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. 1Believer

    This article screams EMERGENT CHURCH. A new breed of Christianity which is infecting nearly every denomination of Church like a virus, ultimately watering down the gospel, and editting and making the language of the Church 'politically correct'. Google the terms 'emergent church' and/or 'emerging church' to read more. Anyone who is a true Christian is being called a Pharisee, while Churches are becoming social clubs for the unsaved, who will likely never hear the true gospel preached from the pulpit. (Oh, can we still say 'pulpit'?)

    September 13, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  2. lauradet

    Christians scare me!

    September 13, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Ida

      Not as much as you scare me. Who brainwashed you?

      September 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  3. o8sys

    another cnn antichrist writer. cnn hates christianity. ted turner designed it that way. this guys credentials say it all: New York, Movie producer. Come one, let's get somebody to write about this stuff that know about it....not a hater.

    September 13, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Ida

      You are right.Movie producer = antichrist.

      September 13, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • punct

      The author highlights the problem of communication between Christians and non-Christians, a problem we face today. It is not conspiracy theory.

      September 14, 2011 at 5:57 am |
    • Blob

      Does this sound like it came someone who is antichrist? Get a grib.

      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."

      September 14, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  4. Marc Telesha

    Flawed for one HUGE reason. Though it is a great exercise. No listing of Biblical Languages as in the source of those words that are used for meaning of words. You can't get a meaning from a language that wasn't even around when the religion and source material was around in the world.

    The source of the English words come from the Bible and it's languages. Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Sad.

    September 13, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  5. Mike

    I was raised catholic and have received most of the Sacraments but have lost faith in organized religion already at the age of 21. It seems that people need to stop listening to preachers and look inside themselves. It is perfectly fine to speak with a preacher, priest, rabbi, or imam. You will gain some knowledge no doubt, but shouldn't you go and test your faith in other religions? Would a God truly be vengeful for you being unsure and wanting to learn more? Strict doctrines need a rest and a message of hope and helping needs to be preached. Enough of the doom and gloom.

    September 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  6. FreeChristiansfromPersecution

    God Bless America! Jesus is Lord.

    September 12, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  7. Awkward Situations


    September 12, 2011 at 7:06 am |
  8. Awkward Situations


    September 12, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  9. Awkward Situations



    September 12, 2011 at 6:29 am |
  10. Awkward Situations

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iSf8wxEttk&w=640&h=390%5D

    September 12, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  11. David Dunn

    Would speaking Christian include calling “Obamacare” “Good Samaritan Care”?

    Or calling Wall Streeters the moneychangers in charge of the temple who don’t want their tables overturned or coins scattered?

    Would it include calling conservatives, Judas? Like Judas, they don’t care about the poor. All they care about is the moneybags of the wealthiest few and stealing from the poor.

    For the prosperity preachers AKA Mormons name it claim it game, might not their slogan be?

    Get all you can
    Can all you get.
    Sit on the can
    And hoard the rest.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  12. kimsland

    I'm not spitting on you, I'm speaking in tongues.
    ok I am spitting on you, but religious people deserve it.

    September 10, 2011 at 3:01 am |
  13. Johnson

    Mormons are the most hypocritical. They claim to be Christian, yet believe the Father of Jesus was a man on another planet who behaved well therefore became a God and had Jesus as his son. They also believe Satan was the brother of Jesus. And of course, the secrets of Scripture came from Smith looking into a hat!! Give me a break. Watch South Park on Mormans.

    September 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • News Runner

      Johnson what religion do you believe to be true? The information you shared about "Mormons" was like saying that the Holocaust was just a couple of jews that died thats all. You can make anything that was important, emotional, and big to sound stupid and insignificant. And look where you got your information bro. South Park really? You made your point invalid just because of the source of your information.

      September 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Really?

      Yes..because I'm really going to value the advice of someone who apparently gets their religious understanding from watching "South Park."

      September 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Ian

      Actually that South Park episode wasn't too way off. It was quite bare-bones honest.

      September 10, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • AGuest9

      This makes any more sense than talking snakes, bushes, pillars of fire or sand, three individuals that are actually one, one of which is a zombie and another is his father?

      September 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • CNNisIslamic

      It is just as hokey as the Islamic faith. Teachings of the false prophet Muhammy counter dict most of the teachings of the Bible. He had similar visions as Smith. Crazy stuff...

      September 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  14. travelinpants

    Of course I speak Christianese! What is it to you!!! I speak and live a life that I believe is pleasing to God. Although, my life is not without sin, I am a work in progress.. I just don't give up because I am imperfect. There is a right way to live and it doesn't include bashing Christians, Jews or Muslims, like so many people in this world do.

    September 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Mark

      Raisiing a child in a religion, and TERRORIZING children with stories of hell, IS CHILD ABUSE. TAX religion. Stop it from harming children, impeding science, and keeping people ignorant.

      September 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  15. SCAtheist

    The real danger is for people who don't speak christianese.

    September 9, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • SoM

      And how is that dangerouse if I may ask?

      September 9, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  16. Vonzel

    Like any other cultural norm of a group with a perceived common experinece there is a language used to communicate. The book is probably an interesting read. Rapture actuallly is not a new concept. The word itself is a term used in the last 100+ years but the concept is based on Judiasm belief in the resurrection. Which of course during Jesus's years establishing disciples was argued between the Saducees and Pharisees of the Sanhedrin. So the result is a new word for an old concept.
    There is nothng wrong with this cultrual language except when you miss conveying the essence of your thought to the intended listener. That message maybe offensive. You cannot stop communicating just because a word offends someone.
    The ideal of Christianity is to live a peaceable life with others, as much as possible, but not to the compormise of belief at the level you have matured in your character as a Christiian. Unfortunately maturation is not an overnight occurrence and therefore will have fall-out due to ignorance.

    September 9, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  17. Rabo K

    "...They speak a secular language of sports talk, celebrity gossip and current events."
    Secular language is also used to engage in higher level discussions around science, philosophy, love, learning, dicsovery and wonder and much moer than sports, gossip and current events.

    September 9, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  18. The NetProphet

    I can find no where in the bible Where Jesus called his disciples to hate any one, He taught to forgive your those who hate you and to bless them that attack you. the exact words are in Matthew 5:44 " But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." I am so sorry that the name of Jesus has been used by some Christians to further there own selfish desires. We who are followers of the teachings in the bible spend so much time not doing what the Lord clearly teaches. To the world I say stop hating each other and do good help those in need, feed people who are hungry, do good to all you meet, Jesus never spoke out against any one except to the religious people at that time and it is not any different now ! From Gods perspective we all are guilty of crimes against GOD and man. I pray that all people stop and think does hate, greed,selfishness solve any thing?

    And to the Christians ? can you really say that you are walking in the truth, when you lie cheat and steal or act like the world around you? we are called to be a light but yet we are no different that the rest of the world, is it any wonder the world see you as hypocrites Does not the Jesus warn about the "yeast of the Pharisees" in Luke 12:1 Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy!

    September 9, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  19. KeithTexas

    If you happen to let out some "Christianese" when I am interviewing you that will be the end of the interview and I will not call you back for a job. I tried those Christians on the job and got a pitiful result. I fired every one that told me to have a blessed day. From then on out I had a good crew.

    September 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • D. Carter

      Sir, I would not want to work for you. In fact, if you are one of the companies that have a problem with "Merry Christmas" I would not even patronize your business in any way. True "Christians" need to stand up for what they believe in – Jesus Christ and his teachings.

      September 8, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Mark

      Way to go Keith. Taking the steps you took to get the nuts out of your business is good for all of us as Americans. Hopefully it will lead to getting this ignorance out of our government.

      September 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Evan

      What values was Americas government and law based on? Definitely not uninspired thoughts, no, the founders of America based it on Christian values and it is on these values it will continue to advance.

      September 10, 2011 at 1:14 am |
    • Daniel Friesen

      Of course, you're breaking the law. Want to publish the name of your company?

      September 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  20. palatot

    Boy, am I happy to be an atheist.

    September 8, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • D. Carter

      Some day you won't be so happy about that, I assure you.

      September 8, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Mark

      I THINK, therefore I AM...............ATHEIST!!! I'm sure all these zealots hate the story of the fossil find FURTHER PROVING the validity of evolution.

      September 11, 2011 at 3:18 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.