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Mar 09

The first time I spoke in tongues

I attended camp every summer as a kid. Most of the time, this camp would be indistinguishable from other summer camps. My friends and I would play basketball, pass notes back and forth with girls, listen to music, etc. The rest of the time, however, the camp was quite different. You see, this was a charismatic Bible camp,like the one in the movie Jesus Camp. It was held in rural Missouri, and they would bus in kids from Assemblies of God churches all across the State.

The camp served basically the same purpose as old-time tent revivals. When you’re in a charismatic community, it’s difficult to maintain the same level of intensity. You have to be feeling something to really motivate you to hold your hands up high, sing loudly, or dance around. And that’s just the “normal” stuff. Occasionally, someone might decide to run up and down the aisles or shout in tongues or fall on the ground and convulse. These aren’t the sort of things one can do outside of a certain environment.

Now, if God’s presence were really palpable and causing these people to do this, then the occasional recharge by a revival week would not be necessary. Imagine if a real thing like electricity constantly ran through your body. You would show the effects regardless of your surroundings. Since such urges were not due to the presence of God, we needed these special weeks to whip us back into a frenzy. Of course, a different story was sold to us. We were told (and I’m sure the pastor believed this) that our reduced enthusiasm at normal times was not because the imagined effects were wearing off from the revivals. No, it was because we were being bad Christians. We were becoming complacent and not honoring God properly.

Now, take this environment where everyone is pressured that the right kind of Christian is a charismatic one and add children to the mix. This was a strange and confusing time for me, and I suspect the other kids felt the same. We were never quite sure what to make of the ridiculous displays going on around us, but we knew that this was how good Christians were supposed to behave. Yet, seeing adults acting this way wasn’t an effective motivator. We would stand there awkwardly and perhaps shyly put our hands in the air. Sometimes a particularly bold kid, like the pastor’s son, might go further. But everyone approached it a bit timidly. It wasn’t true peer pressure. Enter Summer Camp.

In camp, the composition of congregations was completely transformed. Instead of being surrounded by nearly all adults, we were around all kids. These were the same kids that were just on the basketball courts that seemed cool. This was a chance for the church leaders to break through (sneak through, actually) the natural defenses created by hesitance in circumstances that might embarrass you.

There were two church services each day. The first service in the morning was perfunctory. Announcements would be made, we would be told to act in a godly way as we did our activities, a prayer would be said, and we’d go off to breakfast. The evening service was where the fireworks happened.

One year of camp really sticks out in my mind because it was the year when the focus of the evening services was to get everyone to speak in tongues (glossolalia). When I look back I recognize all the reasons why this was ridiculous, but at the time I was frightened. I had never done this before (among charismatic kids, this could be like shaving where it was something to brag about if you did it early). I also knew it was supposed to just happen to you when the power of the Holy Spirit would surge through your body and take control of your voice. You had to ask God for this gift and, unsurprisingly, he may not respond. It was not something that could be faked, or so I thought.

Church services in this community are pretty standard. They sing songs, send around collection plates (God needs your allowance, kids), then preach a sermon, and end with an altar call. The altar is a place at the front of the┬áchurch where you go for some kind of special prayer need. They might call people up to be prayed for if they need special healing (except for amputees) or if you were “giving your life to the lord.” But for this particular week of camp, every altar call was devoted to praying for those people who had not yet spoken in tongues. So, night after night I would have to go to the front with several dozen other kids and have all the kids I knew from church who had already done it pray with me. When I say they prayed with me, I mean they all had their hands on me and were basically shouting. And of course they were probably anxious to show off their own skills, so they were shouting in tongues. In one ear I might hear “hamunuh-hamunuh-hamunuh.” In my other ear, I would hear “sha-na-na-sha-na-na.” I’m not kidding; it was a wild scene.

This went on for several nights. And each night went on for hours. Spending over two hours in prayer like this was not unusual. I didn’t know what to do. I felt on display, left out, awkward, and I wasn’t feeling any Holy Spirit surging through me as we prayed. I wanted to be done. So, I eventually started speaking in nonsense. This made the people around me cheer over their victory and God’s great blessing. Then they would start chanting their own nonsense even louder, creating a reciprocal effect. Unfortunately, my wish for this to end did not come true because then we had to spend several hours all showing off our tongues speaking skills as we shouted our prayers to God in the special language of Heaven (that’s what we thought our gibberish was).

I knew I was faking it, and I was trying as hard as I possibly could to push that out of my mind. I would never have admitted it to anyone else and I didn’t want to admit it even to myself. Now I wonder how many other kids were doing the exact same thing. We were put into a frenzied environment that pressured us to compete over who could be the most “on fire for God.” And for that one week, we would be even more out of control than the adults at the tent revivals. Then, we would return home and things would basically be back to normal. It’s funny how the effects of being in God’s presence can just wear off like that by a change of scenery.

 

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  1. Stewart Paterson

    I was adult when I became born again, I was 22. So more resistant to peer pressure. I went through the same things, with altar calls and being prayed over to receive this Spiritual gift.
    I wanted it soooooo bad, everyone else could talk in tongues, except me.
    It never occurred to me to fake it. I just had to accept that this gift wasn’t for me.

    Years wasted, years wasted.

    Happily I am now freed from all that bullshit!

  2. mikespeir

    I was raised AG, too. I spoke in tongues, too. Unlike you, though, I really believed in the stuff. They’ll try to dismiss you by saying you were a phony all along and knew it. Not so me. What they won’t admit to is that it was just as fake for me as it was for you–as it is for them. Sincerity doesn’t make it any less so. Sincerity is essential to delusion.

  3. Mike

    Thanks for the comments.

    I do think people will dismiss my story, like you said, but I can’t do anything about it. I just wanted to tell my own story and be as honest in my reflection as I could. I bet there were other people there feeling the same way, even if they can’t admit to themselves they were faking it.

  4. Matt DeStefano

    Great story. I also went to a camp, although it wasn’t tongues — it was similar to Jesus Camp in so many different ways. You have to wonder the kind of damage it does to the psyche for these kids to lie about something that is supposed to be sacred and have to puppet this absolutely bizarre act.

  5. Paul So

    I was raised in a very different church-environment that didn’t consider “speaking in tongues” to be a legitimate way to communicate with God, on the contrary they implicitly condemned it because they thought it was misinterpreting the bible. So whenever I read stories about “speaking in tongues” from those who use to be Christians, I find it somewhat strange and foreign from my personal experience with the Christianity that I grew up with. However I also find the “speaking in tongues” to be pretty strange since it is presumed that whatever is being spoken is a language, but from the perspective of linguistics it may not qualify as a language; Wittgenstein might even say that there simply is no contextual rule like Chess or private language that someone can make up on the spot.

  6. Mike

    I think you’re right Paul. One interesting thing was that people praying to God in the church tended to use the same word selection generally. But when speaking in tongues everyone was different. If it were really a heavenly language proper you would expect some things to transfer from one speaker to the next. Just another way Bayes Theorem tells us a specific religious belief is most likely false.

  7. Paul So

    Mike,
    When you said “When speaking in tongues everyone was different. If it were really a heavenly language proper proper you would expect some things to transfer from one speaker to the next”, you really mean communication, right? If that’s the case, I would be just as perplexed about prayer itself as much as speaking in tongues because when we normally speak to each other we assume that we 1) use the same language 2) understand what we say and many times 3) expect a response. If that’s the case, then how does God fit? It sounds a bit incoherent to say God qualifies for (1) since it’s not clear what it means for God to “speak”. God does seem to fit into (2) since God is omniscient, but it’s not always clear whether God fit’s into (3). The question I have is that if the basic conditions of human interpersonal communication (through language that is) is one of the fundamental basis that underpins how we can communicate, wouldn’t it seem strange to try to communicate with God? I mean, think about it, trying to communicate with God would mean applying those basic conditions of human interpersonal communications unto God, but wouldn’t that just amount to anthropomorhizing God?

  8. Andrew M

    Really interesting to read the article and the comments, especially in relation to the effect of a Christian upbringing on children. I was reading the Dawkins ‘God Dlusion’ recently and he has some pretty strong things to say about that to.

    On the otherhand, I was also reading a book called ‘Pure Reason: A Christian response to New Atheism’, by various authors. In one chapter by William Lane Craig, he reviews that part of Dawkin argument, and refers to a recent study ‘Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual eyes of American teenagers’, the first major study of the effect of a christian upbringing on kids. It seems to have been led by Christian SMith, a professor at University of North Carolina, and published by Oxford Uni Press.

    The teenagers were assessed to be either devoted, regular, sporaidc or disengaged in relation to their faith upbringing, and then measured in relation to 91 variables, including habits, attitudes, school attainment, meaningful relationships, community engagement etc.

    Interestingly, in every one of the 91 variables measured, for all participating teenagers, the closer they fell to devoted, the healthier their lives were.

    On the assumption its accurate and appropriately conducted, it’s an impressively strong rebuttal of Dawkins’ essentially anecdotal examples of child abuse.

    Any thoughts then on the validity of maintaining an argument that a religious upbringing is detrimental to the health of the child in general, rather than anecdotally?

  9. Mike

    Paul, there’s another aspect to consider too. My wife thought I was really odd when I told her about this, but I’ll go ahead and share it anyway.

    At my church, sometimes someone would start “praying” in tongues really loudly. Everyone else would stop and listen and then wait silently for a few minutes. The reason we did this is because allegedly there was a “gift of interpretation” that the Holy Spirit would sometimes grant. In these cases, some other person would follow up the tongues speaking with English. This happened maybe 1 in 5 times or so. That’s one thing I was considering in my comment because all the interpretations sounded pretty much the same (King James English style, similar words, similar themes) but the source material was always different. This is very problematic if we claim it’s a heavenly “language.”

    I do think there are communication issues, but that’s the problem I specifically had in mind.

  10. Mike

    Andrew,

    I’m not sure I would defend as strong of a position as Dawkins. I don’t consider myself abused, even though I do feel better psychologically now that I’m an atheist.

    Since I haven’t read the study myself, I’ll just speak in general terms on a few thoughts I have. I’m not necessarily defending Dawkins, but I’m wondering what we really ought to conclude from the study.

    1. These results could very well be a false dilemma. Perhaps it’s true that religious kids are happier. Perhaps it’s also true that it is damaging to teach them to believe in theism, especially certain kinds. We might be able to come up with ways to eliminate this particular negative thing – believing in theism, if it is negative – and still not damage kids’ happiness.

    2. It seems like things can be abusive even if they make someone happy. For example, a daughter can want her father’s affection and be happy about their close relationship if he molests her. This is obviously abuse, but we know some of the kids think like this. It’s because their outlook has been affected as an “insider” to their situation. Same thing with these fundamentalist LDS groups that still practice polygamy and marry off young teens to old men. The girls often don’t know any better and they may actually be happy.

    3. There have been similar results with adults, but then follow-up studies found some equalizers. For example, it turned out that people, when they became depressed for example, would stop participating in group activities, like going to church. So, they showed up in the wrong demographic because they had been going to church regularly up until they got depression. I would be curious to know what unexplored extraneous variables might be lurking.

    4. Some of those variables don’t seem independent.

    The study may be good enough to overcome these things; I’m not sure. But I tend to approach these results cautiously. As far as the anecdotal case for Dawkins goes, it may not be persuasive overall, but anecdotes can at least show us potential. If we know how badly certain things can go wrong, then we can adapt to prevent the likelihood of that, even if not widespread.

    Without knowing all the specifics involved, it’s hard to say, but those are my general thoughts.

  11. Mike

    By the way, there’s a great site that I follow that regularly discusses research done about belief and non-belief. http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/

  12. Lance M

    Mike, I am an AG pastor and I just feel compelled to tell you I’m sorry.

  13. Beth

    I am glad to find someone else who has had the same experiences as me. I was also raised in the AG and also went to Kid’s camp and Youth camp every summer in rural Missouri.

    I also tried really hard to speak in tongues. I tried to convince myself it was really happening to me. It is amazing the silly things we do that feel normal because it is how we have grown up.

    Another odd practice in the AG is getting “slain in the holy spirit”. I remember my first revival when I was about 6 and my mom described being slain. I really thought it would happen to everyone. I thought people would all at the same time get stiff and fall back in their pews. Instead there was an altar call and the evangelist would ask certain men to be catchers. He would hit people on the forehead and then they would fall into the waiting arms and be laid down.

    There were also messages for certain people. I don’t know why these were said into a microphone for everyone to hear if they were for a specific individual. They were always very generic. Then my pastor gave me a message during an altar call. He told me that I was called into the ministry. That god had called my mother, father, and older brother but they hadn’t worked out and now he wanted me. Through all the years after when I had doubt or was faced with logic against Christianity I remembered this. I told myself that this was a miracle and my personal proof that god exists. It kept my faith going for a long time.

    The fact that I over looked was that this “prediction” was wrong. I am not and have never been in the ministry nor will I ever be.

  14. Mike

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Beth. I can definitely relate to everything you’re saying. I had multiple pastors telling me and my parents that God had told them I would grow up to do great things for the lord. It’s pretty ironic, really.

  15. Dave

    I can relate so closely to the stories and concerns that have been posted. I too grew up in Missouri and went to AG camp grounds for youth camps.

    At times, I would feel a pressure, similar to the pressure mentioned. In the midst of this pressure i found it hard for anything to happen, and there was this push to fit in and manufacture some kind of emotion that would allow me to receive.

    A remember this one time, when I went down to the front of the auditorium to pray. There were all these people, 200 or 300 kids, crowded around. There was a lot of movement and emotion. I separated myself from it. I found a place by myself and prayed alone.

    When I got up nearly everyone had gone. No more excitement. No more emotional driven music. As I turned to walk away, someone came up to me and asked if they could pray for me. I didn’t know this person, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt. This person was different from the others, there was no pressure to speak in tongues, there was no slapping my chin, or yelling in my ear.

    While he was praying for me I began to push all the distractions out of my mind, you know, the thoughts about who is around me, what am I going to do later today or next week. Random thoughts. I began to feel what I would have called “The Presence of God”. It was so real to me. It was at that moment when I began to “Speak in Tongues”. Now this was really different because, well, I guess because I wasn’t really concerned about it happening at that moment. I wasn’t really trying to speak in tongues, nor had I planned on it.

    I would say it was a feeling, but it was something different than just that. Something did seem to change in my emotions but even deeper into my intellect. I felt a sense of humility, but also a deep feeling of love towards others. A feeling of love that really changed the way I looked at other people.

    Coming back to what is being discussed here, I would add that I knew several people that went through, what we might call, the motions, or emotions. Claiming to have experienced what some had obtained and others had desired. I noticed the difference because the experience they claimed didn’t seem sacred to them. It seemed to them more something to quote as dogma, than it did something that would change the way they approached humanity.

    I realized it didn’t really matter what the others thought. What really ended up making the difference was not something external but what was happening internal. It was humility and sincerity.

    It was a turning point in my life. I have since given of my self for the betterment of others. I have given sacrifice and commitment. I have seen peoples lives changed for the better, and there is so much more to come. I have no intention of manipulation. It isn’t necessary.

  16. martin

    having gone through d article and d coments i can say dt we ar realy battling wt qualia here. I m a roman catholic nd my own experince i think is distinct n to a large extent clear to me. I m a melancolic n had 2 be presurizd. In d 1st place, i dnt beliv was real bt later i prayd god dt if tongues is real dt i wnt 2 experience. I prayd wt d carismatic group 4 abt 4yrs, 4 wnt 2 mountain , waterfal, desert yet it did nt com. I 4got abt it. Bt i was taken by suprise. Later one, it hapend. I was praying wt my bros nd 2 be candid, i wsnt even tinkn abt it bt wht i no is dt i imersed myself in dt, nd i felt d lord’s prensence, i cudnt contain it nd i rolld on d floor as my mouth spoke strenge lang. It is real.002395987578

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  1. Podcast Interview | Foxhole Atheism

    […] was interviewed on the most recent episode of the An American Atheist podcast. I discussed my recent article about speaking in tongues as a young kid at a charismatic church […]

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    […] The first time I spoke in tongues (foxholeatheism.com) […]

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