I recently got in this email:

John, I’ve been following your writing for a while, and was wondering what your opinion is on speaking in tongues. I am a recovering Pentecostal from a fairly modern church, where women could wear pants and preach, but speaking in tongues was greatly encouraged. Now that I have left that church, I have begun to reconsider the value of such a thing. I myself was never able to do it, and was told that I wasn’t trying hard enough, or giving enough of myself. This made me ashamed for a long time. There are two kinds of tongues that I was taught about: individuals who speak in tongues when they worship and pray and whose words do not need interpretation, and those who speak in tongues to prophesy. Both kinds were in my church. The woman who usually used them to prophesize was generally interpreted by her husband. I was told that doubting her words (which were generally nothing unusual, about God coming back soon, the general apocalyptical stuff) was the same as blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Therefore, no one tended to argue with her. I know that this “gift” appears in Acts and in a few other places in the New Testament, but do you think it has value in the current church? I have only seen it used as a tool of repression, and I am inclined to say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask other knowledgable seekers after God. Thanks for reading!

You’re welcome. Thanks for writing!

As much as I love harboring a shamelessly wide-ranging panoply of opinions, when it comes to speaking in tongues I’ve nothing to say. I’m not very comfortable passing judgment on the validity of the spiritual experiences of others. If in what they’re experiencing as the throes of possession by the Holy Spirit, a person starts “speaking in tongues,” then … okay.

I mean, obviously, right on the surface of it, speaking in tongues seems a tad ... odd. Why would God think it a great idea to inspire people to say stuff that virtually no one can understand? Does the Alpha and Omega of all that ever is or will be have nothing better to do than possess simple mortals to talk funny? It’d be like driving a brand-new car backwards down the freeway. Sure, you could do it. But why would you?

Now, if the Holy Spirit made a person who had never in their life spoken a single word of English suddenly start spouting passages of Hamlet, I’d fall into full gaga mode. But if a person is so apparently filled with the Holy Spirit that all they can do is talk spontaneously generated gibberish?

Pffft. For that we have Sarah Palin.

(Kidding! Joke! I'm begging you not to send me crazy letters.)

So here’s what I think about speaking in tongues (I knew I had an opinion on it!): It could be legitimate. It could be as nonsensical as the sounds it makes people make. God works in strange and mysterious ways, right? Why couldn’t one of those ways be to make people speak in a language that’s exclusively between him and them?

Maybe it’s like the secret language of twins: God connects with the Holy Spirit inside someone, and the two of them start talking so exuberantly that the host person can’t do anything but bubble over with the no-time-to-translate extra.

That totally makes sense.

I’ll tell you what I know is nonesense, gentle writer: that business from your pastor about you failing to speak in tongues because you’re not “trying hard enough.” What a callous, caustic cretin of a crustacean that clergyman clown is. I’m so glad you got away from that insidious sinkhole. I mean … not to be too harsh. I’m sure Pastor Battery Acid has many good qualities. But that’s a profoundly caustic thing to tell one of your parishioners. I’m sorry you had to hear that ridiculousness.

And this deal with the husband being the appointed Holy Translator of his wife’s tongue speaking? You know, I’m just going to go out on a limb here, and guess that Ms. Spiritsaywhat? and her husband were regular donors to the church whose pastor decreed that doubting her translated “words” was tantamount to blasphemy.

Anyway, you’re now out of that church, right? So no worries for you on this, yeah? If people want to speak in tongues—or roll around on the floor, or flail about while the Holy Spirit tries to teach them how to Watusi, or any of that sort of thing—who’s it hurt? As long as the answer to that is virtually no one—as long as no one’s going, “Hey, d’ya hear that?! The Holy Spirit just told us to string up some darkies!” or, “Praise the Lord! The Holy Spirit just told Bea here he wants us to go drown some fags!”—then … then it’s like two countries being in a squirmish. It means nothing.

God bless you sister, and thanks for writing.