Category Archives: Tongues

Interview with a Former Charismatic

Below is the transcript of an interview I did for a local church newsletter with a charismatic friend – Ben Wylie – exploring my religious background, church experiences and why I left the charismatic movement. Kudos to the church – itself charismatic – for being interested in hearing what I had to say.

Ben: Thanks for agreeing to this little interview. Your church experiences are remarkably varied, taking you from traditional Church of Ireland to Pentecostal to Presbyterian back to Pentecostal to Word of Faith charismatic to reformed charismatic and back again to Presbyterian! Whew! How did it all begin?

Stephen: My parents were not Christians but my grandmother was and as a family we would accompany her to an old traditional Church of Ireland. I never liked it much and when I about 11 or 12, I was left behind with my grandfather – who worshipped only at the local pub – while everyone else headed off to church.

Ben: So, what brought you back to church?

Stephen: When I was about 15 a close friend of mine had become a Christian and was attending a local Pentecostal church. He pretty much bullied and cajoled me into going! Surprisingly I loved it, largely because it was very different from the stuffy environment I had always associated with church, and a few months later I too had become a Christian.

Ben: Did you begin at this time to have any problems with the Pentecostal movement?

Stephen: No, not at all. I simply got involved in a youth group in a neighbouring Presbyterian church and started going there. I attended that church for around 6 or 7 years and during that time I had some of the best experiences of my life, including mission trips to Croatia (shortly after the war there) and Hungary.

Ben: So what was it that led you back to Pentecost?

Stephen: The refusal of the church to modernise and change frustrated me greatly and I was hearing whisperings of some amazing things that were happening back in the Pentecostal church I had attended at first. They had just experienced a little of what was known as the “Toronto Blessing.” There were rumours of powerful manifestations of the power and presence of God. I was attracted primarily because they seemed to promise an experiential dimension to faith that I had been missing. God seemed to be moving there in powerful ways and I wanted a piece of the action, I guess. There were indeed some rather odd experiences to be had!

Ben: I’m intrigued! Tell us more about the sorts of things you experienced there.

Stephen: Most of the typical Pentecostal manifestations were present: speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and prophecy, “slayings” in the Spirit, and general Pentecostal exuberance. I played drums there and on one occasion about two thirds of the congregation formed a conga line and danced right out of the church leaving us playing to a small group of bewildered more reserved people!

Ben: And did you experience anything directly yourself in your time there?

Stephen: Not much. I don’t recall ever being “slain” in the Spirit, but I did experience people trying to push me down a few times and witnessed many other people clearly pushed to the ground. I also had experience of receiving a personal prophecy. The prophet told me God told him that I was going to be a pastor. Of course, I had just told the prophet I was studying theology so I suspect he was simply playing the odds! I also eventually did learn to speak in tongues. I remember in one particular meeting being called to the front with a group of others to be prayed for to “receive the Holy Ghost.” People actually expressed their disappointment afterwards that I didn’t speak in tongues. I felt guilty and angry. But later on that same night when I was praying at home I ended up speaking in tongues, which I can still do to this day.

Ben: I want to come back to your experiences shortly, but could you tell us a bit more about your charismatic experiences after you left this church.

Stephen: Yes, I had met my wife here but as she didn’t enjoy it very much we left shortly after we got married and went to her family church – another Pentecostal church, but far less wacky. After witnessing some rather unsightly church politics we left this church and I vowed never to go to church again! Around this time I began battling with severe depression and anxiety. It was about 9 months or so before my wife got me going to another church where a group of friends had gone. It was a Word of Faith church. This is pretty much the extreme end of charismania – those who believe Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and that you can use the Bible almost like a spell book to ward off “demons of illness” from your life. I’m still embarrassed that I ended up here, but it happened during a psychologically problematic period of my life during which I was emotionally and psychological vulnerable. Perhaps I hoped these guys had the answer. I just wasn’t in my right mind. As I got a handle on my own mental health my rational faculties returned; and when they did charismania didn’t stand a chance! We left for a reformed charismatic church – part of the Newfrontiers network – but my belief in such things had already shattered.

Ben: So, you gave up on the charismatic movement, but didn’t you think there was anything genuine that you witnessed in all your time there? What about your experiences of speaking in tongues, for instance?

Stephen: I met a lot of very good and godly people, even in the wackiest of places, but I saw very little that could even plausibly count as a genuine supernatural event or phenomenon. I don’t regard my ability to speak in tongues as supernatural in the slightest. I desperately wanted to do it, I had been around people who did it all the time, and I simply copied them. I think that’s what tongues speech is: a big game of Let’s Pretend.

Ben: I confess I find it bewildering and even a little shocking that you speak that way. I speak in tongues and I regard it as a blessed thing to do. I can’t imagine giving it up! All I know is when I do it I feel close to God. Didn’t you ever feel like that?

Stephen: I did. I felt spiritual. I felt part of a spiritual elite. But I wasn’t doing anything supernatural. Speaking in tongues is a very natural thing. Linguistic research into the phenomena of tongues speech has been absolutely devastating to the practice. We know it is not language. Linguistic research has shown that tongues speakers take syllables and sounds from their native languages and babble them out so they sound like a language when it fact it’s just gibberish. This also explains why a Chinese tongues speaker will speak a different “tongue” to an English tongues speaker. Each uses sounds from their native language. If tongues was a truly supernatural phenomenon this would not be the case, but rather people could speak in other languages without having been taught them.

Ben: But might it not be a private prayer language? I find tongues most beneficial in this sort of context?

Stephen: I have no doubt people find it beneficial, but they do so because it operates like a form of meditation, not because they are speaking any kind of divinely-bestowed language. At best tongues-speech is a form of meditative babble. That it has good effects – like making people feel spiritually blessed or close to God – does not mean it is remotely a genuine phenomenon. After all, we see the same practices with identical results in other religions. For example, Hindu tongues speakers will report the blessed benefits of their practices too.

Ben: I wanted also to ask you about faith-healing, because I know a large part of your recent research project has focused on that. You once believed God healed people, but now you don’t?

Stephen: I believed God healed and I believed the many testimonies and stories I heard during my time as a charismatic. But I didn’t stop to analyse them, I took them for granted. I knew God healed, so when someone claimed God healed them I didn’t think to examine it. Healings were just to be expected. They were normal. But I began to be uneasy. Most of the healings were rather trivial – warts falling off hands or headaches and other pains going away. The disabled kid never received healing. The guy with terminal stomach cancer just got worse and worse and died. Serious physical conditions never ever got healed. It made me wonder, and so I began to investigate healing stories and time and time again there was no reason to think that there had been any supernatural intervention. In fact, in most cases just a cursory examination of the healing claim is enough to dispel the myth of a miracle. Some one or combination of the following is typically at work: placebo, exaggeration, misdiagnosis, the body’s natural healing abilities, the “Chinese-whisper” effect, medical treatment, and plain old fraud.

Ben: So you conclude that God does not heal?

Stephen: Not exactly! God might heal. In fact, he might heal all the time. My point is primarily an epistemological one: we have scant basis for believing that God does heal, and certainly not anywhere near as regularly as Charismatics make out.

Ben: What would convince you then that God had miraculously healed someone?

Stephen: One thing that would convince me is if there was clear physiological change quite outside the limits of what we know about how our bodies work. So, if a man without eye balls suddenly grew them in his head, or an amputated limb suddenly grew back. Alternatively if a healing evangelist had an astounding success of curing people, such that, say, a very high proposition of people with cancer for whom he prays get completely healed – enough people to clearly beat the odds of it all being explained by spontaneous remission.

Ben: I agree we rarely see things like that but I’d love to send you some stories of amazing healings I’ve come across to see what you make of them. For now, I would simply say that I’ve seen belief in healing do a lot of good. It gives sick people hope, and praying for healing is an excellent way to connect with people and minister to their problems. Do you see any value in that?

Stephen: I don’t have any problem at all with prayers for healing, as long as a sick person isn’t being given unreasonable expectations or made to think that they need to give money or have more faith. Sadly there’s so much scope for abuse. People have had their expectations raised so much that rather than seek medical help they seek prayer, with sometimes fatal consequences. Others, assuming they have been healed, quit taking medication, with equally potentially fatal consequences. Others hand over money they can ill-afford to spare in the hope that God will bless their generosity. I think churches would be better off supporting people’s practical needs in practical ways, and perhaps help people to face life-changing illness in emotionally helpful ways that doesn’t chiefly involve holding out hope for healing that sadly very rarely comes. There are many ways faith-healing can be physically, emotionally, and psychologically damaging. Human beings get sick and we die – no amount of faith or faith-healing can change that.

Ben: Thanks for talking us through your experiences and thinking, it was all too brief! We’ll have to catch up and get into these issues a bit deeper.

Stephen: Thank you for having me!

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Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”

The charismatic movement is not the only source of miraculous claims. In fact, many of the “gifts of the spirit” can be found elsewhere. I want to take a brief look at a few examples and ask the charismatic what we should make of them.

1. Healing

Beyond the fringe of Christianity lies a movement called Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Scientists claim to know the exact method by which Jesus healed people, and they claim to be able to replicate his results systematically and repeatedly. Christian Scientists do not get trained in diagnosing illness, largely because they believe illness is an illusion which is tackled by prayer.

I suspect most charismatics would agree that Christian Science is nonsense. However, it seems to me that there’s as much evidence for the claims of Christian Science as there is for those of modern charismatics. The vast majority of charismatic healing claims amount to purely testimonies and anecdotes, passed on from person to person with all the embellishment that inevitably goes with that. Christian Science has published volumes of healing testimonies – literally thousands of them, claiming to demonstrate the potency of Christian Science healing methods. Of course, this reliance on anecdotes suffers from huge problems. Whilst it might initially seem impressive to see volumes of healing testimonies, it’s important to pay attention to what Christian Science does not tell us: 1000s of other cases when the methods did not work, some including people who decided to turn their backs on conventional medicine and paid with their lives for their folly. Likewise, charismatic healers will rarely tell tales of failure. In short, they count only the hits and ignore all the misses, and declare their practices genuine. When it’s possible to examine individual cases, one or a combination of the following always appears highly likely: placebo, misdiagnosis (either by a doctor or, more likely, due to self-diagnosis), medical ignorance, natural healing, medical intervention, exaggeration, or plain old fraud. If there really were genuine healings taking place these groups would not have to rely exclusively on anecdotes to make their case.

I ask the charismatic: why should I believe your anecdotes but not those of Christian Science? Why would you reject the testimonies of Christian Science but expect me to accept yours, which suffer from near identical evidential problems?

2. Tongues & Interpretation

The charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues can be found in many religions past and present. In fact, even children and people suffering from certain mental illnesses – such as schizophrenia – can do it. It appears in all manner of non-Christian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, or African Voodoo. Studies of tongues-speech have yet to find a single convincing case of a person speaking in another language without having previous exposure to that language. Further, the vast majority of tongues-speech turns out not to be a language at all, but rather is free vocalisation, produced from sounds the speaker uses as part of his native language. Thus there is no substantial difference between the tongues of an Indian Hindu and an Indian Charismatic who both speak Hindi as their mother-tongue. When we take an English-speaking charismatic and compare him to a Hindi speaking charismatic we find that their tongues are quite different – each reflecting the sounds (phonemes) of his native language. Moreover, interpretation of tongues – right across religious boundaries – is something of a dubious business. Time and again different interpreters will give very different interpretations of the same sample of tongues speech, or an actual foreign language will be completely wrongly interpreted. Indeed, frequently the interpretation is significantly longer or shorter than the original message in tongues. All of this is far most consistent with a natural psychological interpretation of the phenomenon than a supernatural one.

Such linguistic studies have been absolutely devastating to charismatic claims, and yet the charismatic would make an exception for his own practice, while seeing all these others as false; and this despite the fact that there is no better case for the genuineness of his own tongues speech.

3. Prophecy & Words of Knowledge

Prophecies are massively widespread. Not only do they occur all over the world in many different religions past and present, but there is a secular equivalent in the work of modern psychics. As part of my research I’ve compared the musings of charismatic prophets to those of modern day psychics, and it’s astounding how very similar they are in nature. In fact, the two main techniques used by psychics are also employed by charismatics: cold-reading and hot-reading. Cold-reading occurs in a number of ways. For example, a psychic or prophet might make a very vague or general statement that could apply to virtually anyone and make it seem as if the information had to be revealed in some supernatural or magical way. During a prophetic workshop held by a leading UK church a man was told he had a real heart to hear from God. Well, of course he does! He’s voluntarily attending a prophetic workshop! Statements that are inherently vague but seem to be specific are known as “Barnum statements,” and are used time and time again in modern prophecies, the work of psychics, and newspaper horoscopes. In addition, cold-reading picks up on lots of clues given unintentionally by the person to the prophet or psychic. Without saying a word to someone they can know a lot about us: based on how we dress, our mood, mannerisms, and demeanour. Hot-reading, on the other hand, involves the use of information already known to the prophet or psychic. Thus, famously, Peter Popoff was fed information through an earpiece from his wife that he was passing off as supernatural knowledge about people in the congregation.

I’ve even witnessed mistakes covered over in the same ways: so, if something is not a reality now the person is invited to take it as a promise or reality in the future. The crucial thing in prophecies, as in psychic readings, is the interpretation of the words of the prophet/psychic by the receiver of the prophecy. By simply following these simple techniques it’s not too difficult to give very convincing performances.

4. Miracles

In 1995 the world was treated to the miraculous events of Hindu statutes drinking milk. Many Hindu deities joined in the fun – from Ganesh to Nandi the Bull, to Shiva. So many Hindus were caught up in the hysteria that milk supplies were seriously depleted. Many charismatics might shake their heads at such behaviour, but the same reactions occur within charismania itself in the face of miraculous claims. The most significant lesson to learn from the milk-drinking statue extravaganza is just how quickly millions of people jumped on the bandwagon without ever pausing to ask some very basic questions. Before rational investigation was even getting its shoes on, the wave of miracle hype had taken off around the world. Calm investigation soon revealed the truth. In many cases the statues were made from baked clay which readily absorbs liquids through capillary attraction. With regards to other statues which were made from a non-porous material (such as marble), it was noticed that milk was pooling at their base. How come? Well, when milk is offered on a spoon to an idol which is wet from ritual washing, it drains imperceptibly over the idol in a virtually transparent layer, and then runs off and pools at the base. Mystery solved. Lastly, a small number of cases were discovered to be the result of hoaxing.

Presumably Charismatics would applaud the efforts of the investigators; and yet they routinely fail to investigate miracle claims closer to home. Far too many are more than happy to pass anecdotes of miraculous events from person to person without stopping to think or check a single fact.

The standard charismatic reaction is to label all these non-Charismatic “gifts of the Spirit” as “counterfeit.” A surprising number will go further and say the existence of the counterfeit is actually proof of the real! Firstly, it isn’t true that the existence of the counterfeit is proof of the real. James Randi notes that someone could produce a counterfeit $3 bill, despite there being no genuine $3 bill. The existence of magicians performing tricks hardly testifies to the existence of real magic. However, even if it was indeed the case that the counterfeit was proof of the real, how do we know what is counterfeit and what is real? In both the charismatic and non-charismatic versions of these gifts the same problems appear. None of them seem to be genuine at all. (In fact, at least in the case of tongues it’s interesting to note that the “counterfeit” came along centuries before the “real thing” as practised by modern charismatics!) In any event it would perhaps be more useful to speak not of counterfeit and real, but of genuine miracle claims and false ones. When presented with any claim we should investigate it as objectively as possible and come to a conclusion. With little more than shoddy evidence being offered on behalf of all these claims – charismatic and non-charismatic – we are right to be a tad sceptical.

If you are a charismatic reading this then put yourself in the shoes of the sceptic. What reason is there to accept your claims about all these things but not equally good (or bad!) claims from outside your borders? Why should the sceptic believe you? Until such time as you can give a reasonable answer to that question your claims to the miraculous will be – quite rightly – written off as yet more supernatural silliness flying in the face of evidence.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Charismania Collection

It suddenly hit me that I’ve written a fair few articles on various features of charismania, so I thought I’d post them all together as a “Charismatic Collection.”

FAITH HEALING

Does God Heal? This is an introduction to the primary considerations why we should approach healing claims with caution:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/does-god-heal/

 

Divine Healing and my Charismatic Deconversion: Here I briefly discuss my exit from charismania and discuss one particular healing claim I’m personally acquainted with:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/divine-healing-my-charismatic-deconversion/

 

Faith-Healers: Pulling Our Legs? I wrote this article shortly after discovering that the old faith-healer leg-lengthening trick was alive and well in my homeland of Northern Ireland:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/faith-healers-pulling-our-legs/

 

Marx of Suspect Healing: In this article I present reason for scepticism in the face of the increasingly popular “leg growing miracle,” with particular reference to the faith-healer Mark Marx from Healing on the streets.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/marx-of-suspect-healing/

 

Debating Claimed Healings & Miracles – A Public Invitation to Peter Lynas: I think it’s only fair to give ones opponents a right of reply. In this article I invite Peter Lynas – the head of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland and Director of Causeway Coast Vineyard – one of the biggest charismatic churches in Northern Ireland – to a public debate, and explain why I think I’m well placed to examine their claims. Peter and his church make a lot of claims, but they never produce evidence, submit their claims to examination, or even answer basic questions. In fact, several months later Lynas is still ignoring me.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/debating-claimed-healings-miracles-a-public-invitation-to-peter-lynas/

 

What’s So Wrong with Faith-Healing: In this article I discuss a number of features of faith-healing claims and practices which are dangerous, and even potentially deadly.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/whats-so-wrong-with-faith-healing/

 

Dishonest Charismatic Claims: In this article I discuss the tendancy to overstatement and flat-out fabrication which continually dogs charismatic miracle claims, looking at Charisma magazine’s report about the alleged healing of a teenager from cancer, and Robby Dawkins claim to have raised a man from the dead.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/dishonest-charismatic-claims/

 

Robby Dawkins & The Fake Resurrection: This is an examination of Robby Dawkins’ claim to have raised a man from the dead. I include here the full text of the testimony of the man’s sister which gives a very different slant on the matter.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/04/29/robby-dawkins-miracle-worker-or-factually-challenged/

 

Healing & Disobedience: This is a brief reflection on the claim that if we don’t heal the sick we are disobedient to the commands of Christ.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/short-article-1-healing-disobedience/

GLOSSOLALIA

Speaking in Tongues: Gibberish? In this article I discuss whether or not tongues speech is genuine.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/soeaking-in-tongues-gibberish/

 

The Apologetics of Tongues Speech: I respond in this article to the various explanatory gymnastics used by defenders of tongues speech, concluding that things don’t look so good for the “gift of tongues.”

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/the-apologetics-of-tongues-speech/

 

PROPHECY

Charismatic Prophecy: Christian Astrology? I attempt to demonstrate that modern prophetic words are often little better than astrology, and are probably best explained in the same terms: by the so-called “Forer” (or “Barnum”) effect.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/charismatic-prophecy-christian-astrology/

 

MISCELLANEOUS MIRACULOUS

The Charismatic Movement and Princess the Hypnodog: There are similarities between the two, or so I argue, in particular in terms of tricks, and how easy it is to be fooled:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/the-charismatic-movement-princess-the-hypnodog/

 

Miracles at New Wine: I analyse a number of miraculous claims that came out of the New Wine Conference in Sligo, July 2015, in this article:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/miracles-at-new-wine/

 

Moreland and Miracles: In this piece I argue that JP Moreland’s standard for believing miracle claims is way too credulous:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/moreland-and-miracles/

 

Our Lady of the Illogical Leaps: A look at the often silly world of theophanies:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/our-lady-of-the-illogical-leaps/

 

Explain That! A Guide to Investigating Miraculous Claims: Every charismatic has a miraculous anecdote ready to fire at the unprepared sceptic. This article gives advice as to what we should do when faced with miraculous claims:

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/explain-that-a-guide-to-investigating-miraculous-claims/

 

Non-Charismatic “Gifts of the Spirit”: There are many miracle claims outside the charismatic movement. I discuss a few of them in this article, showing how they are evidentially comparable with charismatic claims, and challenge the charismatic why I should give any more credence to his claims than those of Christian Science of even milk drinking statutes!

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/non-charismatic-gifts-of-the-spirit/

 

The Seduction of Charismania: It’s not easy to break away from the Charismatic movement – it took me years. In this article I attempt to explain its allure and why people get trapped.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/11/the-seduction-of-charismania/

 

The Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony: This articles addresses the many problems of appealing to eyewitness testimony as proof of some miracle or other. I outline 4 problems with eyewitness testimony illustrating how and why it is often unreliable and not good enough by itself to prove a miraculous claim.

https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/modern-miracle-claims-the-limitations-of-eyewitness-testimony/

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The Apologetics of Tongues-Speech

One of the hallmarks of Pentecostalism and the wider Charismatic Movement is “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia. This modern phenomenon has its roots in the early 1900s when Pentecostalism as a movement within Christianity took root.

In 1901 a group of students who had been studying the Book of Acts and had come to view tongues as the sign of having been “baptised in the Spirit,” met together for prayer. Their leader, Charles Fox Parham, prayed for one of his group and she spoke in tongues; many others were to have similar experiences. The group believed that what they had experienced was the same as the first apostles had experienced on the day of Pentecost when, as Acts chapter 2 recounts, the Holy Spirit empowered them to speak in other languages previously unknown to them.

Parham’s group claimed to have been gifted in many languages: Chinese, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, French, Norwegian, Japanese, and Russian. Parham then had a “light bulb” moment. If they had been empowered to speak in other languages, a la the apostles in Acts 2, then this would revolutionise missionary activity. No longer would missionaries have to study the language of the peoples they were seeking to evangelise. They could simply speak in tongues and communicate effectively without having to spend years studying French, or Russian, or Chinese. And thus with a spring in their step these new Pentecostal missionaries headed off to lands afar. They preached and they preached and they preached. Regrettably, not a single word was understood. The puzzled look on the faces of the “African savages” bore adequate testimony to the rank failure of the endeavour. Thus it was back to the drawing board for the Pentecostals, or at least back to language school.

These first Pentecostals were understandably a tad dejected by this failure. They were so sure they had been gifted in other tongues by the Holy Spirit. So, what were they to do? They could give up tongues speech, but they seemed to enjoy it too much. Thus they simply sought to reinterpret their experiences with a little theological jiggery pokery.

To this day it is unusual to find an intelligent Charismatic or Pentecostal who believes that glossolalia is another discernible human language. The reason is that linguistic study after experiment after linguistic study has been something of an acid bath for such claims. The first Pentecostals soon discovered through experience that they didn’t speak human languages. Modern Charismatics have discovered through linguistic studies that tongues aren’t human languages either. Linguists tend to be confident that tongues speech represents no known natural language that is or ever will be spoken by humans. The structure tends to be very different from human languages, and in most cases there isn’t enough variation in sounds to be a language at all. In the incredibly few cases where linguists have discovered a tongues speaker speaking an actual human language it transpires that the person was previously exposed to the language in question.

One of the most famous tongues researchers was William Samarin, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, who engaged in years of research all over the globe. His conclusion: “There is no mystery about glossolalia. . . They always turn out to be the same thing: strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from among all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but which nevertheless emerge as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody. . . glossolalia is fundamentally not language.”

Pentecostals and charismatics – at least those who are well-informed – can no longer claim to be speaking actual human languages. There just is no evidence that they are, and lots of evidence against.

But, of course, that hasn’t stopped them moving the goalposts in order to save their experience from refutation. If glossolalia isn’t human language, what is it? Well, it’s heavenly language of course, the “tongues of angels!” That’s why it sounds like gibberish to linguists!

We should have no tolerance for such a claim as there are weighty considerations against it. For one thing, it’s nothing other than an ad hoc saving hypothesis. There aren’t even any biblical instances of the tongues of angels. In fact whenever angels speak in the Bible it’s a known language. All we have is one obscure reference by Paul in a passage where the theme is love – not supernatural gifts. That’s hardly good grounds for building a theology of angelic tongues speech upon.

In any event there are also good linguistic reasons for rejecting this theory. Linguists who have studied tongues speech as it occurs in different language groups around the globe have noticed that tongues-speakers typically use sounds closely associated with their native language. In his research on English speaking tongues-speakers James Jaquith concluded, “There is no evidence that these glossolalic utterances have been generated by constituent subcodes of any natural language other than English.” The sounds are constructed from those the speaker knows. So, Indians will effectively speak an “Indian” version of tongues, Mandarin speakers will typically use a “Mandarin” version of tongues. That’s consistent with a psychological explanation for the phenomena and disconfirms the angelic language thesis. If it was an angelic language would we not expect something totally different? Or for those from totally different language backgrounds to speak a similar way that wasn’t obviously based in their own natural language? What appears to be going on in tongues-speech, from a psychological and linguistic perspective, is that the speaker is chopping up sounds from his own language and using them to create something new, something that sounds like another language when in fact it isn’t.

But rather than accept this, tongue-speakers have tended to shift the goalposts again. This has given rise to the rather unsightly spectacle of usually sensible theologians inventing an even more perplexing explanation: maybe tongues-speech is code! Further, maybe these language codes are unbreakable by linguists! Maybe only those who have the “key” for the code supernaturally bestowed on them are able to tell what it means!

That otherwise sober academics concoct such ridiculous theories to save a practice from conclusive refutation speaks volumes in itself. But for the fact that some exponents of this theory are well-respected academics their defence of tongues-speech would be laughed out of church. In any event, again we note the rather ad hoc nature of this thesis, not to mention the complete lack of any theological or philosophical reason for adopting it aside from saving tongues-speech from conclusive refutation. Moreover, those who claim to be gifted “code breakers” – who claim to have the “gift of interpretation” – don’t seem to perform very well when tested. James Randi once played a tape of tongues-speech to one charismatic minister, who interpreted it. Once the interpretation had been given, Randi informed him that the sample of tongues-speech had come from the ministers own church only a few weeks previously, and on that occasion the minister himself had given a completely different interpretation to what he was now giving to Randi. This is not an isolated example either. Others have gone to churches and spoke in Greek or Hebrew only to have their words interpreted very differently from the actual meaning. Thus, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of reason to put much trust in those who claim to be able to interpret tongues-speech or to “crack the code.”

In the final analysis tongues speech appears very much to be a psychological phenomenon. This should come as no surprise since tongues-speech is actually incredibly common. It occurs in children, in people with mental illnesses, as well as in many other religions: African voodoo, forms of Buddhism, sects of Mormonism, African animism, and Hinduism. There are even records of it occurring in ancient religions such as Greco-Roman mystery religions and many forms of paganism. The constant goalpost-shifting of charismatic apologists is really rather tiresome. Their increasingly implausible explanations are more to be pitied than laughed at. There is no reason whatsoever to think tongues-speech is a human language, an angelic language, or a secret code – and good reason to reject all such explanations.

Charismatics claim that their experiences mirror those of the Bible. The only detailed instance of tongues-speech occurred on the day of Pentecost, and on that occasion the apostles spoke in a variety of human languages. When charismatics start speaking of heavenly codes they have moved a long way from Acts 2. They might think they are engaging on something sacred, but when all the evidence is in it seems it’s little more than a big game of Let’s Pretend.

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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

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