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

    A God proved by science would not be God. For I can prove only that which is by creation lower than I, that which is at my disposal.

    ~Gerhard Bergmann

    July 31, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • DrDiomedes

      scientific method does not "prove" ... it corroborates.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • total non sense

      God is not COMPTIBLE with SCIENCE (IE: Human intelligence). But the question remain.... why is there so much idiots beleving in that out dated fairy tale?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  2. believer

    Jesus did not come to make God’s love possible, but to make God’s love visible.

    ~ Author Unknown

    July 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  3. In the blink of an Eye

    It is obvious the author of this article doesn't have a clue what is the in dwelling of the Holy Spirit. You would need to be born again just as Jesus told Nicodemus. I am not Pentcostal nor charismatic. I was a born heathen who spent many years lost until Jesus revealed Himself to be real. I am not just another cookie-cutter Christian who watered down the Gospel. I understand the "Christianese" phrases but it does not make you a Christian. The article and the following remarks are so distorted that it is quite laughable, but it also tells me that people are still searching for the truth about God, not religion.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  4. Mojo

    Why does rhis riduculous practice continue. I would be embarrassed to tell people that I believe in non-existance benevolant beings. The value and purpose of your life can only be known by those that remain after you are gone. There is no other purpose for life and you are not here for some devine purpose...@MikeGee, I just qualified for a $75.50 per hour Job that anyone could do. These days employers are looking online to find people just like you. Stop wasting time filling out applications for one boring low paying job after another. I tried something new and I will never go back. I went here, AceJobFinder.com

    July 31, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  5. LC

    Interesting article – and quite true. I grew up in a highly evangelical church and community. Thank goodness "I saw the light" and managed to develop my own thoughts of "truth and justice." I believe in the teachings of Jesus. I don't believe in agendas spewed forth today by so-called "Christians," especially those in politics. If Jesus were walking the earth today in human form, I believe he would not be recognized by most church goers.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  6. michael smith

    Delorable and desprate attempt by the Religious Right Wing to profess their pathetic beliefs. I used to "speak" christian, but, then I read the fine print "gays need not apply."

    Pathetic religion – pathetic god.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  7. bu

    ALL Religion is a disease of the Mind! Be part of the cure, not the problem!

    Help cure the religion disease!

    July 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • ThatWeirdPerson

      @bu: Psychologists had toyed with the note that religious belief could be a psychological disorder but found it not to be. Talk about making things up...good grief.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  8. believer

    Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a living presence. –

    ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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

      What a sad quote.

      Christianity is a belief system, completely made up out of whole shroud, whose tenets have no evidence to back them up, only a book written and adjusted by men, and a huge power structure that generates enough income to keep people coming back to the trough.

      It's obvious that there are people who profess to be Christian who do good deeds, but it certainly isn't their religious belief that makes them help others, it's their inner sense of empathy and love, which exists outside of a god fabricated by men.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  9. Austin

    Nice thing to see first thing Sunday morning as everyone's getting ready for church. Why don't you just give us your middle finger, CNN!

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

      No, most people are going about their lives, blissfully unburdened by the requirement to attend a weekly brainwashing session.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  10. Joe

    Those who speak christian need to know it works both ways. Every time somebody says they're "blessed" or something similar, I immediately consider them bible thumpers and tune them out.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  11. Aneriz

    But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians: 2:13

    Or to be more clear, this writer has not idea of what he is talking about.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  12. Akmid

    Who cares what the Christians do? Babel, handle snakes, shriek and roll all over the church floors. Their faith is false and they are lunatics that believe in Human Sacrifice will "Save" them........................

    July 31, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  13. believer

    Christian life consists of faith and charity.

    ~ Martin Luther

    July 31, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  14. Torah101


    July 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  15. believer

    Christian is a keyhole through which other folk see God.

    ~ Robert E. Gibson

    July 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Lee Cherry

      But what about you? What do you see?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  16. believer

    We should live our lives as though Christ was coming this afternoon.

    ~ Jimmy Carter

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

      In all due respect, Marcus Borg, has absolutely no clue what he is talking about. He is an extremely liberal theologian that does not even know what the Bible says. He should read the letters of the Apostle Paul more closely before he talks about what the Christian mission on earth is supposed to be and whether Christians really want to go be with the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ or stay here. WE speak Christian because we ARE Christians. This article was ridiculous as are ALL of the CNN articles on religion. Next time please get a conservative theologian to provide a response to this garbage. Now ask Marcus Borg whether we should or should not use the word "Trinity" since it isn't in the Bible either. Jesus, please come back soon and save us from this insanity.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  17. Heneverexisted

    My holy book is the C Programming Language book.. Yes, it's teachings have saved me many number of times!
    My supplimental reading are books on the Linux Kernel and the OpenGL Reference Manual.
    My prophets are Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilei.
    My savior is myself, because if I believe in myself, I can go farther than any person and find true happiness.
    My work is my own.. Not owed to anyone other than the charity I give others who are not as fortunate as myself..
    My churches are colleges, libraries, and the jobs I've had. Anywhere I can learn to be the best at what I do. Places where people learn and are not brainwashed with fairytales.

    My reward is that I move forward in life, I will make lots of money, and enjoy/learn things that my family were never able to.. This was not due me praying harder to an invisable flying sky god or giving 10% of everything I make to his church.. This was due to the Human spirit and the innovation/power we all have inside us to do great things. It is due to the sacrifice and paying the price for the things that I want in life, rather than expecting them to come to me through prayer.

    You don't need to be a Christian to do well in life... Unless you're a preacher who makes his money off of telling fairytales.

    July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Bucky Ball

      Albert Einstein said "God doesn't play dice"... ?

      July 31, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jim

      Amen (smile)
      I subscribe to the same philosophies.
      I am not a programmer...but I survive in my field and provide for many others
      I am an agnostic that refuses to argue evolution vs. creation – who cares.....it will settle nothing
      I do not care what awaits me when I die – I will love for doing good today. I would never give money to a religious organization that doesn't pay taxes – that is like giving money to my kids – and they need it more than the church...
      I think faith is a wonderful thing for a lot of people – including myself (I have faith in myself) – I just wish others would keep their "faith" personal, and out of politics and government.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Heneverexisted

      He also said.. "A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.".. The opposite of Christianity.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Heneverexisted


      Absolutely agree.. 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • btinc

      Wonderful post. Thank you.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      I know. He lost that argument. Just thought I'd see what you would say. 😈

      July 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  18. believer

    The measure of a Christian is not in the height of his grasp but in the depth of his love.

    ~ Clarence Jordan

    July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  19. Glades2

    Speak Christian? Perhaps CNN should say "Act Christian", since it's how a person treats others (the golden rule) that marks the difference – even the devil knows Scripture – but he doesn't act Christian, since he isn't, and as Scripture says, that's how to determine whether a person is Christian or not, and that is by their "first fruits" or how they act towards others...

    July 31, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • david55

      there is such a tiny fraction of christians who actually act christian or follow his teachings, that i think the authors point is fine.

      how many christians do you know who have given up their wealth and property to follow christ? How many spend more of their wealth on helping others than on possessions?

      hypocrisy and self righteousness are the primary characteristics of most believers i meet.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  20. believer

    To be like Christ is to be a Christian.

    ~ Daniel Webster

    July 31, 2011 at 11:59 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.