Speaking in Tongues: Alternative Voices in Faith

Speaking in tongues is a controversial practice to many Christians, but others consider it a gift from God.

And many people who attend the Freedom Valley Worship Center in Gettysburg, Pa., pray for that gift.

"For me, it is almost as if I am able to tap into God's heart and what he wants," said Amber Crone, a member of the church. "I don't really know what I am saying, but I know it is what God wants me to say and speak. It is more of an enlightenment -- you can feel him all around you, and you can feel him speaking through the words that you are saying."

Crone's friend, Kelly Chocincky, describes what she says is a feeling of connection to God. "I know some people that get a warm, fuzzy feeling going on inside them. For me, I get goose bumps, actually."

'It Heals You on the Inside'

For Senior Pastor Gerry Stoltzfoos, speaking in tongues is a deeply ingrained way of life. He says he has been speaking in tongues since he was a boy growing up in an Amish family, although the Amish frown on the practice.

"The Amish world didn't really address that at all," said Stoltzfoos.

"I didn't think it was wrong," Stoltzfoos said, "but I didn't think it would be exactly encouraged if I tried to explain it, and if I had used any of the vernacular that I was familiar with, like speaking in tongues, I would have been told there wasn't such thing. When I left the Amish Church, I started seeking a church that was really open to outside people coming in."

Stoltzfoos said he encouraged his congregation to speak in tongues. "It settles things in your spirit, and it heals you on the inside."

The origin of the practice is believed to be the miracle of Pentecost -- as told in the New Testament book of Acts -- when Jesus' apostles were said to be filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in languages foreign to themselves. And a gifted few are said to have done it in early Christian congregations. Saint Paul called it "speaking in the tongues of angels."

The practice is widely embraced by Pentecostals but looked at askance by many other Christian denominations. And to outsiders, it can seem downright freakish.

'A Heavenly Language'

"There is a vast number of people out there that, because they did not experience it personally or they were taught against it, there is no way they have an ability to embrace it," said Stoltzfoos. "We are still mocked and made fun of."

But those who do speak in tongues, who believe the Holy Spirit is speaking through them, say they don't care at all about what others think. It is their unique connection to God, they say, in a language he understands, even if they don't.

"We say things in our own English language, but speaking in tongues is a heavenly language -- that we are going to God and Jesus intercedes for us," said Donna Morgan, who speaks in tongues daily.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Andrew Newberg is looking for an explanation for what most regard as inexplicable.

Newberg is determined to unravel the relationship between faith and science by studying what happens in the brain during the deepest moments of faith. He's recently published a study looking at the brain activity of eight Americans who speak in tongues.

"If we are really going to look at this powerful force in human history of religion and spirituality, I think we really have to take a look at how that affects our brain -- what's changing or turning on and off in our brain," Newberg said.

'Why We Believe What We Believe'

When asked if he was skeptical about what he'd find when he decided to study the brain at the moment someone is speaking in tongues, Newberg said, "If … the question is, is this a real phenomenon? Is this really the voice of God speaking through them? That's a much more problematic question, I think, and something that I'm not sure if we have specifically answered just by doing our study."

Newberg used CT scans to look at what happens in the brain's control center when someone speaks in tongues.

Study particpants like Donna Morgan listened to gospel music during the first scan. Brain activity during that scan was then compared with brain activity as the subject spoke in tongues.

Morgan was excited when she heard about the study. She was convinced that the results would support what she said she feels all the time.

"When I heard about the study, I already knew, in my spirit, that it was going to be proven that there was a part of our brain that we have no control [over]," she said, "that when the Holy Ghost is interceding for us we are out of control."

Newberg has been studying how faith is mapped on the brain for quite some time. He's recently published a book called "Why We Believe What We Believe."

In earlier studies, he looked at what happens in the brains of Buddhist monks meditating and Franciscan nuns praying. The results were quite different from what happens in the brains of people speaking in tongues, whose brains, he found, went quiet in the frontal lobe -- the part of the brain right behind the forehead that's considered the brain's control center.

The Voice of God?

"When they are actually engaged in this whole very intense spiritual practice … their frontal lobes tend to go down in activity. … It is very consistent with the kind of experience they have, because they say that they're not in charge. [They say] it's the voice of God, it's the spirit of God that is moving through them," said Newberg.

"Whatever is coming out of their mouth is not what they are purposefully or willfully trying to do. And that's in fairly stark contrast to the people who are -- like the Buddhist and Franciscan nuns -- in prayer, because they are very intensely focused and in those individuals the frontal lobes actually increase activity."

We asked Stoltzfoos to visit the University of Pennsylvania to have his brain scanned by Newberg while he spoke in tongues, and Stoltzfoos did not hesitate in agreeing to participate.

"I don't think faith has anything to be afraid of from science. Science validates faith, so bring it on, whatever the facts are, bring it on."

First, Stoltzfoos' brain was scanned as he prayed in English. Then, on Newberg's cue, he spoke in tongues, which sounded like a foreign language -- a little Hebrew, a bit of German -- but actually he wasn't saying anything in any known language.

Newberg said the scan showed that part of Stoltzfoos' frontal lobe did go quiet.

'Not as Crazy as They Thought'

But what science determines at the end of the day is of no consequence to those who believe they are blessed with the gift of tongues.

"When you have experienced this, you don't really care what anybody else thinks. It is personal in the first place; it is something between you and God," said Stoltzfoos. "So we don't really care if it is validated or not, but it is fascinating when it is, so that people who have thought we are crazy can have something to look at and -- we are still crazy, we are just not as crazy as they thought."

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