Christian Art and Culture

The Gift of Tongues and the Gift of Art

  • Derek Martin Artistic Director, Americana Theatre Company
  • 2012 24 Sep
The Gift of Tongues and the Gift of Art

First, I have to say that this blog is almost entirely my wife's brainchild. Jennifer (my wife) and I had been to a charismatic-pentecostal service one day and, as you might imagine, there was much speaking in tongues. Before I get into it, I want to speak about my history with tongues. As a child, I was fairly horrified when I first saw tongues being spoken. My family and I were recent Protestant converts from the Catholic church on the South Shore of Massachusetts and the gift of tongues was something that I never saw in the Catholic church growing up. One evening, I went to visit some friends at a pentecostal Christian youth camp and it was a baptism by fire. People were speaking in tongues, crying, screaming, rolling around on the ground and being slain in the spirit. As you can imagine, being from a modest Catholic upbringing... it was traumatic to say the least.

The major problem I had was that throughout all of that rolling and screaming, not once did I feel God's presence. Occasionally I sense the presence of God heavily during a charismatic worship service where tongues are being spoken; other times, not. This had always bothered me because I felt that if the Spirit of God was going to manifest himself in tongues it would be pretty powerful and you should sense his presence. You can imagine my confusion and frustration when I felt like God's presence seemed to be absent from such a strong manifestation of his gifts.

Also, many times I would be at services like this and people would be speaking in tongues and there wouldn't be an interpreter. This confused me because I thought that the three ways tongues normally happen in the Bible are:

1. That tongues of flames came over the disciples heads and gave them the ability to speak in tongues that people of different languages could all understand at the same time - Acts 2:1.

2. That the message spoken aloud in public through the medium of tongues 1 Corinthians 14:13 that would interpret the tongues.

3. That the heavenly language was one for personal and private prayer time 1 Corinthians 1:2, not for the public.

Others may have different interpretations of the scripture, but this is how I understand the Bible's perspective on it.

Now, I am a much more charismatic Christian in these days than I ever was in the past. The gifts of the Spirit don't bother me like they used to, in fact, I am amazed by them. But tongues had always been difficult for me, and during this car ride home from the service I was previously mentioning, Jennifer gave me an amazing perspective I had never thought of before.

Jennifer said that dance was her gift of tongues. I looked at her with a mildly confused expression on my face. She went on to explain that she felt closest to God when she was dancing and that she believed dance was her heavenly language by which she spoke with God.

To me, this statement was revelatory.

It makes perfect sense... to me, at least. I have always felt that way when I was writing songs: God had blessed me with connection to him. Something about the flow between chord and lyric, between story and the music that underlies the story, always made me feel like I was connecting to something spiritual. As a matter of fact, I would argue that many, if not most, artists feel this way about art, that it IS spiritual. Could it be that the gift of art is a gift of tongues?

Let's look at the three qualifications of tongues that I mentioned before starting with the third and working backwards.  

3. That the heavenly language was one for the personal and private prayer time between the speaker and God, not for the public.

Tongues is supposed to be a "heavenly language" that one uses to communicate with God when our language isn't enough. Art absolutely does this. I believe that art is a form of "language" and one that can speak far more powerfully and clearly than the English that I speak. Most aestheticians and artists talk of art as language, it is core to their explanation of what art is and what it does. Also, I have experienced a communion with God on the spiritual level while doing every art I do - song writitng, acting, directing, choreographing, painting, etc. So art absolutely fits this category.

2. That the message spoken aloud in public through the medium of tongues would also have an interpreter that would interpret the tongues.

Interestingly enough, art fulfills this as well. Almost everyone in the public who perceives an art work will interpret it. Add to that the many heads of churches, museum curators, artistic directors, art teachers, critics and the like that will interpret the artwork for the audience. The art can be interpreted personally by each member of society and publicly by people who have been set aside to critique or review the art form.

(Last and the most outrageous and miraculous form of tongues was at Pentecost. This was the Holy Spirit moving in an amazing way in a way that I haven't ever seen since I have been alive... or had I?)

1. That tongues of flames came over the disciples heads and gave them the ability to speak in tongues that people of different languages could all understand at the same time as at Pentecost.

I must admit that I have never seen tongues of flames over anyone's head to date, but the idea that one would speak a heavenly language that all cultures and societies across the globe could understand at once IS actually possible with art. As a matter of fact, in his book art in action Nicholas Woltersdorff cites a cross-cultural study that was done in the arts. In this study, random people were selected from all over the globe and they were to look at one hundred pieces of art. The study then had them commit to which pieces they liked and which they didn't. All of the participants chose seventy five percent of the same art works as being the pieces they personally enjoyed. The implications of this study go further than the commentary in this blog but it does point out that over seventy five percent of a grouping of artworks spoke personally to a cross cultural group. This is astounding! To me, this is strong evidence that art is a language that all cultures can potentially understand.

So I believe that my wife was right without a doubt, but I find it more amazing that art fulfills all three of the ways the gift of tongues manifests AT THE SAME TIME! I am not discounting anyone's heavenly language. I do believe that tongues works in the way we often see it happen. It is so unusual, God must love it, because our God is a God of mystery and wonder and miracle. But this theory of art as the gift of tongues is certainly one worth pondering.

Derek Martin is the Artistic Director of the americana theatre company and Creative Arts Chair at William Jessup University. He is passionate about his wife (Jennifer), family, friends, people, the Bible, creative storytelling, Christianity and the Arts, and this big, wonderful, mysterious life that we are blessed to live.

This article appeared originally on the curious and the creative. Used with permission.

Publication date: September 24, 2012