I went to Arlington over the weekend to visit a few churches and, though I didn’t hear any tongues, I did meet a few people who do. One was an Assembly of God missionary in Swaziland back in the US for a visit. He mentioned that in the field, they often encounter folk religions with a similar sort of ecstatic utterance which they label as counterfeit. I asked if they explicitly teach the difference between “real” tongues and “counterfeit” tongues, and he said they focus on modeling “real” tongues and let the counterfeit be labeled or fall away. At the beginning of his stay he was at a service where someone was speaking in tongues, which someone near him pointed out as counterfeit. He could hear that it wasn’t Christian tongues.
Glossolalic dialectology, anyone?
I also saw how tongues can happen. The music is swelling; people around you are murmuring, clapping, raising their hands; perhaps you’re on your knees at an altar call. The music goes on; the preacher’s exhortations rise and fall. In your trance state you begin vocalizing automatically, just as you’re swaying or clapping without really intending to.
And it made me think of my parents, who attended a Catholic charismatic prayer group in the early 1970s and towed me and my sister along. They had just moved to Pueblo, Colorado, and wanted to meet people, so at the recommendation of a nun who was a nurse at the local hospital (Sister Bea, a white-haired, pudgy woman whom we looked forward to seeing because she’d always buy us soft-serve ice cream in the hospital cafeteria), they attended. I don’t remember how many prayer meetings we went to, though I remember people speaking in tongues and laying on hands for healing. Perhaps even I was the object of healing, I don’t know.
On the drive back I asked my mother if she’d ever spoken in tongues, and she said that at one of those meetings she discovered herself saying a word that made her feel at peace. Years later she still says the word. She say she told it to my sister when my sister was in Africa, who translated what it meant in Arabic, though my sister didn’t remember doing so. My mother remembered that the translation was something like “God is good.”
A 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found that only 5.6% of the respondents had spoken in tongues, which puts my mother in limited company. (I haven’t spoken to my father yet.) I don’t often do a story that has such a personal angle, though it did make me realize I’ve never mined my religious upbringing in writing. If I did it would have be titled American Apostate.