Speaking in tongue can be abused as fraudulent pantomime, but like jazz scatting it has deep cultural roots as a way to elevate the mind beyond the clutter of temporal existence to commune with the gods.
By Chudi Okoye
I must open this piece with a preemptive apologia. What I present here is an honest attempt to explain, in my modest understanding, the phenomenon of ‘glossolalia’, or what is commonly known among Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians as ‘speaking in tongues’.
I am interested in the non-mimetic version of this phenomenon which involves the utterance of sounds that are non-linguistic but probably intelligible in the spiritual realm. I am also interested in the non-esoteric version, known as ‘xenoglossia’, involving a paranormal ability to speak or write a natural language that one could not have learned by natural means.
Both of these phenomena, glossolalia and xenoglossia, are attested in the Bible, I believe.
Is this phenomenon real? Whilst the practice is commonly associated with Christian spirituality, I understand that some form of it can be found in pagan practice as well. I think there are expressions of it in Igbo traditional religion, for instance, and probably in other animistic religions.
I am researching this topic because I was recently invited by a close friend to an online Pentecostal church service in Nigeria where I noticed that every time the pastor said “Come on, begin to pray”, he would immediately start praying in tongue. I was fascinated by this feat, deeply impressed by his ability to launch into this mode with apparent ease.
I have often puzzled about this phenomenon of speaking in tongues ever since my experience long ago at Pastor Kris Okotie’s Household of God Church International Ministries in Lagos. This was in the early 1990s and Okotie’s church was the rage among Lagos yuppies and hoi polloi alike. I had just started my journalism career after youth service, and was trying to get a lay of the land in termagant Lagos.
One Sunday I decided to check out Okotie’s soaring new church. Being a Catholic, I was mesmerized by the informal intensity of worship at his church, to say nothing of the sheer mass of humanity assembled for service. At one point, Okotie asked for new comers to stand up. I stood up with several others. After welcoming and blessing us, he asked that we follow an usher who then escorted us to a prayer room upstairs. There, a few pastoral assistants ministered to us, telling us about the church, what membership involved, etc. They then collected offerings from us, and promptly led us into prayer.
To my great consternation, as soon as the praying started everyone in the room including my fellow new comers began to ‘speak in tongue’, uttering some esoteric words beyond my linguistic comprehension. I was completely befuddled. As a non-Charismatic Catholic, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to pray in tongue. Feeling a little out of my depth, I whizzed around in my head for a way to save myself from embarrassment. Then I remembered that in the Bible there was reference to the apostles speaking in tongues while all the people gathered understood them in their local languages. Emboldened by this recollection I leaned in heavily, praying in the best dialect of my hometown, Awka:
“O Chineke nna nyi, Okacha akacha Eze ivbe anyi, Eze ana ekpeelu onu, Obasi no n’enu, Nna anyi ikuku mili emi, Chukwu abiama, Mgbọlọgwụ ndu anyi, Nna anyi abia gokwem n’ikanunwa taa taa k’am tikuo ghu…”
My voice rose to an unmindful crescendo, my eyes tightly shut, as I got in stride with my prayerful incantation. Then I noticed that there was silence, a sudden hush around the plush prayer room. I opened my eyes to find that others in the room had clammed up as they stared at me as in utter befuddlement.
I was sheepish. I felt freakish. A bashful twentysomething in the midst of cultural extemporization. Then I straightened up and told the prayer leader who had approached me rather reproachfully, his eyes glaring with pious disapproval, that I was merely praying in my local tongue. He told me that that wasn’t what ‘speaking in tongue’ was about, and that I should try to speak in the same spiritual manner as others. I protested that I didn’t know how to do that, nor would I understand what I would be saying if I attempted such. He told me that I wasn’t supposed to understand, but that God would comprehend my utterances. I wasn’t convinced, but for the rest of the session I simply muttered my prayer in strained and subdued English.
I left at the end of the service and never returned to Kris Okotie’s church. Which is a huge regret because I later heard flamboyant tales about Okotie’s cars and wives and would have liked, as a budding journalist, to report these developments from inside the ministry!
Anyway, since that rather unpropitious experience, I have been skeptical of the efficacy or even meaningfulness of speaking in tongues. I often dismissed it as mere performance, a theatrical display by pretentious Christians.
Let me explain where I stood in more detail. I was not exactly persuaded by the argument of those known as cessationists who insist that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing ended in the Apostolic Age, a period covering the formative first century of the Christian church. But then neither was I particularly persuaded by the continuationist theology, peddled by Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, which claims that spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy have continued untrammelled even to the present age. I was often suspicious of such claims, especially in light of the fraudulences perpetrated in modern-day Pentecostalism which has become little short of an extractive capitalist industry.
But then, as I watched the frenzied effusions of my friend’s pastor the other day as he prayed in tongue, I was struck by an instant epiphany: speaking in tongue is like jazz scatting!
As a lifelong jazz lover, I was astonished that I hadn’t made this connection much earlier. In jazz scatting, the vocalist improvises with emotive, onomatopoeic, nonsense syllables (pseudowords or non-words), wordless (non-lexical) vocables, or even does so without words at all. The scat singer improvises melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium. It is often mesmerizing and, observing the most accomplished scat singers in performance, they sometimes seem to have become celestial, transfigured and transcendent, bodily with the audience but yet in a different world altogether.
Listening to Ella Fitzgerald performing the jazz standard, “How High the Moon”, or Louis Armstrong riffing on his “Dinah”, one gets a distinct sense of someone speaking in tongues! Other well-known jazz improvisationalist scat singers include Sarah Vaughn, probably without comparison in her mastery of fricatives as seen in her “Scat Blues”; Betty Carter; Scatman John; Shooby Taylor; Scatman Crothers; and many others including the young and delectable Jazzmeia Horn (check out her “Free Your Mind”).
Scat singing is often associated with swing and bop jazz and especially with Black jazz improvisationalists, and is considered to have a West African origin. But it can be deployed across other genres of vocal jazz as well.
This realization – that jazz scatting is a musical version of speaking in tongue, both sibilant expressions of spiritual ecstasy and probably non-mimetic expressions of deeper mysticism – helped me to finally understand what Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians could be doing when they speak in tongues.
It doesn’t mean that there aren’t charlatans who fake it, probably hamming it to impress co-congregants and perhaps persuade some to part with their purse. But I am convinced that in jazz as in worship, speaking in tongue could be a transcendental tool to reach beyond our cluttered lives and commune directly with the supernatural, sometimes simply absorbed in the joys of their communion or even tapping into their energies to redress the rumpled realities of our temporal life.