Well, beloved, yet another Pentecost Sunday is upon us. For those of you poor, benighted, non-mainline souls who don’t know what I’m talking about, Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks which celebrates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. It is significant in the Christian world because it commemorates the descending of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles after Jesus’ crucifixion and is considered the beginning of the Church. One of the special (and by “special”, I mean “troubling”) features of this story is the speaking in tongues thing. As in:
“When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.”
I’ll be upfront and tell you this passage has caused me a lot of discomfort over the years. There are two reasons for that: first, I tend to be more analytical and like things to make sense and, this tale is just a little too fantastical for my taste. Second, speaking in tongues brings up a host of bad memories for me. I won’t go into that right now, but if you’re curious, click this link (I will caution you, however, that it’s a long and not very pretty story).
I’m not the only person who feels this way, either. There are two things that will bring proceedings to a screeching halt in most churches; foot-washing and speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is probably the more effective of the two because, while walking into a Sunday school class with a basin of water and armful of towels will start everyone squirming (I’ve actually seen that happen), busting out some tongues in a worship service will cause people to give you the stink-eye. And, if they’re close to you, they’ll probably move away. Why is that? Why does this thing that Paul says is a gift of the Holy Spirit make everyone so uncomfortable? I think in part, it’s because not everyone gets this gift. Which makes the part of the story where the boys start speaking in all kinds of different languages a bit problematic.
It’s problematic because…, well, it’s weird. But, what if we were to look at this story in different way? Did people really speak in tongues? Maybe. Or, maybe this was a metaphor that showed the Jesus way (which, previously, had been pretty much restricted to Jews) was for everyone. I kind of like this because it makes the passage more accessible to everyone. I mean, if it’s a metaphor, then the fact that I didn’t receive that gift isn’t a commentary on my faith (and, in some churches, it is). At the same time, its existence as metaphor doesn’t negate what my friends who did receive that gift believe.
Am I wrong? Is this attempt to understand what I consider one of the weirder aspects of the New Testament so much bullshit? Maybe. Probably. Who the hell knows. To be honest, I’m not even sure why I wrote this piece. It came in fits and starts and was kind of bitch to put together. I don’t know if it will help anyone or not. I’m not even sure if it helped me. Whatever. Here it is. I hope you like it.