(Originally posted at ClobberBlog)
The charismatic movement. Speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, miraculous healing. Weird stuff with people claiming to be knocked down by the Holy Spirit or pinned down, held in a trance for hours. You know what I’m talking about. Folks who know little of the charismatic movement and are cynical towards it would add snake-handling to that list, but I try not to give nutpickers the time of day. I’ve been attending church with people who practice modern-day manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit for seven or eight years now, in part because my own study of the Bible has always lead me to conclude that there is no reason why gifts of the Spirit should not be practiced today. Yet for some reason, I feel ashamed to write that I’ve never practiced them myself. Worse, when my evangelical friends tell me so brightly that they can speak in tongues now or God healed them in some way, I don’t always believe them.
When it comes to what I accept as true, my attitude might best be compared to that of the character of MacPhee in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. MacPhee presents himself as a man of science and something of an agnostic or atheist, reasoning that “If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I’ll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer.” In spite of this, he allies himself with the believers based on personal experiences with paranormal phenomenon which he cannot explain through science (yet) and loyalty to his believing friend, Doctor Ransom. He essentially winds up battling evil on the side of God even though he’s a skeptic.
I’ve also compared myself to the apostle Thomas in this regard, the famous “doubting Thomas” of John 20:24-29. People often put Thomas down because he insisted on seeing the risen Christ for himself before believing, but I think the point people miss is, he was still a believer who went on to remain strong as a faithful follower of Christ. I realize us doubting-Thomas Christians may not represent the ideal in spirituality, but in the end, we’re still believers.
I’m sure my truly skeptical friends would ask why I’m a Christian at all if that’s my attitude towards faith. But that’s really a subject for another post.
Early Experiences With the Charismatic Movement
My doubts when it comes to modern-day claims to manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit started with my own observations. From studying the Bible as a teenager, two desires began to weigh heavily on my mind: speaking in tongues and seeing my autistic brother miraculously healed. There were some folks attending my not-very-charismatic Presbyterian church who had a Pentecostal background and believed in the gifts of the Spirit, and they decided to take me and my brother to a Kenneth Hagin rally. I went and sat through probably two hours of Kenneth Hagin going on and on about the miracles and healing he had personally witnessed and how it was possible for all believers to heal people. At the end of his speaking, they made two calls: one for people who were not saved to come accept Jesus and be saved, and the other for people who were already Christians but wanted to be “baptized with fire” and speak in tongues. Well, I wanted to learn how to speak in tongues, so I went ahead and answered the second call.
My earnest desire quickly turned to disgust when they grouped those of us who wanted to speak in tongues with the people who were getting saved for the first time and began talking to me about how to accept Jesus as my Savior, as though I had never heard it before. In the eyes of these people, Christians who could not speak in tongues were not saved. I tried to explain to them that I accepted Jesus as my Savior years ago, but they just weren’t having any of that. No glossolalia = unbeliever.
I dismissed myself from the getting-saved room and decided to swallow my doubts and see if their claims to healing held any water. I began asking workers at the church if Kenneth Hagin would see my brother, explaining that my brother was autistic and I had hoped someone could pray for him to be healed. They would frown and tell me that Hagin wasn’t seeing anyone that night. One worker even brushed off my tearful plea telling me to “stop feeling sorry for myself.” All that talk of healing and miracles was just that: talk. All word and no power.
I wish I could say that Kenneth Hagin’s people were the only charismatics who treated me like an unbeliever because I could not speak in tongues and spoke endlessly of healing and miracles while never once offering to pray for my brother, but they weren’t. By the way, in case you’re looking for a church in the area of Graham, Washington, steer clear of New Testament Christian Church.
Speaking in tongues = Speaking a “heavenly language”?
We’ll focus on speaking in tongues for now. After my early exposure to the glossolalia crowd, charismatic tendencies began to penetrate my quiet Presbyterian congregation. Friends and family members would tell me it had happened to them and they could speak in tongues now. Occasionally someone would do it around me.
I’m sorry to say, it always just sounded like babble, and please remember that I’ve studied five different languages and I do have some idea of what an actual language v. babble sounds like. When I would ask my friends about their newfound gift, and if they knew what language they were speaking, they would insist they were speaking a “heavenly language,” so there was no way to quantify it.
Look, I know that human civilization has passed through thousands of languages and dialects, plenty of them being completely lost to humankind, so it’s not impossible that my friends who speak incomprehensible babble are speaking an actual but lost language. But when people spoke in tongues in the Bible, the onlookers recognized the languages they were speaking; there’s no actual examples of the New Testament church speaking some unrecognized “heavenly language.” Paul vaguely makes reference to speaking in tongues of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1), but he also specifically taught that tongues were a sign for unbelievers, not some personal prayer language for believers (1 Corinthians 14:22). In the next verse he condemns hectic glossolalia orgies specifically because such things cause unbelievers to think you’re mad. Yet so many in the modern charismatic movement have fallen into these traps.
I certainly do believe speaking in tongues can happen today, and I’m not saying every friend who has ever told me they can speak in tongues was faking or in some way deranged. I simply have not seen it for myself yet, and remain skeptical of the folks who claim it in the form of public babble in an unidentifiable language, bereft of the gift of interpretation that scripture calls for. I may not tell you that you’re wrong, but I certainly won’t believe you either.
Next post will cover some of my struggles with miraculous healings.