the primordial soup to the wondrous diversity of life we enjoy today. 6 billion years is not enough. 50 billion years is not enough, even though your championed scientific testing estimates the age of the earth to be much less. Open your eyes and you will find many more scientific examples which prove we are created by God. He loves you so much he sent His Son to take the nails for you. Salvation is a gift that you only need to accept, it cannot be earned. Set yourself free and invite Christ into your life.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  4. prophet

    Lets hope that the christians find God, many are innocently misled and if they really knew what religion is doing to them then they woul leave the deception of these false leaders.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  5. Bryant

    "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."

    – Thomas Paine

    July 31, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Rich

      Smart man that Thomas Paine was.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  6. Bryant

    "The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession."
    -Abraham Lincoln

    July 31, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • KingdomCome

      Interesting irony

      July 31, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  7. DLM

    Ah yes, the good old days of the 20th century ... when blacks were unjustly discriminated against, and Nazism rose to create world war and exterminate millions of Jews – all justified by their so-called Christian proponents. Don't be so smug about nostalgia for the past.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      DLM wrote and I now do mimic and quote, "Ah yes, the good old days of the 20th century ..."

      Is that all the further Down the History Path you can Fathom? What about the 19th or 18th or 17th or even the 16th Centuries. Care to tell us what you know about these Otherly Cents. ? 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      @ Really has written; "Richard S Kaiser aka heaven sent aka ..... how many handles are you posting under. Wow you are desperate and addicted to this site huh?" On July 31, 2011 at 10:50 am.

      I have only One Name DLM! I use "IT" Only! Desperate NO but maybe a wee bit addicted Yes! 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  8. prophet

    this article is actually quite accurate because you have to feel sorry for christians as anyone who knows Our Saviour knows that there no christians. The word christ was never used in The Bible so this was an attempt to de-judaixe Our Saviour and to make it a gentile thing. Religion has become a fashion and this is whyy this article is accurate. People are doing this to not stand out, its a way of making one feel imporetant, as with most if not all so called religious leaderrs they know very little or anything at all about the doctrines of the religion their in and this is a Fact.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser


      You wrote; "The word christ was never used in The Bible"

      I now write; "The Word, 'Christ' occurs 571 times in 532 verses in the KJV " I don't know where your falsifying ledger comes from to proclaim a Lie such as you dare promote! If You are Mimicking others Falsehoods; Try reading the KJVB or even otherly "revisioned" Bibles that have been Dumbed Down for readers' benefit and welfare!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Really

      Richard S Kaiser aka heaven sent aka ..... how many handles are you posting under. Wow you are desperate and addicted to this site huh?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  9. Bryant

    One of the many attacks on our country from the Religious Right is the claim that our country is a Christian Nation...not just that the majority of people are Christians, but that the country itself was founded by Christians, for Christians. However, a little research into American history will show that this statement is a lie. Those people who spread this lie are known as Christian Revisionists. They are attempting to rewrite history, in much the same way as holocaust deniers are. The men responsible for building the foundation of the United States were men of The Enlightenment, not men of Christianity. They were Deists who did not believe the bible was true. They were Freethinkers who relied on their reason, not their faith.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • twiddly

      Ah, but people would have to educate themselves to know this.
      So much easier to just listen to the uninformed blathering by the likes of Palin, Bachmann, Beck etc.
      So many lemmings, sigh...

      July 31, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  10. Bryant

    Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.

    -Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

    July 31, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • sevres Blue

      I'm with Jefferson. Hard to take these right winged christian fanatics seriously. They're always hating, and what was Jesus all about? Love.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      "Quoting" others is mimickery in its' finest Chastening. I do salute you Bryant and may your readings of others' good Words continue to emulate many who you post upon! 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • twiddly

      But wait, there's got to be some obscure text fragment by Jefferson that can be quoted completely out of context to prove "irrefudiatably" that he secretly wanted a christian theocracy but just couldn't say so outright, even though he said exactly what he thought about anything and everything else.

      Shouldn't you be checking with an expert like, for example, Ms. Palin, before spouting such blasphemy?

      July 31, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      The "Father" of the Nation, being the United States of America is quoted saying; "The General is sorry to be informed —, that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice heretofore little known in an American army, is growing into a fashion; — he hopes the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our arms, if we insult it by impiety and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense and character detests and despises it." – Extract from the Orderly Book of the army under command of Washington, dated at Head Quarters, in the city of New York (3 August 1770)

      July 31, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  11. Nickell

    Maybe a work of fiction
    and the friction that it's caused is sickening
    the devils's dog
    and the evidence has no one thinking
    a celebrity perhaps
    at worst a novelty
    how can you speak his name with a straight face?

    July 31, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • KingdomCome

      This reminds me of an Iron & Wine song... "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" ... lyrics are interesting!

      July 31, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      It's been said we mimic to maim,
      we play cards and yet do blame.
      Fasciculus to the very End.
      The Humanus Omnivorous don't Bend.
      Cry Out Ye on Blame and Contention,
      Forget GOD and HIS Son and never do Mention. 🙁

      July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  12. Doc

    As Puddy said on Seinfeld, "What do I care, I'm not the one going to hell".

    July 31, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  13. Bro. Eddie

    All this mentality about talking christian language is a only invention from people that they carry the bible but the words from God in the bible is not in their hearts. Good example is in the book of Revelation 3:14 to 22, this people is like this church. I called the Laodicea Generation.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  14. Bryant

    I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians.

    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789

    July 31, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  15. Bryant

    Jesus died for his own sins ...not mine. Born-again nonsense.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • PigSticker30

      Your lack of belef and faith will have yo burn in Hell.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • sevres Blue

      No, Jesus died for our sins. But the followers of Christ have proved so often to be so un-Christ-like! Rules, rules, rules. Christ said "Two rules – Love God and love your fellow man." Simple enough, but hard (impossible for most) to do.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • MooseKnuckle

      Wow, sevres you are a steaming pile of stupid. What bible do you read? Never heard of the 10 Commanments? Moron.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  16. Jeepers

    My favorite is when people ask if I have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." I think I'm going to start saying that it's more impersonal.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Jeepers

      I also like, "have you found a church home?" I'm going to start saying that we live in a house but thanks for asking.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • MooseKnuckle

      I bet you dress up as a clown and work children's parties, huh?

      July 31, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  17. Noemi

    The bible makes it pretty clear that salvation is received through grace alone. Ephesians 2:8-10

    July 31, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • James

      Also, the book of curious george makes it quite clear that that the man has a yellow hat. Of course, you'd have to be a delusional fool to believe that either book is anything but the work of man, and thus, it really doesn't matter what it says or what emphasis/spin you put on certain aspects of it, even if you use words like "quite clear" to make yourself sound authoritative. I can be just as authoritative quoting from Harry potter or the yellow pages.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  18. Colin

    Thankfully, the bestsellers today are not "Left Behind" and similar pulp fiction garbage, they are books like "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Shows that we are at least getting a little smarter as a species.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • PigSticker30

      Colin, you are a sad little man. I hope you open you heart and life to God.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Bryant

      I agree with you Colin. We can be thankful that the educated masses have no gone over to the charlatans and snake oil salesmen selling their brand of Jeeebus salvation. The Founding Fathers of this nation overwhelmingly agreed with you to. Unfortunately, major portions of this country and the political theatre have been absconded by believers in Iron Age Fairy Tales.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  19. Doc

    I fall into that category that the author talks about. The Christ follower. But I've gotten so sick of reading articles about Christianity where all those outside of it bash those in it and lump everyone together. Read the book "Unchristian" which is based on statistics and you'll see all the stereotypes that many of you detest. But if you took the time to get to know people on a deeper level you might see that not all of those who claim Christ as their savior fall into these little pigeon holes that you and the author discuss. Understand that people who follow Christ are flawed just like everyone else walking the face of the earth. Like the old bumper sticker used to say.....not perfect, just forgiven. Lighten up, people. Get over the hate.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • sevres Blue

      And I think the same can be said of Islam. Majority of the people peaceful. Fringe is extreme and violent. Frightening, both religions in the extreme are hateful.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Robert Stephenson

      Well said......we should understand that extremists will always exist.......as we have seen across the spectrum of religion(s).

      July 31, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  20. Mike in SA

    I eagerly await a similar trashing of Islam from you, CNN...I will not be holding my breath though.

    July 31, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Jon

      I'm waiting too. The media will work overtime to denigrate and ridicule Christianity and blame it for every conceivable evil, but in reality, Islam is a clear, present and overwhelming danger to civilized life. Don't believe so....move to an islamic nation and try to live your life the way you are able to life it in a Christian nation. It's almost as if these Christian haters are dying embrace islam or atheism and I think they should be forced to enter that world. There's nothing on earth like a reality check.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • twiddly

      Spoken like a true spiritual snob (har!)

      July 31, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Ryanzzzz

      Jon Said:
      "There's nothing on earth like a reality check"

      Coming from somebody like this, it's like irony wrapped in irony.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Nonayo

      This article might be trashing you specifically, because you're guilty of talking the talk without walking the walk, but it isn't trashing Christians in general.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:40 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.