In teaching the second half of New Testament in the spring semester, I deal with the book of Revelation. I only spend a short time on this work, just two class periods. But in order to keep fresh, I always explore some different aspect of Revelation, which is easy since almost every nook and cranny has some image to capture the imagination. Like a kaleidoscope, one can turn Revelation within the mind and find new and beautiful patterns and meaning.
In turning the Revelation kaleidoscope this semester, a fiery image came into focus: “Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, . . .” (Rev 4:5a NRSV). This same description about lightning, with some variation, is found three other times in Revelation: 8:5; 11:19; and 16:18. For the writer of Revelation, one of the most striking images for “the one who sits upon the throne” (John’s favorite way to designate God) is lightning. It gave concrete expression to God’s power and uniqueness. Lightning was the visible and often audible presence of an invisible but all-powerful God. While one of the Ten Commandments is not to make a graven image of God, creation itself provided the icon for God: the lightning bolt.
This image is not unique to Revelation. In the Hebrew Bible, lightning is the sword of God that cuts across the sky (Deut. 32:41) and is God’s spear and arrows (Hab. 3:11). In the covenant establishment between God and a nascent people, the people witnessed lightning and thunder coming from the mountain and were rightly fearful (Exodus 19:16). When Job’s friend Elihu wanted to highlight the majesty of God, he asks this rhetorical question, “Do you know how God . . . causes the lightning of his cloud to shine?” (Job 37:15 NRSV). Job should shuffle his feet and mumble with humility, “I don’t know.”
And not just the Judeans thought lightning best captured the power of deity. Zeus, or as the Rome’s styled him, Jupiter, hurled the thunderbolts of judgment and power to earth. The coins, frescos, and mosaics of the ancient world are filled with the jagged bolt of power pulsating from the hand of Zeus.
Lightning and static electric were strange and mysterious powers to the ancients. Rubbing a cat or dog in the ancient world caused a mini-theophany with both a spark and a shock. When the rare and valuable substance of amber was taken and rubbed, it produced even more of this mysterious power that belonged to God and to the gods.
The lightning rod, thanks to Benjamin Franklin, helped bring lightning down to earth. No one needed to be afraid of any act of God again. It was William Gilbert, during the age of discovery, who helped to domesticate lightning even more by giving it a name: electricity. Once you name something, you control it.
Mary Shelley perhaps captured it best with her 1818 classic that everyone has heard about but few have read: Frankenstein. Most people are unfamiliar with the rest of the title: The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was the god who brought fire (lightning) from Zeus to humanity. Lightning was the element, as even Mel Brook’s movie Young Frankenstein noted, that was harnessed to bring life into inanimate flesh. What seemed like so much science fiction is reality everyday. Thankfully, many lives are saved by portable defibrillators–ones that can be purchased at your local CVS Pharmacy for $2,999, and I am sure the price will come down. A Taser, carried by police and fearful citizens, is a form of lightning in a bottle that can subdue and incapacitate another. And in eight states, execution is still an option by electricity.
God’s lightning, life, death, and power, is now in the hands of humanity. What once only God controlled in sovereignty has been democratized for all humanity to own and use.
I counted the number of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), those little colored lights on electronics devices, in my house. You know these lights; they are the ones that always seem to glow and glare when you cannot sleep at night. In my home, I counted twenty-six. The power of lightning, electricity, is safely tucked into all the little boxes scattered around our homes, in the switches we click without thinking, in smart phones and iPods, and in the computers and tablets we carry around.
Something has been lost in understanding and approaching God like my ancestors in faith. God feels very domesticated and not just because the weather person can track accurately the number of lightning strikes on a map. Like an old person slumped in a wheel chair, God, with or without consent, is wheeled into every agenda on both the right and the left of issues. Little threatening or awe-inspiring power seems left in God. Just as the old gods of myth, Zeus and Odin, Isis and Freyja, have been stripped of their power and relegated to the classics, folklore studies and cinematic caricature, even Yahweh seems bereft of power and a shadow of what my foremothers and forefathers stood and trembled at.
Perhaps we need a new image or symbol that could recapture from creation what Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendum. Perhaps it would be something as simple as the virus that can affect and infect humans, animals, plants, and even bacteria. Nothing is out of the reach of a virus—and viruses can be fearful.
Or maybe occasionally, we can still recapture a sense of God that both pulls us into an assured presence and yet also frightens us. If we can put aside, just for a moment, the knowledge that raindrops, when carried up and down by the drafts of warm and cold air within clouds, build up friction that cause electrical discharges, then perhaps we can glimpse in lightning and hear in thunder, just for a brief moment, God. The moment when the crack causes the cup to vibrate and the frames on the wall to rattle, and the flash lights up the darkness showing us the weird and shadowy world of trees and buildings, perhaps at that moment, as brief as it is, we get reminded of the power of God that can make us shake and quake.