Testament Reading: Daniel 5:1-9
Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:8 - 14:25
"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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
is translation? On a platter
poet's pale and glaring head,
parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter
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.
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