Last week, a Kentucky pastor died after refusing to be treated for a religion-induced snake bite. That practice is only found in Appalachian churches. But speaking in tongues is a Pentecostal tradition that many of us don’t quite understand.
Seattle artist and writer Amanda Manitach grew up in Valley View, Texas, where her dad was, and still is, the pastor at Cross Timbers Church. She was 13 years old the first time she spoke in tongues.
“I went to a bible camp up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and there was a call after a service to come down and receive the gift of tongues, which was something that everyone in my church practiced, more or less. I went up to the front, expecting some kind of lightening beam from God, that would come and just fry my brain; in a good way! I get up there and nothing happens and I was terribly disappointed. Then a woman comes up and starts praying for me and then she says, ‘Just open your mouth and start talking but don’t speak in English.’ I thought, ‘Is that cheating?’ But then I started doing it and I opened up my mouth and I started talking and a whole nonsense language just poured out. And that was my gift of tongues.”
Amanda says speaking in tongues is one of the charismatic gifts of the spirit, something embraced by Pentecostal Christians, along with faith healing and being slain in the spirit.
“Someone will come and lay their hands on you and you just fall on the ground,” said Amanda, explaining the concept of being slain in the spirit. “I’ve experienced this. It can be really interesting and it can be viscerally, physically real. Where someone will just lightly touch you and it feels like a truck hit you and you just fly to the ground.”
There are many Bible verses that mention speaking in tongues and Amanda’s dad, Pastor Raymond Hall, explains where it all started.
“On the day of Pentecost they were praying and the Holy Spirit came on them. Acts describes it as, there was a mighty rushing wind that filled the room. There were tongues of fire that came down and rested over each individual. The other manifestation was everyone began to speak in an unknown language.”
Amanda spoke in tongues from 13 to 19 years old.
“One of the interesting things about speaking in tongues is every individual does tend to have their own special, unique language. It is nonsensical. But it is repeated, syllabic words. There’s syntax to it and there’s a kind of rhythm and everyone has their own individual language. It’s a really fascinating thing to witness.”
Amanda is now an atheist and she tries to make sense of what speaking in tongues meant to her.
“It makes you feel good. It really does. You’re surrounded by a group of people and you just kind of have this freedom to play around as if you’re a child. Rolling around on the floor, screaming, doing whatever you want to. But I think that most people experiencing it are viewing it as a connection to God or that they’re communicating with him in some way or expressing love.”
Amanda went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is called ‘The Buckle of the Bible Belt’ and she says her college was part of the Big Tent Revival.
“I personally experienced something that I considered a faith healing. When I was at ORU, my sophomore year, I was in a car accident and messed up my knee really bad. And it was a knee that had given me problems since I was 13, playing tennis. It was just crushed and terrible and I couldn’t walk without crying for three days. Then I was at a church service that night, on campus. Someone up on stage pointed to me and I was way in the back of this auditorium. They pointed right in my direction and they and said, ‘God is healing someone’s knee right now.’ From that day until the present I have never had a single ache or pain in that knee. And that’s really common, that happened all the time.”
But years after Amanda left the church, she had a really rough time with the idea of faith healing.
“My mom died in 2009 and she had found some breast lumps four years earlier. She was very much into faith healing and she refused to get any kind of diagnosis or treatment for it. Her attitude was, flat out, either I’m going to die or God’s going to heal me. So that went on for four years. She spent the last year-and-a-half under hospice care and was bedridden.”
While Amanda struggled with her mom’s choice, the church celebrated it.
“They considered her a saint and that what she was going through was really great. That was pretty hard for me to witness because I didn’t really look at it that way at all. They really respected her as a woman of God and that she had such strong faith. And I think they applauded her desire to handle the sickness that way. To kind of follow through with this idea that God could heal her.”
Pastor Hall says that each denomination chooses how literal it wants to take the Bible. Which is why his church does not practice snake handling.
“In Mark, Chapter 16, there’s a passage where it said that if you drink poison or if you are bitten by a poisonous snake it will not harm you because the Lord will protect you. So the snake handlers are seen as, I’m going to demonstrate how much faith I have by handling this poisonous snake. Most of Christianity would say, well, that’s not what God intended.”