Monday, July 1, 2013

A Gloss on Glossolalia

Many posts on this blog have their origins in conversations between Brigitte and me—certainly all those that deal with language. The context of this one may illustrate how that works. We were actually talking about what are known as the Left Behind novels—and films—by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The novels, which deal with the End Times, have achieved amazing sales. But the cultural meaning of their popularity is not really remarked upon—because the secular culture regards these books/movies as attacks on itself by a residue of resistant elements of the population, which alas, resistant to conversion to the modernity. That, of course, is deplorable, from that perspective, indeed embarrassing when the residue seems much greater than the new faith. Sixty-five million copies? Multiple, long-time disfigurements of the New York Times best seller list?

That reminded me of Tolkien’s view that in cultural decay the three responses to it are futurism (read pro-freedom, rights, and technology), archaism (nostalgia for past times, return to former customs, disgust with modernity), and the transcendental view which sees the solution in the religious dimension, which has room for the supernatural. The Left Behind phenomenon is, therefore, a recognizable indicator that at least part of the population belongs to this category. The novels, surely, are a popular presentation of that view—but is not taken seriously because the dominant culture considers such people of a kind of lower class.

This then suddenly made me think of a very close friend of ours, particularly Brigitte’s, once a neighbor, still a close friend, who, after her husband absconded leaving her to fend with children still in the home, coped magnificently and made a brand-new career for herself at an age where most people start getting ready for the slow fade out. A life-time Catholic, this lady joined a charismatic Catholic church in which (Woe! we thought at the time) some people engaged in glossolalia. So finally we get to the word.

Now here is the curious fact. Because of our friend—and the really wondrous qualities she suddenly began to show forth when pressed by circumstances—my view of an ecstatic or semi-ecstatic religious behavior began to change. Until then I’d viewed it with a great deal of caution. It’s not class, region, education, or even culture that really matters. It is the inner quality of individuals. And our friend has qualities.

Now for the word itself. It comes from the Greek glossa or glotta in usage meaning an obscure or foreign word (but literally meaning tongue) combined with lalia, meaning to speak or to prattle, babble. Hence, also, a “gloss,” in English, is an explanation of a word because it is obsolete or foreign. And a “glossary” is simply a collection of those glosses. The explanation of what people mean when they are speaking in tongues, alas, is not translatable into language—except by something like faith. Which, if the popularity of those novels is an indication, may be on the rise.

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