Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Revelation to John: What do we do with it?

The Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel
Michaelangelo, 1541
This time of year, the Daily Office lectionary turns to that strange, mystical and highly misunderstood book in the Bible, the Revelation to John, as it is called in contemporary translations of the Bible, or the Apocalypse of John in older translations.

The book comes last in the New Testament, and some in the early church thought it so bizarre that it should be left out. It was a close call, and for good reason.

The book is like no other in the New Testament, although it echoes the apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and would have had a familiar ring to 1st century Jewish followers of the Christian movement.

Over the millennia, more than a few lunatics have read into the book what they want to hear: The apocalyptical prophesy of the end of the world and the promise of punishment to their enemies, or the destruction of heretics and religions not like their own.

Others have read into Revelation (note there is no "s" on the end) as a promise of universal salvation, noting that all the Jews will be saved (the 144,000 from every tribe, a huge number in the ancient world), and all the non-Jewish "Gentiles" will stand and applaud as everyone is taken rapturously to heaven.

Maybe. All of those interpretations have problems. If we are honest about it, those interpretations reveal more about the bias of the interpreters than the the book itself. Any careful reading of Revelation will likely leave most of us scratching our heads.

I find the book hard to manage, and there have been years in the Daily Office readings that I have skipped over it. In my home territory of Diocese of Northern California, Revelation came right smack in the middle of diocesan convention in November, and that seemed to only raise the intrinsically surreal nature of the convention.

My New Testament professor, L. William Countryman, a biblical Greek scholar and author of many books, recommends reading Revelation as a brief novel, and reading it in one sitting. I've done that for one of his classes, and it helps. The book has plot and pacing, and reads like science fiction.  Countryman is no stranger to misunderstood books (his book Dirt, Greed and Sex, is a frequent target of conservative and fundamentalist Christian critics), but whatever you think of Countryman's work, his recommendation for how to read Revelation is a good one.

Another way to read Revelation is to hear it as a highly symbolic, deeply coded gospel of the life of Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. The "Lamb" is code for Christ, and "Babylon" is code for Rome, as in the Roman Empire (not, repeat not, the Vatican). You can hear in Revelation an outline of the life of Jesus if you hold the structure loosely and don't stumble too much over the symbols. In the end, Babylon (code for Rome) the prostitute gets her just desserts and the Lamb (code for Christ) triumphs.

Or try this another way: Hear Revelation as the most opulent, lush, over-the-top Wagnerian opera you can imagine. And I would remind you, opera is an acquired taste with its own notes and language -- like Revelation.

This fall, I've found Revelation fascinating, and I've (perhaps for the first time) relished reading it each morning. I've been listening for the tones and chords. Today's chapter, Revelation 18:9-20,  is a scathing indictment of Babylon (code word again) who the rest of the world is now avoiding like the plague. Her greed is about to bring her crashing her down. There is certainly a social gospel message in that.

Or is there?

I am still left with what to do with this book. Am I reading my own bias (social gospel) into the book in a way that is not intended by its author?  Feminist critics certainly have a point that Revelation with its disparaging images of women as whores can be read as misogynistic, and represents one of the building blocks of patriarchy in the Church, although such cultural and political developments are never quite that linear or neat.

Much code and symbols are lost to time, and some of the code may not be code at all but simply indecipherable dream stuff even to the author of Revelation. It is, after all, a dream, and even he may not understand this fully.

It is important to remember that the book is a vision experience, and it moves like all dreams move, like those you or I would have. The book begins exactly like someone who has woken up from from the most vivid dream they've ever had and started frantically scribbling in a journal before it is lost (Revelation 1:10-11):
I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
The scenes morph one to another, disconnected except only by their strangeness. It might be better to read Revelation as you might try to decipher one of your own dreams. I suspect those who are drawn to Jungian dream analysis might get a great deal out of Revelation.

We don't know much at all about the author. His name is "John," though that may only be a pseudonym. The name is common. He is almost certainly not the "beloved" disciple John, but someone who comes a generation or two after. This "John" fears persecution from the Romans, and with good reason. He is in exile on the island of Patmos.

"John" borrows heavily from Jewish visionary books, like Ezekiel, and has written his own vision into a letter to his friends and fellow believers back on the mainland. The code words may simply be a way of hiding the information should the letter fall into the hands of the Romans.

It is crucial therefore to understand the author's purpose in writing: he is sending this message to a persecuted community to give them hope for a better world to come.

We heard that message of hope on All Saints Sunday (Revelation 7:9-17), and it is a dream for all people of every nation, in every time and every circumstance. It is why this difficult book belongs in the Bible:
After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,singing,

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

"Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? "I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows. " Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

1 comment:

Susan said...


Jim, here's a site to explore for an outstanding study course on Revelation. St. Brigid's Rio Vista has used this Bible study; we found a richness and clarity of thought that is making our All Saints' Tide a time of growth and hope instead of horror. I can lend you the "radio show" CDs and the workbook.