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. bluemax77

    What is it about CNN and the need to carp on about religion every other week – How about giving us some news for once...??

    July 31, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • C. Smythe

      primitive clinging religions of today will be downfall of all mankind
      world population doubles in 50 yrs? myths and ghosts will not feed them. fear not nature will find the ballance at the cost of billions – dollars or lives it is every mans choice . . .

      July 31, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  2. JP

    The Bible was cobbled together from excepts of hundreds of different authors living hundreds of years apart. The original wording (in Greek) was already incoherent, and scribes took great liberties in mashing everything together. Not to mention all the wrangling over the centuries of ecclesiastic councils to deem some books canonical and some not. So the Bible is either A. an elaborate exercise over millennia in dispersing the cryptic word of God, or B. an elaborate sham. You decide.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • Kevin

      The original word wasn't in Greek, it was in Hebrew.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • Kryg

      Kevin: Actually, the original Christian Bible were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek depending on the book you are referring to because the Christian Bible is a collection of books.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • KJ

      Arrogant ignorance at its best. This JP person is passing gas from the keyboard. Talk about knowing nothing. Wow.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • J.S. Fowler

      The New Testament was written in Greek. The Old Testament in Hebrew.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  3. Joseph

    Hell is over flowing with Christians and Republicans.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • Danny

      i'm pretty sure there are democrats there as well

      July 31, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  4. Asklepios417

    Quote: "The Bible NEVER insinuates that salvation can be worked for...just the opposite actually"

    Paul in the New Testament definitely expounds the "spiritual welfare state" approach, with mankind the undeserving recipient of heavenly hand outs. This is diametrically opposed to the manly, no-nonsense, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ethics of the Greeks and Romans, particularly the Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

    Thomas Jefferson denounced the Calvinists of his day, who strongly espoused the welfare state approach to religion:

    Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse (June 26, 1822):

    "The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.

    1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
    2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
    3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.

    These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.

    1. That there are three Gods.
    2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
    3 That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
    4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
    5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save."

    July 31, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • luciane

      Okay, you have flaunted your biblical literacy, but your point is totally lost by your reference to "the spiritual welfare state" and the argument between faith and works has been going on forever, with parts of the bible supporting both sides. There is the reference to the camel not able to walk through the eye of the needle, and bible is full of advice to help the poor and less fortunate. There is no suggestion that you should pray for material wealth and it shall be given to you. Maybe the best plan is to stick to love thy neighbor and forget the praying-out-loud pharisee part.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • Asklepios417

      "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." – Book of Ephesians.

      The spiritual welfare state in all its glory.

      Compare that to Odysseus in Homer's great epics.

      He doesn't march around Troy blowing trumpets and waiting for Heaven to knock down the walls of Troy.

      He builds the Trojan Horse.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  5. Sid

    There was a time that I viewed the CNN organization with respect. It has long since past. This story helps illustrate the problem. There is no news value in this. The purpose of the story was to provoke and generate hits for CNN's website.

    If this subject has merit – will we see companion stories attacking those with other faiths? (Islam, Jewish, etc.) Will see stories attacking those who have no faith? I challenge to do this CNN because the bias they have shown is obvious.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  6. DICKofCheney

    I actual hate it when the Christian-speakers always tell me "You are blessed".

    July 31, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  7. Patty

    Born again Christian, sinner saved by grace, in prayer...

    July 31, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • JP

      It's like writing a bunch of Jesusy phrases on flash cards, throwing them up in the air, and reading them aloud however they land.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  8. Terry

    Christians pull the same crap that all other religions pull, by claiming that their religion is the one true religion. Since all religion is "man made" there cannot be "One True Religion". Christians speak with as much hate for those who are different from them as any other religion. Blacks were blocked from attending Christians Churches, because Blacks were inferior, and only good as slaves. Christians attack Gay and Lesbian couples with more hate than they attack terrorists. Christian and Cult seem to merge when I hear the word Christian.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:16 am |
  9. Mark Reed

    I have a personal relationship with reality!

    July 31, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  10. stefano

    growing up in an evangelical environment, i learned to speak christian fluently. having all the 'true' answers was security. i even went 'door to door' asking people if they were saved. yearly campmeetings and frequent revivals rev'ed up the language.. and the passionate ferver. problem was... i have difficulty communicating outside my christian circles.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  11. Kryg

    What is arrogant with Evangelical Christianty is it appropriated or "hijacked" the term Christian for themselves alone while the truth is all mainline Protestants, Orthodoxs, and Catholics are Christians too, in fact ancient Christians than them. Then another wrong with Evangelical Christianity, among many others, is it added some teachings like the "rapture" which do not belong to the way historic Christianity interprets some passages in the New Testament which Evangelicals claim to refer to the rapture. Then there is Properity Theology preached by many televangelists and pastors of mega churches (which are more like malls and theaters, and their worship services more like concerts) while Christ was born in a manger and lived a simple life.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:11 am |
  12. Livelystone

    Jesus taught us to pray for heaven to come to earth but the church prays to leave earth and go to heaven

    Which one do you think has it right?

    July 31, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  13. Bob

    One pretty safe rule of thumb is that, if you're not sure who to believe, the first person to start talking in religious terms is usually lying.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  14. JP

    BS by any other name would smell as sour

    July 31, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  15. EddyL

    Radicals one and all.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  16. AvdBerg

    For a better understanding of Christian Terms such as Born-Again we invite you to read the articles ‘Born of God’ and ‘Judging ~ Born Again’ on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    Our latest article ‘CNN Belief Blog ~ Sign of the Times’ also speaks of the 128 million so-called Born-Again Christians.

    All of the other pages and articles on our website will explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9. It is unfortunate that man in his natural state is unable to understand the Word of God, in fact he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned: meaning to be able to discern between darkness and light (1 Cor. 2:14,15, Acts 26:18). On our website we explain what mankind must do to be reunited with God. The Bible is true and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

    Please ignore any messages that inform you that we are on a troll and that ask you to activate the abuse button or even refer you to a gaychristian website. It is an attempt to discredit the work of our Ministry, which is for the edifying of the Body of Christ – His Church (Eph. 4:12).

    These distorted messages are provided by individuals that do not agree with our views on certain issues. One of the issues is posted on the Current Events page of our website (top item). These individuals go by the User Name of Observer, LOL, Expert, etc., etc. and their goal is to control the dialogue of this forum with their distorted and vile messages. As a result they have turned this Blog into a total scam.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • John in AZ

      You are to the far right of society if you believe the Bible is to be taken literally and is the "word of God." Most people, good Christian people, believe it is a collection of instructive parables, metaphors, etc. written by men as a guide to understanding God. And then there's the other minority that knows you can't prove ANYTHING, that the Bible is no more the word of "god" than, say, the Mahabarata.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:08 am |
    • AvdBerg

      @John in AZ

      The Bible is to be taken literally but as mentioned before the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). The Bible s not a Story Book, it is a Spritual Book. Seek, and ye will find (Matthew 7:7).

      July 31, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • ....

      AvdBerg is a troll trying to sell their cult and book, when ever you see this troll post click the report abuse link to get rid of their garbage.

      July 31, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  17. Geno

    Waste of space. One's person's silly little opinion by a person with obvious disdain for Bible-believing Christians. Nothing new here folks....just more Christian-bashing. Onward we go. Add this one – " TOO BLESSED TO BE STRESSED" 😉

    July 31, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • stefano

      christian-bashing is yet another 'christian speak' term. what it seems to mean is 'if you don't believe like me, you are not a christian'. each denomination even clain other denominations are not 'true' christians. therefore, we have levels of christianity. so i ask, what is the difference between a 'christian' and a 'bible-believing christian'?

      July 31, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  18. John in AZ

    That's cute, "born again" and "pray the prayer." And some people speak Full Christian...you know, "you'll burn in heII," and "you're a sinner," and...

    July 31, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  19. Zapatta

    If your god is great, why did he let 6,000,000 jews die and about 18,000,000 russians die by stalin?

    July 31, 2011 at 6:52 am |
    • Calvin

      Its called evil. Look it up.

      July 31, 2011 at 6:55 am |
    • John in AZ

      It's not called "evil," it's called "god doesn't exist." I believe Zapatta's question may have been rhetorical Calvin 😉

      July 31, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • Zapatta

      That's exactly my point. There is no answer other than "it's the will of god". The answer is in the silence to my question. It's a hoax.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:13 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      atheism is a prison if you think about it. you have no where to go. I've been there. you think that you are free but really the situation is quite the opposite. many people like to ridicule faith, let me ask you this, can you name someone who has seen or detected the presence of the Higgs boson particle? The answer is no. Any physicist will tell you that if they are wrong about the existence of the Higgs boson then it completely negates what we think we know about the physical universe. That smells an awful lot like faith to me.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  20. FaithScent

    Americans, don't lose your ID. Remember America is thoroughly Christian except for your sense of humor, secret clubs, what the present nasty godless Americans say and do, the amount of daily food, inclination to immorality, absurd claims to murder rights(abortion) and dependance on money.

    July 31, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • JP

      Check your history. Guys like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were as atheistic as eighteenth century America would allow. "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches." – Franklin

      July 31, 2011 at 7:24 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.