Saturday, November 25, 2006

postal scrotum: John on glossolalia

The F-16-hating John of Long Time Gone writes:

Just wanted to comment on the speaking in tongues thing.

My granny was Pentecostal. Really loved the lord and lived the Christian life. One of the few Christians that didn't ever strike me as a hypocrite. Anyway, I remember the first time I heard her speak in tongues. She had been cleaning a high shelf and fell off a chair. Broke her wrist. She was praying intensely and started speaking in tongues. Scared the hell out of me. She told me she was possessed by the Holy Spirit. I know she sincerely believed that. Yeah, it was all gibberish to me but I do know that it was not some fakery. Whether it was Biblical or just her own faith and spirituality expressing itself I don't know. Just wanted to make the point that at least for some people it is not fraudulent. I've attended a church where people spoke in tongues as if on cue and that definitely seemed fake. Not my sweet grandmother though.


I haven't forgotten your betrayal over at Lost Nomad, John.


I think many, if not most, people are sincere when they describe a religious experience. The problem for a scientific skeptic is to parse the subjectivity of the experience from its objectivity. What verifiably happened? In a case like the one you described, I'd say the observable (and, presumably, recordable) fact was that your grandmother spoke in tongues. But I'd have trouble verifying the claim that she was possessed by the Holy Spirit-- a claim that is, perhaps by its very nature, unverifiable.

As a skeptic, I also want to avoid being charged with scientism, the attitude that science is the only road to truth. So concerning your grandmother's case, I'd adopt an attitude similar to yours: I'd be convinced of her sincerity, and I'd be convinced that I had witnessed an instance of glossolalia. I doubt, however, that I would take the event as strong evidence for a theistic ultimate reality. We'd have to rule out a whole host of other possibilities first.

There are problems with glossolalia. Foremost among them is that the inspired utterances of an anglophone still "sound" a bit English, whereas a francophone or coreanophone's glossolalia will sound French or Korean. This would seem to undercut the idea that all speakers in tongues are engaging in something not mediated by culture; when viewed together, speakers in tongues from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds do not appear to be accessing the same deep source. On the contrary, glossolalia is apt to take culturally specific forms.

One of the remarks I failed to make in my review of "Jesus Camp" was that the Christianity shown in that movie was quite foreign to the mainline American Presbyterianism with which I'm familiar (and comfortable). Presbyterians are often called "God's Frozen Chosen" because of the staid, stiff, plodding style of their worship, which includes generally bland hymns and sermons. No one speaks in tongues, as far as I know. Public weeping is rare for us, if not outright bizarre. The minister doesn't shout "JESUS!" In my mostly-white church, people rarely shout "Amen!" Worship is gentle, thoughtful... friendly. It's not dynamic, not fire and brimstone; you won't feel an adrenaline rush when you're with the Frozen Chosen. Rowan Atkinson's parodies of Anglican worship apply equally well to American Presbyterianism, at least as I've experienced it. And I imagine that people in my church, were they to view "Jesus Camp," would find the Pentecostal way of doing things as foreign as I do.

This reminds me-- I must once again plug Robert Duvall's incredible film "The Apostle," which depicts a charismatic Christianity much like what you see in "Jesus Camp." Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in the film (see here). He plays a pastor nicknamed "E.F." who gets kicked out of his own church; in the best Protestant tradition, he leaves to establish a new church elsewhere. It's a very well-made movie with no simple answers.


No comments: