Tongues of Fire

“Do you want to see?” she asked me, fraught with all the emotions of a teen far from home. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of church groups sending large numbers of high school students to retreats or conferences where shear ratios of chaperones to teens guarantees intrigue. She was an attractive girl, and despite my commitments to asexuality early in life, I found her plea compelling. We weren’t supposed to meet after hours without the adults around. I was insanely curious, however. “A few of us will be gathering behind the gym,” she said. I demurred, afraid to break the rules. “Do you want to see now?” she insistently asked. We were in a room largely empty, as the adults were headed toward the food, the way adults always seem to do. I agreed. Nervously she closed her eyes in prayer. When she opened them, they were glassy and far away. A stream of nonsense words effortlessly bubbled from her mouth. This went on for what seemed like minutes, although I knew it was only seconds stolen from a scheduled curriculum. She closed her eyes, and coming back to herself, looked exhausted. “What did you say?” I asked, breathless. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

This was my first experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. I was at the United Methodist Youth Annual Conference, and I’d just met the girl who’d revealed so much. Methodists, as a rule, aren’t much into glossolalia, but the Pentecostal movement has Methodist roots, and teens are the great experimenters of the human race. I can’t recall how I met her, or even her name. I felt an incredible attraction to a girl who could let herself be so possessed, however; so vulnerable to an Almighty deity. I decided not to go to the after dark gathering. Instead I sought out a minister I trusted. He explained that such signs, if truly divine, are only done in the presence of an interpreter. She was misguided. Yet I couldn’t get those glassy eyes out of my mind. Where had she been in those fleeting seconds when her mouth spoke a language she didn’t know?

While reading David Kling’s The Bible in History’s chapter on Pentecostalism, this all came back to me with incredible force. A few years later I attended a Pentecostal service with one of my college roommates who belonged to that tradition. Being in a room full of true believers speaking in tongues at the same time unnerved me. I never went back. Psychologists and neurologists have explanations for how glossolalia occurs. The standard evangelical explanation is quite different. For one young lady whose name I can’t recall, it was a sign she wanted desperately to share. A personal assurance that John Wesley himself encouraged his followers to seek. Not that Wesley ever suggested speaking in tongues. That only began in 1901, after a hiatus of nearly two millennia. To a teenage spiritual seeker in the presence of a young lady, away from home, it was a mystical experience indeed. The assurance, however, would have to wait.

Image credit: Phiddipus

Image credit: Phiddipus

Kingdom Come

Bible in HistoryPopular media tells us the Bible is irrelevant. As someone who has struggled for years to find a non-sacerdotal job in that area of specialization, it’s not difficult to believe popular media is right. Despite all the rationales on all the religion department websites out there, there is little that you can do with your degree. It was refreshing, therefore, to read The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times, by David W. Kling. While not exactly what I expected it to be, Kling’s book did explore several specific pericopes (pericopae sounds too pretentious) with an eye toward showing how a single verse from the Bible could change western history. The examples go from the early monastic movement up to debates about women’s ordination that are, unbelievably, still on-going. The social movements he traces demonstrate that the Bible has been, and continues to be, more than just a book.

At several points through this volume I stopped to consider the implications. From an outsider’s point of view many of these debates must seem almost infantile. They would have no teeth at all if not for the belief that the salvation of humanity rode on their correct interpretation. Often—too often—the results were the torture and oppression of others, for the sake of the Gospel. If we’ve got this right, then we need to prove it through might. A mighty fortress is our God. So the Psalms seem to say.

Few people stop to consider just how deeply engrained in our culture the Bible is. The idea, on the surface, is almost like a fairy tale: once upon a time, God said… And yet, some of the most intelligent people the world has known have staked their very reputations on this claim. As a postscript to Kling, we can still see the Bible’s influence on politics—and therefore society—over a decade later. We still debate whether homosexuals can legally love one another. The biblical basis of this debate is thin, but it is a bulwark even today. We argue about stem cells, and although from the biblical worldview such things are mythical; yet that same Bible gives people the material with which to argue, eh, Jeremiah? And where is that female president we should’ve elected long ago? Any ideas, Paul? No matter how we may discount it, the Bible is, and will continue to be, a most influential book. Too bad we as a society don’t care to learn about it from specialists. Not when it’s so irrelevant.