[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
This is an excerpt from a recent recording of The Jackson Memorial Hour, a live gospel radio program broadcast each Sunday from a station in Virginia (thanks to Sister Dorothy and Brother Aldie Allen for providing me with recordings of their broadcast).This station’s transmission reaches into portions of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Although it may come to some as a surprise, small AM/FM radio stations such as this broadcast live Pentecostal and charismatic Christian worship services to millions of listeners throughout the United States.
Note how this instance of speaking in tongues marks an interruption in the normal progression of the liturgical form. During the initial announcements of this gospel broadcast, one of the main preachers usually acknowledges the financial sponsors of the program. In this instance however (0:56), only one financial supporter, a local funeral home, is announced before an inspired tongued is drawn toward the artificial hearing capacities of the in-studio microphone (1:01).
The first portion of this performance of glossolalia could be characterized as routinized tongues, or a performance wherein the speaker seems to maintain a level of conscious awareness. During this specific instance of routinized tongues, for example, the speaker oscillates between everyday articulations and divine speech. This type of inspired performance can be heard in chanted sermonic styles throughout the United States, where rhythmically-structured sentences are periodically punctuated by a line of glossolalia (what some linguists, in a very functionalist interpretation, term “stall phrases”). Yet this oscillation is pushed even further in this recording, so that the speaker exhibits a doubled spiritual gift of both tongues and the capacity to simultaneously interpret these divine phrases for the congregation and listening audience. Announcing the divine circuitry of glossolalia itself, at one point in the performance (1:58) the tongue-talker translates, “If you send up the praises, He sends down the blessings.” Glossolalia marks a feedback loop in this relation, wherein the initial performance of “sending up the praise” is divinely circumvented so that the vocal organs of the prayer-er become a passive instrument animated by the sacred articulations of the Other.
Another particular challenge to a theorization of glossolalia is announced when this performance of routinized tongues not only ignites an effervescent milieu within the space of the live studio (note that seemingly random moment at 2:35 when the enthusiastic power falls upon the entire congregation), but seems to become progressively more excessive in its pronunciations. Thus, in the second half of the recording (3:02), a more laborious form of respiration moves through the speaker, so that heaving gasps for breath become clearly audible. In this moment (3:59), the speaker is possessed by a faculty of language that does violence to the body, convulsing the diaphragm and chest cavity in a pneumatic gesture. Or to put this another way, there seems to be a disjointed mechanicity at play between the sheer materiality of the body-as-instrument, and an exterior force of articulation that has animated it. This gasping pneumatic gesture announces the materiality of glossolalia—a piece of flesh animated by forces radically exterior to the religious subject.