“Speaking in tongues” is an act, written about in the New Testament and experienced by Christians to the present day, in which the Spirit gives someone to say more than she knows, in a language she doesn’t particularly understand as she speaks it. At least, the speaker has not formally been taught to speak this language before she finds she has the ability. Others might hear this miraculous speech and (again, by the same Spirit) interpret. A frequent mark of the gift of tongues is its initial unintelligibility– at least, on a surface, “rational” level. The “interpretation of tongues” is the gift of discerning in that ecstatic, enlightening, not-quite-in-human-control speech the intelligible words and images that can be translated, usually in a variety of ways, into more normative, if still heightened, discourse.
At some point in early adulthood I began to notice these gifts operating in other contexts, outside of, though not necessarily disconnected from, the Church. Particularly in disciplines surrounding the making and interpretation of art, the Spirit seemed to give gifts of ecstatic “speech,” interpretation, and wisdom that I began to “feel” were something like what I’d known in Pentecostal and charismatic environments.
On this basis, I’d like to risk the following suggestions.
Could it be that art, at its best (or at what we might call its most Spirit-led), produces a kind of visual, verbal, aural glossolalia that others may then attempt (again, by the same Spirit) to interpret well? On the other hand, if an act of artistic “speech” and its translations fall flat, or explode into total, unmanaged chaos, then could we perhaps turn to First Corinthians for clues on discernment and order? Could we be bold enough, for example, to judge a work of art “not good” because it is “unedifying”– that is to say, not carrying the kind of deep, interpretable speech that the human community so desperately needs?
This is why I’ve never been able to swallow the public school maxim that art is primarily about “self-expression.” No ecstatic speech is. Paul can tell us that well enough. And even if it does seem to be about your own personal expression, the Apostle hints, sit down and keep it between you and God. Don’t stand up in public unless you and your community have reason to believe you’ve got a Word to share, a Word beyond yourself yet a Word who chose you and particularly you to speak it. To use artistic practice to help people learn to express themselves, tell stories, free their minds, pray– yes, very good. The difference is between that– an excellent kind of therapy– and the moment of recognition that what a person is being given to say is in some way specially gifted to them: both the prophetic Word and the mode of speaking it. Like public worship, it is hardly a democratic enterprise, but rather a celebration of being chosen, and an obedience to the choice.
Paul’s criterion for good ekstasis within community and ours for good art might also have some helpful points in common. For with tongues, the emphasis is never on the immediate felt power of the utterance (though that power may be great) but rather on its relationship to its immediate audience (Does it invite or alienate?), its environment (Does it foster communion, or create pointless chaos?) and to the community that digests it over time (Does it bear any “fruit” of Christ’s own joy, goodness, kindness…?). So when you see that abstract painting, when you witness the post-modern tap dance, hear that odd turn in the music, could it be the Spirit who whispers an interpretation into you? Does the director’s vision in that film work in your imagination like powerful, but strangely clanging, cymbals? Or does it tingle and echo like otherworldly wind chimes, telling your reason it’s good but needs to seriously lighten up?
Finally, can a gift of discerning and interpreting tongues be a gift Christian academics engaged in the arts should all seriously pray for? Should Christian artists pray for a strengthening and precision of tongues? I think so! Let’s all get baptized in the Holy Ghost, shall we?
But of course, old Paul again: the gift of charity can put all of this talking to shame. So what would it look like, in all these endeavors, to court charity above all, seeking for these other gifts either to work in love’s service, or to be “taught quietly at home” until they can?
Amber Noel received her M.Div. from Duke University in 2012 after additional graduate coursework in theology and literature at Lee University. She lives in Durham, NC (USA) where she is exploring vocations in pastoral, artistic, and academic fields. In her spare time, Amber is either pursuing ordination as a deacon, eating breakfast, or watching Doctor Who. She has high-quality humans and/or cats around her most of the time.