This is part four of a series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) that recounts my experiences with having firm beliefs, and then realizing these were deeply flawed when placed under careful scrutiny. The aim of this series is to encourage us to admit we are fallible, can be wrong, and sometimes, we need to change our beliefs. I genuinely hope that we can learn to ask difficult questions and be unafraid of change.
Pentecostalism is as clear as glossolalia
Speaking in tongues, which includes (1) a real behavior called glossolalia – speaking in unintelligible vocalizations, and (2) xenoglossy – a purported ability to spontaneous speak new human languages, can be a very emotional subject. For those who practice this, it is a very sacred practice, and some of my careful personal conversations have led to offence and anger. Because of this I want proceed carefully without insulting anyone who does engage in this practice.
When I was 12 years old I was friends with numerous church kids who were a year or two older than me. This meant that they were able to go to church camps and events that I was too young to attend. This seemingly insignificant fact is the backdrop to my story. I came into church that Sunday and sat in the same front row where all of us boys frequently sat. I looked around at all of my friends who had come back from camp, and everything seemed the same, we were back together and quite happy. We joked and talked before the service begin, and even talked a little bit during the boring sermons. Then, something outrageous happened, as we all got down on our knees, most of my friends started loudly praying in glossolalic speech! I was bewildered for a few seconds, trying to make sense of this predicament. It dawned on me, I was one of the only few young boys who didn’t have the Holy Spirit! A dark terror crept over my body as hundreds of little hairs stood up on my arms and legs. The rapture was coming, and I was not ready! Jesus was coming to take my friends, they had the Holy Spirit, and He would carry them to heaven, but I would be left behind! I joined them in fervent prayer, begging God to save me from hell and not let me be left behind.
Fast forwards a couple of weeks and I had intentionally went to an evangelistic crusade led by a very famous Slavic Pentecostal leader. I sat near the front praying and hoping to “get the Holy Spirit” being utterly afraid that I was not good enough to receive it, nor holy enough to keep it. During an altar call for repentance, I rushed out to the front to join a large crowd, fell on my knees, and began weeping and begging God to “give me the Holy Spirit.” In a deeply meaningful frenzy I continued to repeat this phrase, hoping from the very bottom of my heart that God would listen. I meant it with every fiber of my young and impressionable being. By the time the next altar call – this one actually for the impartation of the Holy Spirit- had started, I was already weeping and speaking in tongues.
The drive home was filled with the greatest fear I had ever experienced in my life. I sat in the very back seat of the minivan and tried desperately to avoid any sinful thoughts. I understood if I committed sin, the Holy Spirit would be lost, and it would be almost impossible to regain it. Because “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven,” I believed in such a case I would be damned to hell. Through that drive I would repeatedly cup my hands in front of my mouth, so I could hear, and try to quietly speak in tongues. Each time I breathed a giant sigh of relief. “Thank God, I still have it, I still haven’t lost it!”
The next year was filled with terrible angst and emotional torture, because I believed simply saying a curse word at the Holy Spirit in my mind would send me to hell with no possibility of repentance. This close possibility brought many night terrors as I lay in bed, crying and fighting my own will “don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it” I would repeat nearly chocking on the paralyzing dread. I felt as though I was on a ledge overlooking hell, and one accident would mean eternal pain. Human behavior is strange, and one night as I was thinking “don’t say it, don’t say it” I “misstepped,” and did it, I blurted out a curse word at the Holy Spirit that I didn’t really mean. As a result, I felt the agonizing pangs of death grip me. I literally believed I had committed the unpardonable sin and lost hope in life. It didn’t even dawn on me that what I wanted to say mattered more than what I did say. I spent many excruciating and sweaty nights weeping and begging God for forgiveness, knowing that he cannot forgive me for the unforgivable sin. Finally, I decided to take my fears to my dad who kindly convinced me that because I didn’t mean it, I was safe. That night I went to bed and slept blissfully for the first time in weeks.
Skipping forward about twenty years, I was now young preacher, who conducted passionate Pentecostal prayers in front of crowds, and loved to speak in tongues. I felt the deeply moving sensations of connecting with God, and encouraged others to do the same. I sought an even deeper relationship with God, hoping for more than simple glossolalia, but also things like miracles of supernatural healing, xenoglossia, and more. (You can read about that here.) However, this never manifested, and after two years of trying I began to doubt the charismatic movements that had spontaneously erupted in the last century. As I grew disillusioned by these charismatic movement I found solace and refuge with historically older movements like the reformed Baptists and Presbyterians. And this caused many problems.
I experienced a third (or fourth?) conversion experience, even though I was already a zealous Christian who would give his life away. After about a year of immersing myself in the literature and sermons by Christians who belonged to older protestant traditions, I began to realize that all of my favorite preachers did not speak in tongues. Literally, not even one of them did! I had also started listening to a series of seminary lectures on church history, and these further developed the idea that most Christians for all history had never spoken in tongues. This continued to drive more questions and doubts. I didn’t want to give up my tongue speech, but the cognitive dissonance between history and a wide range of Christian experience continued to create tension in my brain. How could the greatest preachers for the last 500 years not have spoken in tongues? According to my theology this meant they were not filled with the Holy Spirit, how could this be?! How could Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, not have spoken in tongues and yet have the Holy Spirit?
As with many of my religious transformations, instead of letting robust logic and careful argumentation to sway me, I went to the Bible, for it was my epistemological foundation. I found every single New Testament passage about speaking in tongues and read them with a fresh set of eyes. Even though I had been reading these passages for years, and quoting them as part of sermons about the necessity of tongues, I had never read them to see what they genuinely said. I had only read them with a set of preconceived notions about what they should be saying. The difference was immense.
My Pentecostal views were literally crushed by the Bible.
I discovered just how little the biblical texts discuss “speaking in tongues” and how vague and ambiguous these texts are. I discovered that Jesus had never spoken about tongues (the only passage in the last chapter of Mark was a later scribal interpolation and is acknowledged by all biblical scholars to be missing from the original text.) I finally realized that the tongues found in Acts, which Pentecostals frequently cite, were not glossolalic speech but rather xenoglossia, or the speaking in other human language, in fact “tongues” in the Greek simply means languages. Glossolalia was certainly not a language anyone could ever figure out.
And yet, everyone I knew spoke in tongues, and they were so sincere, so I decided to avoid thinking about issue and just ignore it for a while. I could not bring myself to reject tongue speech because this meant rejecting people who were close to me, and I loved them. I knew that they were absolutely genuine in their hearts, how could I reject that?!
I found myself at a church camp that was focused primarily on the experience of speaking in tongues. As I tried to participate in this experience, I realized how easy it was for me to control the experience. I could turn it on and off at will. If moved an invisible switch in my head I spoke in tongues and felt the goosebumps, but I could stop halfway and have no problem doing so. I could even say in my head “this is not real” and simultaneously turn on this experience. In fact, even today, I can do this at any minute, whether I believe in it or not, just like a learned behavior, rather than a supernatural presence that speaks through me. This realization in light of what the biblical texts actually say about glossolalia threw me in disarray, and I remember driving home from this camp, a three hour drive, literally thinking out loud about how this phenomenon could occur. By the time I had driven home, I had crafted and explained my own theory that the act of glossolalia was an act of free vocalization wherein we express our inner emotion through non-linguistic release. I even made the comparison to crying, during which we humans make non-linguistic noises that are laced with deep emotion and meaning. My wife had the unfortunate experience of having me talk for over three hours during that drive without getting a word in.
When I got home I began a search of the literature on this phenomenon to see if my views would be confirmed. Sure enough most of what I hypothesized was already published in academic literature by leading psychologists and linguists who had devoted their lives researching the topic. The actual style of “speaking in tongues” varied based on the group of people involved, just like natural languages vary between countries. Anthropologist/linguist Felicitas Goodman wrote “the [speakers] utterance mirrors that of the person who guided the glossolalist into the behavior. There is little variation of sound patterns within the group arising around a particular guide.” PsychologistJohn P. Kildahl said “the style of glossolalia adapted by the group bore a close resemblance to the way in which the leader spoke. . . . It is not uncommon for linguists to be able to tell which prominent [traveling] glossolalist has introduced a congregation to tongue-speaking.” I found research had been done to ascertain whether glossolalia is a learned phenomenon and of those who had been taught in a lab setting, “70% of trained [subjects] spoke fluent glossolalia on the post test.” Other empirical tests had been done that demonstrated the same thing: “glossolalia may be acquired by training…” even if that “does not account for the whole phenomenon…. that may in part involve trance states.”
When it came to history, I had briefly been aware of some Pentecostal history but diving into the deep end of historical Pentecostal studies showed something rather strange. First I learned about the preexistence of glossolalia before the advent of Christianity, that “Glossolalia had been practiced for many years along with other ecstatic phenomena by the prophets of the ancient religions of the Near East. Prophets and mystics of Assyria, Egypt, and Greece reportedly spoke in foreign tongues during states of ecstasy and uttered unintelligible phrases said to be revelations from the gods…The practice was known in ancient India and China, and ethnographies describe glossolalia in almost every area of the world.”
I had heard that there were a few witches who spoke in “demonic tongues” (an idea I though was rather kooky) but later I learned there really is a vast persistence of glossolalia in the religious practice of hundreds of religious groups, sociologists say that, “Glossolalia is practiced among non-Christian religions: the Peyote cult among the North American Indians, the Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest, Shamans in the Sudan, the Shango cult of the West Coast of Africa, the Shago cult in Trinidad, the Voodoo cult in Haiti, the Aborigines of South America and Australia, the Eskimos of the subarctic regions of North America and Asia, the Shamans in Greenland, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Zor cult of Ethiopia, the Siberian shamans, the Chaco Indians of South America, the Curanderos of the Andes, the Kinka in the African Sudan, the Thonga shamans of Africa, and the Tibetan monks”
Finally, far worse than these two details was that the historical record showed very little, if any, glossolalia in the early church (except for the heretic Montanus and his strange apocalyptic cult which died out). Not just in the early period, but most of the history of the church was completely silent about glossolalia. Historians say “there is little evidence of any form of glossolalia during the Middle Ages in either East or West.” Sure enough there were small fringe Christian movements that may have been involved in glossolalia, and some Pentecostal authors argue this, but as Glenn Hinson in “The Significance of Glossolalia in the History of Christianity” says “all the medieval references are so problematic that it is probably best not to try to evaluate them either pro or con.” In fact the absence of glossolalia from mainstream Christianity for just about all of Christian history was affirmed by all Pentecostal historians as well. Tongue speaking Pentecostals have a focal point, an origin place, and it’s admitted that prior to this, Pentecostalism simply did not exist. As the Assembly of God official History states:
- “Throughout the latter half of the 19th century in the United States, Protestants from various backgrounds began to ask themselves why their churches did not seem to exhibit the same vibrant, faith-filled life as those in the New Testament. Many of these believers joined evangelical or Holiness churches, engaged in ardent prayer and personal sacrifice, and earnestly sought God. It was in this context that people began experiencing biblical spiritual gifts. One of the focal points of the emerging [but not previously existing] Pentecostal movement was known as the Azusa Street revival (1906-09). After students at his Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, began speaking in tongues at a prayer meeting on January 1, 1901, Parham, through his Apostolic Faith Movement, had some success in promoting the restoration of the gift of tongues.”
The truth was, I discovered, that the Pentecostal movement was just another restorationist movements. It was just one more step in a long succession of Landmarkists, Puritans, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Campbell Restorationists, Christadelphians Mormons, Millerites, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovahs Witnesses, Plymouth Brethren, Church of God adherents, Sedond/Third wave Charismatics, and many others. It was just another new movement that attempted to “restore” the church to some glamorous original state, though it offered no good explanation of why God allowed the Holy Spirit to go missing for 1800 years that it had to be restored in the first place. It was very painful to realize I was not a part of the one-true-denomination, practicing the spiritual phenomenon of glossolalia that has a direct lineage from Acts 2. But I had no choice, the evidence before me was indubitable. Finally, I chose to give up the practice, even though I still have the ability, and from time to time, test that to be sure.
It was immensely painful to admit I may have been wrong about something so vital to my spiritual experience. It was even worse to admit this regarding my friends and family. I am sure that a Muslim child who grows up reading the Koran will have just as much emotional difficulty thinking that perhaps his friends and family are wrong regarding Islam.
The psychological and social pressure is very difficult to overcome. The worst part of it is contrasting the evidence against the experience of wonderful people who believe something different. If feels like you are betraying them, but in your mind you know the only two options are: (a) betray what you honestly believe is the truth or (b) betray people who sincerely believe something you think is not true. This emotional torment plagued me with a great anguish: “How can so many people that I know disagree? Does that mean they are wrong? But they are so genuine!” Of course were I born into a Baptist/Presbyterian/Orthodox/Atheist/whatever culture and decided to join a Pentecostal movement, I would have those same doubts about my friends and family, “how could they be wrong?” In essence, we are all biased in favor of the people we care about, and will do anything to ignore the evidence if it means someone we respect and care about is incorrect. I struggled with this emotional angst for a few months though in each case, opening up the Biblical texts and reviewing what they said instantly alleviated this tension. Reading dozens of historical and psychological texts on the topic also continued to give me certainty and counteract the raw emotional and social pressure.
Today I feel very confident that glossolalia is a learned experience of non-linguistic free vocalization and strictly a natural phenomenon. For those who are interested I made a more thorough case here. So where does this leave me? Do I act in a condescending manner to those who choose to practice glossolalia? Certainly not, I see how it may be valuable to some. Do I think people who do this are crazy or unintelligent? No, not any more than those who release emotion through similar non-linguistic sounds associated with crying. Do I think I will start practicing glossolalia yet again? Not unless an angel from heaven tells me to do so. As with everything I am open to correction, but first the burden of proof has to be met, because an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, not personal testimony or feelings. I’m not trying to be overly skeptical, but the truth is I’m not going to become a Mormon simply because two Mormon missionaries tell me to pray about it and feel it in my heart, so to be fair, the same applies to Pentecostalism and other movements.