If the young songstress Katy Perry seems a bit weird—and she certainly does—she definitely comes by it honestly. In this excerpt from her forthcoming interview with Katie Couric, Perry, former Christian singer whose most recent hit is the popular song "I Kissed a Girl," talks about her parents’ move from being gross ’60s hippies to charismatic "pentecostal" Christians:
Prompted by Couric (who clearly sees this as salacious material), Perry talks about the practice of "speaking in tongues," in which people babble sounds no one can understand, supposedly under the control of the Holy Spirit. Many pentecostal Christians consider this practice to be definitive proof of one’s status as a Christian, and the lack of it to be proof that one is not truly saved, while the great majority of Christians have little interest in the practice or openly disbelieve in claims that it is divinely inspired.
Certainly the practice of speaking in tongues looks very, well, crazy, to anyone who is not a devotee of the practice. It definitely makes some unbelievers quite wary about Christianity in general.
In fact, such activities allow people to think the entire Christian belief system must be hooey if it involves such obviously mad behavior. Add in snake-handling, faith-healing, ecstatic loss of body control, and other such alleged manifestations of God, and you present a seriously disturbing image of Christianity to the great unwashed of the world. That is surely not good evangelism, which would seem to be strong evidence against these practices really being divinely inspired.
I’m very skeptical of these practices. Given that the Great Commission of Jesus Christ to all believers is to go out and bring the Gospel to everyone, any activities that make Christianity seem perverse or absurd must surely contradict his directive. And these charismatic practices certainly do precisely that, however sincere and well-intentioned their adherents may be.
In addition, it’s clear that this matter of speaking in tongues is probably a serious misunderstanding of the point of the original biblical passages about it. The biblical passages make it clear that the "tongues" spoken under this gift are languages unknown to the speaker, but in none of the biblical passages about this gift is it stated that the tongues are unknown to anyone but God, that they are not real languages used by human beings somewhere or other.
On the contrary, the description of the receiving of this gift at Pentecost makes it perfectly clear that these are real languages spoken by people of the time and that the purpose of the gift was to enable Christians to communicate with others outside their own language group, as recorded in chapter 2 of the book of Acts:
4 [They] began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
The other passages in which the practice is mentioned concur with this understanding, that the tongues spoken were real human languages and the gift was given to allow Christians to preach the gospel to people who spoke different languages. It was a gift designed to increase evangelism. The modern pentecostal manifestation of this practice, by contrast, pushes many (I’d say the great majority of) people away from Christianity.
Little wonder that Miss Perry seems a bit conflicted about the faith in which she was raised. Any reasonably thoughtful person should be, if this is what Christianity is purported to be.
I find the practice dubious for both reasons, Anthony, and I see no point in suppressing one of those reasons because some Christians might waste time arguing over it unduly. If any choose to do so, that’s their fault, not mine.
Plus, I think it’s an important matter to acknowledge, in that this practice is a serious turnoff for perfectly reasonable unbelievers who would otherwise be more inclined to see Christianity in a more favorable light. If that were not so, I would indeed not place much emphasis on this aspect of the situation. But it is.
In response to your response:
If your real concern is that the practice is unreasonable, I would just stick with that and not bother with arguing whether or not the world finds it unreasonable. It’s been my experience that Christians waste far too much time arguing over whose actions and beliefs are more likely to be a turn-off to non-believers. Obviously, the first priority is to discern which side is in possession of the true doctrine. Then we can decide how to preach that doctrine convincingly to the world.
Wayne, Paul does not say that the tongues to which he refers are not real languages. They could, for example, be real languages that none of the observers understand. And certainly nowhere does he indicate that what he is describing is anything like the kind of mad thing we see involved in “speaking in tongues” in the modern United States. Moreover, even if one were to concede it possible that in some cases the tongues are a way of “speaking to God”, that certainly doesn’t mean that all or even a small percentage of purported instances are that.
Thus those who claim these activities are a manifestation of God have all the burden of proof. So you’ve got to overcome both the Biblical objections and the observational ones, that they do no discernible good and much obvious harm. That is not at all true of the other types of manifestations of Christian behavior.
However, I am perfectly content for you to have your own thinking on this as long as you don’t claim that the skeptical Christian point of view on the practice is not biblical. On nonessentials, liberty, is my belief, but that includes the right (in fact, the requirement) to question one another’s practices critically and politely, as I did in my original piece.
I think we would agree that the gist of 1 Cor 14 is that prophesy is a more important gift that tongues. Why does Paul say that? Precisely because nobody else understands the tongues. Which contradicts your original point. So does vs23 which indicates that outsiders do not understand the tongues. It appears that what they were doing in Corinth was not the same thing that happened at Pentecost. Also note in vs 18-19 Paul says that he speaks in tongues which he contrasts to communicating to other people. So there’s three places which Scripture DOES show that at least sometimes the gift of tongues does not communicate to people.
Thanks for your suggestion, Anthony, and I greatly appreciate your concern for my well-being. However, I have not argued that everything that looks stupid to the world is a bad practice, merely that everything that looks stupid to the world for good reason is a bad practice. The ones I mention appear to fit that category quite well. As you say, the cross was “foolishness to the Greeks,” but so were many things that were indeed foolish. To ignore that is to commit the fallacy of reverse accident.
Regardless of whether tongues are comparable to baptism, may I suggest that you be more cautious in your argument that if (a) a particular tradition makes Christianity look stupid to the world, then (b) it follows that said practice must be wrong.
Considering that Christians have been offending and confusing the world since the days of Christ, and that the Cross is “foolishness to the Greeks,” I suggest that either you find a very strong argument in support of your thesis, or that you scrap the thesis altogether and find a better argument against speaking in tongues, etc.
Otherwise, if you keep heading down the road of your present reasoning, you might run yourself into a corner.
Thanks for your comment, Wayne. It’s odd that you would mention that passage from Corinthians, given that the section in which it appears explicitly criticizes people for speaking in unknown tongues and exhorts them instead to bring understandable knowledge, prophecy, and words of instructions to others:
“1Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 2For anyone who speaks in a tongue[a] does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.[b] 3But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5I would like every one of you to speak in tongues,[c] but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues,[d] unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
“6Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. 12So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.
“13For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. 16If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand[e] say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 17You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.
“18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
Paul goes on to conclude that tongues “are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” That means that they are for communicating the Gospel to those whose language one does not share.
As to your observation that “baptism, communion, belief in the devil, belief in miracles” make Christians seem absurd to unbelievers, I think you are equating a warm blanket and a blowtorch. Certainly unbelievers disagree with the things you mention, but none of these practices or ideas involve people barking at the moon, fainting, shouting nonsense, convulsing, handling poisonous snakes, or enacting incredible instances of instantaneous healing. To compare orderly activities such as baptism and communion to such practices is frankly absurd.
You say that no Biblical passage indicates that tongues are unknown to anyone but God. But that is exactly what 1 Cor 14:2 does say. BTW, I personally do not have the gift of tongues.
More seriously, you claim that “any activities that make Christianity seem perverse or absurd must surely contradict” the command to evangelize. That would include baptism, communion, belief in the devil, belief in miracles, and a bunch of other practices that secular people find “perverse or absurd”.
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