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. Mr Cricket

    Is speaking Christian when you tell somebody the check's in the mail?
    like when Jesus said he'd be right back?

    July 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  2. Matthew

    It doesn't take an intellectual giant to see that the "prosperity Gospel" nonsense is nothing but psychobabble.

    So if I want a new Mercedes, I'm just supposed to "believe for a new Mercedes?" Really? That's it? God will then reward my belief with some new bling?

    We MUST SPREAD THE WORD immediately to Africa and the rest of the Third World! That way, those people can "believe for clean drinking water" and "believe for anti-retroviral drugs" and "believe for less genocide." Are the lack of clean drinking water, lack of anti-HIV medicine, and presence of horrifying genocide proofs that there are no true believers in Africa?

    July 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • alsmeer1

      actually the article also mis-interpets this. Jesus said, "if you abide in Me, ask what you will and it shall be done."
      also another scripture... "if you ask anything in My Name, and believe, I wil do it."
      what is misunderstood, 1 – we have to be one of His, and second of all, if we belong to Him, the things we ask will be
      according to Him,,, not gain for us.

      many Christians do not go into for the 'prosperity' ploy. I am a Christian because I believe Jesus Christ because I believe He loved us so much to have left His throne in Heaven and come to earth as a mere man, and trade His life and pay the debt for us.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Matthew

      @ alsmeer1 – Thank you for your thoughts. Can you comment on why conditions are so terrible in Africa? Are there no real Christians there (prosperity Gospelers or otherwise)? Is there nobody there who is "abiding in God," who believes and thus asks things in God's name? What about elsewhere in the world. I know for a fact thousands of churches here in the USA pray for the third world every Sunday. Why are these prayers for clean drinking water and an end to famine and medicine to cure disease not answered? Surely somebody somewhere is righteous enough and fervent enough in their belief for God to fulfill his end of the bargain? After all, if he lays out conditions for asking (e.g., real belief, abiding in him, etc), should he not keep his end of the bargain?

      July 31, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  3. Annoyed

    I wish all you inbreds would wake up and realize how stupid all this religious crap is.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Wanderer

      I had wished the same thing as you do millions time, but it is still not working. Perhaps, they were born that way.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Wanderer

      I had wished the same thing as you do millions of times, but it is still not working. Perhaps, they were born that way.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • cm

      Wow, big words from someone who is clearly defected.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Cleo

      Yes, those people are totally annoying and often quite dumb. I try not to engage with them – any where or any time. They, with their obnoxious behaviors and mean spiritedness, have completely turned me off to ALL religions and AND and ALL politicans who proclaim their religious beliefs. TMI !

      July 31, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Annoyed

      defected... awesome.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Fatima

      Annoyed and company, why are you even on this page, if you don't care about religion? Why do you call it crap? Do you have be so offensive only because you do not have any beliefs? Believe me, there is a God, there is a Jesus and there is a Holy Spirit, there is a Holy Trinity... God the Father is our Creator, Jesus is His Only Begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son... I know, it is too big a mystery for the human mind to understand, but we will understand it when we close our eyes forever because He has called us to stand before His Presence. I am Catholic and I do not condone your disbelief; I am just sad for you because you do not know God. I will pray for you that someday you will open your hearts to God... He loves all of us so much... He is always outside your door, waiting for you to open. If you do not like my posting, please refrain from insulting me or replying with sarcasm... it has happened to me so many times before, that I am totally immune by now... God bless you!

      July 31, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Wanderer

      Oh yes!, they were born that way ... defected. Thank you for providing this term that perfectly fits to thoses who were born that way.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Wanderer

      This page was not designed for religion only, was it?

      July 31, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Fatima

      @Wanderer, no, the page was not designed only for religion, but the article on which you posted a comment was about Christianity, so there!

      July 31, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  4. Nicholas


    July 31, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Wanderer

      Your observation is NOT totally wrong. Perhaps, because they know NOT what they do.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • joe

      And yet that exactly fulfills the prophecies they adhere to.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  5. Mr Cricket

    I thought a rapture was a hernia

    July 31, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  6. Nicholas


    July 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  7. Tom Leykis

    Religion and the belief in myths with a mysterious all powerful bearded man in the sky is for idiots and those lacking basic logic and they are worst thing that has ever happened to the world, ever.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  8. SaSa

    It is evident by your video that you do not understand what true salvation or Christianity is all about, Jesus is Lord He came to save man from Gods wrath as He is a holy God and man is sinful. Jesus death on the cross is the atonement sacrifice for our sins, When we believe in Christ and His work on the cross and repent of our sins, THAT IS SALVATION, the Holy Spirit will reside in the believer and they are sealed until the day of redemption. For you are saved by grace through faith. And this is not your own ding: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. You cannot save yourself here, then Jesus death would be pointless, you got it wrong sir, and Jehovah witnesses are not christian as they do not believe Jesus is God, you got that wrong to. Study to show yourself approved.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Tom

      Yes, god brings us into the world sick and then punishes us for it. Makes sense to me!

      "He came down to earth as an incarnation of Himself, to sacrifice Himself to Himself in order to forgive His people, who he had made in the image of Himself, and save them from–wait for it!–the wrath of...HIMSELF! TAAAA-DAAAH!!!!!!"

      July 31, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  9. morgan painter

    Dear God,

    Please close the mouths and bind the fingers of those who believe they know you but are blown back and forth like waves in the wind.

    They speak and post foolishness in the place of wisdom. Surely they do the work of Satan without even knowing what they do.

    Forgive them and spare us from them, if it be your will.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Tom Leykis

      Isn't it time for your medication?

      July 31, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • fsmgroupie

      and while you are at it god please restore my amputated limb

      July 31, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  10. Nicholas


    July 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  11. Evangelical

    ****** ATTENTION Non-Believers! *******

    Accept god's unconditional love or accept his everlasting torture torture in the hell-fires!

    The choice is simple.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Tom


      July 31, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • fsmgroupie


      July 31, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Jody G

      Wow, there's an oxymoron. Unconditional love, means UNCONDITIONAL. and burning in hell fire means "no love for you"

      July 31, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  12. Mr Cricket

    Jesus spoke a hebrew ebonics dialect.
    He was an albino from Ethiopia.
    Also he was gay.
    Your god was a gay albino rastaman lol!
    I have proof of this!!

    July 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • moebar

      i highly doubt that

      July 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  13. ag

    The rapture is not a new invention. The writer is an idiot and false Christian like most so-called Christian writers on CNN.

    1 Thessalonians 4:16
    For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.

    Couldn't be more plainer or clear as day than that. The writer doesn't believe the rapture will happen because he is another ignorant last-days apostate Christian who is not watching for the Lord but thinking the world will go on forever as it always has. He says we will not know the day nor the hour but will we will know the season and to watch because it IS near. The writer of the article is not watching because he's too busy being in the world. Let's hope he's not left behind at the rapture when the Lord does return and God have mercy on him.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Bryan

      Thank you! Who knows if it is near or not though.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  14. Daniel M

    True, the word "rapture" does not exist in the Holy Bible. However, the words "caught up" does.

    1 Thessalonians 4:17

    Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Tom

      Can I have your stereo?

      July 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  15. Nicholas


    July 31, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  16. JFK

    To Heir Kaiser...... why the anger Kaiserroll? Christ's message is a good one! So why would anyone show disgust with it?
    Your message is an angry one.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  17. Dean

    In many of the posts I have read, there is this strong resentment or disdain for the Bible and what it contains. Much of the heritage of this country is based on what is written in the Bible. It is interesting to note, the Bible is the most read and most published book in the world...3.9 billion copies...that would one copy for every 2 people on the planet. You can debate what, how and why things are said, but you cannot debate people are drawn to read this book. In it, there is not much about how you speak but more about how and why you live the way you do.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Good without god

      The heritage of this country is not based on the bible. The heritage of this country is based on enlightenment ideals from guys like locke who believed that the authority of government should be derived from the governed and not through divine right as was the assertion of many European monarchies. The heritage of this country is to be counter to what 18th century Europe was.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  18. Mel

    That's the great thing about Christianity. There are so many splinters from the origin that you can choose which one best matches what you choose to believe.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  19. Help!

    I know I read it but I regret it. Nothing in this world is less important then religion. The most of the world needs sanitation more than salvation.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  20. The New Testament

    I love all the Christians thinking they didn't steal everything from pagan religions, languages before them.....the ankh and the word amen(amun) for examle............................Tut-ankh-amun......They are some of the biggest thieves around...Google the ANKH if you want to know where they stole the whole cross idea....go ahead.....learn something.

    July 31, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Steve

      From Hebrew: amen (pronounced aw-mane) – truly, so be it. From Greek: surely, so be it. Wouldn't be surprised if the words predate Tut-ankh-amun. The cross? Romans actually crucified people. It wasn't symbolic; I'm sure some of the nails still exist.

      July 31, 2011 at 5:48 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.