My college roommate spoke in tongues. She would tell me about her talk in the mornings. Lying in bed the night before, she had been saying her prayers. She told me this as I pulled on a sweater, interrupted to ask if she’d seen my keys.
God had compelled her to get out of bed, kneel on our buckled scuffed floors and speak nonsense. I slept unknowing in a room down the hall, near a dry-rotted window that let in the cold.
And then, it just happened, Vera said. She paused to pull on a bright crocheted hat, a wee pair of jeans, a robin’s-egg peacoat. At breakfast, she spread peanut butter on toast, ignoring her slight peanut allergy. She slid to class with me on ice, two of her slipping strides to one of mine. We went beneath the American elms. Her report continued.
She’d spoken what sounded like nonsense. She’d spoken what could have been a language, but one she did not know. There in her room among motley belongings—a squat bottle of port, impressionist drawings, a packet of chalks, a love-worn stuffed phoenix—she spoke out of control. More quickly than if she were making up gibberish, the syllables faster and fluent. No thought in between them. And not entirely like English: some throatier consonants, pursed vowels.
Some Christians are cessationists. They (we?) believe that the tongues and healings stopped years ago. We are no longer guaranteed miracles. God didn’t want to be obvious—we had to take Him on faith.
But then this odd threat, a hall’s length away.
William J. Samarin, a linguist, recorded five years of Pentecostal services and concluded that tongue-speaking is learned behavior. It is units of speech, created by accent, rhythm, and breaths. There is no clear grammar. But the sounds, whether puckered or round, liquid or guttural, come from the speaker’s native language. He compares the patterns to the choruses of lullabies, the scatting of jazz, the conjuring charms of spells. Words nearly surface. And yet, speaking in tongues is “only a facade of language, although at times a very good one indeed . . . neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives.” It comes easily to some and is more difficult for others.
If it isn’t divine, asks Samarin, then why do people keep speaking in tongues? For social status: to prove that they are in touch with God. To please a pastor. To introduce spontaneity into worship. To express oneself: tongues are poetry, music. For intellectual satisfaction: created proof of what is believed.
You’ve got to keep yourself sane at all costs. Sounds harsh, and it is. But consider the subway, hurtling fast over rats, already an unhinged endeavor. Make it by ignoring those who curse the invisible, laugh at unheard jokes. Don’t mind the woman, surrounded by sacks, who makes untoward eye contact. Or the man who screams unbidden, iced coffee underfoot, a make-believe cell phone to his ear. There is a man who asks again and again when I am returning to Greenwich, Connecticut. “When are you going back where you come from?” I am white and in business clothes, so he has made the leap. “I’ve never been to Greenwich,” I explain. But that logic doesn’t work on the train. A man bends over and spits out chunks of bread onto the floor of the speeding car.
Sounds cruel. Aboveground we know all the words for poverty, schizophrenia, bipolar, disorder. We know what conditions put people on the trains, conditions we are complicit in; we know which medications might help. But don’t tell me that you don’t do it, too, when you are faced with what seems crazy—stay away from the delusion, protect your peace of mind.
After Jesus’s death, some of his followers were meeting together when a rushing wind blew through the house church. Streaks of flame flickered and dissipated; witnesses claimed they looked like tongues. Sulfur smells, ash flakes, suddenly noise: the disciples started speaking other languages. Crowds from Egypt and Rome came to hear their own words being spoken by men from Galilee, who shouldn’t have known them. Some assumed that the men were drunk on new wine. Peter the disciple protested; it was only nine in the morning.
He stood and explained what was happening—a rush of messianic belief foretold by Jewish prophets. He told the story of a newly risen Jesus and his inclusive miracles: available to Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free, from all countries and cultures. Now, he proclaimed, God would live in His people in the form of a mysterious spirit—a small, burning thing kept close. Beneath the breastbone. In the neurons. Within the metaphorical heart. It empowered Christians to do good and, sometimes, to enact miracles. The Holy Spirit: that strange, quicksilver member of the Trilogy who somehow inhabits human beings, guiding, interceding, a conscience with personality.
Swayed by the power of adjectives and verbs, pushed into belief by exclamations, three thousand listeners were baptized that day. They heard about Jesus in nouns they knew, from people who shouldn’t have been able to say them. They were dipped in a river, convinced.
Vera spoke in tongues most often during a difficult year. That’s how she explained it to me. An ex-boyfriend kept trying to ingratiate himself. Fight-sounds coursed through the night, after he’d “missed the bus” back to his place. A book hit the wall, thrown: or just the floor, bumped? That thud and their cries came through our old plaster. I lingered outside her door, wondering when to knock, what my pretense might be.
He was in love with Vera, but he wasn’t a Christian. He didn’t want to go to church or pray. Vera, so many times, collapsed on her bed, cheeks bright from crying. “I love him. But we shouldn’t be together.”
In that year when she was lonely, Vera went to the campus museum and looked at religious art, dark-stroked paintings of Madonnas, sculptures of saints in postures of agony. She wrote poetry to God and drew pictures while she prayed, wide lines of color with our pencils and crayons. She played with rosary beads, counting them out. She even wrote a play about a woman who spoke in tongues. And then she spoke in tongues herself.
The glossolalic space was our shared suite, her bedroom especially. She spoke by her blue-and-green quilt. I flopped down on it, all times of day, to give voice to routines and secrets. Some friendships are silent. Not ours. We shared towels and toothpaste, bathrooms with chipped tubs and showers that got hot, so cold, nothing in between. We talked to each other with one person in the shower and one person on the toilet, shared the mirror while one person (the shorter) tweezed eyebrows and one person (the taller) applied mascara.
We came up with a question: “What are the salient points?” What did your life consist of today? This could mean theological puzzles; literary theory; a new television sitcom; advances from a crush; greasy pierogi in the dining hall; bad grades and green secrets and phone calls home to the West, where we came from. Whatever was internal and recursive became external, picked at.
We ran through the salient points with our laundry, carrying baskets down to the basement, taking the boiler-room shortcut. We walked to classes together, on cobblestones, through bad grass and between steeples. We went on eight retreats for our college ministry: ate cornbread, taught the Bible, sat in highway grass when the bus broke down. They never assigned us to the same bunkroom; we were too close, and needed to meet others. We finagled our way onto the list for a humor magazine party, and danced on a banquet table under blazing candelabras. Vera lit a cigarette off one of the tapers. We sat next to each other in Shakespeare lecture, in the fall when we’d both broken up with our boyfriends. When we read The Winter’s Tale, we fixated on Paulina’s speech, memorized and recited it. I, an old turtle / Will wing me to some withered bough and there / My mate, that’s never to be found again, / Lament till I am lost. When we got to Coriolanus, we circled all the lines for Volumnia. She reminded us of my ex-boyfriend’s mother.
Queries, questions, and jokes. Friendship in sentences, participles. Only through language could I know what I know. She was raised in Pasadena. She is bisexual, but only dates men. She studied dead languages like Latin and Greek, as well as ancient history. I’d hear her in the common room, reciting vocabulary like incantations. She wrote beautiful columns for the school newspaper. Wore a bright purple wig on her twenty-first birthday, was invited on stage by the band at the tavern. She played the tambourine for them, her tiny body keeping the beat, earrings clipped on her holeless ears, sang bird-bright and bold, just like in church. One year, she slicked her face in glitter and did experimental theater. Vera came to my choir concerts, told me that three hours of St. Matthew Passion was a spiritual odyssey. Everyone else’s friends had fallen asleep at hour two. She told me, again and again, that I was valuable. That my salient things were really salient, the right stuff of the life we were living together.
Why would God abandon order for chaos? To show us we are nothing? Tongues, lips, palates, His playthings all?
When she was speaking in tongues, said Vera, she felt cogent and controlled. The power to stop speaking was always hers. The cognitive load was so light. The words were inspired. She just didn’t know what they were supposed to mean. She trusted that someday she would.
I’d watch Vera talk to herself, in the bathroom and even on the street. Practice conversations and presentations, go over what she would say in the next night’s fight. She was inclined to loquacity. She’d twist her long, blond hair in her hands and test how words would feel in her mouth, stop twisting and make a gesture.
The glossolalia happened at night, half in dreams, and yet she attributed it to God. I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t want to be sure. We all have those twilight moments, dream-state glitches in the world’s reality, misfirings.
Kansas, 1901. A church emerged under Charles F. Parham. The preacher opened a faith-healing home and published his own magazine, The Apostolic Faith. Parham also founded a school, Bethel Bible College.
On New Year’s Day, one of Parham’s students, a Wisconsin farm girl named Agnes Ozman, received the Holy Ghost. The next day, according to Agnes, a Czech congregant at one of the Topeka services understood her testimony. Indistinguishable syllables flew from her mouth. Two days later, twelve of her peers started speaking. Parham, thankful on his knees, joined the holy conversation. The Apostolic Faith movement was born. Gradually, adherents took a name from Pentecost.
1906, the Azusa Street Revival. William Seymour, Louisiana-born preacher, son of two former slaves, student of Charles Parham, moved to Los Angeles. So many people came to hear him teach that the front porch of the home he was staying in collapsed. He moved his meetings to an old church on Azusa, strewn with construction trash.
Seymour believed that all Christians should have tongues, because all true Christians have the Spirit inside them. The LA Times reported: “night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying . . . in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.”
Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry still exists, an unaccredited school in Redding, California with over 2,000 students. In 2017, Buzzfeed wrote a piece about it. Millennials train as prophets and healers. Most stay for two years. The Biblical stories are still possible. Miracles can cause conversion. Students lay hands on sores and casts, and pray for people in the grocery store. “They film themselves trying to raise the dead and post the footage on YouTube,” the article reports.
The pastor at our church, which meets in the Cambridge YMCA, says Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religion in history. Over a quarter of Christians now identify as such. Vera and I fill vats of coffee with water in the janitorial closet, bend to tape the cords of electric guitars. As the clock ticks toward 9 am, the folding chairs fill with scientists and post-docs, and they lift their hands to the Lord.
William J. Samarin heard the unclassified. He listened to snake handlers in Appalachia, encountered roving bands of Jamaican pocomania. He attended large megachurches and small house meetings, heard speakers across sects, income brackets, and ethnicities. He estimates there are several million tongue-speakers. Most but not all call themselves Pentecostals. But the numbers can never be precise. “There are countless secret charismatics who have confessed their experience to no one or to only a few like-minded friends. They fear the consequence of disclosing their views.”
Samarin’s book holds scribbles and loops of indiscernible cursive—the transcription of tongues that some people take down. In the back, an appendix of gibberish. Kolama siándo, ama conda amus. Keamo deamo no ma diamos. Kelalaiyanano. Lo holo manata hileato ka hola lama nati leato.
Glossolalia, Samarin writes, has always been called an aberration. Especially in the early days, when most Pentecostals were poor, black, already disdained. Regression into childhood babytalk. Emotional psychobabble. Amnesia or trance, nothing serious.
But Samarin disagrees. This is Western rational bias. Other Christians are some of the harshest critics. “Is it simply because to the outsider glossolalia just makes no sense? And he cannot understand why anyone would want to make ‘non-sense.’”
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words: the story begins this way in Genesis. But peoples found a plain and decided to build. Their tower would reach the heavens. They shaped wet bricks, heated bitumen into mortar. With a building so tall, they assumed they would be on par with God, able to rule from the precipice. God scrambled the plan by “confusing their language”; they could no longer work together, unable to understand directions. The tower was called Babel, because that’s what the workers heard. The peoples splintered into linguistic groups and dispersed all over the earth.
We met when we were both eighteen, assigned by an office to the same room, both of us far from home. That first year, we lived in a room that was haunted. The campus ghost tour stopped outside it, a small mob of tourists, a guide in period dress with a lantern. Fragments of story floated up to our floor—two lovers, a fatal sleighing accident. We joked about how we’d scare the group, wave a sheet out the window and make booing sounds.
Are Vera’s tongues just another a ghost story? This spook is Holy. Supposedly, means us no harm.
I have a problem with the Pentecostal stance: that to be a Christian, you must produce glossolalia. Otherwise, you are out. A betrayal of language, designed to make sense, to instruct. Language I am trying to master in order to talk about my faith, straighten out its kinks with reason. I want the stories of flame in my Bible, all illogic, all miracle. But not here, not in my life. Nothing to be surprised by. How, then, will I understand it? How will I talk about it to others? How will I memorize the character of God through the spiritual sister he’s given me? If He wants to speak, why do so in confusion, the inchoate, fragmented whirlwind? This feels like human invention—designed to coerce and hurt. Past the line I draw.
A Nightline news crew visits a Pentecostal church in Gettysburg and tapes what they see. A man standing still. Muh muh muh muh muh muh. Another man lashes at consonants, wide-eyed. Most of the congregants, swaying, spitting, keep their eyes closed. A woman forces words that begin with “b,” her arms stretched almost out of their sockets.
Many speakers use their hands to punctuate line breaks, keeping time. They form circles with loosely held hands. Say-da-day-da-day. One man goes stiff and careens to the floor of a stage between clusters of floral arrangements; waiting arms catch and lower him.
“We’re mocked and made fun of,” says the church’s pastor. But the mockers, he says, are just inexperienced. They don’t know what it’s like to open your mouth and hear raw sounds spill out, stroke your teeth, trace your tongue, break you out in goosebumps. “God will use what sounds like gibberish,” he says. “Do you hear yourself?” asks the interviewer. “Oh yeah,” says the pastor. “Sometimes I think I sound like a total idiot.”
A Penn laboratory, and I am relieved—here are the scientists, come to explain. “It’s not regular language that would normally activate the frontal lobe,” says a man in a suit, at a desk, composed.
The pastor arrives at the lab. Blood taken, a needle slipped into his arm, probes stuck to his skull. “I don’t think faith has anything to be afraid of from science. Bring on the facts.”
First, the pastor prays in English. Then he is told to speak in tongues while the scientist peers at a vial of fluid. Apparently, the pastor can do this on command. He squints his eyes and begins, there on the papery table. Relicki lelim monosh um shoom, catili mimi apatonda. Another doctor, with a clipboard, stares.
The frontal lobe, which deals with language, is active when the pastor prays in English, a smattering of orange. The orange fades when he prays in tongues. Therefore, says the scientist, this is religious practice, consistent with the speaker’s perceived experiences. He’s not in control, not forming patterns in the pink matter.
“Is this truly the voice of God speaking through them? That’s a more problematic question.” No matter what the scientist finds in his lab, it can be incorporated into a discipline with chemical compounds, lines on a chart, and, ultimately, diagnosis—sociology, neurology, psychology, psychosis.
The clip cuts back to the church. It doesn’t matter either way, says the pastor. But it helps to have a little proof that we’re not crazy.
The video lives with others of its kind, but not from the nightly news. The Last Reformation, Renewal History, Truth in Genesis, GodWinsTV. Odd parts of religion, recorded, disseminated, presented to the masses as proof. But the very fact that they live on the web is discrediting. Gives the tongues darkness, insincerity, sordidness. They’re all labeled evidence: watch this, see, believe! As if it is so easy.
One video is put up by Secular Talk to prove that Christians are crazy. A clip of a Mississippi pastor, pacing at the front of an auditorium, sweaty, tangerine-colored, preaching for Trump, halleluiah he’s in office. “If somebody’s bound by demons, they don’t need the men in the white coats. They don’t necessarily need medication. They need somebody with authority and power and anointing that says be gone in the name of Jesus!” Clapping, hollering, halleluiah. The preacher squeals like a pig. “Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord! Shbababrosobababa!” The tongues begin, the crowd goes wild.
All over the internet they’re losing control over suspected signs from a god. Throwing up nonsense, stripping off clothes, sipping poison, faking healings, singing, often screaming. There’s Jim Jones, hair slick and mouth straight, healing a blind woman from his podium. In the wings, his accomplices bring out chicken offal, pretend that it is the tumor he excised. The Bhagwan with his sleepy eyes; followers naked, thrashing, raping, giving all their money away. People swayed by the supernatural, wanting to touch it, taste it, speak it.
I realize that this is what they did to Jesus. Disciples leaving their jobs and families, giving him all they had. Amassed crowds eating fishes and loaves he’d supposedly made from the air. Prostrating themselves; anointing his feet with tears and oil; touching his robes to stop issues of blood; packing in to hear him speak; asking him to come see their dead; calling him Messiah.
Don’t get too weird. Stay sane. Stay safe.
Friendship, a deep dive into neuroses, the particular smell of a sleep, long blond hair mixed with mine in the drain, our bobby pins all over the floor, fried chicken and feminine pads in the trash, the sounds of triple sneezes. She always sneezes in threes. An interpreter of choices. “What should I wear to the party? Can I talk out my thesis with you? What does God want me to do?” She asks me that question all the time, believing God can speak through me. And I believe God can speak through her, often in silence and gestures. When I’m sick, she brings me fruit smoothies. She buys the nice tissues, with lotion in them, instead of the cheap ones I’d get for myself. She says “I love you” and “thank you for being here,” offers kindness with ease. I know others envy our mismatched friendship: the tall and short bodies, minds all intertwined, walking through the Yard together.
The year after we graduate, Vera visits me in my new city. We walk to the art museum. As we go through the park, she tells me about the novel she’s writing. It is about abortion, souls of infants-to-be. Her high, clear voice turns urbanite heads, walking their dogs and admiring the gardens. It’s the kind of book that some would find inherently hateful, politically dangerous. But if you know Vera, you know it is neither; if you know her, you know that she is unafraid.
Vera doesn’t care about staying safe. She makes friends with the students at school who are lonely. She sets appointments with homeless men; they meet in coffee shops, she listens. She stays up late with a family member who suffers from mental illness, discussing whatever is on his mind: taxes, the paranormal. As odd as it gets, she’s along for the ride. She knows that this is where love resides.
Most glossolalia is public, says Samarin: congregations with clapping hands, stamping feet, chords of music, spins and twitches.
“In my name they will cast out demons,” said Jesus. “They will speak in new tongues.”
When tongues are spoken in public, an interpreter is needed. In a letter to the fledgling church at Corinth, Paul says only one person should speak in tongues at a time. And there should always be an interpreter, translating the speech into directions, messages, and prophecies. Without a translator, Paul fears believers will just show off, slurring their sounds and manufacturing emphases without consequences. If there’s no interpreter present, the tongue-speaker should stay silent.
Sometimes, the tongues come out privately, writes Samarin.
The private use of glossolalia is religious when its purpose is prayer . . . Pleasure may be part of the motivation for those who speak in tongues while washing dishes, walking, driving a car, or flying an airplane solo.
It is also not irrelevant that the people who recorded this kind of behavior, like the people who are diffident about using tongues in public, are better educated or successful in some career.
I don’t desire that total release. But, in a way, I envy it.
Vera sends me a recording of herself speaking in tongues. She made it once because she was curious. Plus, she wanted to get the tongues right in that play she was writing. I listen to it through headphones, uneasy although I am far away.
A tone of sweet voice I knew so well, with pitch like singing but not quite, like chanting but not quite. She quizzes me before English oral exams. We get ready for dances together, drinking big coffees in our underwear, curling the back parts of each other’s hair, checking each other’s teeth for lipstick, and always sharing, being known, coming to knowing.
This kind of speech she’s kept from me. Until now.
It takes humility, says Vera. It’s God demonstrating there are things going on that you yourself may not know about. Ideas and expressions not in your control. The real salient things, deeper than friends or the self can know.
The language is fast, gorgeous, tucked in the back of her throat, has hissing sounds, and sometimes has long notes, and short ones. Un gah, no, he he he, os pa. She calls out in English. “Lord, I am here!” she says. “I am here where you are.” I wonder where I was when this was happening. What would I have done if I heard this thing that honestly sounds like language, or meaning, that honestly feels divine? I might have run. I hear her swallow. I hear the hum of traffic in the back. Hum hum hum, bay-ah, up an yara. These days, Vera doesn’t speak in tongues as often. It had been an era of spiritual experiment.
That year we lived on JFK Street. We were twenty-one. We’d walk down the sidewalk to ogle dresses in shop windows, watch crew teams row. Bathe in quotidian flashcards, the street performer who only played Beatles songs, snowmelt, stress. Normal, and extraordinary, too. That year, we both met our future husbands. We learned in a place rich with history and felt that complexity in our bones. We grieved lost loved ones, and innocence not quite lost, but changed. We felt outside the lines, became angry, panicked, thought the wrong things, had to correct course. We tried to discern who God might be, who we were in the midst of that. A weird endeavor. But you know, everyone was doing it.