In "Valley of Bones", a thriller by Michael Gruber, one of the main characters is an intriguing mix of good and evil. Emmylou Dideroff had a terrible childhood and young adulthood, where she was sexually abused from the age of nine onwards. She fell into drugs, became a prostitute and wasn't afraid to dish out plenty of violence of her own. She enters the story having been arrested on a charge of murder. But despite what she readily admits was her own evil, Emmylou had amazing visions, one of which saved her life.
One vision occurred after she had been shot and was dying from her gunshot wounds. The vision led her to a convent where she was cared for by forward thinking nuns who could see beyond her chequered past and her nihilist present to the very special person that she was deep within.
But the detective who later arrested her and the psychiatrist assigned to her case have a hard time believing in any of her visions. The psychiatrist particularly is an atheist and is convinced that Emmylou's religiosity is a symptom of mental illness. Nonetheless, despite her disbelief, the psychiatrist is very uncomfortable in Emmylou's presence.
Many of us in today's modern world are uncomfortable with the idea of visions. Even Christians can look askance at other Christians who claim to have visions, and either wonder whether the visionaries might be a little unbalanced, or else venerate them as saints.
In the days of the early church there seems to have been a much greater degree of physical manifestation of the things of God, than perhaps there is now. In those heady days shortly after the resurrection when God's Spirit was so active, we're told that many signs and wonders were wrought by the disciples. This clear evidence of the presence of God did nothing to endear the disciples to the Jewish or Roman authorities, who were determined to stamp out the Jesus movement.
When young Stephen, perhaps something of a hothead in his passionate belief in Christ, claims to gaze into heaven and see the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, the Jews are so shocked and horrified at this blasphemy that they cover their ears. The vision, of course, affirms to the Sanhedrin that the prophecy Jesus made before them has been fulfilled (Mark 14:62), and they don't want to hear it.
It probably suited them to believe that Stephen was either mad or bad or both, since they would then be justified in inciting his death. But Stephen remains firmly fixed to his passionate beliefs and in the image of Jesus himself, Stephen cries for forgiveness for his persecutors and gives himself up to God in death.
Today our passionate beliefs tend to be tempered by the time in which we live. Those of us in the West are relatively wealthy. We take for granted our labour-saving appliances, we mostly drive cars and we generally expect to take at least one holiday a year. It's apparent that on the whole, we manage quite nicely with or without God. Those who don't practise any worship are apparently no worse off than those who do practise worship, and often seem to be just as happy.
All of this may have the effect of diminishing the burning passion we might feel for Jesus. Those who come fresh to Christianity from a non-Christian background are often fervent in their passion for Christ, but those who have been worshippers since the cradle within the background of Western living, may be more laid-back about Christianity. They often have a quiet worship style and can be quite disturbed by the sort of fervour shown by Stephen, by new Christians and by holy visions.
Those with this quiet sort of deep, inner Christianity are often quite mature in the faith. They have a depth of faith and understanding which only comes with increasing years, and they live their faith. But the downside is that they may miss out on some of the excitement of the signs and wonders and visions that accompany fervent Christianity. And their inner spirituality may not be immediately apparent to those with whom they come into contact, so will not necessarily enable the Church to grow.
For the earliest Christians, those who knew Jesus when he was on earth or who knew somebody who had known Jesus, Christianity was brand new. It was a reinterpretation of the old Jewish religion in a very new and startling way and it produced a new freedom and excitement such as hadn't been known for generations. They couldn't stop talking about it. Signs and wonders, miracles and visions abounded and the fervour increased as huge numbers of people signed up for the new religion.
But it has to be said that this plethora of signs and wonders appear not to have lasted for very long and arguments and dissension soon spread throughout the church. Despite this, Christianity continued to gain ground and to capture people's imaginations. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but many followed him, especially when Christianity was so viciously suppressed by the Romans.
These days in the West, there is no need for martyrdom. People can worship freely wherever and whenever they choose, but it seems that paradoxically, fewer bother to worship when worship is freely available. Even today, in those countries where Christianity is suppressed, the Church is full to bursting because people need God and God's support and the freedom God promises.
How can we once again fill our churches with a real, deep Christian longing? Perhaps we need more visions. Perhaps we should dare to dream dreams and to follow visions, even when those dreams and visions threaten our comfortable way of life. Stephen followed Christ by giving up his life for the Gospel. Can we do any less?