Complex language sets us apart from the animals (dolphins, whales, and signing chimps being exceptions to the general rule), and has been central to the development of our society, its civilizations, and our survival as a species. Language allows us to communicate, convey information, and to understand that information, and pass it on. There are about 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, reflecting the diversity of our culture and our history. Recently I witnessed, first hand, what some suggest, might be an un-worldly language, being spoken in some halls of worship. It’s called “speaking in tongues,” or more properly, glossolalia. To believers, it’s a sacred language, and is commonly heard in the Pentecostal and “charismatic” Christian community, and is usually attributed to the Holy Spirit, and as some believers claim, is evidence of the speaker’s baptism in the faith and their receipt of the gift of prophesy.
There are five places in the gospels where the phenomenon is referred to specifically, namely Mark 16:17, in Acts 2:3, 10:46 and 19:6 in Acts, and in 1 Corinthians (12, 13, 14), and it’s inferred with references in Isaiah 28:11, Romans 8:26 and in Jude. Glossolalia is not unique to the Christian faith, it’s also found in Haitian Voodoo, and in Indian Hinduism, as well as throughout paganism, shamanism and in cult practices involving the use of mediums who claim to be in communication with the “spirit” realm. Proponents of the practice claim that the phenomenon is an indicator that the speaker is in possession of a spiritual gift, the instrument of a Holy intercession, and as such, it should be taken as a sign of spiritual authority, prophetic ability, and should be taken to indicate an attestation of the individual’s faith within their worship group. For charismatic evangelists, glossolalia is a sign for unbelievers that they too may believe and be inspired, touched if you will, by the Holy Spirit. Interpreting this otherwise undecipherable speech is also, accordingly, viewed as a spiritual gift (the art of telling someone what they said and didn’t say being employed in decipherable language even more commonly, as any married soul might tell you). In short, speaking in tongues, we’re told, is “evidence” of the Holy Spirit (usually manifested during charismatic sermons or in front of a television camera for the benefit of viewers in more modern times, filtered through wireless microphones and loudspeakers).
Far be it for me to argue with the Holy Spirit, but I think Paul had quite another thing in mind when he referred to speech in his epistles, and that it more sensibly, had to do with translating and sharing the “good news” so that he, and his followers, could reach beyond the Hellenistic audience of his time. Early Christianity was a diverse bunch, spread out over vast geography, with many variations of the fledgling faith taking form. They were already, even in infancy, beguiled by cultural differences, language barriers, and sectarianism, in a historical context of social change and upheaval. I mean no disrespect to those who believe that glossolalia is a legitimate spiritual phenomenon, but I would suggest that it also can be misused as a theatrical device by over zealous charismatics, and in a darker way, used as method of consolidating hierarchical control of “believers,” and as a method of group brainwashing (after all, if YOU don’t speak in tongues, then you obviously aren’t one of us, and therefore cannot be trusted as the Spirit isn’t upon you – ostracism and excommunication). Speaking in tongues, whether legitimate or not, can also be used, if given credence by the listener, to bolster wild interpretations of scripture, as the gift of glossolalia, by implication, would suggest authority granted to the individual by the Holy Spirit to interpret them in accordance with divine intention. Being privy to the language of the spirit realm, a language that requires interpretation by its very nature, goes a long way to persuading the naive that you’re on the right side of the heavenly discourse. In some cases, I would go so far as to suggest that glossolalia can just as much be an indicator of mental illness as that of spiritual robustness – you may just as easily be a babbling idiot, from what I can tell.
Some churches have banned the practice of speaking in tongues, having realized that it tends to alienate the faithful more than it tends to embrace new believers, and runs contrary to a more intelligent use of scripture. I’m not against spirited, zealous, enthusiastic or charismatic expressions of faith, but I do believe that for the faith to endure in a healthy, credible, meaningful and integral way, glossolalia, or any other phenomenon, such as faith based healing, claims of miracle works, prophesying over the individual or congregation, the use of mediums, including pastors, to communicate with the “spirit world,” (whether it be through the Holy Spirit or otherwise), need to be examined under far more critical light, both within the context of scripture and dogma, and by way of basic reasoning and common sense (a gift from God that many faithful have come to neglect). Church leaders need to be careful to ensure, that in their zeal, their own tongues speak truth, in a language believers can understand, and interpret for themselves. No one want’s an idiot minding the flock, or fleecing it with mystical trickery.
The Holy Spirit isn’t some etherial celebrity that descends upon the faithful whenever there’s an open mic in hand on Sunday morning. It’s the spirit of holiness, of God (YHWH), the divine aspect of wisdom, or the “force” and influence of the divine in the world – more like what Yoda understood, with his invocation of, “May the force be with you.” Christians interpret this divine spirit as the “Holy Ghost,” being a third divine “person” of the Trinity, or “triune” God, manifested in much the same way that Jesus was God manifest in man, sometimes metaphorically represented as a dove, or flame. There are over ninety references to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, and most of them play key roles in Paul’s letters to the early church community. The Holy Spirit is also mentioned in the synoptic gospels, present in Luke, for example, prior to the birth of Jesus, having come upon Mary. Mark refers to it specifically, and suggests that in time of need, the disciples of Jesus, when lost for words, should seek inspiration from it. God speaks through all of us, at many times in our life, but the inspired Word is given reverence, and we’re admonished not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, at our peril, it being an unforgivable sin to do so. Above all, the Holy Spirit, is a spirit of truth, the fruit of which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self discipline. To diminish it, though babbling, incoherent, unintelligible and cryptic speech, as part of an exercise of showmanship or self-aggrandizement, whether from the pulpit or the pew, reduces the Holy Spirit and reveals both an immaturity in the faith, and a lack of understanding of it. To me, that’s blasphemy.
The Holy Spirit, to me at least, acts in more direct and intelligible ways in the world, although, seemingly by way of familiar metaphors. Whether it’s the Holy Spirit’s action through water in baptism, anointing, transfiguration, the wind, peace, or in zealous charismatic oratory, the gifts of the Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, piety, and respect for God (a fear of the Lord). When the wind and tongues of fire rest over the heads of the apostles, ancient or modern, it’s more likely that God has something He wants to say to us, to you, and if you’re in the Spirit, you’ll be “inspired” by it. God speaks your language, whoever you are, or wherever you’re from, and He understands your words, in prayer, or otherwise. Perhaps that’s the real meaning of Paul’s message to the church in Corinth.
Speaking gobbledy-gook isn’t a sign for unbelievers, and it’s not a legitimate form of evangelism, and edification of either the speaker or the listener in the process diminishes the true gift of the Spirit. It may be that interpreting a strange hitherto unknown language is a gift to you, or to someone else, but if the Spirit is truly at work, it’ll bring counsel, wisdom and understanding, not confusion, jibberish, and ignorance. Is it the language of angels, overhead? Is it a prophetic utterance? A language reserved for those who are in receipt of a heavenly gift, bearing a message of God for a limited audience? Or is it a modern day response to a disillusioned church, struggling to find meaning through mysticism and spiritualism in all the wrong places. Jesus preached, and He spoke to us, not as a babbling idiot, but with wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and gave us divine counsel, peace, and hope, in a language we could hear, and understand. He didn’t need a microphone, television cameras, or a choir backing Him up. He spoke the truth, a truth we can still listen to, and hear, today. Paul’s zeal aside, it’s Christ’s message we really need to hear, and whatever way the Spirit guides to you that, is fine by me. If you’re prattling the Word with your blah-blah, double talk and drivel, trying to get me to listen to it through your mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus, I’m not sure I see the “good news,” in that.
Language is a gift, and it’s a precious one at that, and one that need not be perverted to oblivion for the sake of opening the door to confusion, misinterpretation, or manipulation by those who might seek to employ mysticism and superstition to effect or bolster their message, claiming sanction by God. Speak truthfully, so that all may hear. The Holy Spirit will find its way into those words, in whatever language you do understand.