God speaking to God: Translation and unintelligibility at a Fijian Pentecostal crusade


Please send correspondence to Matt Tomlinson: matt.tomlinson@anu.edu.au


In December 2008, a team of American Pentecostals visited Fiji and conducted ‘crusades’ in a public park. In this article, I show how a sermon and altar call at one of the performances modelled for listeners a particular quality of the believer's relation to the otherness of God, figured via linguistic otherness. The American preacher and his Fijian translator approached the event as a teaching opportunity. They explained to audience members how to pray for repentance and how to speak in tongues (glossolalia) and stated that when a person spoke in tongues, this was really the Holy Ghost ‘praying through’ a person. In glossolalia, the words are supposed to be semantically unintelligible, pointing to the otherworldly, even miraculous, fact of their utterance; but pragmatically, their utterance is supposed to manifest the Holy Ghost's presence in the speaker, and this presence is held to be the meaning that matters.

In this article, I analyse a Pentecostal ‘crusade’ at a public park in Fiji. The event featured an American preacher and his Fijian translator whose performance called attention to matters of translation and intelligibility. In the crusade, language was used to articulate relationships of otherness keyed to paradoxes of learning but not understanding, of making unintelligibility meaningful as unintelligibility, and of speaking in a way that shows it is not really you who is speaking. In articulating each of these paradoxes, the preacher modelled for his listeners a particular quality of the believer's relation to the otherness of God, figured via the linguistic otherness that lies beyond the boundaries of an intelligible linguistic code.

In the first part of this article, I describe the evening's performance and show how the preacher's discourse was expressly pedagogical. That is, he treated both the sermon and the altar call as teaching opportunities, using various techniques to transmit authoritative knowledge and also to model its transmission. Next, I examine his statements about repentance, including a model prayer in which he spoke for people in their ‘own’ voices and referred to himself as a third person. In the third section, I analyse his statements about speaking in tongues and his own use of glossolalia. The preacher explained that when a person spoke in tongues, this was really the Holy Ghost ‘praying through’ a person. It was God speaking to God, in other words, and while it could be explained, it would not be understood. By teaching audience members how to repent and speak in tongues, the preacher aimed at their salvation, in Christian terms: they were meant to engage with the ultimate other (God) through linguistic otherness (glossolalia) and, in doing so, to ensure and also display the fact that God had forgiven them of their sins.

Preaching as teaching

In December 2008, a Pentecostal delegation from the United States led a weeklong religious crusade at Albert Park in Suva, Fiji's capital city. The Americans were hosted by the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) of Fiji, a branch of a global organisation based in Hazelwood, Missouri, USA. The UPCI is one of the Pentecostal denominations distinguished by its ‘Oneness’ doctrine on the unitarian nature of God (Wacker 1984: 355). In contrast to trinitarian descriptions of Father, Son and Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit (Yalo Tabu in Fijian) as three ‘persons’ in the Godhead, for Oneness churches, ‘Jesus is fully God and not one divine being out of three. They prefer to refer to Father, Son, and Spirit as “modes” or “manifestations” of God, all of which are present in the manifestation of each one' (Anderson 2004: 50). Like all Pentecostals, they emphasise an active, full-body style of worship in which dancing, clapping, and shouting feature prominently. On the night I went to the crusade, approximately 1,000 people attended, most of them indigenous Fijians. A large choir propelled the service forward, fuelled by a band with keyboard, guitar, and drums. The service leaders and the choir occupied separate platforms which stood side by side, facing the park's small grandstand; flanking the ground in the middle were temporary seats under makeshift pavilions (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

View from the grandstand of the Pentecostal Crusade in Albert Park, Suva, Fiji.

The evening's preacher was a Texan named Kenneth Colegrove. His sermon, delivered in Texas-accented English, lasted approximately twenty-five minutes. It was supposed to be translated into Fijian by a man named Naibuka Cama, but there were technical problems with his microphone (Naibuka Cama, personal communication, 25 October 2011). Later, during the altar call – the ritual apex, during which audience members were urged to repent and speak in tongues – the translator's microphone was working, and Cama joined in with a line-by-line translation of Colegrove's talk.

Colegrove's performance was strongly pedagogical. He treated the sermon and altar call as teaching opportunities, presumably because the crusade was a public event in which some audience members might not be familiar with Pentecostalism, but also perhaps because he was foreign to Fiji and did not know what general knowledge could be taken for granted. In teaching, he used four strategies. First, he occasionally switched registers between the English of the King James Version of the Bible and colloquial Texas English in order to draw connections between Bible stories and present-day experience. Consider the following examples, in which quotations and close paraphrases from the King James Version are boldfaced to highlight the pattern of Colegrove's register shifts (audio files of this and later quoted segments of Colegrove's discourse are available in the online version of this article; see Supporting Information below, Audio Clip S1):

And the Scripture says, continuing here in Hebrews eleven, that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. A woman, one time, the Bible says, she had ‘an issue of blood’ [see Matthew 9:20, Mark 5:25, Luke 8:43]. She had spent all her money on doctors. Anybody know what I'm talkin' about? She had given everything she had, but instead of getting better, she got worse. But one day she heard that Jesus was coming by. Can I tell somebody here tonight that right here in Albert Park—a place that was built so that people could play games—Jesus is gonna walk by, Jesus is gonna walk by, and he's not comin' to play games.… She said, this woman, if I may but just touch the hem of his garment, my God have mercy, I shall be made whole. Her faith declared that. Her faith said, all I've got to do is touch him and my sickness is going to go. She could barely walk, she was so weak. She could barely stand up, her sickness was so bad. But she had enough faith, it might've seemed small, but she said if I could just get to where Jesus is. Hallelujah.

The Bible says she pressed her way through the crowd. Men, big like these men, strong like these men, couldn't stand in her way. She pushed them aside like they were puppets. ‘Out of my way. I've gotta get to Jesus. Step aside. I've got to touch Jesus. For you see, I've got just enough faith, ha ha!—that if I can just touch him, I'm gonna leave here changed, I'm gonna leave here whole’.

The movement between formal and informal registers—between the King James Version's exalted declarations and Colegrove's hearty storytelling—models a movement from divine words to human actions. The registers stand in contrast to each other, and Colegrove switches between them to ‘reconfigure the sense of occasion’ (Agha 1999: 216; see also Millie, this issue), in this case as an occasion for the transmission of divine discourse. For Colegrove, Bible stories are a template for present-day knowledge and behaviour, and he indicates this by shifting from the Biblical register—for example, ‘he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him’—to a distinctly non-Biblical one: ‘Anybody know what I'm talkin' about?’ Whereas quoting the King James Version points to the fact that this is a religious event, speaking in a folksy, down-home way points to the ordinariness as well as the relevance of the claims being made, even if the folks ‘down home’ are Fijians, not Texans.

A second teaching method Colegrove used was a kind of prolepsis, meaning the declaration of something as an accomplished fact when it has not yet occurred. I use the term here not in a strict sense, but to refer to Colegrove's descriptions of future events as inevitable. Repeatedly, he offered statements about what would happen that night which were not presented as hopes or predictions, but as sure knowledge: the future had already been written, and he was reading it to us. For example, four minutes into his sermon, he mentioned the previous night's bad weather and said, ‘Hey it might rain again tonight, but I tell you what else is gonna happen, the Holy Ghost is gonna be poured out in this place tonight'. Eleven minutes later, he declared, ‘My Lord, I like the way y'all worship here in Fiji… David said in the book of Psalms that He is a God that inhabits the praises of his people.1 I didn't have to worry tonight whether or not Jesus was gonna be here, because as soon as I stepped into the park and heard the praises of this choir, and heard the sounds of magnification and rejoicing to the Lord, it let me know that God was gonna be here'. Similarly, when he was making a transition from the sermon to the altar call, getting people excited about the imminent arrival of the Holy Ghost, Colegrove announced, ‘Get ready, choir. Get ready, music. We're fixin’ to have a time of rejoicing. The Holy Ghost is about to fall, just like it fell in an upper room, just like it fell on the day of Pentecost, it's fixin' to fall right here, right now, in Jesus' name'.

Colegrove's third pedagogical strategy was to use a Fijian translator. As mentioned earlier, Naibuka Cama was supposed to perform this role during the sermon, but his microphone had not been working at the time. However, it was working during the altar call, and Cama delivered an expert line-by-line rendition of Colegrove's English utterances into idiomatic, though churchy, Standard Fijian. He spoke swiftly and surely in tandem with Colegrove, even echoing Colegrove's dramatic intonational contours, although they had not rehearsed before the event (Naibuka Cama, personal communication, 17 October 2011). For the altar call, members of the audience had been invited to stand before the preaching platform, and several dozen did so; I remained in the grandstand along with many others. Colegrove and Cama coached those gathered before the platform through the acts of repentance and speaking in tongues, and those who remained in the audience participated as observers and overhearers.

Translation is an obvious teaching strategy, but not all of the ways in which Colegrove and Cama ‘used’ it were obvious. All Fijians receive schooling in English, and many read the Bible in English. In addition, Colegrove's sermon was repetitive and featured simple themes delivered in skeins of parallelism—themes, moreover, which are familiar to conservative Christians, such as humanity's sinfulness and God's intention to interact with humanity. Finally, during the sermon, when the audience heard only English, they responded readily to Colegrove's claims and exhortations with claps and cheers. For all of these reasons, then, a Fijian translator was not, strictly speaking, necessary for the audience's comprehension.

So, why translate? Courtney Handman (2010) has recently demonstrated how translation within a ritual performance can serve as a model of personal and social transformation. She compares two congregations of Guhu-Samane speakers in Papua New Guinea. The New Life Church, which split from the Lutherans in 1977, instituted a policy that worship would only be conducted in their own language, rather than the lingua franca of the Lutheran mission. By making Guhu-Samane the language of ritual, they felt they had finally broken through to effective worship: ‘we were Christian people already’, one churchman told Handman, ‘But we did not have the Holy Spirit in order [to] create a new way of life’ (Handman 2010: 576; see also Handman 2007, McDougall this issue). By contrast, a group called Reformed Gospel, which splintered from the New Life Church, celebrates translation as something that is a vital, ongoing part of effective performance. In their services, people speak Guhu-Samane along with Tok Pisin and English, making ‘spontaneous translations’ from one to the other (2010: 582). Handman argues that their continual acts of translation between multiple languages also serve as models of change: speakers in Reformed Gospel services ‘present an ongoing, multilingual process of translation that enacts a constant transformation of Christianity into the local language context and a constant transformation of people into Christians’ (2010: 584). Following this argument, Colegrove's and Cama's tandem performance can be seen as a model of the transmission of divine knowledge. Just as Colegrove turned God's words into Texan storytelling, so Cama turned Colegrove's words into Fijian ones. Taken together, these acts of transmission gesture towards the future, in which people will transmit divine discourse directly by speaking in tongues.

Colegrove's fourth pedagogical technique was to offer explicit, self-enacted models of what people should say and do. His goal was to get audience members to follow his example by engaging in a series of speech acts: apologising for one's sins, thanking God for forgiveness and then speaking in tongues. In telling people how these speech acts would work, Colegrove and Cama highlighted the features of cross-code otherness which defined the crusade's logic of uniting humanity and divinity in a climactic moment of unintelligibility.2

How to repent: modelling the rejection of sin

In both the sermon and altar call, Colegrove's lessons were based on two key claims. First, all people are sinners. ‘What you need is not another drug addiction’, he declared approximately halfway into the sermon. ‘What you need is not another hangup. What you need is not another problem. You don't need your alcoholism’. Second, if one repents of one's sins, one can be filled with the divine presence of the Holy Ghost: ‘what you need’, he added after the lines just quoted, ‘is the deliverance that comes through the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire’.

To get people on the path to deliverance, Colegrove used a threefold strategy of first instructing people about what to do, then commanding them to do it and finally modelling the action himself. Towards the end of his sermon, he had explained how repentance would work by referring to Acts 2:38, a verse that Oneness Pentecostals take to define the three interrelated acts necessary for obtaining salvation: repenting, being baptised ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’ and manifesting ‘the gift of the Spirit’ in a miraculous display such as speaking in tongues (Anderson 2004: 50). During the altar call, Colegrove guided the group of people standing before the preaching platform through the acts of repentance and speaking in tongues and led the way by doing so himself. After this, they were led to a baptism tank.

Early in the altar call, he explained the act of repentance in detail:

Kenneth ColegroveNaibuka Cama (Fijian Translator)
When we get rid of our sin, E na gauna eda sa biuta tani kina na noda ivalavala ca
we provide opportunity for God to come and work in our hearts. o sa solia na galala vua na Kalou me lakovi keda mai me cakacaka e na vukuda.
And if you need the Holy Ghost tonightKevaka o gadreva tiko na Yalo Tabu e na bogi nikua
the first thing I want you to do is repentna matai ni ka au vinakata mo cakava, veivutuni
of all your sins. nomu ivalavala ca kece ga, veivutunitaka.
Now when you repent I want you to ask God to forgive you of every thoughtE na gauna o veivutuni tiko kina, kerea vua na Kalou na nomu vakanananu taucoko
every thought that is unpure, or impure. a, na vaka-, nomu vakanananu o koya e tawa savasava tu.
I want you to ask God to forgive you for every word that you've spoken that wasn't right. Kerea vua na Kalou me vosoti iko e na veivosa taucoko o dau vosataka e sega ni dodonu.
And I want you to ask God to forgive you for every deed that you've ever done that was wrong. Au vinakata tale ga mo kerea na Kalou na ivalavala taucoko o dau cakava e cala, veivutunitaka.
Every thought, every word, every deed. Vanananu, vosa kei na ivalavala.
And then when you ask God to forgive youNi o sa kerea vua na Kalou me vosoti iko
I want you to accept by faith his forgive'ess, forgiveness.au, au vinakata mo vakadonuya e na vakabauta ni o koya sa vosoti iko.
Repentance is that simple. E rawarawa sara tu ga vakaoya na veivutuni.
‘God, I'm sorry, forgive me’. ‘O yau sa cala, na Kalou ni vosoti au’.
And his Word says that he will forgive us.Na nona vosa e kaya ni na vosoti keda.3 [see Supplementary Information, Audio clip S2]

In this excerpt, Colegrove and Cama explain that repentance begins by asking God for forgiveness of ‘every thought, every word, every deed’ which has been wrong or impure. In doing so, people ‘provide opportunity for God to come and work in our hearts’; Cama artfully translated this as o sa solia na galala vua na Kalou me lakovi keda mai me cakacaka e na vukuda, meaning ‘you give God the freedom to come work for our sake’. Note how Colegrove also offered a brief one-line prayer – ‘God, I'm sorry, forgive me’ – which summarised his instructions to people and served as a condensed model of how to pray.

A little more than two minutes after the excerpt just quoted, Colegrove prompted people to begin repenting. He did so by issuing explicit commands—‘everybody repent’, ‘ask God to forgive ya’—and also by offering an expanded model prayer in which he explicitly spoke for audience members, voicing their words for them:

Alright, let's everybody repent right now.Da veivutuni mada. Tamata taucoko tu e na rara qo me veivutuni, alleluia.
… Hallelujah. Everybody repent of every word… Koi keda kece e da veivutunitaka na veivosa taucoko
every thoughtveivakanananu
every deed. na ivalavala taucoko eda cakava.
‘Jesus, I repent. ‘Jisu au sa veivutuni.
I'm sorry, Lord.Au sa kere veivosoti.
I want you to change my life. Au sa vinakata mo veisautaka na noqu bula.
I want what Brother Colegrove has preached about tonight. Au vinakata na ka e vunautaka o Brother Colegrove e na bogi nikua.
I want the power of the Holy Ghost to come into my life. Au vinakata me lakovi au mai na kaukaua ni Yalo Tabu.
I'm sorry for all I have done against you, [God] Au sa veivutunitaka na veicala kece au sa dau cakava…
and I'm askin' you now to touch my life. ka'u sa kerei kemuni tiko oqo mo ni tara na noqu bula.
Forgive me of my sins. Vosoti au e na noqu ivalavala ca.
I give my life to youAu sa solia na noqu bula ki vei kemuni
my purpose to serve you, Godsa noqu inakinaki me'u qaravi kemuni
in the name of Jesus'. e na yaca i Jisu'.
Hallelujah. C'mon, repent, ask God to forgive ya. Veivutuni, kerea vua na Kalou me vosoti iko.
I want the choir to sing.Au kereke- au vinakata mo dou laga sere na choir. [see Supplementary Information, Audio clip S3]

Here, Colegrove both instructed his audience and spoke for them in translation. He told them explicitly what they should do and then modelled how they should do it by doing it himself. When he prayed, ‘I want what Brother Colegrove has preached about tonight’, Cama translated it straightforwardly as Au vinakata na ka e vunautaka o Brother Colegrove e na bogi nikua. In both versions, the ‘I’ (Au) was evidently not the speaker himself, but each individual ‘you’ standing before him, and Colegrove referred to himself as a third person, ‘Brother Colegrove’.4

In the altar call, then, Colegrove drew on the lessons of the sermon to make people act in the moment. They were sinners, and they needed to apologise for it, he said. Then he told them how to do so, even voicing the apology for them. This threefold strategy of instructing, commanding, and modelling was the same approach he used for speaking in tongues, to which I now turn.

How to speak in tongues

In his sermon, Colegrove acknowledged that people might not understand the ritual they would participate in that night. ‘God is looking for those in this park tonight’, he said, ‘that can find enough faith that says, I don't understand the Holy Ghost, I don't really understand all there is to know about the Holy Ghost, and I can't explain speaking in tongues, and I really don't know why—yet—that I need the Holy Ghost. But you see what starts out small, when God gets in the picture, becomes greater'. Thus, despite his role as teacher, Colegrove emphasises that understanding is not the point of the crusade. Action is. The paradox of this situation is that the most intense action people will engage in, speaking in tongues, is teachable but unintelligible, and meaningful because of its unintelligibility. Colegrove evidently wants his audience not to worry too much about understanding, yet to be committed to learning. In this way, they will ultimately submit to God's will.

Within the sermon, Colegrove spoke in tongues twice. Near the beginning, he delivered an impassioned plea for belief and commitment which concluded with a short burst of glossolalia:

The stage has been set. The atmosphere has been charged. Faith is in this place. And I believe—I wisht I could find someone else who will believe—I believe that God is going to do miracles here tonight.5 I believe God is going to heal sick bodies tonight. I believe that God is going to fill people with the baptism of the Holy Ghost just like it happened in Acts chapter two. Praise God, haya-boko-taya-bahaya, whoo! Praise God. [see Supplementary Information, Audio clip S4]

The phrase haya-boko-taya-bahaya is glossolalia. Neither English nor Fijian, it is meant to be the speech of God. The Bible chapter to which Colegrove referred, Acts 2, gives the context for interpreting his speech as divine, because it includes the story about Jesus' disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost. Although it is semantically unintelligible, then, glossolalia's meaning is generated intertextually.6 Towards the end of his sermon, Colegrove broke into tongues a second time when he said, ‘I wisht everybody in this crusade tonight that has already received the baptism of the Holy Ghost, I wisht you'd throw your hands up to the Lord, stand to your feet, and rejoice that God has given you the greatest gift that He's ever given to any man. Harava-sadalena-contra-yaramahai'. Colegrove evidently included himself in the group that has already received this ‘greatest gift’ and displayed it again with this second phrase in tongues.

During the altar call, as he prepared people to speak in tongues themselves, Colegrove characterised glossolalia as words that come from elsewhere, arriving in speakers' consciousness and alighting on their tongues without people thinking about how the process works:

And then after we have repentedIa ni da sa veivutuni oti
then we're gonna begin to worship and praise the Lord. eda sa na qai vakacaucautaka na Kalou ka qarava na Kalou mai na vu ni yaloda.
People receive the Holy Ghost when they ask God for the Holy Ghost and then begin to thank him for it. O ira era vakasinaiti e na Yalo Tabu, ni ra kerea vua na Kalou na Yalo Tabu, qai tekivu na nodra vakavinavinakata na Kalou ni sa solia vei ira na Yalo Tabu.
Now when you receive the Holy GhostIa ni o sa rawata na Yalo Tabu
you're gonna speak in a language that you do not know. o na vosataka e dua na vosa ka'o sega tu ni kila.
You're going to say words that make no sense to you. O na vosataka tu na veivosa e sega sara tu ga ni dua na kena ibalebale vei iko.
There are gonna be words that come to your mindE so beka na vosa e na lako mai ki na nomu vakanananu
you don't know what they areo sega ni kila sara tu ga sa vosa vakacava
but you say those wordsia ko sa kaya ga yani, ko cavuta na vosa oya
speak those words outvosataka yani, vosataka mai na vosa oya
because the Holy Ghost is making intercession for you. baleta na Yalo ‘abu e na, mata—e na yakavi vinaka ni siga e daidai, sa vutugutaki iko tiko.7
The Holy Ghost is praying through youNa Yalo Tabu sa masu tiko mai e lomamu
and God is going to fill every one of you with the Holy Ghost if you will do what I've been [asking] you. na Kalou e na vakasinaiti keda taucoko kevaka o ni tu — ke'o ni cakava na ka au tukuna tiko vei kemuni.
The first thing is, we're gonna repent. Na imatai ni ka, nanuma: veivutuni.
God will not come into a life that is full of sin. E na sega vakadua ni lakova mai e dua na bula e sinai tu kina na ivalavala ca na Kalou.
So we ask him to forgive us. Ya … na vuna e da sa na kerekere mada kina vua, [vosoti au].
And then I am gonna speak a word of faithIa au na qai vosataka e dua na vosa ni vakabauta
and when I command for you to receive the Holy Ghostni'u sa na vakarota mo vakasinaiti e na Yalo Tabu
I want you to believe at that momentau vinakata mo vakabauta sara ga e na gauna oya
that God is gonna fill your mouth with the heavenly languagena Kalou e na vakasinaita na gusumu e na veivosa vakalomalagi
in the name of Jesus.e na yaca i Jisu. [see Supplementary Information, Audio clip S5]

As Colegrove explained, you will speak, but it will not really be you speaking. The words will be unintelligible, but deeply meaningful. As he did in his sermon, Colegrove also included statements that can be considered a kind of prolepsis in which he describes future events as predetermined, not as predictions: ‘you're gonna speak in a language that you do not know. You're going to say words that make no sense to you'.8

As the performance grew more intense, building urgently towards the moment of speaking in tongues—the moment in which people would display their divine connection—Colegrove issued a series of commands, telling people to thank, praise, and receive God. He then finished by speaking in tongues himself. As with his prayer for repentance, his glossolalia served as a model for how other people should speak.

Now if you repented of your sins, you've asked God to forgive yaIa kevaka o sa veivutunitaka na nomu ivalavala ca…
Now I want you to begin to thank him for forgiveness. au vinakata mo sa tekivuna na nomu vakavinavinaka.
Thank him for forgiveness. …vakavinavinakataki koya…
Come on, the Holy Ghost is about to fall! Sa vakarau lutumi iko na Yalo Tabu!9
Begin to praise him right now. Tekivutaka na nomu vakavinavinaka vua.
He inhabits the praise of his people. E dau tiko e na nona vakavinavinaka…
[C'mon.] Your sins are under the bloodNa nomu ivalavala ca sa ubi e na dra
in the name of Jesus. e na yaca i Jisu.
Now when I speak the word of faith I want you to believe with me, come on, right now. Ni'u na vosataka na vosa ni vakabauta au vinakata mo vakabauta vata kei au.
By the authority of the Word of GodE na vakatulewa ni vosa ni Kalou
I command you right now: au sa vakaroti iko e na gauna sara ga oqo:
receive ye the Holy Ghost! vakasinaiti e na Yalo Tabu!
C'mon! Rawata na Yalo Tabu!10
Sina-dyamaya-damai-pasata-nahaya! [The choir begins to sing the repeated phrase, ‘Let it overflow’.] My God, anda-bakobasadaboha! C'mon, that's right! Receive ye the Holy Ghost! Rawata na Yalo Tabu! [see Supplementary Information, Audio clip s6]

As with his call for repentance, Colegrove explained what would happen, told people to do it and then did it himself. His performance made unintelligibility intelligible—that is, it made the torrid ‘babble’ of phrases like sina-dyamaya-damai-pasata-nahaya meaningful by framing them as unintelligible and explaining that this unintelligible discourse revealed the presence of the Holy Ghost. And, when the altar call hit this peak moment, the group standing before him apparently responded enthusiastically, as indicated by Colegrove's encouraging call, ‘C'mon, that's right!’ As Kristina Wirtz has written, ‘Unintelligibility is a product of active processes of reception as well as production of utterances’ (2007: 436). For Colegrove and his audience, unintelligibility was such an interactive project, one marking an intensely immanent moment of performance which paradoxically indexed the unknowable transcendence of divinity.

Here, I use the terms ‘index’ and ‘icon’ in the sense defined by C. S. Peirce: an index is a sign that signifies by a physical or causal connection, and an icon is a sign that signifies by resemblance. (A third type of sign, the symbol, signifies by convention.) As Peirce observed, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, as will become clear in the rest of this article, glossolalia is a strong example of indexical iconicity: it is indexical because, in Pentecostal understandings, its linguistic otherness points to the presence of something exceeding the human, namely the Holy Ghost, and it is iconic because, as explained below, glossolalia must resemble previously spoken glossolalia to the extent that it is recognised as ‘speaking in tongues’ and not nonsense. The twinned relationships of otherness I am describing in this article—the believer's relationship to the otherness of God and intelligible language's relationship to glossolalia—are related to each other as diagrammatic icons, which ‘represent the relations among parts of some represented object by analogous relations among component parts of the sign vehicle’ (Parmentier 1987: 108).

Weird words

Many kinds of ritual speech display the ‘coefficient of weirdness’ which Malinowski famously attributed to ‘magic’ utterances (1966[1935]: 218). As Keane writes, different ritual traditions ‘suspend or alter certain aspects of everyday ways of speaking … in response to problems posed by their particular otherworlds and their assumptions about the everyday’ (1997: 49). Spirits are often expected to speak strangely, such as by having markedly odd voice qualities, by engaging in distinct conversational genres or by drawing on registers considered unintelligible yet translatable (e.g. see Schieffelin 1985; Atkinson 1989; and Wirtz 2005; respectively; see also Hoenigman's article in this issue, in which the spirit of the Virgin Mary speaks a local language but does so ‘cryptically’. On linguistic otherness being correlated with other kinds of otherness, see also Stasch 2007, 2009; Kelly, this issue). The otherness of a linguistic code and otherness across a divide between humans and spirits are, in short, diagrammatic icons of each other.

In pre-Christian Fiji, spirits spoke through hereditary priests. The Methodist missionary Thomas Williams described how a priest, when possessed, would shake and shiver violently, and then ‘all his words and actions are considered as no longer his own, but those of the deity who has entered into him. Shrill cries of “Koi au! Koi au!” “It is I! It is I!” fill the air, and the god is supposed thus to notify his approach’ (Williams 1859: 176). Although these spirits apparently spoke intelligibly, the first generation of Fijian Christian converts did appreciate the mystical force of unintelligible language. As Noa Koroinavugona, who worked with John Hunt on some of the earliest Fijian Bible translations, complained about a colleague, ‘If Ezekiel prays and says “vaka funumalia vakayapayapa” [which sounds nonsensical] etc. they like him much but they do not like to hear the truths of the gospel so as to understand them’ (Thornley 2000: 232).

Glossolalia deserves special attention for the paradoxical language ideology associated with it: anyone can do it, but no one really does it him- or herself. That is, speaking in tongues is available to all, but it is supposedly God who does the speaking. In addition, glossolalia provokes questions about interpretation and translation for which different practitioners have given different answers (Samarin 1972: 162-73). Colegrove says that you will not understand the words spoken in tongues and implies that you should not worry about it. In contrast, there are figures such as the British evangelist Smith Wigglesworth, who followed the ‘practice of interspersing his preaching with short utterances in tongues which he himself interpreted' (Chant 1984: 291). In other traditions, specialist translators render other speakers' glossolalia into the vernacular, presumably following St. Paul's command in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28: ‘If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three … and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God’.

Particular patterns and styles of speaking in tongues can be learned by imitation and developed over time. ‘For most people’, William J. Samarin writes, ‘facility in speaking in tongues comes gradually and with much practice’ (1972: 68; see also Goodman 1972). As described in a recent account of Pentecostals in Ghana, ‘speaking in tongues is something you can learn by practicing, and some people are clearly more advanced in it than others, using more variation, like “rapatulashakalukaram”, than those at the level of “rabababababababa”. Some people told me that as children they were taught how to speak in tongues by saying “I love Jesus” quicker and quicker and quicker until the words became unintelligible' (de Witte 2011: 502). Learning to speak in a way that manifests the right kind of semantic unintelligibility—or, rather, to engage with others in the co-construction of utterances taken to be unintelligible but meaningful—is a key to successful performance. Samarin observes, too, that non-linguistic factors can shape observers' judgments of who is really speaking in tongues and who is not. An utterance might be considered genuinely divine if the ‘total behaviour’ of the speaker is approved by the congregation; ‘The same utterances, however, would be rejected if they were associated with behavior that was not approved’ (1972: 74).

Glossolalia configures relations of significance on at least two levels. Semantically, the words are supposed to be unintelligible when uttered, indexing the otherworldly, even miraculous, fact of their utterance—and in this sense, the meaning of glossolalia must be hidden to an extent. But pragmatically, their utterance indexes the Holy Ghost's presence in a person speaking these divine words, and that presence is held to be the meaning that really matters. Colegrove explicitly offered a world of weird words for his audience to inhabit linguistically, telling them that they would not understand what they said and that it was not really them speaking. It was God speaking to God, ‘making intercession for you … praying through you’. Colegrove's performance was both scripted and spontaneous, designed to encourage people to accept unintelligibility as a condition of ritual meaning and success.11


Although Christian ritual often explicitly sets meaning as a target of performative action, unintelligibility can feature prominently, indeed necessarily, in a successful performance (Engelke & Tomlinson 2006; Robbins 2001; Schieffelin 2007, 2008). But there is nothing natural about unintelligibility: it is a project as much as a product, something performers and audience create together.

At the sermon and altar call described in this article, the Pentecostal preacher Kenneth Colegrove repeatedly and energetically taught his audience what to expect. He shifted registers to equate Bible stories with present-day actions; he spoke about future events as if their outcomes were already determined; he employed a translator to turn his Texas English into Standard Fijian, although the audience seemed to comprehend the former well enough; and he modelled the acts of repentance and glossolalia about which he spoke. His goal was to make people speak in specific ways: to apologise to God, to thank God and then to speak in tongues. By confessing in the right way, they would repent in the right way, and the preacher spoke the words for them to do so. By repenting in the right way, they would speak in tongues—again in the right way, and again, he spoke the words for them to do so. But the final words he spoke, and the words the audience spoke in response, were not meant to be their own: they were meant to be signs of the ultimate other.


Previous versions of this article have been presented at the Australian National University, Macquarie University, and the 2011 meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Montreal. For productive criticism that led to the refinement of these versions, I especially thank Rupert Stasch, Alan Rumsey, Andreas Bandak, Jon Bialecki, Webb Keane, and Hillary Kaell. I am also grateful to Naibuka Cama for corresponding with me over email to discuss his performance, to Ana Kitolelei for transcribing that performance and, as always, to Sekove Bigitibau for sharing his linguistic and cultural expertise. The funds that supported this research came from the Australian Research Council's Discovery Project Grant #0878736.


  1. 1

    Psalms 22:3 refers to God as ‘O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.’

  2. 2

    As Hillary Kaell observes, Colegrove's pedagogical strategies serve partly as a means of ‘acting out the global reach of Christianity … [T]hese actions embody difference, which speaks to the success of the Great Commission [the resurrected Jesus’ command to his disciples to evangelise “all nations”], while also underlining that the fundamental link between Christians―being saved through Jesus―actually overrides these differences’ (personal communication, 30 November 2011).

  3. 3

    In the transcriptions of the altar call, ellipses indicate material that is not clearly audible in the recording, and words in brackets are words that are difficult to hear but about whose utterance I am reasonably certain.

  4. 4

    ‘Preaching and confession’, Webb Keane has written, ‘are, in effect, interdependent moments of entextualization and recontextualization, as the congregation affirms its assent to doctrines that are also expounded in sermons and scriptural readings’ (2007: 75). In this example, Colegrove collapsed the distinction by transposing his authorship to audience members and uttering their affirmation of his own message to them. On the issuance of commands, see the work of Alan Rumsey (e.g. Rumsey 2003, 2010), who has argued that the ability to switch perspectives is a foundation of ethics and, manifest in specific grammatical categories, is inherent to every language. Imperatives, for Rumsey, are a key mechanism by which subjectivity is created: when a person is issued a command, she or he recognises that the will being communicated is not her or his own and also that she or he is the one expected to act. Colegrove's strategy can be seen accordingly as a ritual attempt to create new subjectivities—saved, faithful, Spirit-filled Christians—by instructing them on how to act and then commanding them to do so.

  5. 5

    The use of ‘wisht’ for present tense ‘wish’ is a feature of Southern US English pronunciation (Brown 1891: 172).

  6. 6

    A variety of glossolalia called ‘xenoglossia’ is the phenomenon of people supposedly speaking existing languages without knowing them previously. For example, Goodman (1972: 149) quotes an evangelist in Mexico who says that when he was converted, ‘All of a sudden I sang, and I spoke in Greek and Latin, and Chinese, and other languages I had never heard’.

  7. 7

    Cama inserted the phrase e na, mata—e na yakavi vinaka ni siga e daidai (‘on this morn—on this good afternoon today’) while apparently trying to think of a good word to use for translating ‘making intercession’ into Fijian. He settled on vutugutaki, a transitive verb based on the root gu, which Capell (1991: 71) defines in part as ‘to make a strenuous effort’: thus God is working strongly for you.

  8. 8

    For the statements which I have called a kind of prolepsis—those in which Colegrove describes future events as settled facts, not as predictions or hopes—Cama generally translates, as he does throughout the altar call, in a straightforward and literal way. There is an exception, however: for Colegrove's ‘There are gonna be words that come to your mind’, Cama slips out of prolepsis for a moment by adding beka in his translation, ‘E so beka na vosa e na lako mai ki na nomu vakanananu’, meaning ‘There might be some words that come to your mind’.

  9. 9

    In this line, Cama gives ‘fall’ the direct object ‘you [singular]’ (iko), so his translation can be translated back into English as ‘The Holy Ghost is ready to fall on you’.

  10. 10

    For Colegrove's lines ‘receive ye the Holy Ghost! C'mon!’ Cama does not translate ‘C'mon’, but repeats the command ‘[verb] + “Holy Ghost”’, using vakasinati as the verb in the first line and rawata in the second. Vakasinati means to be filled, as with a liquid, and rawata means to achieve something. Thus, Cama's translation might be glossed as, ‘Be filled with the Holy Ghost! Get the Holy Ghost!’ He then repeats the rawata line after Colegrove speaks in tongues.

  11. 11

    See Shoaps (2002) for a nuanced discussion of Pentecostal scriptedness and spontaneity, which she analyses with reference to different strategies of entextualisation: replication (in which texts are uttered without reference to their prior contextual use) and transposition (in which prior contextual links are emphasised).