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Speaking in Tongues


As Christmas draws near, arguably the holiest of holidays second only to Easter Sunday, faithful servants of the Lord will flock to their respective houses of worship to give thanks to all that God has blessed them with during the year, and to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. As the church folk say, “When praises go up, blessings come down,” and this article explores the perplexity of those praises when they become unintelligible to the “naked ear.” Namely, what happens when Christians speak in tongues?


According to Rev. Jerry Sorrell of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, his first encounter with speaking in tongues was as an 8-year-old boy and took place at a storefront church in Compton, Calif., in the early 1960s. His sister-in-law’s congregation was meeting on a school night, and she insisted that he and his two brothers attend, so the preacher could anoint them in oil and protect them from catching a cold during the flu season.

The church was noted for speaking in tongues as Sorrell and his brothers would later learn. “I always felt that my parents should have warned us, or at least explained to us what we were about to witness,” said Sorrell. “But instead we blindly loaded up in our car and began our journey to what can be best described as our first ‘spiritual immunization,’ and the impact it had on initiating the ‘speaking of tongues.”

According to Sorrell, the service was conducted as he expected, with the routine speeches and announcements followed by the reading of the Bible, and singing a song he would remember the rest of his life, “I’m in the Lord’s Army”.

“I remember the turnout may have been around 30 adult church members, mostly women. I was excited about being protected from a cold or flu virus and that this preacher would prevent weeks of nasal congestion, sore throats and that irritable dry hacking cough,” Sorrell recalled. “When we got sick my mom used awful tasting cold remedies to cure us, and then, of course, there was the dreaded booster shot from our local physician.

“As I reminisce, I remember focusing on the small table and a dark green bottle, I believe it was olive oil, which I later found out was our conduit for healing. The pastor would place a small amount on our forehead while the entire church would undergo glossolalia (the phenomenon of apparently speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship).

“Once the anointing of the oil began, the entire church came alive, energized with jumping, shouting, singing, running, and shouting very loudly in a foreign language. It was scary. My brothers really freaked out, when we saw my cousins, who were about our same age participating.”

Using it as a defense mechanism, Sorrell remembers reciting the lyrics to “I’m in The Lord’s Army” repeatedly to calm him.

After sharing his first encounter with glossolalia, Pastor Sorrell opened his Bible to the Book of Acts and as he read, he began to speak in a language that appeared to have elements

of Hebrew, Arabic and Latin and, for lack of a better word, gibberish.

Sorrell explained that the gift of glossolalia (more commonly called “speaking in tongues”) can come to you suddenly.

”It’s like a prayer running straight from heaven through your body,” Sorrell explained. “Until you are a member you believe speaking in tongues is chaotic babel. However, when you finally become a member, you understand the Holy Spirit.”

My conversation with Rev. Sorrell was shared with psychologist Rev. Stephen Yoo, a graduate of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and a former forensic researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Yoo, 10 years ago researchers had five African American women volunteers who agreed to have images taken of their brains while they spoke in tongues. The images showed that their frontal lobes (the part of the brain that controls important cognitive skills in humans, such as emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behavior. It is, in essence, the “control panel” of our personality and our ability to communicate) were relatively quiet.

Yoo discovered that the region of the brain involved in maintaining self-consciousness and normally not used by the human body were active. During the exam, the brain was processing in an area that is normally dormant, but it was still inconclusive which region was driving the behavior.

Yoo remembers one of the lead researchers, neurologist Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, describe how the images supported people’s interpretation of what was happening.

“The way the women described it, and what they believed, was that God is talking through them,” Newberg said.

In the study, the researchers used imaging techniques to track changes in blood flow in each woman’s brain in two conditions, once as she sang a gospel song and again while speaking in tongues. By comparing the patterns created by these two emotional, devotional activities, the researchers could pinpoint blood-flow peaks and valleys unique to speaking in tongues.

According to Yoo, who is very religious, “God is communicating with the brain like Rev. Sorrell mentioned earlier, directly from heaven to that area of the brain we do not normally use.”

According to Yoo, glossolalia began in the Pentecostal churches that were established in the early 1900s.

However, Rutgers University’s Paul Delacey, a professor of phonology and a field researcher in linguistics, believes glossolalia is a self-induced state not involving God.

He explained how you can transcribe an individual experiencing glossolalia and there are certain characteristics that indicate that the sounds this individual is making are actually coming from that individual and are not induced by a supernatural entity.

“If the person’s primary language is English, Spanish or Japanese you will hear rudimentary sounds from that language.

“When we transcribe the words of someone who is speaking in tongues, we look for repeated sentences, which show structure, that structure does not exist.”

According to Delacey, there is a strong possibility that there are cognitive mechanisms in the brain used, when people begin to speak in tongues.

“Babies use the similar speech mechanisms when they begin to speak (babel), as they grow older they learn that it is socially unacceptable to babel and stop doing it. As we become older, we refrain from speaking our infant language. We all have the innate capacity to speak in tongues. “It may feel awkward and strange to do it and some church members may refrain from speaking based on being uncomfortable.”

Sorrell disagrees with Delacey.

“He is basing his theory on sentence structure and disregarding the imaging of the test subject’s brain activity,” Sorrell said. “How can you explain an inactive part of the brain being ‘turned on’ during glossolalia; it doesn’t make sense. I believe the more advanced the human race gets the more we become non-believers. We should attempt to merge science and religion and find a happy medium.”