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. Dylan

    There's a difference at laughing at actual science (evolution, atheist articles) than laughing at how easy Christians are manipulated, how they don't truly know what they believe, instead they just believe what their parents and churches tell them to think. They never grew up skeptical. And here they are, speaking of their own religion that they know little of (if you knew how all the stories were basically plagiarized from Egyptian religion, even the dates, it gets to be kinda sad if you still believe). Politicians easily manipulate this, as discriminatory Christians dare not to elect an educated Atheist to office, even more than their fear of Islam comes their fear of Atheism. It's sad how pathetic that is, yet it's true. They fear facts, reasoning, logic, and science. And with this fear they hope to take down this world.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  2. Nancy Linn

    Speaking in code? Our progressive, evolving, embrace-it-all society has made great strides. Seems to me I've heard something about the early Christians having to use codes and symbols because followers of Christ were being killed in droves for their belief. If history repeats itself, we're in trouble. And as Solomon said, there's nothing new under the sun.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Pokydoke

      Yes Nancy we are out there ready to feed you to the lions, be afraid, very afraid. The true Christian minority in this country the ones that really know what God wants are under attack by the Devils minions. Be ever vigilant.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  3. Scott

    I don't mean any disrespect, and you can say what ever you want, but it's just another cult.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • ItSOnLyME

      Christianity itself isn't. But it has become a cult of Jesus in many places (particularly in the US) in recent times. A friend was a a funeral at a mega-Chuch in Dallas a couple of years ago. He said during the entire hour-plus service, the word "Jesus" was used countless times. But not once was the word "God" uttered. That's a Jesus cult.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  4. Frank

    What an interesting concept. The proper way to be ignorant according to the experts on ignorance and the ignorant way to be ignorant by people ignorant of the proper way to be ignorant. This is all trash.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • kpfeff

      Frank, well put.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  5. John

    I can't understand why CNN is being attacked by some of the readers. This is a "Belief Blog." There have been articles covering a wide array of topics just in the past few months. Of course their main page is going to display stories that may reach a wide range of interests. If you only want to be made aware of what the politicos are saying, click 'politics.'

    As for the article and Borg's new book, It sounds fun to me and I think I may pick it up. In my line of work I run into the reality of Christian languages all the time. People do use the terms to gain status with others and within their worshiping communities. The language of faith should never be used to divide. Jesus came to break down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14). Oops, I wonder if I just participated in "Christian speak!" Peace.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Bo

      Insightful article. Nevertheless, using Marcus Borg's theology for context is a bit careless considering the fact that his theology is widely discounted by most of the Christian community. Case in point, he might be right about the "Christian speak," but his point that the theology of the rapture didn't take shape until 1850 is completely wrong. Scripture is filled from Old Testament to the New Testament about the theology of the rapture. Without getting into it, that's just one example of Borg's self-made theology. So, I guess the point is: good article, but why use Borg? He might sell books, but not because he's right, only because he's the next new flavor of the month.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  6. The Half Baked Lunatic

    God is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded people.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:51 am |
  7. clarke

    Speaking Christian doesn't make you a Christian, just like standing in a garage doesn't make you a car. CNN you are off the chart on this article.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  8. o8sys

    CNN has put together years of 'anti-christian' articles designed to destroy the cultural Christian influence in America. Ted Turner is very anti-christian and CNN is his baby. But now that Christian culture is on the backslide and open anti-christ monologues exist on television, look what we have in it's place: A CORRUPT narcissistic nation. (Notice the divide in our nation right now?)

    You will find the root of this movement to destroy the historical Christian culture in the 'American Humanist Union' that lives mostly on the elite East Coast.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  9. Craig

    Why make a mockery of people's beliefs? Did anyone stop to think that perhaps people are sincere when they speak in such terms?

    July 31, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  10. Ed Zachary

    I was born all right the first time, thank you very much. No need for some bible thumper to do a makeover.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  11. bob

    what you said is real, I agree with you, but people like you are confusing older genrations to talk about there faith, because if they say "born again" u call them your not right up to the mark , and the people around say catching some of the words they call them legealistic. Jesus used many methods to teach and many people got the message, but we live in a different world people are not the same, its good to make the world nice, but the problem is instead of making nice, the gospel is getting mixed up instead of showing the way preachers have become the part of people. Nice thought but using the christian language should not be a problem who are we to judge, what is Gold will be Gold, what is hay will be hay and God will Judge, coming with some new methods is good, there are many methods giving methods is not wrong, making people understand christian love is good, where preachers, belivers lack is we dont depend on word of God and prayers.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  12. Two Witnesses

    This is the biggest piece of anti-Christian trash that CNN has ever published

    July 31, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • VoxVerum

      How is this article anti-Christian? Please enlighten us.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • John

      Yep, a report on a book that seeks to uncover how terms have lost their connection to historical meaning is certainly anti-Christian. Try again.

      July 31, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  13. Allen Russell

    meant to type 3 days, not 2 days

    July 31, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  14. Donna

    Thanks for posting this thought-provoking article. Marcuc Borg is a very respected theologicla scholar, If available, I will be downloaidng this book into my Kindle today.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  15. Allen Russell

    Dear Religious People,
    Sorry about your sad lives and need for acceptance by a father figure who'll let you burn, apparently, forever, if you don't believe what your god tells you. Oh, and ..... MITHRA and many others had 12 disciples, born by a virgin, resurrected after 2 days, etc. Wow....but you MUST cling to your faith....I understand. I was once like you. Lost.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • Asklepios417

      But the all powerful God wrote the Bible.

      If He wants to plagiarize from other religions, who are we to say He can't ?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  16. Joe

    Next time CNN get an expect to write this article instead of a filmmaker. I think you all can do better in your choice of experts.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  17. 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 Prosperity 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, lived a simple life, and had a last passover supper which he said to his disciples "do this in memory of me."

    July 31, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Danny

      agreed – the "evangelicals" as far as I can tell are way out of line with traditional Christianity, and need to be taken to task.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:02 am |
  18. Dan

    Bible Interpretation # 38,001.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  19. Yousef

    Pondering on this...

    If a man does not believe in God, Jesus, etc., then...
    – Why would this person read the article? Their mind already has a preconceived notion as they read it. As in, the resulting mindset is there before and after reading it. Is there a need to engage it? What's the purpose? Are you laughing/scoffing at every sentence? If I read an atheists/evolution type article, I do it.. So instead of slamming people for their belief, I just don't partake. I would not read the article truthfully as I would scoff at every sentence, and then I would be full of myself on any response. So why engage it unless I truly love stroking the ego. Narcissism at its finest.

    – Regardless if it is read or not, what is the driving force within this wo/man to post a comment that slams the belief of another human being?? Why would someone spend their time doing such a thing unless there is nastiness at their root. I.e. hatred, pride, a purpose to cause strife, etc.

    Maybe 1 out of 50 posts by unbelievers are not attacking in nature, they do not slam someone for having a different belief, etc. They are kind in nature, respectful, etc. I commend such individuals for acting like real men and women. Regardless of the difference of opinion, they still respect their fellow man.. These are the real men of the world. Thank you.

    The other ~49 out of 50? They lose all credibility before they start typing as their source/root behind the fingers on the keyboard is wicked in nature. Watch the responses. It's obvious... narcissism.

    When this is all evaluated at a whole, i.e. looking at the attackers, scoffers, prideful haters, etc.. and then also looking at the other side of those that are kind and gentle. As far as I'm concerned, that's enough proof for me that good and evil exists. It's obvious if we step out of ourselves and look at it..

    July 31, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Raul

      The idea the we should respect other people religious believes is NOT entirely right. I am not obligated to respect them if they are irrational, unreal, absurd, etc. If you are a person holding some kind of public power, your believes will affect me therefore I should NOT just let you believe what you want .

      July 31, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • justme

      thank you

      July 31, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • aginghippy

      Atheists don't hate believers; we hate the myths and foolishness that controls their minds. We hate the absolute conviction with which they would presume to make laws that control others' behavior and freedoms based on what they perceive to be pleasing to their particular deity. We hate the way religion has stifled science and the quest for real knowledge and progress.
      We hate the way religious minds can be manipulated to cause people of one faith to wage war on those of an opposing faith, based on nothing more than a lie that tells them their god wants them to destroy and murder.
      I assure you that, if religious people could keep their fantasies to themselves, most atheists wouldn't give them a second thought. I can believe with all my might that I have an invisible pink unicorn living under my bed, and nobody would care what I believe until I start telling others that THEY had better believe in my unicorn or they will burn for all eternity. When I tell ho-mo-se-x-uals that their actions make my unicorn angry, tell women that having an abortion will incur my unicorn's wrath (and then try to OUTLAW abortion based on my unicorn's opinion), then I would fully expect people to tell me they will NOT be manipulated by my imaginary friend. Can you see the difference between hating PEOPLE and hating the silliness they want to impose on ME?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  20. journeysendfarm

    Hmm, I think the writer should look at Revelation in regards to the rapture. It's not a "new" concept, but an ages old one that will come to pass. We will not be fleeing the earth as he implied, but moving out for a time until the evil is cleansed from it, so the new earth can be readied.

    July 31, 2011 at 7:31 am |
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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.