Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish?

Towards the end of 2013 Christian preacher and writer John MacArthur gave us the “Strange Fire” conference. A leading critic of the charismatic movement, MacArthur sometimes appears to suggest that charismatics are not Christians at all but dangerous deceivers, corrupters of the church, and preachers of another gospel. His conference was aimed at the tearing down of charismatic pretensions. Needless to say the charismatic blogosphere really got its knickers in a knot about the ramblings of MacArthur and his cohorts.

On the back of the Strange Fire conference, Premier Christian radio hosted a discussion between Adrian Warnock, a charismatic church leader at Jubilee Church in London, and Doug Wilson, an American Presbyterian and (far milder) critic of charismania. When I listened to the exchange I was struck by something Adrian Warnock said. He described how he would come to speak in tongues in a worship service, and referred to how it “sounds like gibberish.” In other words, he appears to use a private “tongue” that does not have any interpretation – at least not that he knows. He implies that he has no idea what he’s saying. He’s just making noises that sound like gibberish.

Intrigued at such an admission on the part of a charismatic thinker, I thought I’d ask him about it through Twitter. Here’s the short conversation:

SG: “Adrian, you described your tongues as like speaking gibberish…how do you know you aren’t in fact speaking gibberish?”

AW: “I don’t worry about that really. The spiritual fruit of the experience is important rather than precisely defining it.”

SG: “So, you don’t actually know you’re speaking in tongues?”

AW: “1 Cor 12 speaks of tongues as ‘unintelligible’ and needing a supernatural interpretation gift. By the fruit we know.”

SG: “Yes, but how do you KNOW it’s tongues you are speaking rather than gibberish? Maybe it’s just gibberish (1/3) after all gibberish is unintelligible too. So, how do you know the difference? (2/3) Gibberish can also yield “fruit” – whatever that means – as can be seen from things like Buddhist chanting.”

Warnock didn’t reply to this challenge, but I found even this short exchange to be particularly revealing. Note first his statement that he doesn’t worry about whether or not he is speaking gibberish. As long as there’s “spiritual fruit.”

Quite what this spiritual fruit is I’m not sure. Perhaps it means a feeling of closeness to God, an awareness of the divine presence, or peace. The Bible states that the fruit of the spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. So, maybe tongues speakers find their lives being morally improved in terms of these virtues through their speaking in tongues (though quite how that would work is far from clear).

However, lets suppose this is indeed the case: speaking in tongues bears some sort of spiritual fruit. Would this fact mean that some given episode in tongues is in any way genuine? I don’t see how that would be the case. According to Warnock we know something is genuine because it yields “fruit.” But that criteria is far too general to be of much help. Let’s consider two other cases. In some Buddhist practices adherents will meditate by chanting prayers or sayings over and over. Alternatively, in certain other meditative practices adherents will make random noises or sounds with no meaning at all – effectively gibberish being used as a meditative aid. In both of these practices there is spiritual “fruit” produced – a sense of peace, or well-being, or the growth of humility or love. The problem it seems is that producing spiritual fruit appears to be a necessary condition for identifying genuine tongues, but not a sufficient condition. Chanting gibberish or Buddhist prayers or “koans” can have much the same effect. So we are still a long way off a helpful criterion for distinguishing tongues from gibberish.

It seems to me that the only way to know that speaking in tongues is genuine is if two conditions are met: the speaker uses an actual identifiable language, and the language is not one which was known to the speaker. So, if a person were to suddenly start saying “deus é tão bom,” and if this person has no previous knowledge of Portuguese, then we might have a genuine case of speaking in tongues. We will know the person has no previous knowledge of Portuguese, and what they say can be translated: “God is so good.” It might be even more impressive if such an event took place in a church meeting into which – unknown to the tongues speaker – a Portuguese man had stumbled in the hope of finding God. In linguistic studies this rarely happens, and in cases where it occurs it turns out that the speaker is repeating a phrase he had learned years before and has forgotten he knew. In fact, far more common are reports by listeners that some given message in tongues “sounds like” German or Arabic, but of course they aren’t able to tell if it actually is.

What are we to do with the vast majority of occasions in which the tongues that are spoken are not identifiable languages? It seems to me that even if such cases are genuine – say, some angelic language – it seems impossible for anyone to know – including the speaker – whether or not it is really genuine. For all we know what sounds like gibberish might just be gibberish. And in fact there are many problems with speaking in tongues that might push us to conclude that it probably is gibberish in many (most?) cases.

Firstly, there is often no discernible connection between tongues and interpretations: often the latter are much longer than the former, or the former are incredibly repetitive while somehow the latter ends up wonderfully verbose by comparison. James Randi, a professional conjuror and mentalist who has made something of a sub-career from exposing dubious religious and psychic nonsense, tells one amusing story about tongues and their interpretation. He challenged a charismatic preacher to interpret a message in tongues that had been recorded in a church. The preacher willingly did so, listened to the tapes and gave the interpretation. However, Randi then revealed to him that the recording of the tongues had been made at the preachers own church only two weeks previously, and on that occasion the preacher in question had given a completely different interpretation of it. That sounds to me a lot like making it up as you go along. My own experience of charismania tells me that this is the norm. I have often wondered what would happen if I were to learn Surah One of the Qur’an in Arabic and recite it in a number of Pentecostal/charismatic churches. Would it be interpreted correctly? I have my doubts.

Secondly, tongues-speaking appears to be a learned behaviour, with styles and sounds differing from one church to the next, giving the impression that the “language” is picked up from other people rather than coming from a supernatural source. I have even witnessed cases where people who have never spoken in tongues before are brought to the front of a worship service and coached in making sounds. Linguists are well aware that the phonology of tongues speech is closely associated with the native language of the speaker.

Thirdly, linguistic studies of tongues phenomena haven’t been charismatic-friendly – some conclude that the phenomenon of tongues is merely noise and lacks the features required for identifying it as a language – known or unknown. Linguistic studies are unanimous in viewing tongues speech as at bottom a non-miraculous phenomenon, one that occurs in non-Christian religions and is parodied in the free vocalisation of young children and psychotics.

When you mention any of this to your local friendly neighbourhood charismatic, he’ll almost certain tell you something like, “yeah, fair enough, there is fraud and fakery, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the genuine too!” What he’ll not do is demonstrate something that is genuine, nor point you towards a clear instance of a genuine tongue.

In the final analysis we can agree that tongues may well have discernible benefits, as do other forms of emotional or meditative utterances. Undoubtedly many good people benefit from the practice, as they do from other forms of emotional or meditative utterances. Tongues speech is sometimes considered to provide an emotional release for the speaker: particularly on those occasions where he or she cannot find the words to express themselves or some deep hurt or longing within them. But, do we have grounds for believing – as charismatics do – that tongues is an actual language from a supernatural source? If we do, I haven’t seen it – or heard it. On the contrary, linguistic and psychological studies have tended to provide a rather satisfying naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon.

Stephen J Graham


1 Comment

Filed under Charismatic Movement, Tongues

One response to “Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish?

  1. Pingback: The Charismania Collection | stephenjgraham

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