Tongues and Cartoons: Will they not say that you are out of your mind?

Oliphant: By Pat Oliphant, for September 9, 2008

Wherein I lament the failure to practice what good theology and biblical interpretation ought to have taught us: tongues-for-show only shows one thing: lunacy.

Surely, by now, everybody’s seen or at least heard of the WashingtonPost.com political cartoon by equal-opportunity skewer-artist Pat Oliphant that was automatically posted to the WP’s cartoon site on September 9 last. If you haven’t seen it, and if you are Pentecostal or charismatic, viewing it may make you angry. But if you feel so inclined, do check it out. (For coverage, check out the official A/G response, Christianity Today’s blog post, and the WorldNet Daily post quoting George O. Wood’s response.)

In it, governor Sarah Palin is lampooned as a typical kooky Pentecostal, hot-line to God in hand, standing before an appreciative audience, gibbering:

“Argle bargle glooka slobber blartogger gniff blerft gennikt klepwoop madurta wonka burble and like that …”

The Washington Post has apologized, of course, though not for accepting Oliphant’s cartoon (which they’re probably contractually obligated to do) but for its automatic posting to the newspaper’s comics Website.

Readers were right to complain … Political cartoons and comics aren’t selected at WashingtonPost.com the way they are for The Post in print; they are automatically posted.

Naturally, the religious right are furious — and none more so than my fellow Pentecostals. My own response upon first seeing it was disgusted disbelief that an intelligent political commentator/cartoonist could be so clueless about something so core to Pentecostal faith and practice.

But, then …

Now I’ve had a few days to mull it over, I think those of us inside the tongues-talking camp might benefit from a step back. Let us and breathe deeply for a moment, and consider: Oliphant’s political cartoon states nothing more than the truth from an outsider’s perspective — one that we should not only understand but expect. Especially when it’s our fault.

Yes, that’s right, I say it’s our fault.

I’m not saying that liberal angst over Palin is our fault, nor am I saying that the Democratic reaction against Palin is our fault. I’m simply saying that the public’s perception of Pentecostals as crazy wing-nuts babbling in tongues is entirely due to our undisciplined failure to practice church the way Paul recommended.

For years I’ve cringed every time I’ve heard one or another fired-up Pentecostal preacher literally demonstrate his or her ability to pray in tongues on command by shooting forth a nonsensical string of syllables and consonants recognizable as that peculiar Pentecostal patois of tongues and glossolalia. Public tongues and the abuse of tongues (and dare I say … the faking of tongues) has become so commonplace that we even joke about it in our inner circles. Once, my alma mater’s basketball team was on the road playing against a rival Pentecostal university. As legend had it, our travelling fans leaped to their feet with the rally, “We got the Spirit, yes we do! A-didi-a-didi how ’bout you?” Similarly, I’ve heard the wordplay bandied about, making fun of how cliché some of the sounds have become: “See me tie, see me tie my tie, see me tie my bow-tie,” or “Who stola my Honda?”

If we, ourselves, are taking tongues lightly, how can we be surprised when outsiders are dismissive as well?

Further, this is exactly the scenario Paul had in mind when he wrote this to the Corinthians:

“So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:24)

Yes, yes they will. And some of us will exclaim, “But of course they’ll think we’re crazy! They don’t get it! We’re being persecuted for righteousness’ sake!” But this is not Paul’s point, here. Being wronged for being right is one thing. Being wronged because you’re, well, wrong, is something else entirely.

Paul gave very clear direction on the the exercise of tongues as both a spiritual gift for the edification of the church but also as a private prayer language useful for personal edification. Our failure to recognize and heed those guidelines leads us to the situation we see with Oliphant and his cartoon: we have abused the gift of tongues, and the unbelievers think us mad.

Paul says tongues are for private use for personal edification and that any public exercise of tongues must be accompanied by an interpretation so that the listener may be edified and say “Amen.” Tongues, Paul says, are of no public use without an interpretation.

Tongues are not for public display of “religiosity” or to show off that one has favor with God. Tongues do not prove that one is divinely endowed or that one has special access to God. Tongues do not prove one’s holiness or spiritual “attainment.” But too often, they have become exactly that. A badge of honor and approval. If you have tongues, you’ve got “it.”

What’s worse, though — if you needed further demonstration that our current practice has strayed from the Biblical ideal — in typical Pentecostal congregations today, whenever someone speaks out loudly in tongues, the interpretation that follows (if there is one) is almost invariably is addressed to the church. It’s a message to the congregation. But, Paul clearly and plainly teaches in 1 Corinthians 14 that tongues are prayers directed toward God and that the interpretation, correctly given, will also be directed toward God. Tongues, when interpreted, are not identical to a prophecy. However, in our churches today, they are. (The tongues in Acts 2 required no interpretation because they were delivered in the hearers’ receptor language. The interpretation? “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” See Acts 2:5-13.)

If you disagree with me on these points, please read 1 Corinthians 12-14. Paul’s meaning is quite clear, and his words quite pointed.

I’m not angry at Pat Oliphant, the Washington Post, or their cartoon. I’m saddened, because that ‘toon is a mirror reflecting our failure to heed Scripture.

Rich

(PS: For an excellent discussion of the role of tongues, a defense of tongues, and the proper exercise of tongues with interpretation in the church, see “Biblical Glossolalia” William Graham MacDonald (Enrichment Journal).)

[tags]1-corinthians-12, 1-corinthians-13, 1-corinthians-14, aog, Assemblies-of-God, assembly-of-god, blogrodent, charismatic, glossolalia, palin, pat-olilphant, paul, pentecostal, political-cartoon, prayer, rich-tatum, sara-palin, speaking-in-tongues, spiritual-gifts, tongues, washington-post, washingtonpost, george-o-wood, general-superintendent, enrichment-journal, william-graham-macdonald, controversy[/tags]

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15 Responses to Tongues and Cartoons: Will they not say that you are out of your mind?

  1. Glen Davis says:

    I knew there was a reason I liked you, Rich. Fabulous post.

  2. 8rent says:

    Could it not well be that the logical follow-up question demands a serious reconsideration of “Pentecostal distinctive”? If we Pentecostals are identified (and, more often, self-identifying) chiefly in our willingness/ability to speak in tongues, and what you are positing about speaking in tongues is true (and that I would affirm), then shouldn’t we seriously reconsider Pentecostal praxis?

    In my opinion, our lack of a clear, thoughtful Pentecostal theology continues to be an albatross. What helped us unintentionally salvage recent Evangelical Christianity is now helping us run it headlong into the rocks of absurdity and irrelevance.

    Unfortunately, the ascendance of Sarah Palin has directed the spotlight on those who are not ready for prime time (with apologies to the original cast of SNL.)

  3. Common Swift says:

    I always cringe when the Holy Spirit comes under fire because I can’t help but think about the “unpardonable sin.” People parade tongues around as if to show they are ‘in’ with God, what a disgrace.

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  5. Hey Rich,

    at first I thought you were going to hammer the Washington Post, and I was preparing my thoughts to disagree. However, I was surprised as I continued reading. I grew up and still attend a pentecostal church. I agree with what you are saying. But how do we come to an agreement as to the role that tongues should have in our churches. I still find disagreement among pentecostal if tongues are the initial sign or not.

    Anyhow, I think that we have a lot of myths to dispel, and we need to continue to be able to articulate our positions much, much better. When I read that Christians do not want go beyond cliche’s and slogans, I think of how much more this is true of Pentecostals. Why are we so afraid to integrate theology into our churches? Why have we been so anti-intellectual? We need to address the issues we are facing today, and not retreat. We cannot just ignore where our society is headed.

    I enjoy your blog precisely because you are articulate, well read, and have a solid theological background. Sorry for drifting but I just think that this raises many questions.

  6. alc2402 says:

    Rich, you certainly attend more “wildfire” churches than I do :-) My A/G churches basically would surprise a lot of people that they are pentecostal at all.

    I also disagree with you that this is all our fault. I’ve seen all the abuses you have listed and even participated in some (when I was an usher at youth rallies we ushers used to place bets on when a certain person would give a message in tongues). However, I think that conversation should be done in house and not by Oliphant. What’s his claim to expertise about pentecostals? Is he one of us?

    Instead, I think the intention was to defame our movement and God in the process. As George Wood pointed out the real objection to this comic is how God is portrayed in it, not that Sarah Palin is speaking gibberish. If Oliphant wanted to make fun of us, he has plenty of material to work with. However, he crossed the line when he made fun of God, too.

    Consequently, I’m not assuming the “blame” for this piece. It was mean-spirited and derogatory. And, it’s not my idea of funny.

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  8. slw says:

    I think the directional madate you place on tongues is way overstated. We are commanded to test prophecy but with very little guidance as how to accomplish that, and yet you say that tongues (with interpretation) are subject to a more precise metric. If the direction is wrong so is the manifestion. That is not intimated anywhere in the NT. The reason the tongues speaker speaks to God is clearly given in scripture for anyone to see: “because no one understands him.” It is functional not directional, certainly not meant to be taken as a directional mandate. The purpose of intepretation is so that all may be edified, not that all may be allowed in on a personal conversation between the speaker and God. The Spirit of God inspires the utterance and the interpretation as he wills, directional notions are petty and unwarranted.

  9. Arnold Grant says:

    Rich, thanks for your refreshingly correct comments on “speaking in tongues”. As a Pentacostal pastor’s son I have attended a Pentacostal church my entire life. I so appreciate your observation that “tongues” is spoken directly to God. I must respectfully disagree with the previous comment that “tongues” is functional not directional The scripture clearly states in Corinthians that “He that speaks in an unknown tongue speaks unto God and not unto man”. How then can an interpretation be a message to man? Why would not that person, if they felt they had a message for the congregation simply stand and proclaim it (prophesy) in a language folks can understand. Someone who speaks in tongues and then another (or they themselves) interpret it as some message to the congregation often do it in a controlling manner and it is simply unscriptural. Whipping people over the head with this supposed message straight from God can be so manipulating. Preaching is for correction, not “tongues”. In my many years in church lay leadership, some of the greatest problems have come from folks who thought they had a message straight from God that amazingly God had not chosen to reveal to the leadership but only to them.

    Further, in every instance where public “tongues” was interpreted in the scripture it was always praise and exaltation of God..”and they heard them praising God in their own language”. There have only been a very few times in my life that I have ever heard an interpretaion of tongues that I thought was scriptural…why I think tongues is mostly for the Holy Spirit making intercession for us to God in a private prayer language. The few interpretations I have found scriptural were so encouraging and edifying by exalting God in a manner that the speaker would not normally have been capable of doing.

    In referring to nationally-known folk, you may be interested to know that the Christian singer/song writer and winner of the last 3 annual Dove awards for Female Vocalist of the Year, Natalie Grant, http://www.nataliegrant.com was raised in an Assembly of God church in the Seattle area singing on stage first at 3 years of age. One of the greatest aids in raising my children (four more in addition to Natalie) who now all serve the Lord, was the ministries of that wonderful Assembly of God church and it’s pastoral staff. And God has blessed me so greatly that now all of my 13 grandchildren who have reached the decision age have also committed their lives to Christ. The greatest decision parents can make for successfully raising their children is to find a good church, get involved in the ministries, and set an example for their children to follow. A church is no substitute for a daily family altar (Dad taking the lead in praying and reading God’s Word) at home but I will be forever thankful for the wonderful, faithful ministry of our Assembly of God church.

  10. Wow, Rich. I’ve never seen you before talk on this subject. I’d love to jump in on it in all kinds of gory details, but I won’t.

    However, I think I should point out that I suspect the political picture might be a tad more complicated, and there are many things in operation here.

    (Now the World is guaranteed to always react to other “languages,” and an unfavorable reaction cannot be merely written off as being purely all our fault. Go back and look at 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 again. God himself says “…even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord”. Indeed, as Paul says, tongues are a sign for unbelievers: it’s a sign showing them their condition of unbelief in God, and indeed that’s how people at a purely soulish level and without the Spirit will react, with ridicule and scoffing. {Prophecy goes to the next step of disclosing the secrets of the heart and leading people to confess that indeed God is present, and in a manner of speaking, prophecy is the sign that leads people to belief and hence a sign for believers.} So what I am saying, Rich, is that even if we had everything down pat, and even if we blamelessly conducted ourselves in this regard in perfect accordance with all of apostle Paul’s directives, the World’s reaction will still be the same: ridicule and scoffing. There is simply no escaping this, and therefore we have got to stop our constantly apologizing for everything. Now I don’t know about the places where you hang out, Rich. But where I am, the biggest problem is the relentless quest to gain “respectability” and to earn “the praises of men,” which is leading to plenty of far-reaching damage. Having somebody speaking in tongues, out of order, is the very least of our problems where I am.)

    However, none of the parenthetical remarks I made above is the real point that I wanted to make here, which is that there is a genuine effort out there to find some means of smearing Sarah Palin by using her supposed religious beliefs. On one hand, I think BHO himself has more dignity than to resort to such tactics, but there are plenty of his supporters in the MSM and the blogosphere who are not that restrained (just visit the Daily Kos to see what I mean). Oliphant’s cartoon was just one reflection of the larger situation. However, what’s even stranger is the effort in some quarters to somehow link Sarah Palin with Todd Bentley, no matter how far fetched that that might seem. Finally, as far as I know, nobody has bothered to sit down and simply ask Palin herself what she believes. So far everything has been mostly suppositions made on the basis of “guilt by association.”

  11. WillofLogos says:

    Thank you for speaking about how tongues are being misused in today’s charismatic churches.
    I wish that the Pentecostal Church was not associated with the term “Christian” or, more specifically “born again” at all.

    When I finally proclaimed that I was a “born again Christian”, I couldn’t stop having to explain that this did not mean I spoke in tongues.

    What made the need to defend myself ironic was that the Pentecostal Church’s misuse of this on me specifically greatly hindered my walk in getting to know Christ.

    Through Paul, He could not have explained more clearly how “tongues” were to be used and that these were the least desirable gifts to aspire to. How is it that an entire denomination feels so strongly compelled to raise this gift up to something to be desired?

    I feel that any doctrine that is not taught correctly is a false doctrine, and I’m sure your readers know how God feels about false doctrines.

    Today, I witness to believers of other faiths, to bring them to see the truth in Christ. I mainly focus on the sects under Islam.
    I have been wondering more lately if i may not be of greater service to God if I didn’t just focus more on witnessing to my fellow Christian brothers and sisters that follow the Pentecostal, Catholic, Prosperity Churches and even the KJV literalists.

    There’s just so many false teachers that are leading His sheep astray in today’s Christian Churches.

    By the way, it’s ridicules to proclaim that an “unpardonable sin” has something to do with mocking those who speak in tongues among unbelievers.

    Just because someone is speaking in tongues doesn’t mean the words aren’t from Satan.

  12. Marc V says:

    Yeah, I’m still alive and glad to see you are too. I have not seen too much about Palin’s AG roots until I mosied over to the BlogRodent’s lair. Thanks for the posts. The BDS-like reaction I have seen from liberals towards Gov. Palin sickens me, as she seems to be an honorable woman in service to her country and fellow man. What seems to bother them the most is that they have this perception where she thinks she is 100% in God’s will. The “logical” next step infuriates them, to think that if she’s in then they must be out. Even though she’s tried to straighten this out, the meme lives and will probably never die.

    I’ve never been a fan of Oliphant, so I’m not surprised at the garbage he’s spewing. The cartoon is so ridiculous to Pentecostals yet seems so right to liberals looking for anything they can use to ridicule Gov. Palin. If the unthinkable happens and the Chicago lightweight is in the Oval office next year, I hope Ms. Palin will choose wisely to stay in the national spotlight, as she has been a breath of fresh conservative air.

    Tongues as practiced in a church service goes only as far as the pastor allows it. Some Pentecostal pastors look disappointed if someone doesn’t have a word every service, while other Pentecostal churches can go for years without a public utterance. I like to think of tongues as a private prayer language, where the Holy Spirit takes over to say what cannot be said by the native language.
    [This is somewhat conjecture for me, as I still have not been blessed in spite of attending Pentecostal churches for over 12 years. I struggle with it, even praying for it, as I feel like a wretched sinner who does not deserve it. His timing can be difficult, and my stubbornness blocks drawing closer to Him.]

  13. jim says:

    First, Rich, let me say it’s good to find you up and posting. When it seemed as if you had faded into wherever, I transferred the link to my list of favorites and checked from time to time, but evidently it’s been awhile.

    As far as the subject of tongues, I agree with most of what you say here. With over 36 years within the Pentecostal household, I have my opinion;, but, in truth, also have at least a question or two concerning the matter. True enough that Chapter 14 begins with a statement that tongue-talking is “not unto men, but unto God”. If, in the sense you express, however, then why would it be necessary to interpret it to God. Maybe I’m reading people wrong here; but Paul also says the reason for the translation is “that the church may receive ediying”. Are you saying that what they are edified by is an interpretation revealing the tongue-talker’s dialogue with the Almighty?

    Don’t take me as being contentious. I have long wondered and seen enough abuse of the gift within the sanctuary, know well the purity of having the Spirit so move through you whether in a prayer closet or in a sanctuary, bringing unto one the ability to exhibit praise in his most heart-felt form, giving release for any need to ponder verbage, establishing freedom in prayer. Yet a man’s ego remains a man’s ego and I long ago became convinced that prophesying, whether through tongues or otherwise, should be taken with a grain of salt and personal conversation with Christ about the matter. God does not lie. He proves His word. Amazing to me that so many want to tell you “God said”, but never show up to apologize when it does not come to pass, wanting to blame failure on your lack of faith.

    I do agree, my friend: If the world laughs, maybe we need to examine the image and the witness we have given them.

  14. bob says:

    Very good post, however I believe you are misinterpreting Paul.
    To me the following verses, in context, are clear that properly used tongues and interpretation are a vital part of the church.

    1 Cor14 v5. I would that ye all spake with tongues but rather that ye prophesied, for greater is he that prophesies than he that speaks in an unknown tongue EXCEPT HE INTERPRET THAT THE CHURCH MAY RECEIVE EDIFYING.
    Above all, God wants that his people can understand His heart, this is why He often uses a collective effort of hearing and discernment.
    I have been with saints many times when a word is given that seems meaningless. Another word follows, again perplexing, and so on. I have seen many batches of revelation come like that. A mixture of scriptures, small prophecies and visions and a dream thrown in. Suddenly someone sees the linking principle, and a powerful prophetic meaning is blown wide open because God is demonstrating his Body at work.

    1 Cor14 v26. How is it then brethren when you come together, everyone has a psalm has a doctrine has a tongue has a revelation has an interpretation, let all things be done to edification.
    This shows that God would have ALL the saints moving in the gifts, all orchestrated by the one spirit. However it also shows clearly that tongues are an appropriate part of meetings otherwise interpreters would not be mentioned.
    v27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two or at most three and in turn and let another interpret.
    v28 But if there be no interpreter let him keep silent in the church and let him speak to himself and to God.
    These two verses surely must show that tongues are a part of the meetings alongside the other gifts

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