Glossolalia and the Problem of Language
- ISBN: 9780226749389
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: March 2021
Prompting a new wave of inquiry into the Christian sphere of language, Nicholas Harkness’ recent monograph, Glossolalia and the Problem of Language, is primarily concerned with investigating how glossolalia (i.e., speaking in tongues) forms a Christian language ideology that “is produced through processes of its own negation” (2). The author’s research is anchored in ethnographical material related to South Korean Christians, attending to phonology, pitch, rhythm, tone, and narrative to emphasize the semiotic importance of language, not just glossolalia.
Following the author’s introduction, the book consists of six chapters ordered as three doublets. In chapters 1 and 2, Harkness offers readers an ethnographical inroad that studies South Korean Pentecostals (and mainstream denominations) who practice speaking in tongues. Of the Korean Christians, Harkness writes respectfully, fairly, and nuanced as he examines how these Christians approach the Holy Spirit when exercising glossolalia (pangŏn in Korean) as a charismatic gift.
There are two main stories (case studies) in this section, as chapter 1 commences with the narrative of one Korean family and chapter 2 transitions to a corporate study of Yoido Full Gospel Church, a megachurch that primarily serves as one of Harkness’ field sites. This megachurch also operates as a “ritual center” (37) for the production of glossolalia and associated linguistic genres (such as t’ongsŏng kido, or cacophonic group prayer), and within this space the author’s main argument begins to take shape. Harkness employs prosodic, phonological, and pitch/tonal/rhythm analysis to demonstrate that while there are elements of glossolalia that contradict ideological language conventions, it still offers exclusive communicative access to the divine.
In chapters 3 and 4, Harkness engages two influential pastors (Presbyterian and Pentecostal) and compares their pneumatology through sermonic analysis. Here, the author investigates how the Holy Spirit moves in these respective congregations and locates a “fundamental sameness” (88) in their ideology that sees language and speech as both a conduit to communicate the word of God and an agent for global evangelism (chapter 4).
In chapters 5 and 6 Harkness considers the intimate and private nature of individuals’ glossolalic experience. The author investigates how South Korean glossolalists engage in a “secret language with God” (19), confessing and sharing secrets with the deity to avoid any eavesdropping and subsequent gossip by fellow community members. By emphasizing what he describes to be a socio-spiritual conflict, Harkness starkly contrasts how language and speech can be used as a vehicle for both gossip and the gospel (chapter 5).
The final chapter then transitions into what Harkness describes as “spaces of deception and danger” (20) as the author examines various threats of fakery and doubt that shadow the broader discourse of glossolalia. These threats, which Harkness details, include numerous public leadership and financial scandals within the sphere of Korean political and religious institutions. Concerning apprehensions related to the authenticity of tongues and similar misgivings to church ministry leaders in South Korea, Harkness identifies a “persistent source of concern” (153). He concludes that the shared “doubt, disappointment, deception and disillusionment” experienced by practitioners predicts “an end to the great arc, the ripples of a once- powerful wave” (169). However, contrary to the author’s speculation, there is no evidence in his research that suggests the demise of glossolalia in South Korea.
Finally, the research ends with a short concluding chapter, acknowledgments, and an interesting etymological appendix/chapter that details the origins of the term glossolalia.
Harkness makes an important contribution to the broader study of glossolalia and language and offers a distinctive challenge to his readers, that is, to discard notions that are inclined to reduce glossolalia to a mere ecstatic experience. However, one minor criticism can be made of this robust analysis. Harkness on occasion does tend to obscure key and interesting points by overwhelming the reader with cumbersome syntax. While this does position the book well for semioticians, it may frustrate scholars keenly focused on the pneumatological aspects of the research. Still, none of this takes anything substantially away from what the author has achieved here. This text would be an excellent academic resource for Christian anthropology and theology scholars based on its unique subject material.
Daniela Rizzo is a PhD candidate at Alphacrucis College.Daniela RizzoDate Of Review:February 28, 2022