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Signs & Wonders

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Introduction to Signs and Wonders
At an evening prayer service in a Lutheran church in a prosperous Twin Cities suburb, the congregation sways back and forth, in time to a simple repetitive hymn projected on a screen in the front of the church. Worshippers hold their hands over their heads, palms upward, in an ancient gesture of prayer. The effect is slow and dreamy, as if the scene is underwater and the arms are sea plants swaying in the current on the ocean floor. Suddenly, the words of the hymn dissolve into a babble of voices; the congregation is singing not in English, but in what Christian believers call "tongues."

People who speak in tongues make sounds that are not a known language but resemble one. To the believer, speaking in tongues is a way of communicating with God in a way that transcends words. "One who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God," the apostle Paul wrote, "for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit."

Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia as scientists call it, is an ancient practice found around the world in many different cultures. Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific, Yanomamo Indians of Amazonia, reindeer hunting Chukchi of Siberia, and many other groups use glossolalia in religious rituals. In the United States, a recent poll found seven percent of Americans have spoken in tongues. Speaking in tongues is the hallmark of Pentecostalism, the fastest growing religious movement on earth. Tongue speaking has spread into mainstream denominations such as the Lutheran, Catholic, and Episcopal churches, where tongue speaking believers are known as Charismatics. And even Minnesota, home of the reserved and taciturn Norwegian, has a thriving but little-known subculture of tongue speakers.

To outsiders, tongue speaking itself seems strange; even more perplexing to modern, secular society is the tongue speaker's belief system: spirit possession, demons, and miraculous explanations for everyday happenings are basic tenets of Pentecostal faith.

Scientists have a number of theories about tongue speaking, but perhaps the most intriguing is that glossolalia is the result of an altered state of consciousness. People speaking in tongues for the first time sometimes report seeing white lights, or feeling warm rain on their shoulders; many report being filled with a kind of joy they have never before experienced. Felicitas Goodman, a well known researcher on glossolalia, has theorized that the trance state experienced by the speaker is responsible for the haunting intonation of glossolalia, a pattern she has observed in recordings of glossolalia worldwide.

Credits: "Signs and Wonders" was written and produced by Mary Losure, and edited and mixed by Stephen Smith. Senior editors were Melanie Sommer and Mike Edgerly. The program is a production of Minnesota Public Radio and first aired on MPR news and information stations in May, 1996.