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. frankhou77

    This is something that in many ways its impossible to define.

    What is real to you might not be real to the next person, there is so many variations in Christianity.

    If everybody in Christianity would respect others then article like this would not be written. The majority is Christians do respect or at least ignore the rest but unfortunately a small, loud and noticeably annoying percentage want to force their faith down everybody's throat.

    The only thing that has protected the US from this has been separation of church and state, only this small loud, annoying group has a problem with it but most don't.

    Hate = Hate

    July 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Heather in SoCal

      We Methodists, along with other mainline Christians, are fluent in the language of casserole. Food speaks volumes.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  2. Torah101

    Not to worry. The world i supposed to end in a few months! Sin away

    July 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Da King

      It is your choice.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  3. Da King

    The producer of this video is not born again. Unless you are you cannot comprehend what being born again is.
    "To the man without the spirit being born again seems foolish" "Things of the spirit are spiritually discerned." Some people who think they are born again are not. It is something which occurs in the spirit world based on your faith and heart. Most people who are will not mention it, but will not deny it. If you want to know what born again is, read John 3 and don't judge others, that's not your job.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Stephen

      Death in the Bible means separated. Physical death is separation from the body. Born again means to be alive and in fellowship with God. Not separated. So many people who think they know but really don't know what born again means.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Eytan Weber

      Then how can you possibly judge the creator of this article? Seriously do you hear yourself? You just said, "I have deemed this person was wrong, because he judged." Forget John, go to a book with some authenticity, like the dictionary, and look up "hypocrite".

      July 31, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Heather in SoCal

      Maybe he got being born right the first time...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • ericpo

      You just proved the writers point! Being a follower of Christ is not some elite club. Jesus talked about erasing the power of the elites by choosing to love one another. To live our lives with God as our leader. This moves society from injustice to justice. Is it right that some folks go to bed hungry? If this is wrong how do we choose to turn and live out our belief that God takes care of us all? You refer to John 3. Remember that John refers throughout the book to two kinds of life. Psyche our physical and mental life. And Zoe our spiritual life. John 3 in Greek reads that we can change our lives into ones that are closer to God by deciding to believe the opposite of what annoys us and then act on that. If God is love and God loves us no matter what, how would we live our lives if we did the same?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Da King

      I mean actually read John 3.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  4. Luis Wu

    Christians have to be the most gullible people on the face of the planet.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Da King

      It would seem that way in the natural world. In the spirit would it is the other way around.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • MCArmstrong

      "In the spirit would it is the other way around."

      Then it's up to you to prove the 'spirit world' exists. Please provide proof.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Da King

      I already live there. You are invited because God loves you.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  5. FaithScent

    Well, everything needs real substance not just talk, but it's truer in such utmost important things like being Christian.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  6. Vin

    Nobody on the internet is a true Christian. If you are reading this, and believe that you are a proper Christan that obeys the word of Christ and will be going to Heaven, know this. You have failed to follow the directions of Christ in Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 12:22-34. None of you so called Christians believe in the directions of Christ enough to live as Christ commands, and there is no Kingdom of Heaven waiting for you, because of your own greed.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • CrazyOwlLady

      But you are, so are able to tell everyone else that they're not a "true Xtian"? whatever.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Vin

      @CrazyOwlLady I'm not Christian. It's easy for me to point out how two-faced Christians are when I'm an atheist. There's no Kingdom of Heaven waiting for me either.

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

      Grace is an awesome "buzz" word, Vin...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • CrazyOwlLady

      @Vin, ah, an atheist. My apologies; I totally missed your irony.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Vin

      @KingdomCome The Grace of God requires following rules to achieve. Christ was very specific as how one gains eternal life. If you're a so-called Christian that is not aware of what Christ demands for you to gain eternal life in Heaven, then you have been blinded by your greed. Christ demands that you sell all your possessions and life your life in service to the poor. God will provide for you, and you need not provide for yourself. Anybody who does not follow these words will not gain the Grace of God and be allowed into Heaven. See Matthew 19:24 for confirmation.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • stefano

      haha, you must be joking. vin, you have effectively told this forum that you are not a 'true christian'. why? because you are on the internet.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • KM

      VIN, where does it say in the Bible that if a Christian is NOT perfect, then they do not go to Heaven? You are correct about one that you have said, there is no Kindom of Heaven waiting for you! Sadly, but it appears that you have already decided that for yourself!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Vin

      @stefano I'm not a Christian.

      @KM Read Matthew 19:16 where Christ explains that if you do not do as he says, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • KM

      Vin, Matthew 19:16 , Jesus is talking to a young wealthy man. Jesus is addressing this INDIVIDUAL because of his unwillingness to accept Gods word. He said he had followed ALL the commandments, but still felt there must be more. Thus Jesus told him, to sell everything. Clearly he is talking to this one individual because he knew what was hendering this person. It is NOT instruction for all Christians to sell there belongings and give them to the poor, as you are trying to insinuate.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • KingdomCome

      Grace is a gift...thank goodness we don't have to earn it through works

      July 31, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Vin

      @KM Then why does he say the same thing in Luke 12:22-34 again to all of his disciples as the way they'll enter heaven? I'm glad you're able to take the word of your Lord God and just disregard it because you don't want it to apply to you and all, but the Lord God was clear on how you get to Heaven.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  7. KM

    CNN, what do you mean Salvation can be WORKED for? Have you ever read Ephesians Chapter 2 verses 8 & 9? they say
    " For by grace you have been saved through faith ; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God ; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."
    So John, you see, it is a gift – a gift from God!

    July 31, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Torah101


      July 31, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • stefano

      you have done nothing more than show that the bible can be used to 'prove' many different viewpoints.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  8. Torah101

    The only things of significance he said was: There is no heaven and hell for mankind, per Torah and that all good and bad is performed on EARTH while ALIVE.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  9. Zaphod2010

    I am not religious at all and I don't appreciate anyone telling me about their religion or worse yet trying to convert met! You have religion keep it to yourself.
    Most of the problems of the world are caused by the different religions and their fanatics!

    July 31, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  10. ohHaiThere

    Scholar who has spent years actively studying history and the Bible and actually knows what he is talking about: "Hey you guys have a couple of misconceptions about this thing you love so much, wouldn't you like to know the actual truth?"

    Christians: "You're attacking us! Stop attacking us!""

    July 31, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  11. Shirazz

    leave it to CNN to make a hit piece on Christians on Sunday

    July 31, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Linda

      how is this a "hit-piece"?? don't like to hear that Christians are not perfect?
      Not one thing in this article is attacking Christianity, take it as educational

      July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Eric

      Leave it to christians to employ closed mindedness & circular logic when discussing their irrational religious beliefs! As Bucky Fuller wisely said, "scenario universe is non-simultaneously apprehended." You must ALWAYS be revising your map of the universe - or you become a fundamentalist! And as Husserl said, "all perception is gamble"...many folks go "all in" on ridiculous beliefs without even considering the evidence. Christians have NO MORE EVIDENCE for Yahweh than I have for Zeus or Apollo or Krshna or Ahura Mazda...yet the only have to hear Paschal's wager ONE TIME & they're frightened back into their HOLE OF DELUSION. Keep your eyes open & investigate Universe...the map is NOT the territory, the menu is NOT the meal! Good luck...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  12. Eric

    Anyone beyond the age of TEN should rid themselves of imaginary friends - how many people REALLY think there's a Omniscient Celestial DIctator afoot in the universe? An imaginary friend that listens to prayer, does miracles & nominates which of his creatures will spend an eternity in a lake of fire...at what point does our culture give up these bronze age myths and finally dawn the age of True Enlightenment? It's 2011 folks, do you really believe in talking snakes, burning bushes, witches, angels & the like? And the morality of the bible is terrible – it's pro-slavery, pro-child sacrifice & pro-genocide...what am I missing here? What's the attraction to this delusional cult???

    July 31, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      Eric, you drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? You as much a believer of propaganda as those you belittle. What a tool.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  13. zip

    Do not attack one of the biggest revenue producing industries in America. And tax free to boot.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  14. Argle Bargle

    Hell will be wallpapered and carpeted with "Christians" who were that in name only. You can tell them by how they treat others with disdain and malice instead of love and acceptance, who shun those in need or who are impoverished and seek after those who are worldly and speak words to soothe their itching ears.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Shirazz

      Christianity is the imperfect and the sinner. A Christian can be all of the above as a Christian is imperfect. Thats why we have Christ.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      Those aren't the Christians I'm talking about. But the ones who are wolves in sheep's clothing like there TV preachers and pedophile priests and those who use Christianity as a cover for their dishonesty in business and so forth. They're thick as thieves.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  15. Woody

    The human mammal would rather not think of itself as little more than an animal so we go off to the religion of life called OZ. No one likes reality nor likes the idea when we die we simply turn back into dirt so we bury people so we can escape the maggots and rotting flesh . The human mammal loves fantasy but eats other living creatures every day just like all other animals . We just let other people kill those animals for us ! That hamburger you just ate is flesh of what was a living creature . Just like you !

    July 31, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Shirazz

      not all animals eat other animals.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      Yep. And that burger was quite tasty, too! Had bacon and cheese on it as well! Nom nom nom.
      Hope y'all enjoyed those sprouts, Woody. Taste like dirt, don't they? Yes indeedy! Nom nom nom.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  16. ed

    There is no God, there was no son of god, religion is made up by man and is a scam.

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

      Hey Ed, let us know how that works out for you! I can be reached at 1-800-HEAVEN

      July 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  17. prophet

    it may of been jesus language but not the mother language of Our Saviour

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

      Show me some proof Jesus ever lived.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Argle Bargle

      Ed, ya gotta get off your butt and find it yourself. Jeez. Do you have to have everything done for you? What a lazy slob you've become. Just look at your room. You can't even see the floor any more. And those windows...

      July 31, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Shirazz

      Ed, when you offer a challenge like this you need to be prepared with proof that he does not exist. Can you do this with out using innuendo and insults?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Good without god

      @Shirazz. When a person asserts that something exists, the burden of proof falls to the person making the assertion. A person who simply says "I don't believe you" does not have to prove anything. If I say the world is actually run by an underground gang of purple dinosaurs and the president is just a robot created on Saturn that they use to control us, I bet you would like for me to substantiate that argument with some verifiable data before you decided to believe me. We expect the same. You say Jesus is god, and we say prove it. It's not our job to prove that something we believe does not exist
      does not exist. I'm sure you don't believe in Santa, but you didn't go out and prove he didn't exist before you made that decision, no one was able to provide proof he does exist. We feel the same way about god. To us, god is a delusion as ridiculous as Santa, or the tooth fairy, or boogiemen.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  18. Torah101

    Refreshing to see those 'in the know' asking questions. However, the truth is LITERAL interpretation of Torah and not everything else, which includes the Writings, Prophets, Talmud and Gospels.
    It is from Torah that the 3 religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam morphed, in that order.
    It is true that those add-on-holy books, Writings, Prophets, Talmud and Gospels, contradict Torah, and for that reason, their followers have never found peace and remain confused.
    The religion of Moses, as commanded by God Creator, was specific and clear, and this religion is nowhere to be found today.

    18,15 A prophet will the LORD thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken;

    18,18 I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. 18,19 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it of him.

    Asktorah dot com

    July 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Hesalive

      Satan has misled you. There is no peace for anyone apart from Jesus Christ. He rose from the dead, and should you reject Him now, He'll reject you then. Plenty of Jews have converted and are extraordinarily happy people. What about you? What's keeping you from surrendering unconditionally to the risen Son of God? You should do it now, because every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Torah101

      The serpent in Torah is NOT your bad god satan. There is no satan mentioned in TOrah and for that reason your bad god does NOT exist. Nor does your 'good' god jesus exist in Torah either – Still confused???

      July 31, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  19. ash

    too fu#*in chicken to post my comments. flip pin retards

    July 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  20. Northcoast Rich

    This article is a "hatchet job". If you look up Marcus Borg–the principal source of information for this article–you will find that he is a leading member of the so-called Jesus Seminar that is not only been criticized within the Christian community, but also by scholars close to the Jesus Seminar such as Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. It's difficult to understand by the author–John Blake–would write such a ridiculously one-sided article based upon Borg's narrow, secular view of the Faith. To be fair, there are some parts of the article that point out some problems in the Faith–such as the prevalence of the health and wealth gospel (which is clearly at odds with scripture). However, Mr. Blake would have done CNN's readers a much better service to have included comments from Billy Graham, Tim Keller, Rick Warren or host of other Christian leaders who actually live the life of faith and believe in the divinity of Christ rather than to focus in on Borg who has little influence inside the Faith because he does not accept its basis tenets.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • stefano

      you are correct in stating that the article is one-sided. it is a nice summary of borg's view. not every article has to presesnt opposing views. if that were the case, you might notice that the evangelical news articles and opinion pieces do the same thing. i have no problem with that, even though i disagree with much of those one-sided views.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:16 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.