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Power in Your Mouth (Part 2)

By Del Tarr

Read Power in Your Mouth (Part 1).

God’s Word shows a priority toward oral speech, but not to an exclusion of what is written in both Testaments.

(I have drawn much of this essay from my book: The Foolishness of God: A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues, Access Publishers, 2010, chapter 4.)


The difference is simple: Not understanding oralness restricts our understanding of the charismata, prejudices the illiterate oral peoples of the world (more than half), and distorts our receptivity to one of the important ways God wants to interact with us, His children. Is that important or what?

Hiebert joins Schwartz and a more recent Canadian author, James K.A. Smith8 (on whom I will draw on heavily below), concerning North Americans’ preference for sight over sound, touch, taste, or smell as a fundamental issue of our worldview. Even worldview means the way we think, based on the word see and other similar phrases such as: “I see” (meaning I understand); “Let’s look at the situation”; even, “I read you loud and clear” (for hearing on the two-way radio), etc.

Hiebert quotes Walter Ong who sees this Western emphasis on a visual world that had its roots in Greek philosophy: “Plato’s ideas launched the new world, the opposite of the old, which his attacks on the poets proscribed. The old [oral] world had made much of man’s activities and of human struggle as the focus or axis of all reality. Where the old world had been warm and human, Plato’s ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’… were cold and abstract. The world had been mobile, and event-full, and its oral narrative was a swirl of exciting activity. In contrast, Plato’s new ideas were motionless, a-historical; where the old view had held all knowledge in a concrete human setting, the new traced everything to the abstract, the other-worldly, the totally objective, the fixed, modeled on an immobile figure visualized on a motionless field.”9

The crowning achievement of this predisposition was print literacy and, consequently, the attachment to the written word — whether in education, politics, law, or the religious world. Soon after Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world, orality became suspect by the industrialized world.

The majority of the world’s population — even in the 21st century — is “illiterate” and live in oral societies where what happens (real events) are the grist of cognition and social communicative interaction. This fact is hidden from North Americans. In my experience in teaching communications for five decades, almost no one in my classes can describe or imagine the consequences of an oral/aural society and the significance of a complete language system in all its complexity and artistic dynamic. (In spite of the fact students in class represent a minority in the world on this issue, they do not attempt to understand the people they label illiterate.) As a people, we have bought into the myth that literacy makes us superior — a part of our extreme ethnocentricity.

God covenanted (promised) in Isaiah 59:21 to infuse live, direct, even dangerous and prophetic communication to His people: “ ‘My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth … from this time on and forever,’ says the Lord.” Jesus even reinforces this direct communication during His temptation: “ ‘Man shall … live … on every word that comes [directly] from the mouth of God’ ” (Matthew 4:4)

Attention: This does not replace or depreciate God’s written Word. God wants and needs both. The church (bishops, priests, pastors, leaders) cut off the oral part because it was too dangerous. They could not predict and control the charismata — they could not fit it into the bulletin. They wanted control. Where as written words are “manageable.” You can organize them at man’s schedule. (“Please turn to page _____ for today’s reading.”) This is not bad or evil. We need written predictable services and liturgy. But not at the expense of the direct inspiration of God’s servants who have sought earnestly for gifts as instructed (1 Corinthians. 14:1) to bless and guide and instruct God’s people.

An Advantage of Oralness Is Tying Message and Messenger

Oral societies are highly organized (surprise), but in ways we hardly fathom with the textual/literate mind. All peoples have similar building blocks to cognition, but they prioritize those blocks differently. The mode is highly interactive between speaker and listener. One cannot talk to a book (and expect a response), but one can interact with concrete human experiences told verbally and in one’s “hearing.” (Today we call this “real time.”)

Communication in oral societies is not in abstractions, or in a monologue between reader and the printed page, but in dialogue form — consequently, so much more personal. Writing divorces a message from the messenger. Why is this?We read and trust even if we know nothing about the author/writer. Thus we use abstractions to form ideas and formulate dogma, independent of whether he/she who wrote the words is worthy of our trust. This rarely happens in oral societies where we can compare what a person uttered with his or her known personality and reputation.

North Americans value print and assume it is the highest form of literacy. And here lies one of the problems with tongues and prophecy and some other charismata. They are not literate. They are oral expressions in communication under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.A modern society fixated on literacy has great difficulty accepting their legitimacy.

A literate society encourages rational thought even at the expense of feelings — in fact, people generally see feelings as suspect, and they should divorce feelings from ideas. This is why Jesus hit the scribes with John 5:37–39: “You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”

They had the velum manuscripts that they “searched,” but they had abandoned and killed the prophets and resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51,52). Priests never have liked prophets. It only took 300 years after the Resurrection before the apostolic church no longer had “God putting words in their mouths, nor their children’s mouths” — even though God never wanted it to stop.

Look what Plato and Aristotle, and subsequently Thomas Aquinas, have done to the New Testament model of life in the Spirit that was almost totally oral/aural oriented.

Evangelical Cessationist’s Limitations

Listen to a missionary of a very conservative denomination working with a remote African tribe who, after 20 years, has only one congregation of 120 members, which he pastors. Working in that same country and ethnic group is a Pentecostal movement — of the same age as his missionary agency — but with 200,000 members. He writes to scold his Pentecostal sister in America. He is a product of bibliolatry and legalism:

“Lorraine, I hope you won’t be offended by what I’m going to say next. We believe God has made it clear that all prophesies are contained in the Bible. There are no more ‘new prophesies’ or ‘words from the Lord’ coming to people today. When we say we received ‘messages from God’ we have by-passed His appointed means of communicating to us, the Bible alone.” (From a September 3, 2010, Facebook exchange. The personalities omitted for obvious reasons).

How sad to see that our good brothers and sisters (these are not our enemies but siblings in the Lord) think they are protecting the Scriptures by cessationism, but in fact, they are chokingthe Scriptures.

Many of the charismata, and “tongues” in particular, are a product of the oral/aural world that we cannot write down/systematize, or repeat. Like the manna of the Old Testament, we cannot store charismata; we always need a “new” infusion. We cannot predict charismata or “put it in the bulletin or litany,” thus people perceive them as dangerous.

Gifts of the Spirit Are “Risky.” Is There No Control?

Biblically, the community and its leaders must regulate glossolalia and prophecy and all oral spontaneous public gifts: “Let the others judge” (KVJ); “others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29. See also verses 32,40). Sadly, those same leaders, in turn, often fear God’s “in-breaking” unless they can schedule that event.

If pastors/leaders are not comfortable with the verbal spontaneous gifts of the Spirit, they will reach for the wrong tool that sits by the fireplace. The body of Christ must regulate these gifts. When there is an excess (like in Corinth), the leader should reach for the tongs and pick up that ember that jumped out on the rug and toss it back in the fire. This is what the apostle Paul did. But if the leaders are uncomfortable with the maturity needed to handle the unexpected (and because believers are also human, there will be errors), the leader reaches for the fire extinguisher and all that’s left are cold wet ashes. Safe, yes, but also dead.

The ultra-literate, conservative modern Pharisees who have completely internalized words like inerrant, authorized, and systematized have marginalized/prohibited glossolalia. (All those concepts are good in correct context, but when overemphasized in the context of the Holy Spirit, they quench the Spirit.) Paul the apostle said, “Do not to put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19, NIV 1984, emphasis mine). Interesting is this “fire” metaphor and how often the New Testament repeats it.

Harvey Cox shows a good diversification between Evangelical Fundamentalists and Pentecostals relating to the issue of the “literate” mind: “I also learned that it is a serious mistake to equate Pentecostals with Fundamentalists. They are not the same. Fundamentalists attach such unique authority to the letter of the verbally inspired Scripture that they are suspicious of the Pentecostals’ stress on the immediate experience of the Spirit of God. This should not be surprising. Text-oriented believers in any religion tend to be scary of mystics. However, this does not mean that Pentecostalism does not embody a complex of religious ideas and insights. It does. The difference is that while the beliefs of the Fundamentalists — and of many other religious groups — are enshrined in formal theological systems, those of Pentecostalism are imbedded in testimonies, ecstatic speech, and bodily movement. But it is a theology, a full-blown religious cosmos, an intricate system of symbols that respond to the perennial questions of human meaning and value. The difference is that, historically, Pentecostals have felt more at home singing their theology, or putting it in pamphlets for distribution on street corners. Only recently have they begun writing books about it.”10

Pentecostals and charismatics believe the renewal of the gifts of the Spirit in religious worship and mission is a return to the oralness of the original New Testament model (though most would not use this communication paradigm). Most of the early practitioners of this oralness (early 20th century) were hoping to renew the religious medium where they already worshiped (like Martin Luther had hoped to do in the Roman Church), but instead their churches and denominations rejected them and put them out of the community. One must ask: How much of that earlier rejection is related to the same rejection and marginalization by today’s traditional “literate and linear” Christian communities (that only trust written creeds, liturgy, and litanies) and are only too quick to reject any oral or spontaneous-oriented worship? What part of that rejection do they relate to a misunderstanding about oralness by literate-minded churchmen and women, even today?

A Plea to Re-Examine

No one would question the value of “fixating” communication in written form where we can store and compare — unchanged after hundreds of years — while someone might quite easily redefine or shift in content oralness. (But let’s be serious — political [read religious] editors can and often change written accounts.) Yes, literacy is extremely valuable — we cannot go back. But we can examine what it has done to a valuable system, part of human communication still used by the majority of the world’s peoples. And we might look at how our literary predisposition may have produced a built-in bias against spontaneous prayer language found in Acts 2,10,19, and 1 Corinthians 12–14, plus many other accounts in the New Testament record. Because denominations gave Pentecostals the “right foot of fellowship” at their beginnings in America, Pentecostals have been trying all these years to make a rational argument to those who love reason.

Pentecostals might do better to simply embrace the paradoxical nature of tongues-speech, says Rybarczyk: “Praying with tongues is both very nonrational and nonlinear. This nonrational paradoxical charism is not only something given to the Church for its edification, it is something by its very symbolic character ought to be tapped into for its depth and Spirit-driven impulse.”

Rybarczyk makes a rather poignant point: “Something vibrant, authentic, and Spirit-inspired has been sacrificed over the near-century long attempt to explain and define the paradox of tongues as a rational and indeed ‘normal’ Christian phenomenon. It is not normal, anymore than was Jesus’ death on a cross. And we should add, that is a good thing. … In their rabid rush to become rational Evangelicals, Pentecostals have forsaken the implications that a theology of tongues could have for the Church universal. In their historical debates with other Christians, Pentecostals have processed and re-processed glossolalia mostly as a lone element in Christian spirituality.”11

“Right on,” says James Smith. “In this essay, I will argue that the early Christian community was a charismatic community which placed emphasis on hearing not reading. As such, early Christianity was not a religion of the Book, though it was certainly a religion of the Word. It was a community centered, not around scribes, but prophets. In the history of the Christian community, a shift occurred whereby text received a privileged status and the original oral/aural and charismatic way of being was suppressed and oppressed and gradually declared to be defunct. This emphasis on writing(s) (or the privileged status of writings) confined revelation to a past epoch; ‘scribalism’ — the emphasis on the letter — planted the seeds which killed and quenched the ongoing revelatory ministry of the Spirit by silencing the prophets with the Canon … realized nearly 2,000 years later in Protestant fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism — textual communities par excellence (emphasis Smith’s).”12

He Says It So Much Better Than I

The early apostolic church was a prophetic community. It was also a predominately oral/aural community. “Faith,” Paul insisted, “comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). He also asks: “How can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” (verse 14). Note: He didn’t say reading. Nor did he say, “How can they preach without a text?”13

Colonialism’s Crushing Effect

During the 30 years we lived in and associated with West Africa, we saw the destructive forces of French colonialism and their language on the rich oralness of the Mossi and Ewe of Burkina Faso and Togo. In 1 Corinthians 1:20, Paul asked: “Where is the scribe?” (KJV). Evidently not in the Church, as time and again the people reviled the early Christians for being illiterate (agrammatos) and ignorant (idiotes, Acts 4:13) as was Jesus (John 7:15). But this lack of scribes only signaled the fact for the Christian community, faith was hearing the Word — which is not only about Christ but is Christ. “It is precisely this oral way of being which, I would propose, has been recaptured in the contemporary charismatic communities. … Perhaps the oral nature of Pentecostalism is best captured in the emphasis on glossolalia, which cannot be written nor can it be repeated.”14

Where once a person’s “word” (meaning his spoken word) was his badge of honor, we now do not tend to believe anything until we see it in writing. All preserved knowledge, as well as those pieces of information that achieved high status throughout the society (e.g., laws) was recorded in print. The linear process, by which we translated information into print, took on a status unto itself. Oralness is now of much less value. If “seeing is believing” then listening and speaking are of much less value.

Del Tarr, Ph.D., former missionary and president, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Part 1 of this article appeared in Fall 2013 EJ Online.


8. James K.A. Smith, “The Closing of the Book: Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and the Sacred Writings,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology no. 11 (1997): 49–71.

9. Walter Ong, “World as View and World as Event,” American Anthropologist 71, (1969): 642.

10. Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), 15.

11. Edmund Rybarczyk, “Expressing the Inexpressible: Tongues as Apophatic Speech” Society of Pentecostal Studies, 31st annual meeting, Lakeland, Florida, March 14–16, 2002.

12. Smith, 50.

13. Ibid., 53ff. I am greatly indebted to James Smith’s article and his research.

14. M.H. Cartledge, “Charismatic Prophecy: A Definition and Description,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology no. 5 (1994): 100, Emphasis mine.

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