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. Raz car mor

    This author or whoever control this blog is NOT fair, deleting my post. Obviously can't stand his/her belief. SHAME ON YOU!

    July 31, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

      Yeah, there must be a being actively watching your posts and deleting them. Couldn't be a simple word filter that practically everyone else here knows about.

      Open the curtains and look out. There's no god out there to save you.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  2. Phil90

    Nothing revolutionary here. Anyone who has taken Communication 101 will recognize the practice of using specialized language to identify oneself (sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly) with a particular group. It's called "cant", and if you want a similar example, hang out around a bunch of active-duty military or police officers. Before long, your head will be spinning with abbreviations and "code" language that you won't understand. So the practice is not a particularly "Christian" or even a "religious" one. Anyone who belongs to any specialized group or culture does this to one degree or another.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  3. Robert

    "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." (Mohandas K. Gandhi)

    July 31, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Torah101

      Yeah well their christ did NOT like his CReator. Example was the following of him instead of God. Blasphemy to consider otherwise

      July 31, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • TOM

      Well put Robert! Its been my experience that they will be nice to you but when you turn your back, you can expect a knife to be placed in it!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • EKM

      I would say you're right, but that may imply a conservative leaning. Instead I'll say you're absolutely CORRECT. 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • marissastar

      WWJD? Certainly not deny assistance to those in need, hate those who disagreed with him, and start wars.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • CMoses

      They are one in the same.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  4. emtech

    All is One. That is what Christ demonstrated to humanity and that is what all of our religions and science are working to understand. Everything else is irrelevant.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |

      ALL is NOT one, Satan wants you to believe that all roads lead to God through different belief systems, NO . Jesus Says that He ALONE is The WAY , The Truth, and The Life there's no other name under heaven no other mediator between mankind and God but Him ALONE.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  5. everyoneelse

    christies are self righteous asses. the american terrorists.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  6. George_W_Dufus

    Maybe if people "peppered" their words with something practical like finances and politics the country would be in better shape. I guess it's easier to fall back on some high and might invisible thing rather than use your brain power for something practical that could really change the world for the better.

    Sorry, but only thing religion is good for is bringing people together for a common cause. And even that gets distorted when you have 100 religions looking out for their "own" cause.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  7. autiger9

    This article comes as no surprise. You can ask two different people about any religion and they can't give you a consistent answer. Then they wonder why people are questioning the credibility of religion and its because they have none.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  8. David G

    First of all, I wouldn't go to a priest of the ever-shrinking mainline Episcopal church to get an insider's understanding of evangelical Christianity. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, and despite leaving it thirty years ago at the age of sixteen, I know the culture.
    The idea that many of the terms mentioned are code devices to signal group membership is overwrought. Does a realtor run around using terms like "curb appeal" or "motivated seller" to signal their group membership? How about a golfer who talks about "birdies" or "mulligans"? Christians use phrases like "born-again" and "sinner's prayer" simply to transmit concepts that can't otherwise be as readily communicated; they rarely do it as a kind of special handshake to see if someone is an insider.
    Certain aspects of this article are so quaintly off-based it reminds me of those smug travel news reels from the forties and fifties that purported to inform the American viewer of exotic cultures. Worthwhile coverage of such things would take a lot more investigation. In the meantime, if CNN wants to shed light on the lingo of a cultural group it understands, let's see an article on the terminology of East coast liberals. That one could be researched without ever leaving the newsroom.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Torah101

      It is true that the Christian church is dying. Probably because its predicted in Torah – lol

      July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  9. Fabjan

    Don't forget the "Antichrist", which is an evangelical myth. The word does not even appear in the book of Revelation. There is no single, all-powerful megalomaniac that will rise and control the earth in the last days. The true meaning of the term simply refers to anyone who has a spirit that is contrary to Christ. That's all. Good luck getting the evangelicals to give that one up, though. It makes too much money for pastors, book writers and movie makers.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  10. JBG

    While wikipedia is often wrong, the artilce on The Rapture indicates the Episcipalian quoted isn't spot-on himself regarding "rapture". "The Latin Vulgate translates the Greek ἁρπαγησόμεθα as rapiemur,[7] meaning "to catch up" or "take away"..." (from wikipedia – references and citations are there. The word has been interpreted differently (rushed, caught up, etc.) but the bible itself is clear that something like our understanding of a rapture will happen: 1 Thes 4:17: "After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever."


    Besides, quoting and relying on defunct historical interpretations/understandings to counter a current line of thought could be seen as specious, no? It'd be like discounting the modern understanding of reproduction by citing middle-age beliefs regarding spontaneous generation of maggots and flies from dead meat.

    By using words as catchphrases to culturally identify with others we risk losing meaning? Do tell. If this is news then Rupert Murdoch has it right.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  11. believer

    One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we've developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.

    ~ Malcolm Muggeridge

    July 31, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Bob

      Of course it is possible to believe in other things without believing in God. I believe in love. I have a feeling that is all Christ wanted any of us to believe in.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  12. Dave

    I'm m not dumb enough to speak "cloud Fairy". That's for the lowest common denominators.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  13. Torah101

    Because Christians, as Jews, believe that Torah is sacred as well, being part of their bibles, bith are hypocrites and blasphemers. Torah contradicts both religions equaly

    July 31, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  14. 21k

    will an xtian please provide a rational answer as to why god, who created the entire universe out of nothing, would not cause the premature death of hitler, who was made in his image an likeness?

    July 31, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • seanthegreat

      Can you name one parent, with a heart, who does not still love and desire change for their children? Regardless of how awful they are!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • 21k

      but letting your kid ruthlessly murder 6 MILLION innocent people when you have unlimited power over everything and everyone in the entire universe! god is not a human parent, he is supposed to be the all-powerful being!

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

      Where does it say in scripture that He created the earth out of nothing??? That's another myth fostered on the public by ill-informed pastors and preachers. Show me one scripture that indicates that.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Dolores

      Sin. While humanity likes to create levels of sin, God looks at sin as sin, and since all people are sinners (self-centered or egocentric), God would have to do away with all of us.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • KingdomCome

      Our ways are not His ways... for dealing with things....I think your purpose for stating this, would be to have Christians question God's character... am I correct?

      July 31, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • David G

      This is a form of the general question called "the problem of evil." There is a gargantuan literature on this question, but no rationally satisfactory answer so far as I can tell. But if your purpose were to gain knowledge on how the question has been addressed, you wouldn't have a hard time finding it.
      By the way, I'm going to violate a conversational taboo here and just lay something out for you to contemplate - call yourself an atheist if you want, but you do believe in God. You are angry at Him and his followers and that's why you are here to begin with. I am not making these claims as a supernatural "word of knowledge" or anything of that sort. It's just that I counsel young people and see this kind of thing all the time these days. Someone in a position of authority over you has harmed you, neglected you, or consistently let you down. You are holding God responsible.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  15. The Trucks Shall Inherit The Parasol

    Yeah, searching CNN for "muslim" doesn't turn up anything at all.

    No, really. Just believe me. Have faith in what I say. Don't open those curtains.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  16. prophet

    people following christ are very misled, they are looking to their religious leaders and not God

    July 31, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Torah101

      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. – THIS DOES NOT REFER TO THEIR 'GOD'

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

      Very true and well said!!!! Im a Christian who is trying to do the very thing and look to God to answer my questions and show me the way and not a church or man or anyone and I must say that im getting more understanding out of my faith and it really is strengthing my life and giving it much more meaning and purpose. Its like a giant puzzle that is finally coming together!!!

      July 31, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Torah101

      @TRB – if your god is JC, he is not CReator or God of Torah, but a god mankind implanted to suit their needs. They need love

      July 31, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Janjua

      This is due to the ISLAMIC thought was not consider by christian and followers of ISLAM has not produce the real thought of ISLAM to non Muslims. where as ISLAM give acceptance of all holy books of Christianity and Jews as well.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  17. telemander

    Fellow followers of Christ: an individual explaining the truth and correcting misconceptions in our culture is not attacking us.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  18. Darth Cheney

    Who cares about Christianspeak? If you want the language of Christianity, go right to the source:
    1) Do unto others as you would do unto them.
    2) Judge not lest ye be judged.
    3) Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
    4) Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, so you do unto me.
    5) Whatever you neglect to do for the least of my brethren, so you neglect to do for me.
    If Christians lived by these rules and supported a society that played by them, our country and world would be infinitely better than it is and the current GOP might actually be a party worth listening to. Alas...

    July 31, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • TRB

      Dont forget this one:

      Prove all things; hold fast that which is good

      This is one I like alot. It reminds me that I should always be studying truth and not just religious truth but all things in my life to make sure that im not being decieved scammed played or whatever the situation is!! I think its telling us basicly to use our brains and think about things before we act, speak, respond, etc.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Bob

      > Who cares about Christianspeak? If you want the language of Christianity, go right to the source:
      > 1) Do unto others as you would do unto them.
      I think many Christians have forgotten about this one.

      2) Judge not lest ye be judged.
      The Christian Right seem to believe they are judges for Jesus. They'll judge anyone at any time... harshly if they are judging someone who does not fit into their narrow definition of a good Christian.

      3) Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
      Another forgotten rule.

      4) Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, so you do unto me.
      5) Whatever you neglect to do for the least of my brethren, so you neglect to do for me.
      If Christians lived by these rules and supported a society that played by them, our country and world would be infinitely better than it is and the current GOP might actually be a party worth listening to. Alas...

      Couldn't agree more. To paraphrase Ghandi: Our evangelical conservative Christians are so unlike their Christ.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  19. hereyougo

    Not surprisingly, this article has a negative tone to it.
    Here's some more Christian language terms for you; This secular article is demonically charged to turn-off others who might be open to receiving the Lord's gift of eternal life.

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

    Get a Strong concordance which shows when words are the same and what they meant in the original languages.. Look up the words in the Bible. There is no reason to not know what the Bible really says. I have this on my computer and in a hard copy.

    July 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.