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Strange Tongues:
A Personal Encounter
by Joel Bjorling*

I was at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attending a Sunday evening vesper service being held in the large rotunda of the student cafeteria. The room was full. Musicians with guitars were leading students in spirited songs. After about a half hour, the guitars ceased and spontaneous singing emerged from the crowd, a few at first, then en masse. The spontaneous singing increased to a voluminous crescendo, reaching a peak. When it stopped, a girl began singing with the most crystal clear, ethereal, coloratura imaginable. I had never heard this kind of singing before and asked a fellow student what it was. She said, "They're speaking in tongues."

Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is a major component of the Pentecostal religious movement as well as of the omnidenominational "charismatic movement." The word "Pentecostal" is taken from festival of Pentecost which is found in the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament Book of Acts, Jesus' disciples were gathered to celebrate Pentecost in an upper room in Jerusalem. Suddenly, there was a sound like a "violent wind" that "filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2: 1-4, New English Version)."

Curiously, the practice of speaking in tongues virtually vanished from the church until the dawn of the twentieth century. The reason for the "silence" of tongues is a matter of conjecture, of metaphysical or theological speculation. It was rumored that Martin Luther spoke in tongues, but that reference is likely spurious. Tongues does not seem to be a part of the Reformation. In 1831, Henry Irving was minister of the Regents Square Presbyterian Church in London. He preached about the restoration of spiritual gifts in the modern church, and tongues and prophecies were said to be manifest in his church. However, the major thrust of Pentecostalism occurred in the United States in Topeka, Kansas when followers of Charles Parnham "waited" for the Spirit in 1901. Parnham was a former Methodist minister who left the church to become an itinerant holiness preacher.

Speaking in tongues is linked with a spiritual experience called "the baptism of the Holy Spirit." Pentecostals believe that it is a "second experience of grace" which gives the faithful power for Christian living. The concept of a "second experience" came from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, teaching on "sanctification." It was called "entire sanctification," "perfect love," "Christian perfection," or "heart purity," and provided the power for holy living. Wesley's follower John Fletcher was the first to call this second blessing "the baptism of the Holy Spirit" (though, in this case, it did not involve tongues). The first experience of grace, Christians assert, occurs when a believer accepts Christ as Savior, or personally accepts the Christian faith. Asserting the need for a second act of grace is controversial because it alleges that merely accepting the Christian faith is not enough to lead a fully Christian life.

The "baptism," according to Pentecostals, is evidenced by speaking in tongues. However, they differ over the meaning of tongues. Mainstream Pentecostals encourage tongues, though they do not believe that it is "essential for salvation." The United Pentecostal Church, on the other hand, believes that tongues is a sign of salvation; thus, without it, one is not saved and does not have the Spirit.

Tongues is paramount in Pentecostal worship. It is common during prayer and is usually accompanied by music (i.e., the organ and/or piano is vigorously played through much of a Penteocostal service). Tongue-speaking is spontaneous, and worshipers speak either as a congregation, singly, or both. The individual "tongue" message is interpreted, and the interpretation is generally in King James English (with "thees," "thous," and "thys").

If you have not spoken in tongues, it's easy to feel out of place in Penteocostal worship. My neighbor, a Lutheran, attended a service at the Open Bible Church, and reported that it was "eerie." I attended services at the Assemblies of God, Open Bible, and even the United Pentecostal Church, and you get the feeling that you have not "arrived" spiritually unless you speak in tongues. On countless occasions, I have gone to the altar, even had hands laid on me, to be able to speak in tongues. It's getting "more" of God, who wouldn't want that? I thought that tongues was something that "came to you", without effort, via the Spirit, as if you open your mouth and the tongues appear. On one occasion, a man, who was praying for me, said, "Why don't you speak?"

Well, what do you say? (It's tongues, after all).

At Oral Roberts University, I was prayed over to speak in tongues, and this girl instructed, "Praise God, but donít speak English. Let God have your tongue." So, what comes out? Something like "coom-di-a-sa-me-da-sa." Monosyllables. Whatever flows though your mind. The girl exclaimed, "Praise God! He's speaking in tongues!!"

But was I? For several years, when I was feeling especially intense, I prayed in words (or whatever) like the afore-mentioned monosyllables. Did it make me feel stronger, more inspired? Well, it was quite dramatic. It did have punch to it.

I eventually abandoned fundamentalism and Pentecostalism and ended up a Unitarian. After my "conversion," I talked to a lady in Tulsa who was a psychic and told her of my supposed "tongues" experience. She said, "You should have taped your speaking in tongues. It might have a past-life significance."

There are various ideas about what speaking in tongues means (i.e., reincarnation, Christian experience). I have a personal theory that tongues might be similar to spirit possession cults such as Voodoo, Santeria, or Macumba, which are common in Africa and Latin America. The account of Pentecost, in which the spirit "came upon" Jesus' disciples, does seem somewhat similar to the experience of the Loa "riding" a devotee. Passers-by observing the New Testament disciples remarked that, under the Spirit's control, they appeared to be drunk (Acts 2:13). Similar behavior, including dancing and gyrating, is also common in Voodoo worship (as well as in Pentecostal churches).

Of course, this is my opinion.

Among Christians, tongues is intensely controversial. There is the discussion of whether tongues are a valid spiritual gift today, or if it ceased at some prior time. The Greek word "glossae," from which "glossolalia" comes, referred to an actual language (i.e., in Acts, visitors to Jerusalem for Pentecost heard the disciples praising God in their own languages, those which the disciples hadn't learned). Modern "tongues" do not fit any linguistic patterns; hence, they are not actual languages.

William T. Samarin, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, states that "glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. [It is] language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial characteristics, glossolalia fundamentally is not language."

Because tongues is not an actual language, it differs, Christian critics say, from the tongues of the New Testament. The practice of tongues among mainline churches--Southern Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian--has split churches and caused ministers to resign. Such churches will not permit the speaking in tongues in their worship, nor do they agree on the contemporary theological validity of tongues.

Tongue speakers in mainline churches either have to keep their peace or find another church (or even start a new one). I have known tongue-speakers to feel persecuted. "No one listens to me. No one understands me." (I recall a Unitarian friend whose neighbor told him, "They say I'm going to hell because I speak in tongues." My friend replied, "Join the club!")

Whether or not tongues is a language is likely of little concern to Pentecostals. To them, tongues are from God; hence, it transcends human wisdom. Commonly, there is no "interpretation" of tongues in worship services, even though that was part of the New Testament pattern (1 Corinthians 14:28: "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.") However, there is no substantial evidence--aside from faith and conjecture--of the validity of the tongue or any interpretation.

Tongues are not the only favorites of Pentecostals--thereís also being "slain" in the Spirit and even "Holy laughing." When being "slain" in the Spirit, somebody lays hands on you, and you fall backwards. (It's so inspiring!) In one service, an evangelist insisted on praying for everyone, including me. When I went forward, two men stood behind me to catch me (when I was "slain"). To their consternation, I stayed on my feet. "Holy laughter" is a fairly new phenomenon, and it is having a spaz under the "guidance" of the Spirit.

What will the Spirit think of next?

Why this tongue stuff, anyway? (I am no longer a practitioner, by the way). One possible explanation is operant conditioning. In other words, if you believe that speaking gibberish will help you, it will. The Skepticís Dictionary says, "All (tongue-speakers) believe they are possessed by the Holy Spirit and the gibberish they utter is meaningful."

Believers and skeptics are bound to give different views of the significance of tongues. In retrospect, I am one of the skeptics. I don't think that speaking in an exotic language, even from heaven, is essential for spiritual well-being. God, Who/Whatever He/She may be, certainly, understands plain English.

Tongues is a very faddish thing. For many Christians, especially those from dull, drab churches, which have lost their zest and enthusiasm, tongues (and experiences like being slain in the Spirit) are new, exciting, and different. Those who speak in tongues tend to smile and be happy, so others want to join the excitement. (Marilyn Hickey, a famous charismatic evangelist, was a pastor of "The Happy Church.") If for no other reason, maybe speaking in tongues helps believers let off steam. The faithful may argue that tongues are a "tool" for spiritual growth; however, I am not convinced. There is a certain immaturity in an a religious persuasion that utilizes showy, attention-getting gimmicks (like speaking in "unknown" tongues or being "slain" in the spirit) for spiritual growth. Do we really need such to develop an empowered spiritual life?

The path will take care of itself. Good ol' English syntax is fine.

The "charismatics," whose name comes from the word "charismata" referring to spiritual gifts, differ from Pentecostals. While the charismatics practice things as speaking in tongues, they retain membership in mainline churches--Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist. "Pentecostal" is the parent name of various denominations, including the Assemblies of God, Open Bible churches, Foursquare Gospel, Church of God in Christ, and the United Pentecostal Church.

1. Vinson Synan, "
The Origins of the Pentecostal Movement."
2. Ibid., p.1.
3. Dr. William T. Samarin, quoted in
The Skepticís Dictionary.
4. Ibid.

*JOEL BJORLING is a specialist in the field of new and alternative religions. His books include Consulting Spirits, Reincarnation: A Bibliography, and Channeling: A Bibliographic Exploration.

Copyright 2000 The Anomalist