Why Would John Crowder Fake Tongues? Glossalia and Clerical Control
another note for my longer work at the work blog on power and church structure, and their effects on democracy
I’ve been looking at the blogs of the Emergent-y (I no longer know what to call the Movement) young pastors. They’re always interesting because they a) are so earnest (which is great) and b) want to tackle important issues (which is also great). Sometimes they veer off into weirdness or simply bad thinking (not so great) but that’s no different than anyone else. At least they are trying to create something rather than just moan.
One of them, lofitribe — gotta mean something but I’m flummoxed — has been of interest lately because Shawn writes about leadership. Since church governance, leadership and the rise of the Despot Leader in Evangelical Churches is my current concern, I have been looking at what young minister types are saying about the issue.
They’re terribly confused on it, most of them. They’re biggest problem is that they look to management gurus for some of their understanding, or worse look to Church Gurus who look to Management Gurus who frankly didn’t know what they were doing in the first place. There are a few decent management gurus and most of them are hard ignored or entirely misinterpreted.
But one of the things Shawn links to is an interesting video of John Crowder. Crowder’s schtick is “high on Jesus” and he’s as entertaining as Otis, Mayberry’s lovable town drunk, if Otis had been the lead character and carried a loaded pistol along with that fifth jug. He’s less interesting than that other famous whisky-swilling media preacher, Dr. Gene Scott, but only because he’s so much less intelligent than Scott was. Crowder’s cute for about three minutes and then he’s just another annoying carny who hasn’t got anything to actually say.
Lots of young Evangelicals link to him because he’s so hot in young Christian circles these days. So Shawn linking to him isn’t all that interesting.
What’s fascinating, and what none of the comments seemed to capture (from my skim), is the way he nails an issue with his title:
Why is that brilliant? Because he’s pointing to important to leadership, even if he doesn’t quite understand it himself.
Here’s the YouTube video in question:
The key thing is not what Crowder says (which can be summarized as a bad Stratum 1 reading of Christian hedonism) but the fake “speaking in tongues” that he uses. Shawn calls him out on this, saying that he is reduces a spiritual gift to being ridiculous.
I’m paraphrasing: Crowder shows contempt the exercise of the real speaking in tongues experience through this ridiculous attempt at faking it.
Speaking in tongues is known in the scientific literature as “glossalia” which, interestingly enough, is the original term. By this, they mean something closer to what Pentecostals mean by “ecstatic utterances” rather than someone miraculously speaking in another language. What happens is that the individual gets caught up in the Spirit (however defined) and starts ceding active control of his mind. His language centers turn off and he often begins swaying. Soon these bizarre sounds of gibberish come out. It’s not language per se but still something that is expressing a pre-linguisitc (not pre-cognitive) state that cannot be adequately described or experienced through the construct of language. The details differ from place to place, and often depend on who has taught you, but the outlines are pretty much the same. Just because it’s not “language” doesn’t mean that it is void of information that needs communicated. Thus Paul insists that when someone speaks in tongues in a Christian meeting that someone else interprets.
And all of this is still different from “prophesying”.
Crowder apparently hasn’t read the scads of works done on glossalia and what it is. If he had he wouldn’t have faked it so horribly badly. The fact that people put up with this means that either they have never seen real glossalia (strong possibility) or they simply want to be taken in by Crowder’s mesmer. It’s an appallingly bad attempt and really does resemble a very drunk atheist’s attempt at contemptuous parody of Pentecostals at, say, an East coast cocktail party for actors who shouldn’t be given work.
What’s interesting for us is that glossalia seems to have been contentious in the early Pauline Church at Corinth because it cut across power lines. It was a prime example of holiness, of being engaged by God, and anyone could have it. This allowed lowly people to take on the powerful, or to diminish their influence. Even Paul has to say “I speak in tongues more than anyone!”
Shawn hits on the issue by calling attention to how Crowder makes a spiritual gift of glossalia into something ridiculous. He’s not saying that glossalia is ridiculous, only that Crowder’s poor attempt at mimicking it is.
What Crowder has done is appropriated a leveling force onto himself. The glossalia is not for the Big Leader but for the little people in the pews. In this way it is like what Paul calls “prophesying” in his letter to Corinth. Because Crowder didn’t even do the easy work of learning to fake it reasonably well (no one can glossalia and speechify at the same time because glossalia turns off the linguistic function in the brain) it leaves him open to the accusation that he’s contemptuous of his followers and has appropriated a sign of leveling in an inappropriate and possibly dangerous way.
What’s really frightening is how many people go along with this. Crowder’s not the only one, of course; he’s just the loudest in the current batch.
It’s really too bad. Glossalia is something that cuts across power structures, that challenges power. When the people allow it to be faked by the Big Leader, they lose something precious. It’s better to be in a church that forbids glossalia than to be in one that permits its leader to fake it so egregiously.
Which is why I said it had to do with our topic.
(Full disclosure: I do not speak in tongues but have felt the need for ecstatic utterance when overwhelmed by my experience of the Trinity.)