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. Alfred W

    I have a bunch of people in my office who speak "environmental." They talk about eco consciousness-raising, green jobs, "sustainability" and "renewables." When questioned, however, they can't move beyond these basic catch-phrases or talking points, and they have no real understanding of what they believe. They're simply parrots who mimic the empty-headed celebrities or fear mongers they try to emulate. The blind leading the blind.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  2. Meet The Pasturds


    July 31, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  3. Mesa Mick

    "They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort." Oh, you mean just like republicans who pander to the chrizzjun conservatives by trying to "out chrizzjun" the other guy! Nice catch dude – Looks like you been doin' your homework.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  4. CEC

    What's with all of this religious junk, CNN?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • elshaddai

      I agree. Although I am a Christian myself, I do not log onto CNN to learn about my or anyone else's religion. I log on to get NEWS about what is going on in the world NOW. This trend of CNN's to talk about religious stuff all the time and basically shoot down everyone's faith just makes no sense. They are just looking for sensationalism.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Shawn

      It's the belief page, what did you expect

      July 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  5. maxhedroom

    Can I speak the true word of Jesus? Sure. I can tell you he would be appalled at how his name and remembrance has been twisted by the church leaders and brainwashers. Jesus loved the poor, the downtrodden, the sick and infirm. He held the rights of children above all others. He would banish the philistines who use his name for profit, power, violence and systematic child abuse. The vast majority of those who call themselves Christians are nothing but flaming hypocrites..

    July 31, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Mesa Mick

      ...but you forgot to mention they are also "chrizzjun conservatives", teatards and rethugliecants Max

      July 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Nani

      Christianity and the Sediec Ossuary church built of human bones? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedlec_Ossuary
      Who were the Crusaders ?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Jeremy

      The word Crusade has become such a knee-jerk. I wonder how many people realize most of the Crusades were campaigns to liberate occupied Eastern European lands? About as shady as the Allied campaigns to liberate France in WWII

      July 31, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Jeremy

      And Nani you need to shut up with the Sedlec (with an L in it not an i like you keep writing! It's spelled in the link you keep posting FFS!!!) Ossuary. There was no war or genocide or anything like that linked with it. The had to exhume a bunch of cemeteries and had no place for the bones, so they wanted to honor the dead by incorporating them as part of the church. Morbid? Yeah, even at the time many thought so, but a lot of people also see it as one of the most prominent examples of Gothic art.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      I agree with your perception of Worded Mysticsim maxedroom. 2 Kings and Isa 38 says, "Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live!"

      Who Truly knows what Lays within the minds of the leavened and the bread they eat and toss? 🙁

      July 31, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  6. rex edie

    when people speak of the antichrist ....i believe it means.... those who profess to believe in christ or god....but willfully do harm to their fellow human being..and speak in ignorance ... this...is ...the opposite (anti).... of what jesus taught .... but
    ...too many are just arguing and killing over.... definitions.... they are all trying to describe the same thing.... the unknown force that created us.... using their own definitions....and words ..and theories...
    we must live without fear....knowing that this world always comes to an end.... everyone...expires....the flesh dies... but the spirit of life goes on.....
    it is not man's duty or privilege to enforce the law of god on others.... jesus said....go into thine own closet to pray...in other words go inside your own self and pay duty there.... dont preach it upon others....

    July 31, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  7. arlojones

    It's all 100% b.s.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  8. Ancient Curse

    I'd love Christians if they'd actually follow the teachings of Christ. Instead, we have a lot of people "speaking the language," but not walking the walk. George W. Bush uses "wonder-working power" in a speech (as a coded message to Evangelicals, says the article), and the pious flock to his side. That's fine. But what else did W. do that could be considered "Christian"? That's what's so bothersome. Believe what you want, but try not to be so easily manipulated by those who pretend to share your beliefs.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  9. JohnBoy

    Try as they might, CNN can't keep the mask of hate from slipping. That last sentence was the tell.

    I am waiting on article on how to speak Islam. Peace be on you.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  10. paganguy

    Monkey see, monkey do; parrot hear, parrot repeat.
    Blind religion is good for people who can't deal with death.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  11. heliocracy

    “The Bible knows that powerful and wealthy elites commonly structure the world in their own self-interest."

    That's a very apt description of what the Republican party is all about, yet for some reason, religious morons vote for these guys every time. Sounds to me like religious = stupid about political philosophy (of course, this wasn't my first clue, not by a long shot).

    July 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  12. God Illusion

    The simplest way to 'speak christian" would be to say... "I believe in ancient fables and morality tales. I ignore reality and have given responsibility for my life to an invisible, non-existent sky daddy. I am too scared to face the reality of my own mortality and am willing to be seen as hypocritical, hateful and ignorant if it means never having to think for myself."

    Oh yea, they aren't good on truth, so that's not going to happen.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • LogicSaysSo

      Yawn, science is merely an observation that constantly changes throughout history. What humans believe to be "scientific fact" is but an illusion created by Nature herself.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Jeremy

      I have nothing against atheists and respect their wishes not to hear Christianity. Why is it, then, that the majority of atheists seem to want to scream in your face about "magic sky pixies" and so forth when they find out you happen to be casually religious?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • God Illusion

      There have been literally thousands of religions "changing through history" – including christianity – to suit the agendas of the pious, the power hungry, the greedy and the fearful. Factual evidentiary science does not change. Being ill informed is not a virtue, facing reality will make you happier and a more honest person.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • God Illusion

      Because Jeremy the religious have been screaming in humanities faces for millenia – smashing planes into buildings, killing hundreds of thousands in crusades and inquisitions, blowing themselves up on buses, discriminating against women – dressing them in cloth bags and keeping them from power in their own churches. I could go on for ever with the negative, murderous, destructive, discriminatory and hateful effect of the religious.

      Sorry you feel so offended about a little mocking of your hallowed beliefs. Hmm "sky pixies" yea, that really evens the score doesn't it?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Atheists are innocent of any crimes through history of course right? Like say all those communist and fascist leaders of the 20th century?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • God Illusion

      Fail Jeremy – those dictators did not do ANYTHING in the name of atheism – ALL of the atrocities I named were done in the name of religion. That is a very old, silly and discredited argument – try much harder.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  13. Nani

    How much do you know about Christianity and the Sediec Ossuary church built of human bones and the Crusaders? This war has never ended has it?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Jeremy

      Guess you didn't know yourself or you would have found out WHY it's built with bones. Areas had to exhumed around the chapel. Consider it old school recycling, there wasn't any war or crime behind where all the bones came from.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  14. Apocatequil

    I wash in the blood of the lamb. And I smote Amalekites.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  15. Chris

    Question is, why is this on the front page of a "news" website.
    This is propaganda, not news.
    Disappointed in CNN.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • arlojones

      It's newsworthy because Christians are all around us working on people in their community and getting politically active to promote their bizarre beliefs. We should know as much about this cult as possible.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Cole

      Worst article ever. Really??? You can't write about anything better??? Get out of news please, I don't care who in your family got you this job......

      July 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • bob

      Agreed. This is the worst kind of pandering. CNN assumes that everyone is interested in "christian" belief. We're really not.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  16. Deborah DeVane

    Dear CNN.... I was under the apparently mistaken impression that you were a NEWS service. What is with all this religious/christian CRAP that we get shoved down our throats at least once a week by you? With all the REAL NEWS in the world, don't you think your job should be reporting that instead of pandering to the religious reich? Knock it off and get back to what you're supposed to be doing. "Churchiness" belongs in church – NOT above the fold on page one of your NEWS service. Do you jobs already.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  17. Raz car mor

    2 Peter 2:12

    12 But these, as creatures without reason, BORN mere animals to be taken and destroyed, railing in matters whereof they are ignorant, shall in their destroying surely be destroyed,

    July 31, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  18. tosser

    Christianity is boring.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  19. Richard S Kaiser

    edpeters101 wrote, Maybe because the bible is a "Great" work of fiction? And even the truths in it are from ancient languages that have long ago lost their meaning??? If you get strength from the Bible that's really great, but understand that one size does not fit all, and therefor there is indeed a need for a decoder ring when speaking "religious".. OnJuly 31, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Is "fiction" but a monopoly thru which Atheismistics may Flourish with Secularisms' Pathogens as they go hand in hand lolly-gaggling and persecuting Christendom's Believers of Monotheism that does Ordain rather Openly Proclaim Free Will to ALL or am I missing a Point?

    July 31, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • News Flash

      Hi Rich,
      IMHO the texts in question are neither fact, nor fiction. They, more accurately and appropriately, would be classified under the literary genre heading of mythology, (in it's non pajorative sense). They are an attempt at stating an understanding of the human condition by it's groups of writers and editors in "mythological" terms. (Do we attempt to "debunk" the "Iliad and the Odyssey" to prove there is no Zeus, no Hector, no Achilles?) There was no concept of "fact" or "fiction" until the worldview of science arose late in the middle ages. Slapping a 21st Century worldview on top of Ancient Near Eastern texts, does them no justice, or is useful to us. We ASSUME our worldviews are/were the same, and that assumption is unfounded, (and arrogant and ignorant). THEY thought they had to "do" sacrifices to make the sun come up in the morning, and to please angry gods (etc.) WE test bacteria for sensitivity to various antibiotics, (etc.) The difference cannot be over estimated.
      The texts in question provide a fascinating window into their cultures, and to dismiss them, (as if "fiction" is "invalid" anyway ?) is unfortunate. However I do recognize that using them in a literal sense is equally off base.
      Hope you're having a good weekend, Mr. Poet. 😈

      July 31, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  20. Another Chris

    What bothers me is how American protestants have hijacked the word "Christian" to refer exclusively to their own faith, disregarding other sects as somehow "less" Christian than they are. News flash, American "Christians": Catholics are Christians, too. In fact, they were the original Christians. Stop saying "Catholic" like it refers to some "other" group; that's where all of your beliefs originated.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      @Another Chris writes, "What bothers me is how American protestants have hijacked the word "Christian" to refer exclusively to their own faith, disregarding other sects as somehow "less" Christian than they are. News flash, American "Christians": Catholics are Christians, too. In fact, they were the original Christians. Stop saying "Catholic" like it refers to some "other" group; that's where all of your beliefs originated."

      AC, Christendom's Churches are Yes, born from the RCC (Roman Catholic Church). Such churches are the RCC's Childreen and like children they do bicker endlessly about hither to this and there it is to that. The RCC is enamoured with Paganistic Rituals that today's Christianized Religions,(RCC's Children) seek not to be part of and yet they (Christianuzed Religions) perform a ritualism of Faith and Belief in Christ Jesus to be the 'Begotten' First Born Son of GOD, the Almighty. IF Christ Jesus were the 1st Born Son of GOD then, He was there in the Beginning Moments when GOD Created,,,,,,,,,

      I try so very hard NOT to make a mimickery of the Word of Truth, the Gospels that have become the revisionists' playground. It is essential for many to mimic that which they do not fully understand and/or comprehend.

      God the 1st Born Brings.
      Faith Love and Hope,
      In Order to give Reason to Cope.
      As gods and goddesses we are,
      The Kingdom of your God is Not Very Far! 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
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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.