I have something in common with Sarah Palin: I have spoken in tongues.
The “gifts of the Holy Spirit” descended on my household when I was 11. We were Episcopal but it didn’t seem to get in the way. My mother went first, becoming what was then known as a “charismatic Christian.” She baptized me in it, grabbing my head in a rash moment and praying fervently in indecipherable verbiage. I was terribly embarrassed at first, but then the experience swept over me with a crash of light and the singing of angels and I thought it was pretty cool. It was such a mystical, even Gnostic, experience that I have never figured out how it could strike conservatives like my mother and her friends and people like the GOP VP nominee.
There are seven “gifts” of the Holy Spirit but the two that are important here are speaking in tongues and casting out demons. The demon thing is like exorcism, but without the white collar and the celibacy and the swiveling head. The notion of speaking in tongues (the technical term – yes, there is a technical term – is glossalalia) comes from the story of the Pentecost, when the HS descended on the Apostles and they spoke in the tongues of other nations, languages they did not know but were known by the scores of people gathered around them. (Acts 2:1-12)
Every summer in Denver, there used to be a week-long conference called the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (FGBFI). My mom took me to it the first year I “received” the HS. I remember walking into the grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel where thousands of people waited to hear the speakers. It was noisy. And behind the doors I had just come through was a gaggle of people who seemed to be choking a young guy in his 20s. They had their eyes closed and their voices were loud and scolding. Later I learned this was “the laying on of hands,” and they were in fact casting out demons — they weren’t choking him, his demons were. And they were doing it by speaking in tongues (the good tongues, of course) while Beelzebub was choking bad tongues out of him.
The FGBFI’s more structured mysteries came during the prayer time of the conference, when during a long moment of silence, someone who was “moved by the Holy Spirit” would jump up and let loose with a flurry of sounds, strings of syllables that sounded like Chinese crossed with French. After they were done, someone on the other side of the room would stand up and give it to us all in English, at least their version. Most of it sounded quite churchy, naturally — “God said this and God said that.” Then, as now, I thought it was at best far-fetched. It reminded me of that miraculous moment when Kris Kringle speaks Dutch to a little refugee in “Miracle on 34th Street” or Katharine Hepburn indulges in casual multi-lingual outbursts in “Woman of the Year.” Wouldn’t we all just love to have sudden super powers, even if they were just linguistic?
The problem is that people who believe this, think that the Word of God is, well, all-powerful. It can do anything. They purport to be channeling it. So what could go wrong? How could that not be a good thing?
Yes, we’d all like Walker or Steven Segal or even Sly Stallone to step into the breach and just blast away our woes, and we’d all be relieved if the sword of God swept down on Wall Street or Washington and brought justice (and then of course, set everything back up with the neatness of houses and hotels on a Monopoly board).
Sadly, things are complex and man and woman do not live by strident political-religious doctrine alone. And the strategy of judging who won by who shouted the loudest and longest has only got us all stirred up. As Virginia Woolf said about another arena of existence, politics is not a football game. At least not now it isn’t.
My dalliance with things “charismatic” lost its verve when I was 13 and a visiting preacher prayed over me in tongues and interpreted her own sayings to mean that I was a child of the devil. Later, I found out that it was because I was wearing jeans; in conservative religious circles, pants of any kind on girls were considered evil. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in various spiritual disciplines. I was a Neo-Pagan for a decade and practiced the chant-for-a-car version of Buddhism (nichiren shoshu). But really, my beliefs and aspirations boil down to “seeing clearly,” “telling the truth” and “doing no harm.” Now those would be planks in a political party platform that I could get behind.
Val Moses has written for The Los Angeles Times, The Rocky Mountain News and Urban Land magazine.