Monday, June 18, 2007

Glosso-what...?

Glossolalia isn’t a word you hear very often, but if you happen to hang out with many people of the charismatic Christian bent you’ve likely heard it referred to as “the gift of tongues”. Charismatic Christians apparently believe that sometimes God imbues them with certain supernatural powers, kind of like the X-Men. Among these are the discernment of demons and spirits, prophecy, healing, and the inability to realize that their inner monologue is still them.

In recent months the good ol’ Southern Baptists, based in my own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, have been going through an internal schism about the prospect of some Southern Baptists speaking in tongues. (They’ve elected to call it a “personal prayer language”.) According to some surveys, about half of the SB higher-ups believe that making speaking in tongues is something that really happens, while about the same amount of leaders say that speaking in tongues used to happen, but doesn’t anymore because God let people invent Babelfish.com. (See an article discussing the conflict here.)

Interestingly, all of this goes on (and on, and on) despite the fact that biblical glossolalia refers to the speaking of a language that everyone hears as their own native tongue and can therefore understand, whereas modern glossolalia is neither intelligible nor a language of any kind. My link here is to the article on SkepticWiki, but those readers with access to JSTOR may wish to read the definitive study on the subject Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism by William J. Samarin. He found that glossolalia is simply a random, largely unstructured spewing of syllables from the speaker’s own language.

Speaking in tongues is to some extent something that happens when people of a certain bent reach a peak of emotional fervor. They might be Christians, they might be voodoo priests, they might be my best pal Josh. Yeah, that’s right, Skippy the Skeptic’s best friend speaks in tongues. All the time.

I guess you’re wondering why I’d hang out with a religious fundie, but I don’t. See, my friend Josh speaks in tongues while playing videogames. Seriously. When faced with a difficult game, Josh actually begins to go out of his head with rage. I got to witness this firsthand over the weekend as we sat around playing “Punch-Out” on the Wii’s virtual console. “Punch-Out” was a boxing game for the original Nintendo and is generally considered to be one of the hardest games ever. I myself have never gotten past the middle of the game, while Josh routinely makes it to the last tier of boxers before being smote down by the Sandman or Super Macho Man. On Saturday it was Super Macho Man who set him off. Super Macho Man is the last boxer before Mr. Dream, the game’s fearsome boss, and he kicks ass. (Originally the boss was Mike Tyson, but after his star was tarnished by his bizarre personal life, Nintendo removed him from the game.)

It started off as swearing after the first loss, then worked its way up to sputtering fury after the second, but then he actually went into some kind of crazy rapture. He bellowed forth a litany of syllables obviously taken from cuss words, but nothing he got out is quite intelligible. It’s as though he some how managed to roar pure, unadulterated anger. It wasn’t helped at all by the fact that he can’t throw the Wii controller across the room because it’s strapped to his wrist.

One day I hope to upload a video of Josh’s incredible gift of tongues for all the world to see, but for now I urge you to get on Youtube and look for some videos of people speaking in tongues. (Try almost any clip from "Jesus Camp") I think you'll see for yourself what I'm talking about.

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