When some people start to feel religiously ecstatic, they start to babble a stream of nonsense which sounds like it might be some sort of unknown language. Some people believe they are just making noise. Other folks believe that God has touched them and allowed them to speak in the language of Heaven (and while some believe they can translate this language, others say that no human mind can comprehend the meaning of the angelic tongue).

The scientific term for this phenomenon is "glossolalia".
Speech and words spoken in a language the speaker does not know, inspired by God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

Referenced in the Christian Bible in Acts 2 :1-4
"When the day of Pentecost came, they all had met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were staying. Then the tongues of fire appeared to them and, as they separated, they came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit prompted them."

And in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9:
1 Now the whole Earth used the same language and the same words.
2 And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly." And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.
4 And they said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
6 And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them."
7 "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

In seventh grade one of my closer friends got 'saved' over the summer. Kelly was one of those girls that happened to see her "Life in Christ" as the addition of church activities added to her social calendar... nothing more than a new event to scam a boy or two. She never really took it very seriously... One weekend while I was spending the night one of her full-blown zealot friends invited us to a concert in Wichita... I know I should have been suspicious... I know I should have asked... but I didn't. The next thing I knew I found myself on a bus full of kids singing contemporary Christian songs at the top of their lungs on their way to a Carman concert, and the error of my judgement was just beginning to dawn on me.

My grandfather was a Baptist minister... I was not unfamiliar with the church. Baptists can't even try to marry anyone without at least one call to save someone in the crowd... However, my aunts and my mother had swung rather wide from my grandfather's mark and did quite a bit of dabbling in the occult. I never went to church unless I stayed the night with my grandparents. My youth exposed me to many of my mother's explorations, and I was completely comfortable with seances, ouija board sessions, readings, tarot, shopping for crystals and meditation. My mother left my faith up to me... she encouraged me to find what worked on my own. I'm sure she saw my attending this concert as an attempt to do just that.

Carman is a Christian singer who targets youth and is all about winning lost souls for Jesus. Throughout the concert he sang, he cried, he saved... The culmination of the event was a song, which I believe was something about the Devil and Jesus in a boxing ring (apparently he likes this metaphor, because he made a film starring him as a retired boxer that saves teens for Jesus.) As the music swelled and the lights began flashing and the dry ice clouds choked the crowds he started asking people to touch one another and pray... He wanted everyone to stand up, reach out, and exalt the Lord.

I, needless to say, remained seated.

As the music hit its climax and he was booming away on the sound system about Jesus getting back up from some seemingly fatal blow delivered by Satan, people everywhere started falling down and convulsing. They were utterly out of control... jumping and shaking and rolling their heads with their tongues lolling out, falling all over me. It was abhorrent.

What disturbed me most of all was that I could feel the energy of that crowd in their 'spiritual ecstasty.' Their frenzy was like some kind of static electricity on my skin and it gave me goose bumps wholly unwillingly. I felt violated... and I felt trapped. I was utterly surrounded by people who were exhibiting behavior well outside of any sociably accepted norms... and really getting off on it. All I wanted was to get the fuck outta there. That concert wasn't over soon enough.

On the ride home, I questioned my reaction. I'd witnessed more than a few metaphysical scenes during my childhood which would have easily spooked my friends... Ouija indicators zooming off the board and across the room, mediums, talk of spirits and guides... Why did this obvious affect of crowd psychology upon my person rattle me so? I realized that what I was really watching was that dark, ancient, bizarre spirituality which tasted of the basest of human ecstatic ritual of frenzy and release... instead of wailing voices, drums, facepaint and a fire they had Carman and a ear-splitting sound system. It was RITUAL like voodoo... a sundance... headhunters... What I had just witnessed was no different than those rituals at its lowest common denominator... and it got me thinking...

Aside from being very, very disturbing, the whole experience piqued my interest in human ecstatic ritual and got me searching for answers and into Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. I just never expected to encounter the 'exotic' so close to home...

This writeup makes many theological presuppositions which it does not itself defend at length. It is meant to be in the vein of hermeneutical and ecclesiological commentary.

It is common in cessationist and some pentecostal theologies to relegate tongues to the status of an "ecstatic experience". (I seem to recall that catholic theology has a similar bent, although I can't speak with any authority on that matter.) This does not seem to agree with the Pauline textual data. That is to say, if one's experience of tongues is ecstatic in a technical sense (loss of self-control, loss of the ability to apply reason to one's actions) then it seems outside the scope of what Paul was envisioning as he instructed the Corinthian church on this subject.

Gordon Fee's book on Pauline pneumatology, "God's Empowering Presence", and his commentary on I Corinthians, both deal with this issue extensively. In a nutshell, a primary line of Paul's argumentation is as follows:

You are flaunting the gift of tongues and not conditioning or controlling its use (or the broader use of spiritual gifts]) with the ruling virtue of love/agape (1 Corinthians 13), the reasonable application of which suggests that when you gather it is more valuable for something to be said which is intelligible to the unbeliever (1 Corinthians 14:19) than something which is only edifying to yourself (1 Corinthians 14:4), i.e., an uninterpreted tongue. Therefore it is preferable to prophesy, and the public use of tongues should be accompanied by interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:1,5). Furthermore, whether prophecy or tongues or anything else, everything should be done decently (14:40) and in accord with love, because "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (14:27-32)."

So it seems pretty clear that Paul did not have in mind the sort of flighty and freaky spiritual experiences that are often reported (or caricatured) when this subject is discussed, but rather something which was a deliberate exercise of a God-given ability (such an interpretation harmonizes with his exhortation in 2 Timothy 1:6 to "stir up the gift of God").

Having said that, is this grounds to condemn all ecstatic tongues experiences as ungodly? Well, not necessarily. First, notice that in this passage Paul is addressing the church when gathered as such; the metric of "what an unbeliever will think" clearly does not apply when you are in your prayer closet. Also notice that Paul does not waver as to the source of the gifts - they are God's gift to man (and woman1), even when they are abused and mis-practiced. So perhaps it would be more fruitful to read this as a commentary upon the maturity (or exigetical sophistication?) of the ecstatics, and to treat them accordingly (Romans 14).

In any case, the fact that pentecostal/charismatic phenomena have become a topic of serious theological discussion and exigetical/hermeneutical analysis in recent decades suggests that the holy rollers may not have been quite so far off the mark as was once thought.


1 See Joel 2:28-29 and its reference in Acts 2 both mentioning "daughters"; also presumed by 1 Corinthians 11:5, although there are other interesting issues regarding gender in view in that verse.

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