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. jesus christ is lord

    I know the bible says in the end times non-believers will choose to believe a lie, but now I know why....because the way to salvation by Jesus christ requires you to admit that you are wrong, you are a failure, you are a sinner, and that you need saving. You must resist tempation, which is not easy, you must face persecution, which is painful, and you must have faith in times of uncertainty..true grit. Liberals have none of these things nor do they want them...it's all give me now, it's mine, I want more, I deserve it, give them there's, I don't have to earn it, I don't care about the future, I want to feel good now. Me..Me..Me.Me!!!!! CNN hates the bible because you cannot be a liberal and be a "born again" christian.....yep I said it...no God said it.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • redder1

      No one was more radical than Lincoln. He WAS born again, and there was enough left over to make a little yellow dog.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • WildSparks

      Word vomit - where no intellectual point is actually made, but rather a slew of loosely associated thoughts with no proof of accuracy, logic, or intelligence.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • edwest

      well done, good and faithful robot

      July 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • jenny oh

      That is shameful of you to pass judgement all while trying to present yourself as a Christian! Here is another Christian word for you....BLASPHEMY! Just when did God say that you couldn't be a liberal and a Christian? if you knew anything about Christ you would realize that HE is THE ORIGINAL LIBERAL!

      July 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Timber Creek

      Only problem with your narrow mindedness is that Jesus was a liberal. He bucked the conservative religious establishment, hewas a pacifist, he even required that his followers give away all they had to the poor BEFORE following him. He even advocated paying taxes (god forbid!). So, what Jesus Christ is Lord are You following – obviously not the one of the Bible, must be one of your intolerant, money grubbing, self-promoting, self-invented jesus of the "religious" right.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • chris

      And here is a perfect example of what this article is talking about.....

      July 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • MCB

      Please do not make ignorant, politically charged statements and place them in God's mouth. The problem with saying that you cannot be politically liberal and Christian at the same time is that you are trying to subject the Gospel–and God Himself–to a 20th and 21st century context within the political sphere of the United States, even though that context has only existed for the last century (liberal and conservative have much different meanings now than they did in this country's infancy).

      Your politics do not make or break your faith though your faith will inevitably influence your politics. Please, though, do not attempt to mix two things which are so completely unlike each other that they aren't on the same plane.

      I agree completely, Christ is Lord. He lived the perfect life that I couldn't and then suffered the punishment that I deserved; because of Him I am free to worship God.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  2. K

    This article highlights exactly what is wrong with modern religious organizations. As someone who has a very devout spiritual foundation, this is the reason I didn't just give up on church, I was driven away never to return. Secular terminology does nothing except reinforce the sentiment that we are all intrinsically different. No tenants of the Christian faith told people to hide from their neighbor, to start an exclusive club for the haves to lord of the have nots.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • BL

      Agreed. Religion is the enemy of spirituality. It's all about process, dogma, belief systems, hierarchy, ritual and mythology. It's about completing a "to do" list to get somewhere in an indeterminate future.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  3. RightTurnClyde

    This is what a Christian believes (the tenets)
    God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
    Jesus Christ, God's only Son, and Lord.
    conceived by the Holy Spirit
    born of the Virgin Mary.
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    crucified, died, and was buried.
    was dead.
    third day: rose again.
    ascended to heaven,
    seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again
    the Holy Spirit,
    the Christian Church,
    the communion of Christians,
    forgiveness ,
    resurrection of the body,
    life everlasting
    .. if he believes this and IS Baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and renounces Satan THEN he/she is a Christian. It has nothing to do with reading the Bible, feeling born again, getting dunked in the river, donating money, saying prayers, giving anything, singing anything, joining anything, wearing special clothes, special hair cuts, special diet, special water, special candles, special beads, special rites, recitations, special quotations ... it is really quite simple. But that is NOT what preachers teach . and yes they are false teachers.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  4. BL

    Yes, I speak Christianity: Intolerance, self righteousness, bigotry and bloodshed. The single most destructive force in the history of the world. 2000 years of Christianity, and mankind becomes more barbaric each day with this plague of religious fantasy nonsense.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • AtheistDude

      my thoughts exactly. but I include judaism and islam in this description too!

      July 31, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • joe

      Sounds like some personal anger issues here. Don't blame God and Christ for how (people?) abuse each other. Or how (people?) USE God and Christ for their own greedy, self centered desires. You need to study God's love, not man's hate. And please don't be so angry with me because I am a Christian.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      But YOUR words are intolerant and hateful ... so why is hat?

      July 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  5. justamused

    Sounds like a cult to me.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  6. Hap

    Silentactivity I am very sorry to here if you happen to know Christians who even pray for those things. Through my giving of myself God will give me what I need as I need it. Though I am blessed with a good job I am not blessed by any of the materials in my home that can be taken from me.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  7. martinipaul

    Where is this Belief Blog that I keep trying to find. In the interest of honesty CNN should call this the Belief Bashing Blog. Almost every article I read on this thing is anit-belief, anti-faith, and most definately anti-Christian. Blake is very good at this Christian-baiting crap. CNN Belief Blog writers and editors are cowards and hypocrites. It is obvious that their agenda is to destroy the Christian religion in America. Would be very glad to take you on, Mr. Blake. But, this is another great opportunity to witness. I am a born again Christian who believes both in divine 'justice' as well as 'salvation.' This is an easy language to learn and I invite all of you to try - much easier than Spanish!!!!

    July 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • SQLCH82

      So, the only belief is what you understand? Great... Thanks for the input.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • WildSparks

      Christianity- Where any small critique equals persecution. Make sure you go to church today to pick up your new victim cards.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser


      Why do you insist on persecuting CNN? It is not the Blog that is upheaving the Cart for; It is upon those that climb aboard whereupon vile and wickedry does corrupt the words of CNN. 🙁

      July 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Real Deal


      There are many Christian web sites and blogs where you can go to revel in your fantasy. Most of them even ban posters who offer opposing views. This is the real world here - sorry if it doesn't suit you.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  8. Michael - Buffalo, NY

    Wow, Borg does not get it.

    He reads the Bible (or does he?), but does not really understand it. I would encourage you to not think of Christianity as a historic event with all of its traditions, but a one to one personal relationship with the God that spoke Creation into existence. Religion tries to change you from the outside in with all of its rules, requirements and traditions; Christianity changes you from the inside out.

    Think about it.

    Michael – Buffalo.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • God is a POS!

      So, why all the 'in god we trust/under god (1950s), so help me god (1789)" dung?

      Keep justifying eating that pile of dung, sheep! But spare us the gory details/BS.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • WildSparks

      Speaking of religious snobs....

      July 31, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  9. andrew

    Since when is quality writing or "reporting" assimilating the deluded interpretations of a few nobody's-ever-heard-of-them spokespeople ... Oh yeah, since anyone who can type can write a garbage blog ... You wouldn't dare criticize Muslims in this hack, generalized way, would you? ... Well done, CNN

    July 31, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • God is a POS!

      Fakk Islam.

      But the key point is "all" religions are the subjugation of self AND others. Without it, religions can't exist.

      Dung is dung; sheep are sheep.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • SQLCH82

      so, you take this personally Andy? Good for you, the article hit the spot.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  10. silentactivity

    "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." It's funny this is very close to Wiccan.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  11. SCOTO

    no habla nonsense

    July 31, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Hap

    I think the usege of the word rapture was covered well by Jarrette above. So I would like to address the fact that the way Salvation was addressed did not accuretly depict the form in which the word is used. The word Salvation is used 114 times in the bible with its principle usuage being that through Christ you can be saved not only in this life but the life to come. To state five locations in the bible and to use these as the principle guide lines for the argument that the bible only refers to this life on earth is inaccurate.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  13. get real

    A true Christian is one who follows the words of Jesus Christ. I have met very few.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Andy

      People who say that usually know very little about the words of Christ, are super judgmental and hypocritical themselves, and fail to understand the purpose of the Gospel. Christ came to save the imperfect from their sins. If we could live perfectly by the Biblical standards we wouldn't need a Savior in the first place.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Da King

      Get Real and Andy are both right. No one can live with out sin. That is why He sent the Son. Salvation comes from believing in your heart that God sent Christ to die for your sin life, IN YOUR HEART, because God loves you. God will know and then you will be born again or of the Spirit of God and you will be a new person. Your life will change for ever. You will know peace and happiness and freedom of self. The percentage of the world population that will have salvation with God is tiny. Heaven won't be crowed, let's say. The Good New is that all are welcome to give their hearts to God through the gospel of Jesus.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Seer

      I teach a class on the life of Paul, he made three statements about himself. "I am the least of the apostles", (the beginning of his ministries)," I am the least of the saints", (the mid- point of his ministry), and finally " I am the chiefest of sinners,( before his death). All Christians should come to the same realization that we are all continually need His forgiveness. I pray that someone of this same spirit cross your path, God believes in you at least as much as He believes in me, He took a chance by giving His son. God bless you!

      August 2, 2011 at 4:52 am |
  14. gene

    What a huge crock of horse manure!! With his denial of the rapture & his belief that the church is making the world better, he shows that he is speaking for the roman catholic cult. In order to write a piece about Christian beliefs,you must first, be a Christian! His view clearly shows that he is not! The same roman goverment that ruled in the year one still rules the world today. they just cloaked themselves in a christian mask.
    In 325 ad Constantine "adopted" the christian religious system. That's not how it works people. you have to be made a member of Gods true church by the Holy Spirit. Later in 1000ad rome split into two parts. the vatican in the west, the orthodxy in the east.
    they have been at war for over a thousand yrs. trying to get the other piece of the pie. this article is just another attempt to deceive the people of the world. It won't deceive Christians!

    July 31, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      Your Worded phraseology discerns of Contemptuousism gene. Why are you persecuting so? 🙁

      July 31, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Larry from Texas

      Gene you've obviously studied theology of Christianity. Still, one fact remains the flt-in-the-ointment... It was all written by men long after Christ actually lived. It was edited, compromised on and still has conflicting stories. Much of it appears to come from other forms of mythology. It's just a myth, and a myth that continues to cause people to hate each other all over the world. Look at your own words and you'll see the anger and hatred caused by your very deep belief – in mythology.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  15. What?

    Do I speak Christian? You mean dancing around with snakes and speaking in tongues?


    July 31, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • God is a POS!

      His view on masturbation is right on! All the Vatican folks practice it for sure! Wanna bet? 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  16. God is a POS!

    Many claim that god created everything – including Satan, devils, h ell, mindless sheep, etc.

    Could we argue that this is a case of insanity as defense? Think!

    July 31, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  17. JC

    I speak Christian." Do as I say not as I do!"

    July 31, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Da King

      Hey JC, don't let the nut jobs keep you from God who loves you. If you come to God through his son, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  18. bobcat2u

    The christian language is very difficult to master. The reason I say that is because of all the different sects of the christian religion, each one preaching their own doctrine. I have studied many different religions over the years and found the christian religion is the only one that teaches the bible in so many differnt ways. One thing that they all do have in common, is that everyone of them says that they are the only way to redemption, that they are the ones that preach the real truth. OK. There was but one christ, right ? So why would one man try to be so confusing and preach in so many different ways ? Doesn't make sense does it ? Man has tailored each individual sect of this religion to fit their own agendas. I'm truly glad I take a realist approach to life. I was always told that god know what's in a mans heart. I look at the world for what it is. I try to my best each day. I try to do my best by my fellow man. Most christians like to wear their religion like a badge of honor, and will be so quick to look down their noses at you, if you show you have a brain of your own and choose to be an individual. Man has no right to lay condemnation on another man.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      bc2u, As I too am not part of any Church of whatever Religion, I find myself to be an Individualist with religious tendencies toward Christian values, Like the Ten Commandments. I also am drawn to the Written Word that Christ Jesus is said to have Spoken. To me, the rest of the Bible's Phraseologies our happenstance reticulations to only be made mention of in herbage Vernacularisms. 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • bobcat2u

      Richard, as a young child I was raised as a catholic. Even at that young age, the practice of kneeling before statues to pray weirded me out. When I was finally old enough to make my opinion mean something, i let my feelings be known, left that church, and never looked back. When I started living my life by the golden rule that was instilled in me at that young age, I felt so much better about myself and life in general. It's amazing what you can accomplish as an individual and thinking fo yourself.

      July 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  19. jesu

    Anybody who says "I know" doesn't know. Enlightenment comes from within, not from another. jesus spread love, christianity spread fear and hate.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  20. Joe

    My favorite bit of Xian BS is the bumper sticker that says: "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Great conversation opener.

    July 31, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Da King

      And closer.

      July 31, 2011 at 12:58 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.