I remember being around eight and standing in the hall outside of the youth room at church. The children’s pastor hovered over me while encouraging me to say “banana, banana” over and over again. If you grew up outside of Pentecostal/Charismatic communities this scene probably doesn’t make much sense to you . . . hell, even if you did it still probably doesn’t make any sense. This was the “technique” my church and others used to teach children how to speak in tongues. The idea was that by saying “banana” or other fun words repeatedly, it would prime the pump, loosen the tongue, and allow our natural/God-given tongue language to emerge. Seems logical, no?
Anyway, it “worked.” In no time I was uttering an angelic language with the rest of my siblings and peers. Not long afterwards, my dad, ever the pragmatist about such things, needed to hear the evidence for himself and so he had me and my siblings take turns speaking our tongue language into his ear. We passed his test and graduated to full on Spirit-filled Christians.
I was taught that my tongue language was incredibly powerful and useful for praying when I didn’t know how to pray for things in English. Tongues was a way of expressing the ineffable and things beyond our understanding. It was a way of tapping into the Spirit and allowing the Spirit to pray through us as Romans 8:26 says, “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes [through us] with sighs too deep for words.” While I don’t think Paul was writing about speaking in tongues here, that’s how we interpreted it back then.
The truth is, I don’t speak in tongues like this anymore. I stopped about ten years ago when I really came to terms with my fundamentalist upbringing. I left behind tongues at the same time I left behind a hyper literal reading of scripture and biblical inerrancy. However, as a pastor, I’ve come to realize that in a way I’m still speaking in tongues and so are others in my community.
The language of theology and myth is on the surface gibberish and nonsense, especially to the uninitiated. But underneath it is a vocabulary of the spirit, a language of the human soul. We don’t have words to express the ineffable and transcendent aspects of our existence. This is why we came up with both art and religion thousands of years ago. There is something too deep for words being expressed in both sculpture and sacrament. To do away with religion would be like doing away with art or literature. It would be to do away with some enormous aspect of our humanity. Certainly, some Gods need to die, not all Gods, just the murderous and oppressive ones (Moody). True religion has always been about affirming and giving voice to the deep and inexpressible side of us, affirming the infinite depth of love and life itself. We speak of God and spirit because we must. We have no choice. God is the name we give to the ultimate mystery, our greatest hopes and most noble desires. Whether or not God exists is secondary to the fact that God insists (Caputo), and religion bears witness to this fact. I don’t know about you, but I find such hope and peace in this.
So in a very real way, I still speak in tongues. Perhaps more now than I did in my Pentecostal roots. It’s still a way for me to express the inexpressible and speak with supernatural power. I embrace it and I encourage others too as well. So everyone repeat after me, “Banana, banana, banana . . .”