Speaking in Tongues

The Book of Acts tells the story of how the good news of the risen Christ spread from Jerusalem to Rome. The anonymous narrator, identified by tradition as Luke, one of Paul’s Gentile travel companions, shows why the gospel proclaimed by the Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul was perceived as compelling and persuasive. The proclamation is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit that is manifest in the new manner of living practiced by the “brothers” (NRSV adds “and sisters”), by the extraordinary ability of the apostles to speak in public, and by other manifestations of divine empowerment, such as healing the sick and driving out evil spirits. The transformation of the timid disciples into capable apostles of Christ occurs in the famous scene of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that appears like tongues of fire over those assembled at the Upper Room in Jerusalem, on the occasion of the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) or Pentecost, seven weeks after Passover, the time of Christ’s death. This configuration is not accidental. Passover celebrates the exodus of from slavery, while the Feast of Weeks marks the covenant of Sinai, the revelation of the Torah. Acts uses this liturgical correlation to make a point. The followers of Christ are given to understand that the same divine authority that liberated the Jews from Egypt and revealed the law to those assembled at Sinai stands behind the eschatological realization of a scheme of redemption and revelation in which those who receive the good news are taking part at the very moment they receive it and carry it forward.

Something else happens on Pentecost. The twelve apostles, corresponding to the twelve tribes assembled at Sinai, assembled in the Upper Room where Christ had held his last supper, begin to proclaim the gospel in languages that they had not been taught. This happens the moment the Spirit is poured out over them. They speak in tongues. Devout Jews “from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” overheard the apostles and commented on what they witnessed in either of two ways. Some were baffled to hear the gospel proclaimed in their own language, a phenomenon called xenolalia. Others dismissed the phenomenon as mere glossolalia or drunken gobbledygook, saying, these people are full of new wine; an unwitting attestation of the truth (cf. Mark 2:22).

The sophisticated narrative of the miracle of the Pentecost cast the beginning of church history as an eschatological reversal of the confusion of languages at the end of the primordial history of Genesis 11. It also had the curious side effect of sanctioning the practice of glossolalia. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul attests that he himself engaged in this practice more than others, but refrained from it when there was no one to interpret. Glossolalia returned in the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern Pentecostal movement took off in American revivalist congregations, and it has since spread across the globe as one of the fastest growing Christian movements. (See https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-58/rise-of-pentecostalism-christian-history-timeline.html). In contrast to the reticence of Paul to practice glossolalia in public, contemporary “charismatic” Christians cultivate this enthusiastic practice as part of their manner of worship.

As a teenage born-again Christian I was persuaded that, in order to complete my initiation into the full scope of Christian faith, I needed to receive the “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” Without it, my Christian life would be incomplete, or so I was told by members of a family that was leading retreats popular among some fellow-believers in my hometown and across the region. I already had a rich Christian life. In addition to the local Protestant church where I was active as a Sunday school instructor, I had discovered a world of private gatherings for the purpose of Bible study, prayer, and mutual edification. We formed prayer-circles (Gebetskreise) that met before or during school, and we attended retreats (Freizeiten), where we forged connections with believers elsewhere. This made us discover that believers are everywhere. We gave, and enjoyed one another’s, home hospitality and experienced what it means to be part of an interconnected international intentional community. I gained status in those circles by the fact that I liked to sing and play the guitar. This made me a leader. Every time I introduced myself to a new group or a visiting pastor, I gave testimony of how I had accepted Christ as my personal savior and what my life was like before. Whenever I mentioned that my mother was Jewish I was told that this made me “a son of Abraham according to the flesh,” in addition to being “a son of Abraham according to the spirit” by virtue of my faith. This made me feel special.

And yet, I was told, my life as a Christian was incomplete without the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I had been baptized as a child into the local Protestant church. At some point I also underwent an adult baptism as an expression of faith (Glaubenstaufe), something I knew full well was considered a heresy by my church. It taught me that when it comes to God’s command, one must obey it even if it means going against human conventions. Acts like this have certain social and psychological effects. In social terms, one loosens one’s ties with one’s community of birth and ties oneself closer to a secretive circle of initiates. Because it is a joint transgression of those who baptize and those who receive baptism, it forms a serious bond between hierophant and novice. In psychological terms, this type of secretive ritual heightens one’s sense of self importance. It does not make a person humble but it instills an intense pride in having achieved a kind of spiritual peak. The same is true of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

In order to receive the Holy Spirit someone else who already received the Holy Spirit must pray with you while laying his or her hands on your head or shoulders. God willing, the Holy Spirit will enter you like a warm stream that fills you with an extraordinary sensation and a feeling of elation. The sign that the Spirit has entered you may or may not be that you will henceforth be able to speak in tongues. I chose the time and the people I trusted the most in order to receive the Spirit, a married couple who exuded an extraordinary aura of holiness, calm, and mutual love. They were the same people the sister in Christ whom I loved and trusted the most had chosen for the same purpose. Following our baptism with the Holy Spirit, we were both able to be in a communion of prayer that was unlike anything we experienced with other people. At least that’s what it was like for me.

Looking at paintings depicting the miracle of the Pentecost, I am struck to see a woman at the center of the scene. The Virgin Mary is mentioned in Acts 1:14 as being among the apostles and the brothers of Jesus. She is not explicitly mentioned in connection with the Pentecost, but later tradition must have placed her there or she would not have been painted into those depictions. In fact, where the mother of Christ is included, she occupies center stage and she, too, receives the Holy Spirit.



I eventually stopped speaking in tongues. I gave it up when I renounced my baptism with the Holy Spirit. This came after I discovered, that my feeling of intimacy with God was closely linked with being with my fellow believers. When I found myself by myself or surrounded by regular people, I had nothing to say to them. No testimony to give. No bias confirmation about my extraordinary qualities. This came as a surprise and it planted the seed of a suspicion in my mind that much of what I had thought of as God’s voice in me might have been merely the product of self-suggestion.

Giving up on the Holy Spirit is something one does not do easily or take lightly. After all, Jesus says that the only sin that cannot be forgiven is the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). Once again I prayed with someone, in this case, an itinerant preacher whose mission it was to liberate people from the scourge of the false belief in the baptism with the Holy Spirit. I told God I did not want to insult him, but if the baptism I had received was wrong I asked God to take it away from me. The prayer worked. I felt relieved. Letting go of the baptism with the Holy Spirit enabled me to once again communicate with my fellow human beings without first consulting the spirit within me for guidance. I could simply be me again. Many years later, when I first read Martin Buber’s description of the I-Thou relationship, it resonated with me because I felt it described what I had retrieved when I renounced the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Being baptized with the Holy Spirit, at least in my case, had the effect of alienating me from others. It put me at a distance from other people. I could no longer encounter people for who they were. After all, I knew something special, and they didn’t. I was in on a divine secret, and they were not. I was in, and they were out. There was a wall between me and others that I had no reason to break down. It was a kind of holy arrogance that I have since come to abhor. Letting go of the Holy Spirit was like an angel giving up her wings, or an immortal person becoming mortal, for the sake of being able to live a full-blooded, fully embodied life.

The only foreign tongues I still speak are those I’ve acquired the hard way, by studying languages. I still practice xenolalia. I do it every day by speaking, and writing, the language of others.


Tomas Kalmar posted on December 12, 2018 at 5:34 am

Thank you for articulating and posting this. It helps me clarify my own experience of the Spirit — and of tongues. Perhaps my favorite passage in the bible is I Cor 14:7-11:
Tamen quae sine anima sunt vocem dantia, sive tibia, sive cithara; nisi distinctionem sonituum dederint, quomodo scietur id quod canitur, aut quod citharizatur? Etenim si incertam vocem det tuba, quis parabit se ad bellum?
Ita et vos per linguam nisi manifestum sermonem dederitis: quomodo scietur id quod dicitur? eritis enim in aera loquentes. Tam multa, ut puta genera linguarum sunt in hoc mundo: et nihil sine voce est. Si ergo nesciero virtutem vocis, ero ei, cui loquor, barbarus: et qui loquitur, mihi barbarus.

mzank posted on December 12, 2018 at 7:53 am

Wonderful, Tomas. Thanks for reminding me of this passage. One does not need to be a believer to be impressed by the genuine and profound language of Paul, even when read in Latin!

mzank posted on December 12, 2018 at 7:56 am

Following Paul’s logic, the irony is that glossolalia subverts the achievement Acts attributes to the Spirit. It makes us incomprehensible to one another all over again.

trunnion ball valve posted on August 26, 2022 at 2:13 am

Speaking in Tongues | Michael Zank1661494390

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *