My fellow Godbeat scribes, I come to you today to ask a question that has been bothering me for several weeks. Here goes: Do you think that the average newspaper reader understands the meaning of the phrase "speaking in tongues" or the big word "glossolalia"?
This leads to a second question that is like unto the first: If we decide that we need to define these terms in a hard-news story, how in the world do we do so in the brass-tacks, demystified language of The Associated Press Stylebook? How do handle this issue as journalists without sounding like we are National Geographic correspondents describing an exotic alien culture when, in fact, charistmatic and Pentecostal believers are now a large chunk of the American mainstream and an even larger force around the world?
Let me give you an example, drawn from a recent Associated Press report about Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's decision to, well, crack down on people who are doing something that isn't very Southern-Baptist-like. Here's the opening of the report from Fort Worth:
Trustees at a Baptist seminary have put it in writing: They will not tolerate any promotion of speaking in tongues on their campus.
The 36-1 vote Tuesday came nearly two months after the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington said during a chapel service at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that he sometimes speaks in tongues while praying.
As opposed to speaking in tongues while ordering a pizza? Speaking in tongues after hitting his thumb with a hammer? This is one way to handle the situation. You simply assume that the man on the street knows what's going on.
Later in the story there is another passage that doesn't do much to help the charismatically challenged reader:
The controversy has erupted as some Baptist churches become more accepting of charismatic forms of worship. Speaking in tongues is common among Pentecostals, whose more exuberant brand of Christianity is spreading in the United States and in foreign countries where Southern Baptist missionaries work.
Exuberant? OK, but Pentecostal people can speak in tongues in a quiet and reverent manner, and there are rare cases of hardshell Calvinists behaving in an exuberant manner while reading from committee reports that are written in technical Presbyterian lingo. So that extra word doesn't help us very much.
Meanwhile, the Associated Baptist Press, in its coverage of the same story, provided a very helpful slice of church history that hinted at the roots of this controversy:
With the latest decision, Southwestern becomes at least the third SBC agency to have a policy officially opposing extraordinary expressions of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. ...
Such gifts as speaking in tongues and healing are spoken of in several New Testament passages. However, many modern-day Protestants believe those gifts ceased with the passing of the first generation of Christian apostles. That belief, known as "cessationism," has historically been held by many Southern Baptists. However, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, including some Southern Baptists, believe in the continued validity of such gifts -- a belief known as "continualism."
But we are still left where we started, facing the same question: Can we assume that readers know what the phrase "speaking in tongues" means in the first place?
I think this is a serious question and, if you doubt me, I suggest that you click here and look through some of the data in the recently released Pew Forum study of the global rise of Pentecostalism as what some call a fourth major tradition within Christianity. For a solid look at this, you can read the Religion News Service coverage by veteran religion reporter Adelle Banks.
I also took a stab at summing up this massive study, in my weekly "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. It included material from the noted Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan and, once again, I had to try to say, well, you know what:
Another interesting part of this study, said Synan, indicated that "glossolalia," or "speaking in tongues," may no longer be the spiritual gift that defines charismatics and even many Pentecostals. Within the Assemblies of God, for example, there has long been a gap between an "old guard" that believes this experience of ecstatic speech is always the initial sign that someone has been "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and a "third wave" of younger believers who see it as a gift that some experience and some do not.
I'm not sure that my attempt at a brief, AP-friendly description was any better than the others. It also doesn't help to call this phenomenon a "heavenly language" or an "angelic tongue." What do phrases like that mean to an outsider?
Any suggestions? Any charistmatic journalists out there want to take a short, newsroom-friendly shot at this? Oh, and don't assume that we have the spiritual gift of interpretation.
Note: The second image is not an official Google logo, since Pentecost is obviously not an official Google holiday. This is an illustration floating around out there in the blogosphere.