Yosemite’s Song: In the Theater of God’s Glory
I have been in the “theater of God’s glory” (Calvin’s words, not mine). People have told me for years that I need to get to Yosemite Valley. Who has the time? Five kids. Congregational duties. Personal studies. Denominational duties. Last week my family and I spent the week hiking the trails and being under the falls and granite cliffs. We hiked among 3000 year-old trees and enjoyed natural revelation at its finest.
Yosemite is the most beautiful place that I have ever been. The whole place cries, “Glory!” Huge granite mountains. Unadulterated beauty. Waterfalls in all directions. Now I understand why everyone who has been there smiles when you talk about it. It’s a place that speaks of the glory of God.
Yosemite is a spiritual place for sure. There is something very right about being in a place that is filled with beauty and makes you turn toward the Creator in thanks and praise. Yosemite is truly a theater of God’s glory.
As a Christian I am deeply interested in the message Yosemite speaks to her visitors. If it’s really as beautiful as I am claiming (and it is), then you would expect that her beauty would drive visitors to the God of the Bible. But she doesn’t. Is Yosemite being unfaithful? Is she speaking a lie to her visitors? Let’s look at some of the ways people have responded to the voice and song of this deeply spiritual valley.
Ahwahnee People Group
The Ahwahnee people were the earliest known inhabitants of Yosemite Valley (side note: Euro-Americans did not “discover” the Valley). They worked and played and worshipped in the Valley for centuries before a European ever knew it existed. How did the Ahwahnee people interpret the spiritual voice that this Valley spoke?
As the Ahwahnee people observed their surroundings—clearly some of the most spectacular in all God’s creation—they looked at Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridal Falls, and the many other splendid displays of God’s glory and began to interpret the spiritual meaning of these places. Stories were told of the Coyote god who divided the land. Stories of worms and bears and their spiritual connection to the mountains. Stories were told of a young virgin being formed into granite after quarreling with a lover.
The creation spoke, but the people misinterpreted the voice of Yosemite Valley despite the grandeur of the theater and the beauty of the voice. Why did they misunderstand the voice of the Valley?
The Mariposa Battalion, in 1851, was searching for Native Californians who would be removed to reservations. The battalion was high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and stumbled upon what is today called the “tunnel view” of Yosemite Valley. They had entered the theater of God’s glory. Lafayette Bunnell, one of the armed members of the battalion later wrote, “As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being…and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”
It seems clear that to Mr. Lafayette the Valley spoke. He was emotionally moved as he heard the voice of Yosemite speaking of God’s glory. What would you expect to happen next? Repentance? Faith? Covenanting? No. The battalion went into the Valley and systematically destroyed the Ahwahnee people’s community and removed them from the land by fire and by force.
The theater of God’s glory spoke, but was it enough?
The most famous interpreters of Yosemite’s spiritual voice was John Muir. John Muir was the son of a Presbyterian minister and allegedly had much of the Bible memorized by the age of eleven. Surely John Muir could interpret the voice of Yosemite! He even understood that Yosemite had a voice. In 1870, he wrote, “I do not live near the Yosemite, but in it—in the very grandest warmest center of it. I wish you could hear the Falls tonight… they speak a most glorious language.”
What is that language, Mr. Muir?
John Muir understood that God spoke in nature and that God’s voice was clearly heard. In one of his writings he even used the language of theater to describe Yosemite. “The air is distinctly fragrant with balsam and resin and mint, every breath of it a gift we may well thank God for. Who could ever guess that so rough a wilderness should yet be so fine, so full of good things. One seems to be in a majestic domed pavilion in which a grand play is being acted with scenery and music and incense, all the furniture and action so interesting we are in no danger of being called on to endure one dull moment. God himself seems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm” (1911).
But sadly, it seems as though Muir did not see Yosemite as a means to run to the God of the Bible, but to run to Capital-N-Nature. One year later he wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” (1912). Capital-N-Nature?
Muir’s quotations are scattered around the Valley as the final Word on Yosemite. The canonical interpretation of the Valley’s voice has become Muir’s understanding: Yosemite speaks so that nature itself may be exalted.
As beautiful as the voice of Yosemite is, her hearers are misinterpreting her. She is lovely. She does call out. She is spiritual. But man misunderstands Yosemite’s song. And the Bible told us that she would be misunderstood.
The Misunderstood Song
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
Yosemite speaks. She speaks of the glory of God. She proclaims His handiwork. She pours out speech day and night and she reveals knowledge to visitors—from the Ahwahnee People to the Mariposa Battalion to John Muir and the three million annual visitors—to all of those who see her beauty she speaks of God.
And she is misunderstood.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:28-32)
Yosemite is a theater of God’s glory, but man turns his attention from the God of the theater to the theater itself. The creation, which is this theater of God’s glory, must be interpreted and that requires the Word of God to be central so that Yosemite’s voice may be truly heard. There are millions who hear her voice as they stand in the center of one of the most beautiful places in the world, but only those who hear the Word of God may hear what Yosemite actually says. She cries glory. She sings of the goodness of God. She shouts the demands that there is a God who deserves to be worshipped. She declares power.
But without the Word her song will go un-heeded.
Her voice is muffled by the sin of mankind.
Natural revelation is a wonderful thing. God is proclaimed. But the special revelation of Jesus Christ and His Word are needed to bring sinful mankind into a saving relationship with the one who created the theater. Yosemite sings. And if you listen with the Word of God to your ear—you will hear Christ. The noise of our souls muffle the sacred song of the Valley. We need to be in the Word of God to clearly hear Yosemite sing.
And does she ever sing!