Heard of a Language Called Christian?

If you talk about the rapture or salvation, or say you are blessed or favored, or let’s say you associate belief with doctrine, then you are likely just “speaking Christian” without knowing the real meaning of these terms, says an article on CNN’s belief blog.

“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?’” asks CNN’s John Blake in his weekend article.

If this is you, Blake warns, “some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about.”

The writer quotes two Christian professors to say that many contemporary Christians have become “pious parrots,” constantly repeating Christian phrases they do not understand or distort.

Blake’s article is based on a book, Speaking Christian, by Episcopal theologian Marcus Borg that came out in April. But the CNN’s writer also features a short video by Kirby Ferguson, a New York-based writer, filmmaker, and speaker, to bring currency to his article three months later.

According to the video, Christianity is a language with many dialects – just as English is spoken differently by Americans, British, and others. Some of Christianity’s most important terms have lost their true meaning over the years, it claims, drawing examples from Borg’s book.

In Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, Borg seeks to show that modern Christians are steeped in a language so distorted that it has become a stumbling block to the religion. Borg argues that Christianity’s important words, and the sacred texts and stories in which those words are embedded, have been narrowed by a modern framework for the faith that emphasizes sin, forgiveness, Jesus dying for our sins, and the afterlife, says publisher HarperCollins describing the book.

Borg, Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Ore., employs the “historical-metaphorical” method for understanding Christian language “that can restore for us these words of power and transformation.”

Borg cites examples. Redemption, Borg says, is narrowly understood as Jesus saving us from sins so we can go to heaven. But in the Bible it refers to being set free from slavery. The term, “Savior,” which refers to Jesus as the one who saves us from our sins, has nothing to do with the afterlife. And sacrifice, which many think refers to Jesus’s death on the cross as payment for our sins, is never about substitutionary payment for sin in the Bible.

Blake quotes Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in North Carolina, as saying that speaking Christian isn’t confined to religion. It has infiltrated politics, as political candidates have to learn how to speak Christian to win elections.

Leonard speaks of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln often referred to the Bible in his speeches when he was running for Congress in response to his opponent who accused him of not being a Christian. But Lincoln never joined a church or said he was born again like his congressional opponent, the church history professor says.

Leonard then cites a more recent example. 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 – drawn from a hymn, “In the Precious Blood of the Lamb.” He says Bush was sending a “coded message” to evangelical voters: I’m one of you.

Leonard, Blake’s main source apart from the book, then turns to ordinary Christians.

“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.’”

Similarly, Leonard adds, in a megachurch that proclaims the prosperity theology, you may hear what may sound 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.”

Blake quotes another source, Robert Crosby, a theology professor at Southeastern University in Florida, as saying that calling oneself a Christian was no longer cool among evangelicals on college campuses. “Fewer believers are referring to themselves these days as ‘Christian.’ 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.”

Blake quotes Borg as saying that speaking Christian correctly is crucial for correctly defining Christianity. “When Christians forget what their words mean, they forget what their faith means.”

The rapture, for example, has become an accepted part of the Christian vocabulary with the publication of the mega-selling “Left Behind” novels and a heavily publicized prediction by Harold Camping that the rapture would occur in May, Blake says.

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, Blake quotes Borg as saying. “Christianity’s focus has long been about ushering in God’s kingdom ‘on Earth, not just in heaven.’”

However, if it’s about speaking Christian correctly, says a writer from ecumenical journal First Things, CNN, too, needs to learn this language. “At the very least, it [the video featured by CNN] does nothing but reconfirm the media’s already daft preconceptions about Christians’ belief,” Anthony Sacramone responds in an article entitled, “Why CNN still can’t speak Christian.”

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