Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 8-15, 1990, p. 731, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
An essential part of Christianity is that the truth is not to be found in denying or escaping the arena of natural and historical activity, but within it.
These readings invite reflection on the puzzling proposition that God encountered in the world. We may put it differently or even mean different things by it, but an essential part of Christianity is that the truth is not to be found in denying or escaping the arena of natural and historical activity, but within it.
When Christians speak of "special revelation," of course, we up the ante considerably by saying that such implicit presence is made explicit in event and word, experience and interpretation. We suggest as well that a record of this process is found, in Scripture. These particular readings show what we mean by such revelation. God comes to Elijah and speaks to him, not in the wind or fire, to be sure, but no less truly in the still small voice, so that although he thinks himself all alone as prophet of the Lord, he is sent to anoint other kings and prophets. Jesus walks to the disciples on the night seas and calms both them and the winds by his presence. A prophet talks with God, the disciples worship Jesus and declare, "Truly you are the Son of God" — these events could hardly be clearer.
There was a time when I read these accounts simply as records of factual occurrence. This is what happened to Elijah and what the disciples experienced. Event and interpretation were one. The narratives thereby became wonderful fodder for my apologetic cannons: here is the evidence that revelatory events took place in history. On the other hand, they made me wonder at times (somewhat wistfully) why such events never happened in my life. If such pyrotechnics shape the paradigm of revelation, I have obviously come too late for the fireworks.
More recently, infected by the germ of historical and literary criticism, I questioned the events themselves: surely there was no storm or fire but only the voice. More than that, what Elijah heard came not from outside but from within him. And whatever the story says, Jesus did not walk on the waters in the manner described. This strategy enabled me to find some continuity between my experience and the past (nothing happened there and nothing happening here) But it raised its own questions: if such was the case — if these narratives are solely interpretation — why were they written at all and why were they written in this way? If not storm and not appearance, then what need for such dramatic stories? What made these ancient folks interpret this way? Was it simply wish fulfillment? Having eliminated experience, I made interpretation even less plausible.
More recently I have begun to consider that disjunction too severe. I need not choose between event as described and no event. Perhaps these ambiguities also bear within them the comforting certainty that what I experience and the meaning I find are not totally discontinuous with those depicted in the Scripture. The texts, I have begun to think, neither report the revelatory events nor make them up, but participate in revelation by their interpretation of experience. Read in this way, the passages show me how revelation is as much a matter of missed signals as it is of overwhelming evidence.
Why did Elijah have to flee to the cave? He had just previously called down fire from heaven and had all the prophets of Baal slaughtered before his eyes (I Kg. 18:20-40) He had also called, the rain from the sky (18:41-46) Why did Peter need to walk on the water? Why did he need proof "that it is you"? How much evidence is required, anyway? If the Lord could whip the prophets of Baal with fire from heaven, why couldn’t he protect Elijah from Ahab? Peter had just seen Jesus multiply bread in the wilderness (Mt. 14:13-21) ; why did he himself need to walk the waves?
Like me, the prophet and apostle were not content with the signs of God’s work in the world. It didn’t matter what wonders were manifested "out there." They wanted it shown for them: "save me." And like me, apparently, their personal experience was less obviously thaumaturgic. Not in the fire and wind, but in the small voice in the midst of desolation; not in the elimination of Ahab, but in the desperate grasp of a hand extended in the dark; not in the praise of power shared, but in the rebuke of faith lacking.
Most of all, they needed the reminder that what God was up to in the world went beyond their personal preoccupations. As Paul was also to learn from I Kg. 19:18 when he was anguishing about his fellow Jews, God’s perspective is bigger than ours: "I have kept for myself 7,000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal."
Elijah, it appears, was not alone in the First place. Neither was Paul. Neither was Peter. They just thought they were because they missed the signals of presence. Wanting more impressive signs, they got subtler ones to ponder. So with me: I’m not alone either, if I learn to read right the texts of my life, which like these before me both cover and disclose.