Apostles on Pentecost dayThe phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” technically known as glossolalia, is of a little interest to me. My tenure as a fundamentalist Christian was with a group of charismatic Christians, of the Pentecostal family of denominations. Like most of my fellow charismatics, I was “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and then I “spoke in tongues.” I also supposedly prophesied, healed by “laying on hands,” and had “discernment of spirits” (three of the several potential “gifts of the Spirit” described in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11). I was also “slain in the Spirit,” and I caused others to be, as well.

Since “speaking in tongues” is the feature of this brand of Christianity that’s most noticeable … both by outside observers as well as those inside charismatic congregations … it tends to be the one that’s most talked about. But it also tends to be the one that most unnerves people. I know I had some apprehension, the first time I got involved in a charismatic service (although I had heard about the practice a few years before and wasn’t totally weirded out). I can see why some people can get repelled by it. And now, charismatic Christians themselves are seeing this as a problem. The Associated Press reports via the Washington Post that some congregations are rolling the practice back (WebCite cached version):

At Three Crosses Church, Pastor Ken Walters urges his parishioners to join him in song and scripture. The charismatic 58-year-old extends his arms skyward and belts out melodies praising God.

While the small Assemblies of God congregation goes through all the traditional trappings of a Pentecostal service, there is one notable absence: speaking in tongues, a defining trait of the faith.

The 40-member church is among many nationwide that are reducing or cutting out speaking in tongues as they become more popular and move to the mainstream. It’s a shift that has unsettled some more traditional Pentecostals who say the practice is at the heart of a movement that evolved out of an interracial revival and remains a spontaneous way for the poor and dispossessed to have a direct line to God.

They question the wisdom of placing less emphasis on a tenet that has defined Pentecostalism for more than a century.

“It’s different now,” Walters said. “People don’t like to stand out if they don’t have to.”

As the religion becomes more widely accepted, Walters said, there has been a tendency for large Pentecostal churches to downplay the differences between Pentecostalism and other well-known Christian denominations.

Having been a Pentecostalist myself, I find this trend remarkable. It is one of the defining features of the Pentecostal denominations. (Actually — technically — the defining feature is the aforementioned “baptism with the Holy Spirit”; “speaking in tongues” is merely the outward manifestation of that.) I can’t see there could be much difference between services held in any other kind of fundamentalist Christian church, without the “speaking in tongues.” Jettisoning that practice would tend to blur the lines among them.

As I said, ever since my time as a fundamentalist Christian, I’ve been interested in glossolalia, even though I no longer participate in it. It’s been studied scientifically … by linguists, psychologists, and others … and it turns out that it’s not language at all. It may sound like language, but the sounds uttered don’t display any of the patterns exhibited by true languages. As a polyglot myself, I can say that I never once personally heard an intelligible utterance during any session of “speaking in tongues” that I was party to (although I acknowledge that my own personal experience doesn’t constitute meaningful evidence). The studies which have been done, on the other hand, do constitute evidence that people who are “filled with the Spirit” and “speaking in tongues” are not speaking foreign languages otherwise unknown to them (aka xenoglossy); rather, they’re spewing gibberish. My own personal experience merely aligns with that.

Many charismatic Christians justify their continued belief in the validity of “speaking in tongues” in two ways: By asserting the language(s) spoken is/are not human, but angelic and/or divine; and by telling each other stories about someone — usually a foreigner attending a Pentecostal service for the first time — hearing a language s/he recognizes but which no one else present understands. The former is, basically, undemonstrable notion: Assuming angels and/or God exist, and speak in one or more non-human languages, there’s no way to be sure they could be analyzed and detected as such. The latter is just a retelling of the original Pentecost story found in Acts 2; and therefore it’s hard, if not impossible, to take them seriously.

At any rate, I find it amusing that some of these congregations find they have to “tone down” their services so as not to alienate people. It’s as though public relations is totally new to them.

One last point: While this AP story implies that “speaking in tongues” is a new innovation within Christianity in the first few years of the 20th century, it’s actually not. Historically there have been other charismatic sects. Among them were the Montanists. So long as the second chapter of Acts remains part of Christian scripture, even if the practice dies out in Pentecostal Christianity, “speaking in tongues” will no doubt rear its head again, at some point in the future. It’s inevitable.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP, via Flickr.

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