Glossolalia: Fantastic Doesn’t Mean Fiction

11 May

This is an article of mine that was recently published in Fuller Seminary’s weekly student publication, The Semi.

The other night, I was walking through downtown LA for the monthly Art Walk event, feeling out of place as a tourist in my native land. Heading back to the car after visiting galleries and gourmet food trucks, I overheard a snatch of the conversation of two passersby. Really, all I heard was the word, “glossolalia.”

Glossolalia. The word unrolled like a magic carpet and took flight in my mind. For a few days it bumped into its walls and windows like a bird trapped in a church as I tried to remember where I’d heard the term before. It was like hearing a word in a dream, which you don’t understand but know has deep significance. Finally, I did what any Fuller student brimming with intellectual curiosity and in close proximity to an extensive library would do: I googled it. Just kidding. I used Dictionary.com. Instantly, I knew why glossolalia was so familiar to me.

“Incomprehensible speech in an imaginary language, sometimes occurring in a trance state, an episode of religious ecstasy,” in short, speaking in tongues, is familiar territory to me as a born and bred Pentecostal. While others might cringe at the idea of speaking in tongues, I have comforting memories from the church of my childhood, when the pastor would say during Sunday worship, “Let’s praise the Lord in our spiritual languages.” The percussionist would swipe the wind chimes and the grown-ups around me lifted their voices in strangely sweet, individual songs, a communal glossolalia, a cloud of languages wafting as incense to this God I had known from birth.

Although I don’t have an “ear for languages,” I’ve always been captivated by them, and I love words: I love hearing other languages, I pretty much kill at word games, and I’m a sucker for a boy who can tell me I’m beautiful in a tongue other than English. I’ve long believed that the best superpower would be the ability to master any language in 3 seconds flat. I keep a running list of words I love and hate, and sometimes I find myself saying certain words out loud (sushi, penguin, waffle) just because I like the way it feels to say them.

By the same token, I was fascinated by stories of people speaking in tongues, which aren’t uncommon when you’re nurtured in the faith in Pentecostal churches, summer camps, and Bible college. As a junior in college I read The Beauty of Spiritual Language by Jack Hayford, and took his advice by practicing my spiritual language, usually on the short trek from the library to the dorms.

Eventually, speaking in tongues and exercising other spiritual gifts felt like an organic part of my life. I worked with the charismatic organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM) for a couple of years in a few different countries, serving in a community that nurtured such spiritual practices. During times of intercession and ministry, I found myself praying in tongues almost as much as I prayed in English, and experiencing its power as a means of spiritual breakthrough in others and in myself.

Needless to say, coming to Fuller was a bit of a shock to my spiritual system. For the first time, I was interacting on a regular basis with Christians who were uncomfortable with the idea of tongues, and in some conversations I even detected a hint of embarrassment over the topic of the Holy Spirit. I found myself stepping outside of my spiritual life to examine it, realizing that it’s not as “normal” as I had come to think. A girl speaking in a language she doesn’t understand, communicating with a higher power in a deep and transformative way—it’s not what most would call ordinary.

But none of it is normal, is it? Christianity, I mean. The songs full of strange imagery, a sacred book as the final standard, the ritual with bread and wine as flesh and blood.  It’s the stuff of myth. And why not? What is the Christian story, if not, as C.S. Lewis says of the Incarnation, myth become fact? Pentecost’s tongues of fire and the reversal of Babel’s sin in one morning’s whirlwind of words may not seem so crazy when we look over our shoulder at Easter, only a few short weeks ago. Then, we all declared our belief in a God who wrapped himself in skin and dwelt among us, who rose from the dead and who one day will illuminate a new and perfect city so that the sun is redundant. What are these truths but fantastic, mystical, supernatural? Why not speak in tongues of angels to a God whose eyes are blazing fire?

In his recent inaugural professorial lecture, Clayton Schmit told a story of how, while receiving prayer from a Pentecostal bishop, he became nervous when he realized his “brain was situated between this Pentecostal’s powerful palms.” Schmit joked that he prayed against the prayers of this man, who was entreating the Lord for a new release of the Holy Spirit in Schmit’s life and ministry. He recalled his defense prayer to an amused audience: “Oh God, if it has to be tongues, at least let it be German.” I laughed, too, but I also thought of how we are so afraid to fully enter into this life we’re offered. Before his conversion, C.S. Lewis had a deep, aching love for mythology yet was pulled in the opposite direction by a grim rationalism. I wonder if the beauty of some facets of the Christian story move us as well, but the same grim rationalism prevents us from accepting them as truth. Instead of becoming characters in a great and epic story, we merely stare at the page, disbelieving and desperately longing.

This is what the season of Pentecost is for me—it is realizing that proclaiming the Resurrection as a historical fact is only a doorway into a different—and dare I say mystical—life. Pentecost means taking Jesus at his word, as the disciples did when he gave them one last promise on his way home: “You will receive power when my Holy Spirit comes upon you…” Easter is getting on the boat; Pentecost is asking to be shown the ropes, wanting to know every inch of this ship, learning to harness nature’s power in the sail and run before a wild wind. It’s hanging over the side and letting your hair get wet and salty with the sea.

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3 Responses to “Glossolalia: Fantastic Doesn’t Mean Fiction”

  1. Rachel May 12, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    That’s a great article Joy! The only thing I’m wondering is…why were people using the word glosslalia at an art fair? What kind of conversation was that? I knew in the first sentence of your article that it had something to do with the tongue because in medicine gloss is the root word for tongue. Love you and miss you

    Like

    • netanya May 12, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks sissy!! Yes, it was SO strange to hear that word in the middle of downtown L.A. I have no idea what they were talking about…literally just heard that word as they passed by me. That’s why I couldn’t place it at first…you’d only think you would hear/read glossolalia in a theology/seminary context! I guess I’ll never know…

      Like

  2. Ola Simon May 16, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Excellent approach to a sensitive topic, good mixture of humility and boldness, going from the familiar to the unknown, exposing yourself yet honouring the Holy Spirit – good piece of work, Joy! I’m glad you get to publish such stuff, you are needed out there!

    Like

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