Posted by: N.S. Palmer | March 2, 2016

My Friend George, Who Speaks in Tongues


My college friend George (not his real name) became a Pentecostal Christian minister.

Kind of weird from my perspective, but he’s a good person and it seems to work for him. He’s also a smart person whose undergraduate background is similar to mine, except for his lack of interest in science. He’s a whiz at ancient Greek, both Attic Greek and Koine Greek. Modern Greek doesn’t interest him much.

One weekend about 10 years ago, I happened to be in his small town and we got to hang out a little. I wasn’t doing anything on Sunday, so I went to his church to hear him preach. He still hopes that I’m going to “get saved” by adopting his particular brand of Christianity. Though I disagree with him about religion, I appreciate the goodwill implied by his hope.

And then in the middle of the service, he started “speaking in tongues.”

The congregation clapped and went wild. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah,” they shouted joyfully.

Here was my friend, whom I knew to be sane, standing in front of a room full of people and — at least as far as I could tell — babbling nonsense syllables. He thought he was speaking some unknown Biblical or angelic language. His parishioners agreed and were delighted. They were happy. Their faith in a moral order was reinforced. They were reassured that a benevolent God was watching over them. For the week to come, they would probably be better people: Kinder, more honest, more forgiving and generous — all that good stuff.

They were good people. That was not in question.

And I got to thinking: What if I lived among these people? How would that go?

First, to avoid offending them, I’d have to be careful about what I said. Because I was not an expert on their beliefs, that was a real risk. I couldn’t make jokes. I couldn’t assume that my ideas would be understood or that anyone would share my viewpoints about life. Most of the time, I’d keep my mouth shut, smile, and nod. I would have both emotional and biological stress from that. They’d probably have the same kind of stress as they tried to avoid offending me. Seeing me would equal feeling stress, so they would eventually come to dread seeing me. Dread would turn to annoyance. Annoyance would turn to hostility.

Second, I’d have to be very, very careful about potential romantic situations. I would be unfamiliar with dating conventions that they had absorbed since childhood, and which they knew without even thinking about them. When to compliment? When or if to touch? How to flirt without crossing any red lines? Those were all things I didn’t know. Even worse, I wasn’t sure how people would feel about a female member of the community dating a non-Christian. Would they be hostile? Would they think I wanted to convert her to Judaism? More stress, both for them and for me.

Third, I’d be living in a town where Christian churches, symbols, and talk were everywhere except at the County Courthouse, where the ACLU got them banned in case any atheists ever drove through town. Everywhere I looked, everyone I talked to, I’d see or hear an implied denial of my own religion. Stress.

Even with good, peaceful people who have a lot in common, that kind of on-going stress fosters hostility.

When it involves people who disagree about the fundamentals of life, who have no shared conception of morality, who think women in miniskirts are fair game to be raped, and that violence is the honorable way to solve disagreements, then you’ve got a real problem. It’s called … wait for it … “diversity.”

When I was eight years old, I got a pair of boxing gloves for my birthday. My Dad told me not to wear them outside because I’d get into a fight. Naturally, I ignored him. And just as naturally, I got into a fight.

The lesson I drew from that experience is very simple: Don’t go looking for trouble unless you must.

There are exceptions certainly: But in general, mixing people with vastly different attitudes, histories, moral values, and propensities to violence is going to cause problems. That kind of problem occurs even when the biggest visible difference is that one group of people speaks in tongues and the other doesn’t.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid trouble. Sometimes, however, it’s very easy to avoid trouble if you are guided by thought instead of by gooey emotionalism.

But the first step to avoiding trouble is the easiest: Don’t go looking for it.

Copyright 2016 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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