One of the most dramatic miracle claims that far-right evangelicals make is that of speaking in tongues. Something about it just looks next-level weird. The Christians who do it claim that their baby-babble comes from their god’s touch upon their spirits. But they’re wrong, and I know that truth quite well. Today, let me tell you about a Christmas miracle that I myself experienced when I spoke in tongues in front of a vast crowd of non-believers at a company holiday party.
Speaking in Tongues: A Brief Primer.
First, let me briefly explain what speaking in tongues (also known as glossolalia) is. It’s been a while since we talked about this topic!
Back in 2007, Pew Research found that 1/3 of American Pentecostals say they speak in tongues weekly, and about half of them say their churches regularly do similar stuff. These Christians call themselves charismatic, from the word charism, meaning “spiritual gift.” Pew Research tells us as well that about 18% of Americans in 2007 called themselves charismatic (5% of Americans said they were Pentecostal). So we’re talking about a fairly small number of Christians in total speaking in tongues.
These Christians think that speaking in tongues represents the visible manifestation of a divinely-granted gift. Charisms help advance Christianity’s causes in some way, usually.
Back in my day, we thought of speaking in tongues as an overflowing of their god’s grace in us. Imagine a pitcher pouring water into a cup, and the water overflowing the top of the cup and spilling downward. The sound of speaking in tongues is that overflowing water. It splashes everyone around and refreshes them and amazes them.
It impresses potential recruits like whoa and it feels incredibly good to do it in a euphoric sense. What’s not to like?
What It’s Supposed to Be.
Officially, Christians imagine the tongues being babbled to be actual, real living-or-dead languages. In Acts chapter 2, which is the first time this miracle happens in the New Testament (it’s only mentioned in the Gospels), that’s what’s going on, after all. As the story tells it, tons of people assembled in Jerusalem around Pentecost, and in a state of ecstasy they all began talking in foreign languages they didn’t know. But people around them, who spoke those languages, could understand them. It was totally a miracle! So officially, the languages are not only supposed to be real languages, but understandable by those who know those languages.
Often, Christians distinguish between private tongues, which is just between them and their god, and public tongues, which requires interpretation somehow and is meant to be prophecy or something similar. Take this hair-splitting distinction as you like, but Christians can argue about this one topic for hours. I once ran into some Southern Baptist kids who literally thought that anybody speaking in tongues was going to Hell. Other Christians think that public tongues is divine, but private ones are demonic.
I spoke in tongues only a few times, but I was around it constantly while Pentecostal. My tribe used it as a barometer of how Jesus-approved TRUE CHRISTIANS™ were. As such, they often expressed great concern that I didn’t speak in tongues more often.
For my own part, I pushed back hard on the idea of using it as a barometer of SOOPER SPEERCHULNESS. That wasn’t how the Bible described it, so I would not truck with the notion. (In fact, it seemed like the Bible describes people who speak in tongues but still totally miss the point of Christianity.)
What It Sounds Like.
For all that Christians think speaking in tongues represents some divine movement upon the world, it sounds very much like baby babble. More that than, though, it sounds like baby-babble in an ancient Semitic language as conceptualized by a monoglot American with a serious boner for Judaism.
It all tends to mash together as ROSHONDA MASHALLAH MALONN ROHAKALLA and whatnot. The Christian doing it lets their tone swoop and soar at various points, like a particularly-evil wizard in the more-egregious kind of 1980s sword-and-sorcery movie.
This video will probably answer a few questions about what it sounds like.
Kenneth Copeland and Rodney Howard-Browne joke and laugh at each other in babbled pseudo-languages.
Furthermore, you can actually tell individual Christians apart by their style of babbling. Each one adopts their own favorite “lexicon” and tend to stick with it over time. I knew a woman whose “spiritual language” sounded vaguely French; I always thought she sounded pretentious, but it’s not like any Christian can call someone out over it.
Some Christians concede that it’s not a real language they’re babbling, but insist that it’s still a divinely-granted way to communicate directly with their god, bypassing their fleshly desires. I don’t think they realize that notion just opens up a whole bunch of cans of worms that they have no way whatsoever to contain.
Is It Really Supernatural?
Oh heavens, no.
Tons of spiritual/religious traditions around the world and through history have featured something like speaking in tongues. Often, this practice helps adherents work themselves up into a euphoric frenzy; it also features in some of their group rituals.
(What, did anybody think that here, at last, we would have something that is unique to Christianity? Sorry–this sure ain’t going to be the first entry in that list.)
The babbling most definitely isn’t any real language, either. Literally, it all sounds like complete nonsense–it’s just repetitive, babbled syllables. I guarantee that if you’ve ever done hard time around any toddlers, you’ve heard better language construction out of them. Often, the Christians doing it make an effort to arrange the babbling into sentence-like and phrase-like structures. It’s painfully obvious when you run across a Christian exerting a lot of care in this arranging, if you’ve heard enough of it.
I once suggested to my then-pastor that he ought to get some linguists in to study what we were doing. I saw our church as a unique opportunity to totally prove miracles like tongues were real. He chuckled and gently shot down the idea–and I couldn’t understand why at the time. Needless to say, I figured it out.
Quite a Party Trick!
And that’s what I’ve been building up to in this post: speaking in tongues is a skill that anybody can learn. Once someone deconverts, they still have that skill. Ex-Christians can belt it out whenever they like.
That brings us to the Christmas party I attended in 2003.
I was dating Lionel at the time, who worked for a software security company that was about to go big-time. They’d rented a nice venue and had some entertainers hired. One of those entertainers was a hypnotist.
I didn’t know that when I got asked to participate in a skit onstage. I was three sheets to the wind and listing very solidly to starboard. And I’m sure this’ll shock everyone, but I get cuddly and effusive at such times. So I thought this would be a hell of a lark.
I got onstage and sat in a chair, on the left side. Two other women sat in the other two chairs. We sat on the stage, which was only a foot or two tall, with everyone at the party watching.
The hypnotist did his thing to put the three of us “under.”
(Note: Hypnotism is as much a performance art as speaking in tongues is. It’s like a mutual agreement to play-act together. Sometimes people feel like hypnotism gives them a permission slip to behave in markedly different ways, but it’s not at all what some folks try to pretend it is.)
When we raised our heads at his command, he informed us of our roles. Lydia would be a reporter who spoke only English. Janelle would be an interpreter who spoke both English and Corcoran. I would be the alien queen of Corcora, who spoke no English. I was there to do an interview with the reporter, and the interpreter would ask me questions, translate the results, feed them to the reporter, and then feed the reporter’s questions back to me.
To this day, I don’t think that hypnotist realized that he had assigned me the role I had been born to play.
An Interview To Remember.
I still remember the curious clarity I felt as I played my part. Of course, I knew quite well that I wasn’t really a space princess from the planet Corcora. Also of course, I could understand Lydia and Janelle’s English perfectly well. Don’t be silly! But I was willing to play along.
In 2003, I was perhaps ten years out of Christianity. I hadn’t spoken in tongues in all that time–why would I have, right?
Lydia asked me, through Janelle, “Why are your people here? What is your ultimate goal in contacting Earth?”
And Janelle handed that to me with clumsy attempts at speaking nonsense.
And then something wacky happened.
The River Wild.
To my astonishment, the syllables flowed out of me in answer just as easily as they had those few times during my long years as a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. The cadences dipped and flowed; phrases arranged themselves as if marching to their own drummers. I nodded very seriously to Janelle (the reporter) as I answered her questions.
I heard the crowd watching us gasp in wonderment.
Janelle floundered amid my answer, confused momentarily. She recovered herself and told Lydia, “We’re interested in helping you develop into a peaceful, productive civilization.”
The funny thing is, that’d been more or less my thinking at the time I gave my “reply.”
We went on like that for a few more minutes. The guy doing the hypnotism act understood how long to let things proceed; he ended the skit while the crowd was still amazed, and then “snapped us out of it” and sent us on our ways. The next group of party-goers headed up to the stage for the next part of his act.
After the Interview.
People surrounded me as I re-entered the main floor of the party. They all had one question for me:
How had I done that?
I laughed. How could I possibly make them understand? How could I condense years of shekinah glory and words from the Lord? I could still–can still–smell the scent of that church, feel the cloying weight of the music, sense the group euphoria in my bones.
They’d never seen for themselves the golden lamplight intensity of a revival service’s altar call; they’d never felt the sound of many voices lifted up in cacophonous babbling that thrummed in the ears and shivered the skin.
And I knew it would all be as alien to them as the planet “Corcora.”
As natural as the experience had been, as perfectly human as it all really was at its core, it was a part of the human situation that none of them had ever encountered. How could I summarize without boring them or freaking them out?
Ah, I realized. With sudden clarity, I knew how to answer them.
“I used to be in a cult,” I said.
And they laughed: that was more than enough.
Afterward, having sobered up, I thought carefully about what had happened.
Before the party, it hadn’t occurred to me yet that nothing supernatural was going on with speaking in tongues. I still thought that some supernatural stuff occurred in Christianity. Heck, I still hadn’t quite worked out what had happened during the times I thought I’d experienced miracles. In a lot of ways, I was still figuring things out after my deconversion.
That’s perfectly normal. A lot of people take a while to begin unpacking those memories and experiences.
I began with coming to grips with how perfectly natural it was to babble in “unknown tongues.” Experiencing that same phenomenon well outside the context of religion had shown me that in a way that I could not possibly avoid perceiving.
That wasn’t all, though.
I began to think about all the other stuff I’d felt in Christianity that I’d thought was unique to the religion: the euphoria, the exultation, the vast feeling of soaring spiritual awareness. Suddenly, I realized that none of it was unique at all.
Stuff like tongues-talking is performance art, just like the hypnotism was at the party. Christians can perform it privately for their own benefit, or publicly for theirs and others’ benefit. Either way, it remains one of the weirdest of the Christian performance arts. And that makes it way more dependent on context than the other ones are.
When Christian stuff gets performed outside of its accustomed venues and contexts, it can very easily lose its magic. Instead of looking oogly-boogly supernatural, it just looks weird and out-of-place. We need not only the right context for these sorts of displays to feel real, but we also need the people around us to play-act the same way or it can start feeling like we’re doing something hopelessly weird. (It’d be like showing up to a Halloween party in costume, and realizing nobody else is dressed up!)
That party, then, represents one of the first times I pulled away the curtain of Christianity to discover that all the smoke and mirrors concealed something perfectly natural–if a little odd-looking to modern eyes.
NEXT UP: Join me for a very special Roll to Disbelieve, as we examine a vintage soulwinning handbook by a super-skeevy salesbot-for-Jesus!
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