r m p






Mute Oracles


Old Testament Reading: Daniel 5:1-9

New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:8 - 14:25

Text: Acts 2:1-13


"Those were his words. And then he talked about the voices of     the patients under his care. He whispered, and I quote, that 'the wonderful music of those voices spoke the supreme delirium of the planets as they go round and round like bright puppets dancing in the blackness.' In the wandering words of those lunatics, he told me, the ancient mysteries were restored.

"Like all true mysteriarchs," Mr. Locrian went on, "my grandfather desired a knowledge that was unspoken and unspeakable."

                        Thomas Ligotti, "Dr. Locrian's Asylum"


Surely the most conspicuous feature of the Pentecost account in Acts chapter two, that passage I am making the object of my scrutiny in this series of Pentecost season sermons, is the outburst of the 120 disciples who, under the afflatus of the Holy Ghost, began to speak in tongues.

Some in the crowd heard what they said as a preaching of the gospel in discrete foreign language, while others heard only what appeared to be drunken gibberish. I will eventually suggest that it may have been these latter who were closest to a true understanding of the divine oracles they heard that day. But first a closer look at what is going on in the story vis a vis these strange tongues.

Interpreters have never been able to agree on just what it is that Luke is trying to describe. On the one hand he sets us up with the knowledge that the crowd contains people who speak many different languages from all over the Eastern Mediterranean basin. Why are they mentioned? Apparently so that we may understand that there are witnesses competent to judge whether or not someone is genuinely speaking a foreign language.

And this seems at first like what the apostles are shown doing. Elsewhere in Acts, as in 1 Corinthians, when people are said to be speaking in inspired frenzy, the expression used is "speaking in tongues." But here and here alone we have it stated that the apostles spoke "in other tongues," which would naturally be taken to mean foreign languages, not  inspired ranting.

In this case the miracle is how these unlettered Galileans would have gained such expertise, and indeed the point is that they gained it directly from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as later when the Sanhedrin marvels that Peter and John can be so well spoken when they are mere Galilean bumpkins without an education.

But if what Luke means is that they were granted the gift of speaking foreign languages they had not learned, why all the emphasis on hearing? The passage says three times that various people in the crowd hear them speaking in the languages familiar to the crowd. It implies the 120 were simply carrying on in ecstatic ravings which were then interpreted spontaneously in the ears of each hearer as a miracle.

This would also make sense of the otherwise strange detail that some of the audience hear nothing but gibberish. "They are filled with new wine!" This is pretty much the response Paul expects the Corinthians to get from outsiders if and when they speak in tongues with no intelligible interpretation attached. "Will they not say that you are mad?"             

Some interpreters, baffled by the pulling apart of the text in these two directions, suggest that Luke took an earlier story depicting Christians speaking in unintelligible tongues and reinterpreted it as a speaking of real foreign languages--or perhaps that he took a language-miracle story and confused it with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. I suspect something like this happened. The confusion, as often in Luke's writings, is a result of a sloppy and hasty job of editing.

But the result is quite interesting for another reason. The text, confused and confusing as it is, becomes what Paul de Man calls an allegory of its own reading.  That is, just as the bystanders in the story are amazed and befuddled at the contrary claims being made around them, "What? Speaking Parthian? Elamite? Palmyran? Sounds like gibberish to me!"--just so, the reader is confronted by a text that seems to be ringing with the dissonance of confusion. 

Not only can we not account for the fact of the Galileans speaking in tongues, perhaps intelligible, perhaps not; we cannot even tell whether Luke means foreign or angelic languages! Or is Luke himself simply filled with new wine? Or am I?

But amid this din, perhaps a note of important revelation sounds after all. Can it be that the confusion of tongues is not so much an obscuring of what is supposed to be a revelation as it just what we ought to expect from a revelation?

I mean that it can be no simple matter for human lips, even should they be inspired, to speak the Word of God. Not even the coal from the altar with which the Seraph touched Isaiah's lips can really help.

Let's approach it this way: the very phrase which is central to so many Christian denominations, "the Word of God," deconstructs spontaneously into a pile of ill-fitting glossolalic syllables. If it is a word, it is a member of the linguistic sign-system constructed by the little minds of human beings to navigate in their world. Words are volleyballs tossed back and forth over the net in the game of human communication.

If one of these words goes bouncing off the court, out of use-context, no points are scored, no meaning taken.  The words have meaning, they count, only in the matrix of the game, the language game for which they are designed. If I were to say the sentence "It is not!" as I just did, with no context, what meaning could it have?

If a word is a word, it cannot be a word of God, for then it would be a word spoken from outside the meaning matrix. It would be as if somebody tossed a football into the midst of the volleyball game. It couldn't register. It would be a confusing surd element. If it is a meaningful word, then, it must arise from within the human language game.

But if it is of God, it cannot be a word, for God can have no need of them. To suppose he does is to ape the childishness of the writer of Genesis One who has God create the  darkness and call it "Night," or the Hebrew word for "Night, as if God spoke Hebrew before there were any human beings on earth, much less Hebrews!

The word of God, if such there be, must sound like thunder from one end of heaven to the other. "There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19:3-4).

Should a prophetic ear catch those echoes, like some great radar dish at NASA, what could it do with them? Would there be any hope at all of translating these echoes into human speech? So even the prophet might understand them?

Here is the distinction implied in 1 Corinthians 14: someone might speak the inspired word and not understand it, only rant and rave, only sound like drunken babblers--­because there could be no human words appropriate­. But Paul supposes that someone else present has the Delphic gift of interpretation and could convey the sense of the divine message.  But here's where he's wrong.

The New Critics spoke of the "heresy of paraphrase"--the impossibility of rendering the unique evocations of a poem in any other medium. You would just destroy the whole thing, the delicate dew-bubble of meaning hanging upon nothing that is a poem, if you turned it into prose.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote a little verse on the utter impossibility of adequately translating even plain prose from one language to another.

   What is translation? On a platter

    A poet's pale and glaring head,

    A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter

    And profanation of the dead.

Just as de Man says that any interpretation is a new work altogether, slyly trying to impersonate the work it pretends merely to elucidate, any human word that pretends to be the Word of God has blasphemously usurped the (empty) throne of the Word of God.

Here is how 1 Corinthians itself puts the error I am talking about: "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face." That is, in our ignorance, we gaze into a poor, uneven mirror, and we make a crucial mistake about what we see there. What is it? I think the mistake is that we do not realize it is a mirror. We think we are looking into a window. We think we see something beyond ourselves, when it is our own image that confronts us.

We hear and repeat what we think is the very Word of God, but in fact it is only our own human word, the only kind of word we can speak, the only kind there can be. It is  perhaps a word that our community of faith has taught us, and we revere it, and we imagine that it is divine in origin, not to be questioned, not to be denied, not to be disbelieved.

But to grow to maturity is to recognize that the sound is our own echo, the image is our own reflection. What do we do then?

We do not fall silent. We continue to speak the only words religion can speak, words of myths and divine intrusions. Words and stories of saviors from the heavens.

But never again can these words become the excuse for cultural or religious imperialism, as they did when the Crusaders warred against the Muslims, crying "God wills it!" As when 19th Century missionaries gladly rode the coat-tails of the colonial powers to impose Christianity on Africans while their cynical masters seized their lands.

Never again can these words be mighty enough to damn the unbeliever who refuses to say them. For powerful as they are, they are only our words, and not the words of God.

Never again can these words be unquestionable and unchangeable, as if a description of God that makes of him an arbitrary despot and the heavenly model for despots on earth could not be traded in for something better and more humanizing. We created God the tyrant; we can create a different God-image. And we must.

Religious maturing is the realization that there is no Word of God for poor mortals to parrot, that we must take responsibility for our own words, their greatness and their limitations, and that we have no God-given licence to use them as weapons against each other.

That is the lesson I draw this morning from the Pentecost scene: it is a scene in which some strive to speak the Word of God and, insofar as they do, it is only verbal salad. It is a scene where others hear something and articulate it in their ­own­ words, make it over in their own languages, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cappadocians, Cretans and Arabians.

Those are our options. We may pretend to speak the word of God from heaven, but we will become increasingly unintelligible, even to ourselves, or we can speak in our own languages of the mighty works of God.




Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design