Audio/Visual Revelation

Audio/Visual Revelation

In studying through Revelation 4, I feel that I need to do an introductory blog before I cover the chapter.  The reason for this is that the first verse is loaded, very rich, and worth simmering in for a while.  A few weeks ago I was listening to NPR‘s Studio 360, which featured an episode entitled, “The Blind Astrophysicist” about Wanda Diaz-Merced, an astrophysicist with sight impairment.

To hear this woman’s voice is to meet someone who doesn’t know of despair, or certainly has an unusually high threshold for it. She tells the story of how she came to explore sonification (alternate terminology: she calls it audification, while the host, Ari Epstein, calls it ensonification), in which data is presented in a way that can be likened to a musical composition. There’s a particularly good anecdote about how during a visit to a computer lab she heard the squeal of data as it was being crunched, and recognized a burst in the static that turned out to be a sunburst. And an even better one when we learn that her computer-programming collaborator is … deaf.

The reason these two are still able to work together is that they understand the language of God.  This may seem a bit far fetched, but allow me to explain.  In the first chapter of Genesis, “In the beginning” we see, “God saith, ‘Let light be;’ and light it is.”  This pattern repeats, God saith, it happens, God saith, it is, and so on.  In the first chapter of John, we see Jesus Christ in language arrangement and word choice purposely associated with the opening lines of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; this one was in the beginning with God; all things through him did happen, and without him happened not even one thing that hath happened.”  This idea that “God saith” and it comes to pass is given a name, “the Word”, credited with bringing about everything we are or know or experience.  There is much more to be said about this (another blog for another day).

We study creation through our senses, but our observations are recorded as data.  Anyone who uses a computer knows that data is basically math, what I call the language of God.  Sometimes we are not able to reduce our observations to mathematical equations, because we lack information, or we don’t understand what it is that we observe.  The knee-jerk reaction of many spiritually sensitive people is to name, as the answer or cause, God or demonic activity or some other spiritual concept, ideas which the institution of science (yes it is an institution – again another blog for another day) finds unbelievable or mythological.  The knee-jerk reaction of science, even though there may be evidence to support supernatural claims, is to dismiss any supernatural possibility, an act of censorship.  Philosophy, the emotionally intelligent close friend of spirituality, and science, the insightfully logical cousin of spirituality, are slowly but surely coming together again, although reluctantly, out of necessity.  It has been over 1500 years since the cousin and friend were forced by religion to end their romance, to look at each other as enemies.  It was a hard break, with many casualties, and neither one trusts the other to fully make sense of the human existence.  The observations of science and philosophy are becoming more and more similar, since the technological revolution has opened the lines of communication that have been closed.  The results of this long overdue conversation may take a long time to become apparent, but it will happen eventually.  If you think that there is not already a significant overlap between philosophy and science, consider the following example from R.C. Sproul about “chance,” a non-scientific philosophical concept that is nevertheless employed by science regularly:

Chance can do nothing because it is nothing…We use the word ‘chance’ to describe mathematical possibilities. For example, when we flip a coin we say that it has a fifty/fifty chance to come up heads. If we call heads on the toss and it turns up tails, we might say that our luck was bad and that we missed our chance.

How much influence does chance have on the toss of a coin? What makes the coin turn up heads or tails? Would the odds change if we knew which side the coin started on, how much pressure was exerted by the thumb, how dense the atmosphere was, and how many revolutions the coin made in the air? With this knowledge, our ability to predict the outcome would far exceed fifty/fifty.

But the hand is faster than the eye. We can’t measure all these factors in the normal tossing of the coin. Since we can reduce the possible outcome to two, we simplify matters by talking about chance. The point to remember, however, is that chance exercises absolutely no influence on the coin toss. Why not? As we keep saying, chance can do nothing because it IS nothing. It is NO THING. Before something can exert power or influence it must first be something. It must be some kind of entity, either physical or nonphysical. Chance is neither. It is merely a mental construct. It has no power because it has no being. It is nothing.

To say that something has happened by chance is to say that it is a coincidence. This is simply a confession that we cannot perceive all the forces and causal powers that are at work in an event. Just as we cannot see all that is happening in a coin toss with the naked eye, so the complex affairs of life are also beyond our exact ability to penetrate. So we invent the term ‘chance’ to explain them. Chance really explains nothing. It is merely a word we use as a shorthand for our ignorance.

– Chosen By God, R.C. Sproul, pp. 191-194

Now, let’s return to Diaz-Merced and her computer programming collaborator who is deaf.  The reason these two are still able to work together is that they understand the language of God.  Music and mathematics are closely related, probably more so than we currently understand.  While Diaz-Mercer may rely on hearing and her collaborator may rely on sight, they are both exploring the same concept, through the language that transcends all other languages, the language that can describe anything and everything, the language spoken by things that can’t speak (the rocks cry out?) and heard by things that can’t hear.  Sonification is the translation of mathematical data into sound, where mathematics and sonification are two means of expressing the same concept.  If you would like to know more about this, listen to this interview explaining sonification, including a very cool example of the music of celestial data. Sonification causes me to take a more literal look at  scriptures like these:

Psalm 19: 1-4

The heavens [are] recounting the honour of God, and the work of His hands the expanse [is] declaring. Day to day uttereth speech, and night to night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech, and there are no words. Their voice hath not been heard. Into all the earth hath their line gone forth, and to the end of the world their sayings…

Psalm 50:1-6

Jehovah – hath spoken, and He calleth to the earth from the rising of the sun unto its going in. From Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shone. Our God cometh, and is not silent, fire before Him doth devour, and round about Him it hath been very tempestuous. He doth call unto the heavens from above, and unto the earth, to judge His people. Gather ye to Me My saints, making covenant with Me over a sacrifice. And the heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself [is] judge.

Psalm 96:11-13

The heavens joy, and the earth is joyful, the sea and its fulness roar. The field exulteth, and all that [is] in it, then sing do all trees of the forest, before Jehovah, for He hath come, For He hath come to judge the earth.

Psalm 98

Sing ye to Jehovah a new song, for wonders He hath done, given salvation to Him hath His right hand and His holy arm. Jehovah hath made known His salvation, before the eyes of the nations, He hath revealed His righteousness, He hath remembered His kindness, and His faithfulness to the house of Israel, all ends of earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout to Jehovah, all the earth, break forth, and cry aloud, and sing. Sing to Jehovah with harp, with harp, and voice of praise, with trumpets, and voice of a cornet, shout ye before the king Jehovah. Roar doth the sea and its fulness, the world and the inhabitants in it. Floods clap hand, together hills cry aloud, before Jehovah, for He hath come to judge the earth, He judgeth the world in righteousness, and the people in uprightness!

And we must also consider this one:

Romans 8:21-23

Creation itself shall be set free from the servitude of the corruption to the liberty of the glory of the children of God; for we have known that all the creation doth groan together, and doth travail in pain together till now. And not only [so], but also we ourselves, having the first-fruit of the Spirit, we also ourselves in ourselves do groan, adoption expecting – the redemption of our body.

With these things in mind, I read the opening of Revelation 4, “I saw… a door opened in the heaven, and the first voice that I heard [is] as of a trumpet speaking…” and think about a door opening = the potential for spiritual understanding and a voice as of a trumpet speaking = the declaration of knowledge.  That we see and hear are enormous blessings, for practical reasons, but sight and hearing are also spiritual analogies which may help us understand spiritual concepts that we might not understand otherwise.  The Revelation was given in the Spirit, visually and audibly, and may best be understood from that perspective.




  • Mary Vanderplas May 17, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    I really like what you have to say about science and spirituality entering into conversation again after centuries of being divorced and at enmity with each other. (Though I think you’re right that the split started before Copernicus, the Copernican Revolution is what finalized it.) From a theological point of view, I would argue that, if God is the origin of everything that exists, then truth cannot be divided. It follows that science and spirituality cannot be pitted against each other. To be sure, they are two different ways of knowing, two different perspectives on truth, each having its own place, but they are not enemies. So, I agree that the conversation between the two that is happening today is “long overdue” and that there is much to be gained by both science and spirituality from this opening of the lines of communication.

    The science of sonification sounds fascinating. I really like the meaning you give to the science – i.e., seeing in the connection between mathematics and music/sound “the language of God” – a transcendent speech that permeates the created order, or as you express it so eloquently, “the language that transcends all other languages, the language that can describe anything and everything, the language spoken by things that can’t speak (the rocks cry out?) and heard by things that can’t hear.” Wow – it’s profound, and deeply moving to think that science is discovering evidence of a common, unifying “speech” – going along with the thinking of those who believe in the God who spoke the universe into being by God’s powerful Word. I agree that it prompts a reading of many biblical texts with whole new eyes! (Your discussion made me think also of the science of quantum physics and the discovery that everything is connected to everything else.)

    The emphasis in Revelation 4:1 seems to be on God’s initiative in revealing what God wants the prophet to know and to communicate to the churches. That literal seeing and hearing play a prominent role in the receiving of the revelation I’m not sure has any special meaning. (However, the call to “hear” in the messages to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 obviously means more than physical hearing.) I do think, though, that John’s visionary experiences as the medium of the revelation – along with John’s use of conventional imagery to express the meaning of what he saw and heard – are significant in terms of cautioning the reader against a literal interpretation of what John reported.

    Thanks for an interesting, insightful, and spiritually enriching blog.

  • Like a Stone « May 19, 2011 at 2:07 am

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  • […] a blog on chapter 8, if you would like to read more about Revelation: Revelation 1-2, Revelation 3, Audio/Visual Revelation, Like a Stone, Despite My Amazing Ignorance, He’s Called “God with Us” for a […]

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