A strange noise was coming from somewhere behind me. "Dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee..."
I looked up at the ceiling fan, spinning lazily in that stuffy sanctuary.
Nope, the noise wasn't coming from there.
And on and on it went. There were only a few people at the evening service in this Assembly of God church in Milwaukee, and the dee-dee-dee-dee's were bugging me. Even more annoying, no one else seemed to notice or care.
I glanced over my shoulder. "Dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee..."
Aha. It was the middle-aged woman in the pew behind me, speaking in tongues, or what she imagined was speaking in tongues. I can still picture her: black, poofy helmet hair; big glasses; hands poised in front of her like a small rodent.
My immediate thought: Get me outta here.
Now the Bible talks a lot about humility. In my life, humility tends not to come naturally or gradually or with a modicum of grace. It tends to smack me right upside the head.
So here I am, 18 years later, a ravin', tongue-talkin' Pen-ty-costal.
Yes, I speak in tongues. Have done so for quite a few years, in fact. And yes, to answer your question, I still feel like a dork sometimes.
It can still sound stupid, even to me. I had a former colleague who did several stories on disgraced televangelist Robert Tilton, and he claimed that when Tilton spoke in tongues, it sounded like "pepsicola-pepsicola-pepsicola-pepsicola..."
Something about speaking in tongues makes people profoundly uncomfortable. Evangelical theology is dominated by exceedingly rationalistic, linear-thinking white dudes, and the thought of yielding one's tongue to the Holy Spirit—good God, losing control—can be terrifying.
It can sure make Southern Baptists get all skittish on you. Just ask the Reverend W. Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Arlington's Cornerstone Baptist Church. He stepped on some pretty big toes when he told students and faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary last week that he had a "prayer language"—and employed it regularly. Got it, in fact, while praying one day in his dorm room at that esteemed theological institution in Fort Worth. (And a very fine school it is; Southern Baptist-affiliated Southwestern is considered one of the top evangelical seminaries in the world.)
McKissic, according to The Dallas Morning News, also "briefly questioned a Southern Baptist Convention policy that forbids foreign missionary candidates from employing a 'private prayer language'" during his chapel address on August 29.
The seminary's response? It refused to post video of McKissic's chapel message online, as it routinely does with chapel speakers—even though McKissic, a prominent black Southern Baptist who leads a church with a typical Sunday attendance of 2,000, is on the board of trustees at Southwestern Baptist and has spoken in chapel many times before.
The seminary didn't stop there. Before McKissic even knew he'd caused a fuss, Southwestern posted a statement on its Web site saying that the "...Rev. McKissic's interpretation of tongues as 'ecstatic utterance' is not a position that we suspect would be advocated by most faculty or trustees." It notes that McKissic has a right to "believe and advocate his position," but the seminary equally "...reserve(s) the right not to disseminate openly views which we fear may be harmful to the churches."
"...The President," the statement continues, referring to Southwestern's Dr. Paige Patterson, "made the decision not to continue the video-streaming of this message lest uninformed people believe that Pastor McKissic's view on the gift of tongues as 'ecstatic utterance' is the view of the majority of our people at Southwestern."
Now, some theological hairs are probably being split. That's what theologians do. But you can deduce Southwestern's position from its concluding point—that "those who wish to read further" are welcome to consult a book called My Search for Charismatic Reality, which was written by a former Charismatic pastor who ended up rejecting his belief in speaking in tongues, as well as other Pentecostal practices.
You know, they don't just come right out and say these things in plain language. But Patterson evidently thinks speaking in tongues is a bunch of gibberish.
Since Southwestern tossed the first grenade publicly, McKissic responded publicly—with an open letter to Patterson on Cornerstone's church Web site. "I fail to see how my comments are viewed as outside of the Baptist mainstream," McKissic wrote. The anti-tongues policy of the Southern Baptist Convention's mission board, he added, "...is treating adults as if you have authority over their private lives and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, beyond the boundary of Scripture."
Now let me pause a moment for the confused. Where does the admittedly strange practice of speaking in tongues come from? The Apostle Paul lists it as one of the supernatural "gifts of the Holy Spirit," which also include miraculous healings, the discerning of evil spirits, the interpretation of tongues and prophecy. A few types of speaking in tongues are delineated in Paul's letters: a public, prophetic expression of tongues, which he encouraged only with certain restrictions; as well as the private practice of speaking in tongues—a form of prayer in an unknown, divinely originated language, or tongue, that speaks directly to God. It's what many people call a "prayer language."
Why pray in tongues? Says McKissic: "It often happens when I don't know how to express myself in prayer. Sometimes I don't even think it's a prayer language as much as it is unspoken communication sometimes—it can be a gesture, it can be a sigh. A groan or a moan. It's intense and deep. You're not talking to man, so they shouldn't understand it. You're talking to God. It's an intimate communication between a believer and God."
And what is he saying when he prays in tongues? "I don't have any idea what I'm saying. My assumption is, whatever I was praying about in English, when I go into tongues, it's a continuation of that. A lot of times it happens during times of praise and thanksgiving and celebration for what God's doing in my life."
McKissic became a tongue-talker in 1981, during a time when he was commuting to Southwestern from a church he pastored in Arkansas. Ironically, it was a Southwestern professor, the late Dr. Jack Gray, who'd prepared McKissic for the experience. "He was affirmative on all the gifts, including the gift of tongues," McKissic says. "Intellectually, that opened my mind."
One day in private prayer, McKissic says, "some strange sounds started coming out of my mouth. And I remember being shocked—and the more I tried to pray in my native tongue, English, the more I began to hear these syllables. And I said to myself, this must be what people call praying in tongues."
Today, McKissic figures that quite a few members of his church pray in tongues privately. Cornerstone will allow it publicly, too, with the conditions established by Paul: No more than three can speak in one service; an interpretation must be offered; and the elders of the church must weigh the interpretation, determining whether it's of the Spirit. (Speaking in tongues publicly has happened "less than 10 times" over the years in his church.)
Until the emergence of the Pentecostal movement in America in the early 1900s, the practice of speaking in tongues had been largely absent in the church for centuries--a mystic here and there, an occasional disciple of maverick preachers in the 18th and 19th centuries; other than that, the gift, widely practiced in the first few hundred years of the church, seemed to have disappeared. Pentecostals reclaimed it as an authentic, biblical experience—for which they were maligned as kooks.
Then somewhere between 1900 and now, Pentecostals and Charismatics--doctrinal kin--pretty much took over the world. Pentecostalism is by far the fastest-growing sector of Protestant Christianity, and it is part of the evangelical mainstream today. While some evangelicals believe speaking in tongues ceased to be a valid practice after the early church era--the so-called "cessationist" view, famously propagated by Dallas Theological Seminary--those just aren't the fighting words they used to be.
Call us kooks, we don't care. That puts you in the minority these days, at least in evangelical circles.
In the halls of the theologians, though, speaking in tongues remains distinctly uncool. "I think many of us want to take a purely academic approach to Christian training," McKissic says. "I think they're uncomfortable with something they don't understand."
Among journalists, speaking in tongues is even more uncool. And poorly understood, like most everything having to do with those nutty Pentecostals.
Check out this gem from a story on the McKissic/Southwestern spat, posted on WFAA-Channel 8's Web site: "Praying or speaking in tongues refers to speaking almost unintelligibly while spiritually overcome."
I don't want to name the comic genius who came up with that. But many thoughts rush to mind. "Almost unintelligibly"? Does that mean, if I listen real close, I can probably make out a few words, like this: "pepsicola-pepsicola-pepsicola-pepsicola--CHILI MAC--pepsicola-pepsicola-pepsicola-pepsicola--JESUS JUNK--pepsicola-pepsicola..."
And all this while "spiritually overcome?" Rolling on the church floor, perhaps, with a bead of spittle forming at the side of one's mouth?
What is it about my colleagues in the secular media that makes them sound like gibbering ijits on the subject of speaking in tongues?
McKissic has no regrets about his big admission that he speaks in tongues. Since he posted his letter, he's heard from "lots" of Southern Baptists urging him to preach on--"a lot of them admitting they have a prayer language, but for fear of rejection and reprisal or ridicule they don't feel free to say it."
So much for the Southern Baptists' vaunted policy of religious liberty.
And pepsicola-pepsicola to you too. --Julie Lyons
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