Tag Archives: Tongues

Short Article (7) – Miracles and Manifestations: A Short Guide

Some people don’t have time to read my articles investigating the many claims within the charismatic movement and beyond, so here is a digest of my conclusions.

1. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues)

A very natural phenomenon which occurs in many religions, in children, and in people with certain mental illnesses. It’s often a learned behaviour in which people use sounds from their own native language to create a babble which on the surface sounds like another language but which linguistic analysis has revealed to be nothing of the sort.

2. Healing

I have come across very few cases of alleged healing that weren’t incredibly easily explained in natural terms. Healing claims are rarely investigated and medical evidence often never sought or offered by those who claim to have been miraculously healed. Instead we find one or a combination of the following at work: misdiagnosis, orthodox medical treatment, placebo, exaggeration, misunderstanding, rumour, anecdote, the body’s own healing ability, or plain old fraud.

3. Words of Knowledge or Prophecy

These can often sound quite persuasive, leaving us thinking “how did he/she know that if it wasn’t for supernatural revelation?” Charismatic prophets have been caught using various quite normal techniques to create the illusion: eaves dropping on conversations, researching people beforehand, cold reading techniques, and the use of vague propositions that sound specific but could apply to almost anyone.

4. Gold Dust and Glory Clouds

The appearance of gold dust is a favourite staple in the wackier charismatic churches, and it’s one of the biggest signs of fraud you could see. Samples of the gold dust have been analysed and in every single case they turn out to be nothing but cheap poster glitter, found in any art supplies store. Sometimes this is put into the air-conditioning system in a church to make it look like gold dust is raining down in a “glory cloud.” It’s fraudulent. Pure and simple.

5. Gold Teeth and Fillings

This popular miraculous manifestation relies on two things: people generally not knowing where exactly they have fillings – such that when a healer pronounces a new one the person is easily convinced – and the use of a torch by the healer, which when shined on a silver coloured surface makes the surface look golden. That’s why soon afterwards people discover that their fillings have “reverted” to a silver colour. They were never gold, they just looked golden under torch light. Moreover, there’s nothing special about a filing being cross-shaped – this is entirely normal in many types of fillings. These miracles play on our oral ignorance.

6. Angel Feathers

This has got to be my favourite fraudulent miraculous manifestation, if only for sheer hilarity. Bethel Church in California is a cesspit of fraudulent supernatural claims, and it has also claimed this one after finding lots of little white feathers around and ruling out the presence of nesting birds. The origin of the idea of angel feathers is utterly pagan. Why think angels have feathers anyway? After all, the vast majority of species on earth which can fly do NOT have feathers. It’s so unbelievably silly that anyone who claims this miracle is genuine is either a crooked conman or so utterly deluded as to be in need of a straight-jacket.

7. Miraculous Oil

As with gold dust, sometimes certain evangelists have oil manifest itself on their face and/or hands. Joshua Mills was dripping in so much oil on one occasion that he started to fill two cups with the stuff. Most others tend to look just a bit sweaty. I confess I find the greasy look very fitting for these charismatic leaders.

8. “Slaying” in the Spirit

A preacher prays for someone who ends up falling backwards allegedly under the power of God. In reality it’s just a learned behaviour and people fall under the power of suggestion and the weight of expectation. In many cases there’s a form of hypnosis at work leading up to the “slaying.” The less scrupulous evangelists aren’t beyond pushing people to the floor or subtly affecting their balance to send them falling backwards.

9. Leg Growing

No, amputated limbs do not grow back, but God is – apparently – able to grow legs that are about an inch shorter than the other leg. More likely it’s just a simple parlour trick – as exposed by James Randi and Derren Brown – which involves either manipulating people’s shoes, or their limbs to create the illusion that one leg is growing right before our eyes. Sadly, it’s not even a good trick!

10. Stigmata

The first stigmatic – St Francis of Assisi – probably engaged in self-harm during a vivid visionary experience of some kind during a period of prayer and fasting. I don’t believe he was a deliberate fraud, but pretty much everyone who has followed is exactly that. Stigmata: when self-harming becomes holy.

Stephen J. Graham

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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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Investigating the Supernatural – Healing

Do you claim to have experienced or witnessed something supernatural?

I am currently planning a book on supernatural claims and practices within the Christian church. I will be focusing on a number of phenomena, including the following:

1. Glossolalia, more commonly known as speaking on tongues/other languages
2. Words of knowledge or predictive prophecies.
3. Healings.

I wish to hear from anyone who genuinely believes they have experienced – or knows someone who has experienced – one or more of these phenomena. I am particularly interested in healing claims and I’m hoping to investigate a number of claims for my book.

Healing claims are more difficult to assess than is often thought. In many cases we are presented only with healing testimonies, and often straight after the supposed healing event. However, in order for a genuinely persuasive healing claim to be made much more is required.

Firstly, we need medical confirmation that the person had the condition they claim to have been healed from. Regrettably many people have claimed healings for ailments they were never actually diagnosed with, but perhaps simply believed themselves to have. Moreover, when brought up on stage in front of an expectant crowd, a very natural human reaction is to play to the audience, even if that means stretching the truth a little about the severity of one’s ailment, and thus how dramatic one’s healing is. A person’s understanding of their own condition is often different from that of a medical professional.

Secondly, we require medical confirmation that a person no longer suffers from the ailment. Testimonies within minutes of a claimed healing are often misleading. The nature of many conditions – particularly pain related conditions – is that they can, through the power of suggestion (the placebo effect), go away during the highly charged atmosphere of a healing crusade or worship service. The person genuinely feels their back pain has gone, only to find it return a day or two later. The literature is full of examples of people thinking they are healed at the time only to discover later that they were not. This sometimes takes a rather insidious twist, especially in the presence of a theology that says a person can lose their healing through sin or lack of faith. In such cases not only does a person fail to experience genuine healing, but they must deal with often profound guilt, blaming themselves for losing a healing they never had. I remember a particularly tragic case of this in a Pentecostal church I attended in my early twenties. A couple who attended the church had a hard time because the woman had cancer. However, after being prayed for they believed she was healed. She continued to have symptoms of cancer, and the doctors continually told her she still had cancer. However, they simply refused to believe it, because they had swallowed a theology that said these symptoms were a satanic deception intended to make them lose faith and therefore lose the healing. But medical confirmation that a person no longer has a condition is crucial to any purported genuine healing.

Thirdly, note that not all healing claims are equal. For example, praying for a person with arthritic pain in her knees that goes away during a prayer meeting is not equal to a broken leg fusing within seconds. The former is far more consistent with what we know about the natural characteristics of arthritic pain, whilst the latter is highly anomalous and thus a better candidate for a genuine healing claim. I am particularly interested in healing claims where what has occurred is highly anonymous and against the grain of what we know about that illness. Praying for one’s cold to go away and finding it go away after 2 or 3 days would not be terribly impressive as a healing claim! Or, take a more extreme case such as cancer. The majority of cancer sufferers undergo treatment such as radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. Moreover, in all likelihood virtually all cancer sufferers are prayed for by someone. We also know that many cancers will go into remission. This is a natural fact about cancer. Therefore, that some go into remission in the period of time after prayer has taken place is not necessarily surprising. However, there could of course be exceptions to this. Some people claim to have the “gift of healing,” and it would be significant if it could be shown that an overwhelming number of people they prayed for recovered, particularly if the recovery is from a form of the illness that is highly unlikely to go into remission. So, even though cancer can go into remission, it would strike me as significant if it just happened to go into remission right after a given person prayed for it to do so, and if this happened in a high proportion of cases.

I am interested in investigating any such claims as part of the research for my book, though please be aware that my approach will be analytical and investigative.

My own position with respect to divine healing is an “open but cautious” one. I am a Presbyterian who previously spent around 15 years in Pentecostal and charismatic churches. I believe God can heal anyone he chooses but I am initially sceptical of healing claims because I’ve witnessed so much that later turned out to be false. I have several articles on this website explaining my general scepticism of healing claims, but I would like to investigate specific claims in more depth.

I appreciate this can be a sensitive area for many people, who may not be entirely comfortable with sharing medical details with a stranger, however, all claims will be treated in the strictest confidence and no individual who comes forward will be identified in any subsequent book or articles.

Anyone who wishes to present a healing claim for investigation should make contact in the first instance by leaving a comment (which won’t be published publically).

Stephen J. Graham

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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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