Not too long ago, many people were predicting the demise of Christianity. Their predictions may have been borne out in Western countries, where church attendance appears to be dropping. But the worldwide picture is completely different where such talk has been utterly silenced by an explosion of belief in African and Asian countries.
Many of these new converts have come to faith through a particular kind of prayer that’s not much accepted in the West. Known as glossolalia, also called speaking in tongues, this prayer practice is often called the baptism or infilling of the Holy Spirit.
Lots of reasons could be given for why Christianity centered around this particular brand of prayer has been so powerful. One of my favorites comes from Professor Birgit Meyer. She points out that in the biblical story of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was sent by God to take the place of Jesus. “As the embodied presence of God, the Holy Spirit is a portable power source,” writes Professor Meyer, who is a professor of religious studies and theology at the University of Utrecht.
This embodied Holy Spirit is easily taken across geographical, national and religious boundaries where potential converts can see and feel it. When this kind of prayer occurs, onlookers see not merely bowed heads and ordinary voices but a tangible response from God, a physical outpouring of unintelligible speech that does not appear to be under the control of the human who is speaking.
At the same time, those who speak in tongues experience what they call an indescribable joy and peace – and, as the professor notes, a new power.
Those filled with the Holy Spirit in this way are thought to be able to cast out demons and heal the sick, writes Professor Meyer, who has conducted considerable research among African churches. Many of the people she studies also believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit contributes to a life filled with material wealth and well being.
University of Kansas sociologist Ebenezer Obadare also studies African Christianity. When the Holy Spirit anoints a pastor, that person is often thought to be able to perform miracles, which range from spectacular events like healings to more mundane but useful miracles of everyday life. Professor Obadare recounts one story of a pastor who needed to drive from his church to a meeting more than a hundred miles away. Gasoline shortages are quite common in Nigeria where the pastor lived, and on this day, he was unable to fill his gas tank, which was running quite low. So he prayed. And the Holy Spirit kept his car running all day and into the night until he was able to return home.
Relatively few Western Christians have experienced speaking in tongues, compared to the great numbers in non-Western countries. I have not, although many of my relatives have. They too describe the experience as one of great, life-changing joy. Some of them believe it is essential as a sign of salvation. All of them believe that they have a direct line to God, and that he works for them in the world.
Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has spent considerable time studying American churches where speaking in tongues is common. She believes such churches are coaching their members in a new theory of mind that allows them to experience a part of their mind as the presence of God. In such churches, believing in God is less like thinking and more like learning to do something, she writes in her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.
But scientists studying glossolalia with brain scan equipment may have come up with evidence pointing in a different direction. They note that when someone is speaking in tongues the parts of the brain associated with receiving outside messages are activated, while those parts of the brain that process inner dialogue are quiet. Does that mean that God is talking to them?
Scientists will be slow to say so, but for people who've been filled with the Holy Ghost language, these new findings are merely confirmation of what they already experience.