To Know What You See, Not See What You Know
We need the stories of the Gospels more than ever as our churches bicker and break apart. We need to walk with Jesus and to hear his teaching. We need to know what love looks like, how to face the empires of our day, how to resist evil non-violently. Jesus is the Word of God written by the finger of God on the tablet of the earth. The acts of Jesus are our commandments and guide to the abundant life.
Yet, these stories are difficult to appropriate fully for at least two reasons. First, we are thousands of years removed from the time of their composition and know surprisingly little about the world of their composers. Second, we tend to read what is familiar in our world into what is unfamiliar in the biblical world. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s great challenge—to know what you see, not see what you know—is a high bar not easily cleared.
We need to gather as much information as we can about the biblical world, and, as Heschel suggests, know how our hearts’ dispositions may be distorting our view of that world. Girded with both information and self-awareness, we can perhaps look afresh at the gospel stories and refresh the church’s interest in the life and teaching of Jesus.
The Earth Is Full of the Glory of God
The biblical writers were living in a world quite different from the one familiar to us. They believed that God was the source of all energy and that this energy flared forth from the mouth of God in the form of words. The creation account affirmed and the Psalms reaffirmed that the world came into being by the word of God. These words bore the breath of God and therefore possessed the energy to produce what God intended.
Earth, the visible world of matter and motion, and heaven, the invisible world of Spirit and energy, were on a continuum. The biblical writers pictured this continuum as a ladder connecting earth and heaven upon which angels, who embodied the spiritual energy of God, moved back and forth from one realm to the other (cf. John 1:51). Jacob’s dream was not phantasmagorical revelry, but a cosmological image indicating for our ancestors how the world with its diverse systems cohered–an image, by the way, not all that different from the one favored by cosmologists today who see the universe flaring forth from a single source (a singularity).
Love, God’s ever-present concern, and glory, God’s ever-present energy, flowed from the heart of God, filled the earth, and established the systems for the flourishing of life. Every breath, every drink, every meal, and every birth was a blessing coming directly from the heart of God. Every encounter in the course of one’s life was a strand that God was weaving into a pattern of exquisite beauty.
For the gospels writers, Jesus was the ultimate Word that flared forth from the mouth of God. Like the angels, Jesus ascended and descended the ladder connecting heaven and earth. The gospel writers beheld his glory and recounted his life on earth in order to reveal his glory to those of us who never had the chance to walk and talk with him.
Dramatists, not Historians
The gospel writers were not historians documenting what Jesus and his disciples said and did, as many assume; instead, they were dramatists. They were creating a literary form in which the glory of Jesus could shine in the lives of his followers. The gospel writers created a series of scenes and arranged them according to the classic five-part pattern of dramas: opening, conflict, rising action, resolution, and denouement. Depending on the nature of the gospel drama, they showed Jesus and his disciples moving from threat to safety, sickness to health, ignorance to knowledge, and absence of God to the presence of God.
The gospel writers were not preparing documents for an archive; they were preparing a liturgy for a worshiping congregation. They presented Jesus and his disciples as conversing and interacting in the present moment so that the congregation could hear and see them. In a gospel performance, the wall separating the past and the present was broken down. (to see a gospel performance cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJwmBIdhUKc; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WD9G95TYOlk)
Dramatic performance had sacramental undertones. The gospel writers believed that Jesus was living and that believers could experience his life immediately through the indwelling of his Spirit. Drama after drama, year after year, believers experienced the real presence of Jesus and were nourished and fortified by the glory of his life.
This literary form was not new to the gospels writers. They were adapting a form from their tradition. For over a thousand years, the people of Israel gathered for worship and remembered the mighty acts of God manifest in the lives of their ancestors: their patriarchs, their judges, their kings, and their prophets. They honored their ancestors by dramatizing their lives and reliving their experiences. The “stories” of the Old Testament were also dramas.
Mark 4: 35-41
In what follows, I will offer a dramatic analysis of Mark 4: 35-41, the account of Jesus stilling the sea. In this drama, Mark rehearsed a particular experience in the lives of Jesus and his disciples, and at the same time explored a universal experience. Life was a voyage in which all manner of storms arose and safe harbor was never guaranteed. Mark drew his congregation into the boat with Jesus and his disciples whose fear became their fear and whose questions (Do you care that we are perishing? Who then is this?) became their questions.
Who Then Is This?
The disciples knew the man Jesus. They had traveled with him throughout Galilee and he laughed and cried with them, and shared the basic needs of every human being: he ate, drank, slept, and eliminated. They also knew that he was a very special man: a healer whose words restored paralytic legs and withered hands; a teacher whose words restored paralytic and withered dogmas. The disciples had even begun to wonder whether he was a prophet, perhaps the promised prophet-warrior who would drive out the Romans and restore the fortunes of Zion. But then there came a moment when they did not know who Jesus was at all, a moment of great awe.
On that “dark and stormy night,” the disciples and Jesus were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Waves washed over the boat and threatened to swamp it. The disciples were terrified, but Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the midst of roiling and boiling waters. They awakened him and questioned him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Now awake, Jesus did not speak to them but instead turned and spoke, of all things, to the wind and sea. Jesus commanded them: “Hush! Be still!” as if he were talking to an unruly child. Mark wrote: “The wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”
The sea may have been calm, but the hearts of the disciples certainly were not. Rather than being relieved, the disciples were afraid. What they had just experienced was not possible; the world did not work this way. A mere human being could not command the wind and the sea. Such power belonged only to God.
The disciples knew their Scriptures. It was God and God alone who said at creation: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters above from the waters below.” It was God and God alone who said, “Let the waters be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” It was God who tamed the raging sea (Ps. 89: 9), who said: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther; here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). Jesus had just tamed the raging sea; Jesus was God.
Having just been saved from a storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were threatened by a new storm. What they had just seen and now knew to be true undermined everything that they had been taught about God and God’s place in the world. Their theology, so carefully crafted by their rabbis over the centuries, their boat which was to carry them safely through the storms of life to the other side of the sea, was being swamped.
The disciples were fearful, but their fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. It gave way to wonderment; it broke open their hardened hearts. They asked: “Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him.” Who indeed? How could the great and powerful God who created the earth be a man who needed to eat and drink and sleep and eliminate? Why would God abdicate the throne and relinquish sovereign power and authority? Why would God come to the world in such a vulnerable way, in a body which could be broken and blood which could be shed? How could they see God face to face and live to talk about it?
The who, how, and why are questions that the followers of God have been asking for 2,000 years and a systematic answer eludes us. We cannot seem to catch light in a bottle or pour the sea into a cup. The incarnation is a mystery that cannot be contained in any system of ideas. We need to leave the safe boundaries of our theological systems and seek God in the unknown and uncharted world beyond. Leaving a safe harbor for an uncharted sea seems a dangerous endeavor. Yet, whenever a system of ideas is the source of faith, then faith can only operate within the boundaries of that system. Whenever a personal encounter with God is the source of faith, then faith can soar. A systematized faith offers security and the incarceration of certainty; a soaring faith offers adventure and the freedom of uncertainty–believers following Jesus wherever he might lead.
Teacher, Do You Care That We Are Perishing?
The disciples’ question, “Teacher, do you care that we are perishing?” seems straightforward. The disciples were asking a man, their beloved teacher, whether he cared about them.
As the drama unfolded, however, the disciples came to understand that they were not asking a man whether he cared; they were asking God. Suddenly, the question takes on deeper meaning. Jesus was more than a man who could bail water; Jesus was a God who could command the wind and the sea. Their question transcends this experience. It is universal. Does God care when humankind is perishing? Mark’s answer? Yes, more than the disciples could imagine. God cares enough to come as a human being, to live among us, and to die so that we would not perish, not just in a storm on the Sea of Galilee but in the storms of life.
In this gospel drama, Mark showed his congregation that God was in the boat with them in ways they could not always see and that God was bringing them safely to the far shore in ways they could not always understand. He was giving testimony that in both the short span of their individual lives and in the long span of history all manner of things would be well, and in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, that the long arc of history bends toward justice.
Could Mark Have Imagined Me
Mark composed this and all his dramas for his immediate congregation but also for future congregants. We will never know how many generations of congregants Mark imagined would see the performance of his dramas. Could Mark have imagined me, a congregant a hundred generations in the future? Every indication is that he, like everyone else in the early church, believed that Jesus would return in the not too distant future.
A hundred generations is a long time to wait for Jesus to bring us safely to the far shore. In this drama on the Sea of Galilee, I cannot make it past the disciples’ question, “Teacher, do you care that we are perishing,” and the image of Jesus asleep in the boat. This question and this image rise above Mark’s drama, travel through time, and hover over places like the death camp in Majdanek, Poland; the incinerated cities of Dresden and Hiroshima; the extirpation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; over the massacres in Aleppo, Syria, and Bucha, Ukraine; over the mass extinction of flora and fauna and the ebbing of the earth’s fecundity . . . the list goes on and on.
As I have testified before in the Reformed Journal, one of the most traumatic experiences in my life came at the Majdanek death camp in Poland. While I was finishing my doctoral work at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, I was playing basketball for a team that was invited to play in Poland. It was a unique opportunity to travel behind the Iron Curtain, and I was able to share the experience with my wife, Judy. In the second game of the tournament, I broke a bone in my left hand and, at the hospital the doctor suggested Judy and I visit Majdanek now that my playing time was over. He arranged for a taxi, and it dropped us off at the gates of Majdanek.
The camp was enclosed by a barbed wire fence with wooden lookouts at standard intervals. A road cut through the middle of it. On the left side was an open area where the prisoners had worked. On the right side were the barracks, warehouses, and the ovens. A tall chimney betrayed the presence of the ovens.
We could account for everything except for what lay directly before us. About three-quarters of a mile down the road we could see what appeared to be a hill. As we walked toward it, we were able to see it more clearly. It was indeed a hill, a hill sheltered by a huge, concrete dome. We walked up a flight of steps, under the dome, and to a railing. We gazed in silence. The hill was gray, as gray as the concrete and the sky which embraced it.
We saw bits of bone and teeth. Only then were our eyes opened. It was a hill of human ash, the ash of the victims burned in the ovens of Majdanek. What happened next I find nearly impossible to render in words. The ashes became waves, and I felt myself sinking in the storm of this human suffering. My boat, my carefully constructed theological system that was supposed to carry me safely to the other side, was breaking apart.
Being a hundred generations removed from the first generation of Christians and being mindful of the horrors of Majdanek, I cannot make it past the disciples’ question, “Teacher, do you care that we are perishing,” and past the image of Jesus asleep in the boat. I fear that the arc of history does not bend toward justice, that all manner of things are not well.
A Prompting of the Heart
I take comfort that our Scriptures make room for me and my fears. They tell me that God is the God of light and darkness and that, whether I can see it or not, God is present in the joy and suffering of life. The Scriptures teach me to give thanks when life is flourishing and to lament when life is failing.
I find myself increasingly turning to the lament in Psalm 44. The Psalmist acknowledges that the right hand of God has saved the beloved in the past and that the light of God’s face has shone upon them. But these past acts of salvation only make the present affliction and oppression more painful and confusing. The psalmist draws the only conclusion possible: God must be asleep. The psalmist tries to awaken God:
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off for ever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
Borrowing the words of the disciples in the storm on the Sea of Galilee and those of the psalmist in exile, I raise my voice in lament: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?”
I raise my voice in lament and then listen for some kind of response. The question, “Why do you sleep?” keeps echoing in the chamber of my heart. The more it echoes the more it turns into a question addressed to me, a prompting in my heart: “Why do you sleep?” You in whose heart the Spirit dwells, you who are part of the body of Christ in the world, why do you sleep?