May 19 • 11M

Tongues & Power (Part I)

Pentecostalism and the Mislocation of Power

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Let’s talk about ”tongues,” shall we? Now that I’m doing multi-faith work, this is weird and intriguing again. A few years ago, for example, I was in a large van with a group of students from various faith (or non-faith) backgrounds. We had just finished visiting a Hindu Temple and were on our way to our next destination. As we were leaving, some of them were asking me what a Pentecostal was. They were stunned when they heard about speaking in tongues and didn’t say anything for a few seconds. My Christian Reformed colleague, Paul, leaned over quietly and said with a grin, “they’re going to ask you to do it.” Sure enough. I hadn’t been asked to give a “tongues” demonstration since I was a kid. For the record, I declined the offer both as a kid and as an adult. Regardless, it’s good to be in settings where the things you experience and witness, largely without thinking about them, are strange again. It causes you to ask new questions and think about things from a different perspective. Let me introduce you, then, to my new brand of hats: MSITWA (Make speaking in tongues weird again). Just kidding.

Growing up, the text I heard most frequently regarding “missions” was this:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
-Acts 1:8

This seems pretty straight forward, right? Receive the Holy Spirit, receive power for witness. Upon hearing a sermon on this text, many of us would make our way to the front of the church at the end of the service to be prayed for to be filled or “re-filled” with the Holy Spirit so that we could go and be powerful witnesses in the world. These were often very beautiful times.⁠1 In our circles, the sign that we had received the Spirit was that we would begin speaking in tongues. This, of course, is based on a reading of Acts 2 as the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit power found in Acts 1. My purpose here is to lean into this connection between Jesus’ promise of the Spirit and the accompanying power in Acts 1, and the fulfillment of that promise in Acts 2. In so doing, however, I want to ask what power looks like in Acts 2 in order to better understand where the power is actually located in our witness.

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One of the first things to note about the traditional Pentecostal view of power as it relates to “tongues“ is that it is located in the person receiving the Spirit. Given what is said in Acts 1:8, this seems to make sense. But Acts 2 really messes with how we typically make sense of anything, and should certainly challenge our common understanding of how power works. As the Spirit comes several things happen. First, we learn of a ”violent wind” which filled the house where people were praying (2:2); second, there were “tongues of fire“ that came and then rested “on each of them” (2:3); and third, people began to speak in languages that weren’t their own, “as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). It’s important to pause here and notice how none of these things fit our typical understanding of how things work. Wind, for example, blows outside, not inside. This wind – or better, this sound of wind – blew inside, and did not blow at all. Or perhaps it did and the blowing was auditory and not felt? Or perhaps it was felt, but not felt in the way that we typically feel wind? Perhaps the sound, not the force, was how this wind blew? We’re in my mysterious territory here. It was like a violent wind, but apparently no destruction followed it. And then the fire came and separated and rested on people’s heads yet did not burn them. So we have a non-destructive-violent-sounding-wind, and non-harming fire. This, of course, is not the first time we’ve learned of a fire that burns but doesn’t consume (Exodus 3:3). And finally, we have people who speak in languages they don’t understand. These people are indeed filled with power, but the power is like the wind and fire: category defying. They received power, but as we read on we find that the power is not only located in the mouths of those speaking as we have traditionally understood.

(5) Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. (6) When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. (7) Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? (8) Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language…we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (12) Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
-Acts 2: 5-8; 12

For Pentecostals, the focus of this text has usually been on speaking (in tongues). This is good. Yet to stop here is to be blind – or better, deaf – to what the text is revealing. It is crucial to see that tongues have a double location here: they exist both in the mouth of the speaker and in the ear of the hearer. This is true of all language, of course. Things are spoken in order to be heard and understood. Language exists within us, but also between us. What we see happening in our text, though, reverses what we might deem to be “normal” in terms of how language works. Whereas it may not be uncommon to speak to a stranger who doesn’t understand the language you are speaking, in Acts 2 it is precisely the strangers who do understand while the speakers themselves do not. The agency, which is to say the power, seems to lie more in the ear of the hearer than in the mouth of the speaker. This is not to say that the person speaking in tongues is not encountering a kind of power. Rather, it is to say that the power with which they are filled – the power of the Holy Spirit – is a different kind of power which doesn’t operate within our normal parameters, thus leaving the people bewildered. The power with which they are filled cannot be understood outside of the ear of the hearer.

In the next post I’ll deal with some of the implications of all of this which are not unrelated to some of my previous posts on mission(s). But for now it is enough to say that it has been tempting for Pentecostals to interpret power (or more likely, to take what power means for granted) by simply saying it is the act of speaking in tongues upon being filled with the Spirit. In Acts 2, however, we find “bewilderment,” and people ask, “what does this mean?” We should still be asking this question of tongues and power. All of this to say that when we locate the power at work solely, or even primarily, in the mouth of the person speaking in tongues, we have “mislocated“ the power of the Spirit and misunderstood the very nature of that bewildering power. For us, power normally works according to boundaries (here, not there, or vice versa). But in Acts 2, the boundary markers which were once stable become shaken through the interstitial work of the Spirit. The Spirit disrupts our typical bounded categories of understanding. The power of the Spirit’s Wind is more heard than felt, is inside not out, and sounds violent but destroys nothing (except our boundaries). The Spirit’s fire rests on us but burns away nothing (except our boundaries). And the Spirit’s power is not here as opposed to there, in the speaker not the hearer, but works between us, destroying the boundaries we seek to create  or uphold. Is the Spirit at work within us? Yes. But if we stop there we mis-locate the power, for the power of the Spirit works not merely or primarily in, but between.

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1 I’m obviously writing here in the past tense. This still happens but, unfortunately, is becoming more and more rare. I resonate with James K. A. Smith who writes, “I would venture a hypothesis that is admittedly anecdotal: as Pentecostal denominations (such as the Assemblies of God in the United States) climb the ladder of social class…the practice of tongues-speech in congregational worship contexts decreases. This, I would suggest, is precisely because such a ‘strange’ practice does not conform to the rationality (reality principal) of capitalist logic; and insofar as such upwardly mobile congregations are seeking to advance by capitalist logic, they eschew the language of resistance.” This from, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2010), 150, footnote 74.