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Deep in the heart of Madison Tennessee, there’s a small storefront church nestled amidst gas stations and run-down homes. It’s so small in fact, that’s it’s easy to miss. Which is exactly what I did, driving past it twice before my husband said, “Oh, there it is.” We stood outside, puzzled as to exactly what we should do next. Should we go in? Should we wait until someone, an usher or something came to the door to tell us where to sit? As we looked through the windows, it seemed the service was already in full force. Many members of the congregation stood and swayed with their hands upraised, as the apparent leaders of the service stood in the front of the church and sang. In addition to the full band (guitar, drums, and keyboard all a’ rockin’) a few people played tambourines, or simply kept time with a clapping of their hands.

We decided to slip inside and find ourselves a seat. We had already felt an intense amount of energy radiating through the walls of the church, and now that we were inside, the energy was even more palpable, and overwhelming. Suddenly, the music swelled and the atmosphere became even more electric. Two rows ahead of me, a woman rocked back and forth, moaning, then abruptly jumped out of her seat, running the length of the long, narrow room. As she ran, she threw her head back and began loudly uttering completely unintelligible phrases. No one approached her or tried to stop her. She continued running, continued speaking, shouting, crying, always in words that were impossible to understand—impossible, at least, to human ears.

Glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues” as it is more commonly known, is the act of speaking in a language previously unknown to the speaker. Usually, the listeners cannot understand the words being spoken, although in some circumstances an interpreter provides a translation of what the speaker has said. In the Christian church, when a person speaks in tongues, it is understood to be a spiritual gift. In the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in particular, these strange utterances are thought to be the language of angels, or the true language of God himself—the manifestation of a divine presence. Outside of the church, speaking in tongues is often viewed as a strange and mysterious phenomenon akin to other religious practices such as snake handling, or voluntarily drinking strychnine to prove that one is covered in God’s protection.

Inside and outside of the church, the act of speaking in tongues has been met with a great deal of criticism. Many critics believe that all who speak in tongues are faking it, and are simply putting on a show for the congregation, stirring up emotion among churchgoers that will result in more money in the collection plate. Other critics believe that, while the ability to speak in tongues may be granted to some, there are others who abuse this spiritual gift by pretending to possess it just to gain attention and to make a profit from vulnerable believers.

I grew up in the south, and have attended many church services in which people began speaking in tongues. For me, these unintelligible phrases are a part of the soundtrack of the south; a series of syllables that, while I cannot interpret their meaning, are clearly meant to be a display of spiritual power. I do not know whether everyone who speaks in tongues is sincere, but I am always amazed by the concept of the presence of the Holy Spirit made manifest through the human voice.