Speaking in Tongues of Fire

“I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all.” —Corinthians 14:18

“Mystery, I’d read somewhere, is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” —Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain

Nobody can know what that initial cacophony of babel sounded like. Supposedly, fifty days after the resurrection, and some ten after Christ ascended bodily into heaven, the apostles gathered to observe Shavuot, that other holiday of the indwelling presence of the Lord amongst men. That day was when “cloven tongues as of like fire… sat upon each of them.” The author of Acts reports that “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

What were the actual sounds like? The soft sensuous vowels of the Romance language, or the alliterative accentuation of English, with its guttural staccato syllables that ping out like rapid Gatling-gun fire? Or the polysyllabic sesquipedalian rumblings of German, a language for which speaking feels more like chewing? Most likely, as Hebrew speakers, even their gibberish would share the strangely beautiful throat gutturals of their native tongue. Indeed, those modern penitents who claim to share such gifts of the spirit speak their nonsense in a pitch and tenor in keeping with whatever their regular language is; speaking in tongues done by Swedes sounding more like Swedish than the speaking of tongues in English, which sounds like English, and so on. But whatever the details, it was a “sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind.”

The Philistines who witnessed the Pentecost believed the apostles to be “full of new wine,” a slur that has been leveled for eons against those who are so full of words that they burst at the very seams. Intoxicated ecstasy like this–the maenads knew it, the Sufi dervishes knew it, and so the Apostles knew it. Such is the nature of being visited by that inscrutable “other one,” the Holy Spirit, forgotten partner in the Trinity, whether she comes under the guise of God, muse, daemon, or some other form. This event, the Pentecost, is recognized by all Christians, whether metaphorically or literally. In the compendium of strangeness that is the Bible, with tales ranging from the Bridegroom of Blood to Jacob’s tussle with the angel, Pentecost preserves its mysteriousness, even for those who turn from the wild and untamable God to a respectable god, those for whom the Bible is prosaically transformed into moneymaking guide, boring collection of obvious moral platitudes, or incorrect science textbook.

The difference between these two deities is that the respectable god’s name can be written; the untameable God’s name is in a language never heard before, only to be uttered innumerable times in different ways, each one unique and forever to disappear like some quantum fluctuation–a foolish wisdom known by those penitents, at that Shavuot. (Luke doesn’t record what exactly was said in the mad chorus of burbling tongues in a Palestinian attic some two millennia ago. Perhaps it was everything that was ever needed to be known by anyone, but the frequency was simply too high to hear it?)

And the particularity of the burbling tongues is, however, as close to universal a phenomenon as one could find, and pre-Christian. Between Pentecost and Pentecostalism there is a rich history of others speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, as linguists and theologians call it, whether by a Gnostic bigamist named Montanus, the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen, or pagan shamans chanting on the Russian steppes. In many instances, tongue-speaking is strangely, almost mythically, connected to the Ouroboros handling of dangerous snakes. There is a direct line from the tongue-speaker Alexander of Abonoteichus, with his snake-puppet named Glycon, to Appalachian Holy Rollers, the Islamic musicians of Jajouka, Morocco, who some believe are the last Maenads in the world, and the Italian Catholics of Cocullo, Abruzzi, who adorn a statue of Saint Domenico with snakes during the Festa dei Serpari. But square society mostly associates glossolalia with Pentecostalism, with those “Holy Rollers,” what literary critic Harold Bloom called the “pure version of an American shamanism.” The golden thread which connects all different manifestations of tongue-speaking is thicker than might be presumed. Medical doctor E. Mansell Pattison, in his 1968 article “Behavioral Science Research on the Nature of Glossolalia,” notes that it is practiced by:

…the Peyote cult among the North American Indians, the Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest, Shamans in the Sudan, the Shango cult of the West Coast of Africa, the Shago cult in Trinidad, the Voodoo cult in Haiti, the Aborigines of South America and Australia, the Eskimos of the subarctic regions of North America and Asia, the Shamans in Greenland, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Zor cult of Ethiopia, the Siberian shamans, the Chaco Indians of South America, the Curanderos of the Andes, the Kinka in the African Sudan, the Thonga shamans of Africa, and the Tibetan monks.

And yet most people, when they hear “speaking in tongues,” don’t envision the Dyaks of Borneo, but rather the all-American Holy Roller, all sweat and strychnine and Southern fried snake-handling. We think of weird babbling of nonsense phonemes and nonsense words, bubbling up out of the throat of mad believers. Eyes orgasmically rolled back in their skull, arms and legs twitching like some ergot-poisoned peasant, tongue unhinged from the mouth, meaning unhinged from language.

Charitably speaking, that’s not too far off from how many charismatics might describe the experience itself; travelling Bible salesman A.J. Tomlinson, sanctified in the spirit on January 12, 1908, described how “my body was rolled and tossed about beyond my control, and finally while lying on my back, my feet were raised up several times, and my tongue would stick out of my mouth in spite of my efforts to keep it inside my mouth.” The condemnation of this sort of thing by the majority of Protestants, who reject modern-day “gifts of the spirit,” is even more damning than the secular skeptic’s scorn.

But we abandon speaking in tongues at our own spiritual peril. I do not mean this literally, of course; I’m not going to head to the front of the tent, hands aloft and offer to do that service myself. I’m much too High Church for that sort of thing. I am, however, going to consider the cultural contributions and the cracked brilliance of the Pentecostals, our own homegrown Gnostics, and to argue that the practice of speaking in tongues is one that has an innate, charged, dangerous, anarchic, powerful, liberatory, profound, and strange potential to it. It is, in short, “meaningful nonsense.” Despite its lack of grammatical, syntactical, or semantic organization, Canadian linguist William J. Samarin observed in his seminal 1972 investigation of the phenomenon, “word-like and sentence-like units” emerge in tongue-speaking, “because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody.” It is this tension that lends glossolalia the quality of meaningful nonsense. Speaking in tongues is neither actual language nor a cacophony of random sounds; it is something different. It can sound terrifying, the purview of hypnotists and voudon witch doctors. Linguist Felicity D. Goodman in her 1969 study writes that “the glossolalist often does not hear himself … does not afterwards remember what he said, and thus cannot repeat it.” The worshiper acts as “an artifact of the trance; it is generated by it.” Fearful or not, glossolalia is far too common to be written off as unimportant, some pre-modern artifact to be exoticized and made into anthropological curio (though of course I’ll hypocritically do a bit of that too).

Speaking in tongues is not an exhibit to put in the metaphorical formaldehyde jar of past religious superstitions–it’s too important for that. In Euripides’ Bacchae, that proto-Pentecostal rock star Dionysius says to the square mayor of Athens that “He who believes needs no explanation.” Pentheus asks, “What’s the worth in believing worthless things?,” to which our rock star responds, “Much worth, but not worth telling you it seems.” Despite the god’s admonishment, let’s see if we can muster a little bit of an explanation of the worthiness of worthless things, to anatomize the tongues of fire.

What are the nerves which connect the divine intoxicated brain to the mouth loosed of conventional syntax, of the tongue which now only wags in the language of God? Is there any wisdom, foolish or otherwise, to be gained from parsing the strange grammar of the Holy Roller? This “gift of the spirit” is a strange present indeed. There is, theologically speaking, a difference of opinion as to whether the gifts of that ancient event are still accessible to humans today; those who assent are “continuationists” and those that deny are “cessasionists.” For continuationists, glossolalia represented, to some worshipers, direct contact with the divine, like that of a saint. But historically, most Christians have been cessasionists, emphatically believing that such gifts are no longer accessible. Charismatic revivals and tongue-speakers in the first decades of the twentieth century were denounced as superstititious, insane, or diabolical.

One the supposed results of Reformation half-a-millennium ago was a certain disenchantment, but gifts of the spirit seem to be something more primal, more Maenad ripping Pentheus apart at a Bacchic orgy than sober Protestant banker for whom it’s all early to bed and early to rise. The project of modernity, of which the Reformation was in many ways a cause, is supposedly one of cool rectilinear rationality, of logic and sensibleness. And yet, our designated straw-penitent Holy Roller is still the strange step-child of the magisterial Reformation. Like other radically innovative sects of the priesthood of all believers, such as the Quakers of the English civil wars, or the Millerites who blanketed the burnt-over-country of the American Second Great Awakening, both of whom had their own flirtations with glossolalia, the Holy Roller is a renegade from the staid, scriptural conservatism of normative Protestantism.

As with all things radical, many denominations moved through their adolescent speaking-in-tongues phase. Now Methodism is all church pot-luck dinners, but once, it was metal. The Methodist revival preachers amongst the tent cities such as Kentucky’s Cane Ridge could speak tongues with the best of them. That is, of course, assuming that it’s fair to even classify more obvious tongue-speaking groups like the Pentecostals as even being Protestants in any conventional sense. For in speaking a divine language of their own invention they perhaps depart as far from Luther’s scriptural inerrancy as Quakers and Shakers did when they made an “inner light” the primary judge over the text of the Bible. For these God-intoxicated Protestants, the logic of a priesthood of all believers was taken to its inevitable conclusion, one where every man can be a denomination and every prophetic utterance a new gospel. Religious ecstasy knows no denomination, enrapturement no theology; they are, rather, a facet of what it means for some humans to be in prayer. Indeed, Christianity has always had the strangeness of meaningful nonsense at its very core. The word may become flesh, but being able to define that word has always been the central enigma of the faith.

As universal as the practice is though, Pentecostalism’s entry onto the scene did represent an abrupt explosion in religious history, as decisive as Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to that Wittenberg door on a Halloween in 1517. Pentecostalism’s reformation can be decisively dated to April 9th, 1906, when the gifts of the Holy Spirit were restored to the earth, descending this time not unto dusty Judea, but onto the overwhelmingly American city of sunny Los Angeles, California. Though plenty of pyrotechnic preparation had been made for tongue-speaking in American religious history, from Edwards to Joseph Smith to the Indian prophet Handsome Lake and the Ghost Dancers of the native insurgencies across the prairies and plains, it was an itinerant black preacher named William J. Seymour who lit the fuse on that spring day in Los Angeles, initiating what has come to be known as the Azusa Street Revival.

The Kansas-based son of former slaves, Reverend Seymour was invited to preach in Los Angeles by Neely Terry, a member of a local “holiness” church, pastored by Julia Hutchins, at the corner of Ninth and Santa Fe. Seymour had been a student of the then-respected Pentecostal minister Charles Parham, but when preaching to Hutchins’s flock in California, he taught that to speak in tongues was to display modern-day gifts of the spirit. Hutchins rejected Seymour’s heterodox teaching, and the minister ultimately found himself and his followers conducting their services out of a house on North Bonnie Brae Street. Though Seymour had attested to the possibility of gifts of the spirit, they had yet to be made manifest, until that April 9th, when one Edward Lee began to speak in tongues among the assembled worshipers. Seymour’s future wife Jennie Moore was the next to be visited by the spirit. Seymour himself wouldn’t experience glossolalia until three days later, when on April 12th that spontaneous overflow of divine intoxication passed up through his throat and out of his mouth unto the assembled congregation. News of the event spread throughout the working-class communities of Los Angeles, and soon Seymour was leading a revival of not just black worshippers, but white and Hispanic ones, who flocked to North Bonnie Brae Street so that they, to, could be filled with the spirit. Eventually that modest family home where the spirit had first visited Lee, Moore, and Seymour was so full of the writhing body of the Church Militant that the porch collapsed in on itself, and the ersatz congregation found itself relocated to a dilapidated former African Methodist Episcopal Church on Azusa Street. From its new headquarters, Seymour’s preaching became a movement.

At Azusa Street, Seymour’s flock was racially integrated, much to the outrage of both conservative Los Angeles and also Seymour’s mentor, Parham, who would later be felled in a gay sex scandal. The congregation was theologically diverse as well, initially drawing Quakers, Presbyterians, and Mennonites, in addition to members of the Wesleyan Holiness Movement that served as the germinating seed of Pentecostalism. During the revival–which has operated continually for the last 111 years–there were reports of not just glossolalia, but xenoglossy and faith healing as well. Though the church itself only ever accommodated a few dozen people at a time, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims made their way to the Los Angeles ghetto so that they, too, could drink in the spirit that had once descended upon the Apostles of Christ. One participant in the earliest days of the Azusa Street Revival, as reported to the missionary writer Frank Bartleman, claimed that a multitude “have come here from all parts, have humbled themselves and got down, not ‘in the straw,’ but ‘on’ the straw matting, and have thrown away their notions, and have wept in conscious emptiness before God and begged to be ‘endued with power from on high.’” Another claimed that “Suddenly the Spirit would fall upon the congregation. God himself would give the altar call. Men would fall all over the house like the slain in battle, or rush for the altar en masse, to see God. The scene often resembled a forest of fallen trees,” for here in this old church in Los Angeles, “All was spontaneous, ordered of the Spirit.” This worshiper conveys the terrifying aspect of theophany, using metaphors of militarism and felled forests.

All that was lost on the beat journalist and headline writers for The Los Angeles Times, for whom this integrated crowd was “Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which no sane mortal could understand.” Describing the church as a “tumble-down shack on Azusa Street,” the penitents were “devotees of the weird doctrine” who were practicing “fanatical rites,” and preaching “the wildest theories,” having worked themselves “into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal.” The author, racial dog-whistle firmly in mouth, compares this mixture of “Colored people and a sprinkling of whites” to a primitive bacchanal. He writes of the “howlings of worshipers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.” Just so nobody could accuse the editors of subtlety, the headline read “WEIRD BABLE OF TONGUES: New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose.”

Despite, or perhaps because of the disdain in which the reporter held the Azusa Street gathering, Seymour’s revival provides the template for subsequent movements of the Holy Spirit in North American religious history, from the Toronto Blessing, which occurred at a Vineyard Church in 1994, to the Brownsville Revival a year later and the Lakeland Revival in 2008. Since Seymour’s gathering, Pentecostalism has gained almost half-a-billion adherents, across the global south of Christendom—only slightly fewer in number than all other Protestant sects combined. It is by far the fastest-growing denomination in the world. Even Roman Catholics have gotten filled with the Spirit, when in 1966 a group of Duquesne University students on retreat experienced the supposed gifts of the spirit, inaugurating the movement known as Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a development which has been warily eyed by the Vatican as a potential means to stave off conversions to Pentecostalism in both Latin America and Africa.

There are reasons for the popular and disdainful caricature of Pentecostalism: that it is irrational, superstitious, dangerous. The prosperity gospel, which many contemporary Pentecostal churches encourage, is as pernicious a bit of market idolatry as has ever been promoted, a consummately heretical doctrine. And the monarchical model of church governance can cede so much sovereignty to the individual pastor that a racially egalitarian-minded minister like Seymour can dangerously alter into a cult leader like Jim Jones. And, of course, in the modern political context charismatic churches, like others, can embrace any number of retrograde and condemnable positions from institutionalized homophobia to misogyny. In a word, Pentecostalism’s politics can be dubious.

But we would do well not to forget the utopian impulse of Seymour’s initial revival, the spiritual genius that fully enacted Paul’s teaching that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female.” As historian Randall J. Stephens explain,s “The Holy Ghost seemed to be available to all worshipers, regardless of age, color, or sex.” For Seymour there was neither black nor white, there was neither poor nor rich, and indeed there was neither male nor female, for he recognized the complete religious authority of women both a religiously and politically radical position.

Besides, a Dionysian creed like Pentecostalism, whatever its conscious overtures to conservatism might be, will have unconscious attractions to antinomianism. Pentecostalism claims to be a religion of Sunday morning, but in its ecstatic heart it knows that it belongs to Saturday night. Scholar Peter W. Williams in his Popular Religion in America explains that while “practices [such] as drinking, gambling and non-marital sexuality fall under taboo in daily life, structurally similar practices become positively sacred when performed in a sacred context.” For a more personal confirmation of that observation, consider J. Rodman Williams, professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, who described his own conversion in the spirit, one day in 1965, by explaining that he “began to ejaculate sounds of any kind, praying that somehow the Lord would use them…. Wave after wave, torrent after torrent, poured out. It was utterly fantastic I was doing it and yet I was not… Tears began to stream down my face – joy unutterable, amazement incredible.” Interpreting this doesn’t require much complex Freudian psychoanalysis, does it?

We must not obscure the sheer radicalism of Azusa, even if we can keep the conservatism of its descendants at arm’s length, for Seymour embraced a fundamental truth at that Second Pentecost – that in religious ecstasy there is an erasure of borders. It’s not for nothing that a Chicago newspaper writing about Parham’s Kansas church in 1900 ran with the headline “occupants of topeka mansion talk in many queer jargons.” Essayist Anthony Heilbut in a February 2017 Harper’s article elaborates that “For generations, poor gay boys have flocked to Pentecostalism — the denomination of the working class… because worship therein allowed an intensely expressive devotion that would be frowned on anywhere else.” Pentecostal academic and writer H. Vinson Synan reflects on glossolalia at the moment of his conversion by explaining that, “Here was an experience that truly cast aside the constraints of human convention and gave free rein to the Spirit. In ecstatic speech the action of human agency was completely denied, and the basic structure of language was itself set aside.” If so much of institutional religion is precisely about defining who is elect and not, what is allowed in and who is left behind, that which is pure and that which is unclean, than Seymour understood that there is liberation from those systems in bliss, that speaking in tongues allows us to briefly translate our emotion into the very language of heaven. That novel tradition sees emancipation from language itself as the abolishment of those very systems which serve to enslave us. Not for nothing, but it was Pentecostalism’s rhythms that inspired rock and roll–Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart were first cousins, after all. Saturday night and Sunday morning, all in one.

If glossolalia operates as a kind of obscured idée fixe upon the Christian consciousness, then I’ll go a step further and say that it’s at the very core of human communication itself. Again, this is a not a singular practice, but a universal one. That is to say that to build meaning out of sounds unrelated to an objective world is not just a question of semiotics, but at the very core of Being, which theology makes its provenance. A veritable golden thread of similarity connects speaking in tongues not just to that first Pentecost from the New Testament’s book of Acts, but back deep into ancient human history, and possibly to even the beginnings of language itself. Despite our own preconceptions as to whom it is that speaks in tongues, it is a shockingly common activity. For though we may individually speak English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Arabic, Latin, or Hebrew, from what charged field of comprehensible nonsense did such tongues arise? From what primordial soup of untethered sounds, phonemes like amino acids organized out of chaotic disarray, did meaning first evolve? For whatever exegete can offer her correct interpretation of the following paragraph shall have fully anatomized the tongues of fire:

U aei eis aei ei o ei ei os ei.[1] Ah pe-am t-as le t-am te ;pp/O ne vas ke than sa-na was-ke/lon ah ve shan too/Te wan-se ark e ta-ne voo te/lan se o-ne voo/Te on-e-wan tase va ne woo te was-se o-ne van/Me-le wan se o oar ke-le van te/shom-ber on vas sa la too lar var sa/re voo an don der on v-tar loo-cum an la voo/O be me-sum ton ton ton tol a wav – er tol-a wac-er/ton ton te s-er pane love ten poo.[2] Terema Suremi ki si janda o t, tra o te tre o te ras√u r ́lidZi, Si kajanda, rIpiti rQili bUu Sak t ́ sala ma ra, ka l ́ ba Z ́ p ́resi ji ana so, tu l ́ bijando, bŒm ma hu t√u kera ba lQndo rÅdZ ́ di ki biabi ba tru sil lil j, i o prQi ba, bo ri si ri Ql Ini Qi In Si di ma h√mb√u Åstraja.[3] A.a.o. – o.o.o. – i.i.i. – ee. E. – u.u.u. – ye. Ye. Ye./Aa, la ssob, li li l ulu ssob./Scjumschan/Wichoda, kssara, gujatun, gujatun./io,ia, – o – io, ia, zok, io, ia, pazzo! Io, la, pipazzo! Sookatjema, soosuoma, nikam, nissam, scholda./Paz, paz, paz, paz, paz, paz, paz, paz!/Pinzo, pinzo, pinzo, dynsa./Schono, tschikodam, wikgasa,mejda./Boupo, chondyryama, boupo, galpi./Euachado, rassado, ryssado, azlyemo./io, ia, o. io, ia, zok. Io nye zolk, io ia zolk.[4] gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori /gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini /gadji beri bin blassa glassala laula lonni cadorsu sassala bim /gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligla wowolimai bin beri ban /o katalominai rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo /gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen /bluku terullala blaulala loooo.[5] Boo bi yoo bi, Bi yu di di ooh dun, dabba oohbee, Boo di yoo di, Di yu di dee dee doohdun, di di oohnbee, Bu di yu dan dan dan, Dee boognbee, Aheedee doo doo abbi woo do ee, Woah ba bee ba bap beya oh, Ein bap bap dein. [6]

Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

As a sound poem it ranges across centuries and thousands of miles, including a bit of transcribed glossolalia from an apocryphal Coptic Egyptian gospel, presumably a record of the actual utterances of some ecstatic worshipper in the earliest days of Christianity, a transcription of a Shaker named Jack who was slayed by the spirit on a cool fall day, October 6th 1847, as surely as Parham or Seymour or Jerry Lee Lewis would be a century hence; a linguist’s transcription of Pentecostal glossolalia; the 1836 transcription by a man named I. Sakharov of Russian shamans’ tongue-speaking, which was latter refashioned into a modernist sound poem by the avant-garde Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov; his contemporary the Dadaist writer Hugo Ball’s classic bit of nonsense verse “Gadji beri bimba,” which was later set to music by the Talking Heads; and of course, the incomparably sweet scat singing of Ella Fitzgerald.

The genre of comprehensible nonsense is a wide one, and its practitioners similarly so. One could certainly hypothesize literal connections of influence between ritualized glossolalia and some of these examples of cultural production – it is not a stretch to conjecture that scat singing draws directly from tongue-speaking in the black church; that Khlebnikov was directly inspired by the strange utterances of the Russian shamans recorded a century beforehand is a fact. And yet the wide breadth of the phenomenon testifies to the impossibility of direct influence in all cases. The Zurich cafes where Ball shaped his aural sound sculpture are far from the steppes where Sakharov communed with central Asian animists, which are far from the recording studio in New York where Fitzgerald recorded “How High the Moon.”

If any plucky linguist would care to analyze the admixture of phonemes in each of those seven individual samples they would no doubt find that the Siberian nonsense sounds a bit Turkic, Ball’s a bit German, Fitzgerald’s a bit English. But what unites all these worshipers is a faith in aural abstraction, in the production of language reduced to sound, and thus elevated to truth. Glossolalia is to speech what abstract expressionism is to art, representation stripped to its bare essence. Speaking in tongues is thus the purest poetry. Bloom writes that for the Pentecostal slain in the Spirit everything “falls away… for where the Spirit is, there can be nothing else.” Bloom describes a type of kenosis, as does the Sufi nun who wished she could burn down heaven and let the cool waters of paradise quench the flames of hell, so that people would worship God only for Himself. Similarly, in severing meaning from language we can indulge in those pure qualities of sound itself. For those quoted in my nonsense paragraph, meaning has been replaced by sound, and in that interpolation there is, paradoxically, all the more sense.

Like those portions of Ezekiel forbidden to the exegetes of Midrash, the parsing of tongues is an impossibility. Meaningful nonsense has no sentences to diagram, no New Critical close readings that are possible. The gifts of spirit are as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s fabled and impossible “private language,” an idiom known only to God and the speaker (and maybe not even the speaker). Each one of the disciples had achieved that purest of literary abstractions, their own language only comprehensible to a readership of one, a solipsistic private language shared only by the poet and his audience of the Lord. What, I wonder, is the connection between the earliest of language and this phenomenon? Was it from similarly meaningful nonsense that actual language itself evolved on some Tanzanian field?

We take it as a given that religion is born out of language, but perhaps we have it backward. Maybe all tongues were originally sacred, maybe all tongues were that mystical nonsense, and meaning only froze out of them as the ecstatic temperature dropped. Maybe baboon-faced Thoth’s first words were simply divine nonsense; perhaps in the beginning the Word was unpronounceable. The spiritual acumen of the tongue-speaker is that they enact that primordial idiom; and the wisdom of the tongue-speaker is that who the tongue belongs to is irrelevant. They are but a vessel through which glorious nonsense pours through, for the medium is most emphatically not the message. In fact, what the message is at all becomes complicated. That is the deep, primal, truth about glossolalia: that theological truth can’t ever be expressed in literal language, but rather only through imperfect metaphor and limited vocabulary. However, some truths can be expressed in language, provided that that tongue is beyond both the literal and the metaphorical, in some other accent. The Zaleskis write that the charismatic traditions have given “birth to something never before witnessed, except by the apostles: a tongue co-created by God and human to offer praise on high, to drench the heart in joy, and, it may be, to confound the nonbelievers.” Though I be a nonbeliever, I, too can paradoxically find joy in my confounding.

The wisdom of glossolalia is that it knows God is not a noun, but a verb. The Spirit is a great emergence of divine truth that bursts forth from entrails and surges up out of the stomach through the throat and out the mouth. Speaking in tongues is an overabundance of this Spirit, a spontaneous overflow of pure feeling that, like logorrhea or love, is an untamable energy that can’t be circumscribed in simple formulas or sentences. In speaking in tongues we liberate ourselves, we embrace a foolish wisdom, we utter the very syllables of the divine.

[1] From the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, also informally known as the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians. Discovered at the Nag Hamadi site in Egypt, 1945.

[2] The Shaker “Jack” at Holy Ground, October 6th 1847, recorded in Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetic anthology Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Romantic and Post-Romantic Poetry.

[3] Transcribed Pentecostal “gifts of the spirit,” as gathered by the linguist Heather Kavan.

[4] “Northern Russian incantations from an 1836 gathering recorded by I. Sakharov and brought to later attention by Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov,” as quoted in Rothenberg’s anthology.

[5] Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poem “Gadji beri bimba.”

[6] “How High the Moon,” performed by Ella Fitzgerald.

Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.