Although when you’re in it you don’t really think so, Pentacostalism is a bit on the whacky end of the religion spectrum. One of the things that people find the most whacky is this ‘speaking in tongues’ business.
An acquaintance from my childhood posted the below in response to my favourite blog ever.
His question is long, so here’s a summary: “Can you still speak in tongues? If so, could you teach someone else?” the implication of which seems to be, “As you can still speak in tongues and couldn’t teach non-believers, isn’t that a sign that tongues is real… and therefore God is real?”
Speaking in tongues is a phenomenon I’ve seen in friends that doesn’t seem to ‘go away’ even though one stops believing in God. In your blog you talk about searching for God and how “he technically was there while you yelled at the sky to give me something”. How does still speaking in tongues and “tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers’ reconcile with you? I was asking because I was wanting to know what you think tongues are – given it’s not a spiritual/God phenomenon, many would say it is some form of mental illness/hearing voices dysfunction but that is surely not the case with you! I imagine your ability to ‘speak in tongues’ hasn’t changed at all – you still have the same ‘range’ of words, still do not know what you will say until you say it (a very weird thing indeed), and can still ‘think’ and ‘talk in tongues’ at the same time (however, trying to think and speak in English at the same it is very much more difficult). My overall point is that do you think you could teach one of your ‘unchurch’ friends to speak in tongues (I’ve prayed, as I am sure you have too, for new Christians with zero church experience and no knowledge of tongues and they have started speaking in tongues and then asked ‘details’ later) – maybe they need to be ‘spiritual’ or in some way open but if you, an unbeliever, can speak in tongues so too those who share your belief that God doesn’t exist must be able to ‘learn’ tongues. Finally (a lot of questions!), what if you tried to teach 10, 100, 1000, 10000 unbelievers to speak in tongues but not one could speak in tongues how does this reconcile with you being able to teach others (relatively easily) in a church setting?
I’ve found that it’s always best to notice the assumptions underlying any questions before you answer – or don’t answer – them. To me, it seems like the assumption underlying this questions is that if I can speak in tongues without believing in God, and if tongues are easy to teach someone in a church setting, that must mean that tongues, as a spiritual phenomenon, is real.
Which is weird, because that’s the total opposite conclusion that I came to…
If you’re not sure what tongues is, this video really shows it (/#mychildhood) well. (Warning, if you’ve recently come out of Pentecostalism, watching this might be confronting.)
First things first.
If I was in an environment where other people were doing it, I could join in without any trouble. When I first left Christianity, I actually liked to do it every now and again. In the shower of course, when the house was empty.
I’ve spoken in it for a few groups of people over the years since leaving church who were curious as to what we used to do but it never lasts for more than a few seconds because, well, it’s creepy, when you’re the only one doing it.
Flynn’s right in that I don’t think tongues is a mental illness or ‘hearing voices dysfunction’.
I just think it’s speaking sounds that don’t mean anything.
Just for a minute, remove the spiritual background of what you were told tongues is and break it down to the simple behaviour of what it is: speaking sounds that mean nothing to neither you nor anyone around you.
To put it more frankly, how hard is it to speak in Gibberish!?
Which brings me to point number three…
To speak sounds that don’t mean anything, all you need is a) a tongue and a brain, b) a reason to want to do it and c) an environment that makes you feel comfortable doing it.
Let’s say I want to teach ’10, 100, 1000, 10000 unbelievers to speak in tongues’.
First, I’d make sure they all had tongues. The physical kind, in their mouths. And brains, that could move the tongue at their command.
Second, I’d get a number of people in a room whose minds are feeling stressed and cluttered. I’d tout speaking nonsensical sounds as a new way to relax the mind, kind of like meditation.
I’d rename it Expressive Meditation, as non-sensical sounds seems a little bit unattractive. I’d tell them that if they do this expressive meditation they will feel better.
I’d also say that only special people, who are really in tune with themselves, will be able to relax themselves enough that they can speak these sounds.
Thirdly, I’d bring fifty of my friends who also like to speak these sounds and we’ll create a big noise where someone who wants to do it for the first time can feel comfortable giving it a try.
At the end of the session, I’d ask anyone who hasn’t ‘managed Expressive Meditation yet’ to put their hands up and we’ll all feel sorry for them and pat them on the back and encourage them that ‘next time’ they’ll be able to do it.
Hang on, wait… shoot, because someone already did this.
Gibberish Meditation is a technique devised by a Sufi, Jabbar (apparently where we get the word Gibberish from) a few hundred years ago to ‘clear and relax the mind’. Non-Christians speak in ‘tongues’, they just don’t call it that.
Can’t say the practice has caught on in quite the same way at the Penties but maybe that’s because they haven’t ramped it up to the same level as the Pentacostals managed to:
And there you have it! The reason it is so much easier to teach someone to speak in tongues in a church setting, as you say Flynn, is because Pentacostal Christians are 1) very motivated to do it and 2) the atmosphere is conducive to making them feel comfortable to do it. In fact, if you don’t do it, you’re the odd one out and seen as ‘not spiritually mature’.
They also teach people, like myself, to do it as a child. I was six when I started speaking in tongues. Hardly close to anything like an Age of Reason.
I would challenge the notion that you have prayed for someone who had absolutely no context to simply ‘receive the gift of tongues’ and they started speaking gibberish without knowing why. By no context, I mean that you never did any, even a little bit, of the below:
If you never did any of this stuff, why/how were you praying for them to speak in tongues in the first place?
I spent 25 years in the most intense Pentecostal experiences, including the Toronto Blessing (woooah is THAT a whole other blog!) and never once saw anybody ‘receive the gift of tongues’ without first seeing other people do it or hear about it.
Once you get used to speaking in tongues, your brain really likes it.
Of course it does, you get to move your tongue around in whatever way feels good. I particularly like ‘hard’ sounds that bounce my tongue off the roof of my mouth and the occasional ‘rr’ roll. Also why I like to speak Spanish.
Plus, it turns off the frontal lobe; the conscious thinking part of our brain. The same thing happens when we meditate or sleep or lie down on a picnic blanket and ‘zone out’…
That video seems to use the fact that the frontal lobe not being engaged as evidence that it is a spiritual experience.
Well, if you define any not-consciously thinking experience as spiritual (you said it, not me!) then I would agree with you.
However, if you look at an experience where your frontal lobe is not engaged as… an experience where your frontal lobe is not engaged… it loses its lustre a little bit.
On a side note, this is why Flynn, you experience this phenomenon of being able to speak in tongues and think at the same time. Just as you can walk and think at the same time. Speaking in tongues does not engage the thinking part of your brain.
There’s nothing special about speaking in tongues. It is gibberish that makes us feels good because that’s the way we’re wired.
The reason I can still do it even though I have rejected God and the Holy Spirit (which seems strange cos you would think the Holy Spirit is not all that keen on speaking through me anymore) is because it had nothing to do with any of them in the first place.