Because of the way I was brought up, the Revelation to John has always been the scariest text in the Bible. And confusing—how do you wash a garment white as snow in blood? So it’s a good example for testing a new approach to all scripture.
Growing up, I read, or heard interpreted, Revelation with fear. And there’s much to be afraid of, like a really bad nightmare, and neither God nor Jesus could comfort me, because they, too, come across as frightening in this depiction. The violence and torture in this book makes Zero Dark Thirty, 24, and vicious video games seem tame by comparison. Many of you might consider Revelation just another example of toxic words that I wrote about in last week’s post. And it’s texts like these in every religion that prompt the more literal among us to forget that spiritual warfare is best treated as a metaphor for the spiritual struggle.
As I “evolved” as a Christian, I simply took flight from Revelation. After all, even Martin Luther wished it were not in the biblical canon. It was easy for me to ignore it with so much better “stuff” in the Bible, or use the few parts that appealed to me. Its writer was clearly an over-the-top Goth-style drama queen who needed a good editor, one who might have helped avoid the bored and snarky critic in me, muttering, “The end of the world seems endless.” Preferable are end-of-the-world sagas like The Day After (nuclear holocaust) and The Day After Tomorrow (instant ice age due to climate change) that move more swiftly!
When contemporary Christians began to read it as a description of our times, I fought that notion with biblical scholarship, which teaches that its context was the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, the Beast, and specifically Nero, 666 or 616 depending on which early manuscript one relies on. That explains why the writer seems fixated on retributive bloodshed, burning, drowning, and disease. That’s also why Revelation (and I would say the whole of the Bible) should not be read in a version without footnotes, or worse, a paraphrased version (which means the paraphraser has interpreted the text from their own bias). I’m presently using the New Jerusalem Bible, which has footnotes.
So, having used three approaches to Revelation—fear, flight, and fight—I find myself now using fancy to understand what the mystic John was trying to reveal. (Fancy can be used to understand other scriptures too, which is where midrash comes in handy. Midrash, a rabbinical tool of discernment, is a creative re-telling of old stories, sometimes with humor.)
Think of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Narnia Chronicles, Harry Potter, Avatar, and other literary fantasies, such as fables, legends, science fiction, comic book heroes and graphic novel epics. They all require fancy to watch or read them as somehow “true.” And their truth lies in what they are trying to impart.
Reading Revelation, I could see George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Dreamworks, Pixar, and like-minded creative fanciers producing it, using current technology to make it seem real.
Meanwhile, what truths am I gleaning from it? Here’s my list so far:
1. The good’s struggle with its opposition is real, externally and internally, materially and spiritually.
2. The good includes those of “every nation, race, language, and tribe,” a refrain appearing multiple times throughout Revelation.
3. Empire—world domination—whether as government, corporation, or religion, endangers our soul collectively and individually, as well as all creation.
4. Idolatry, represented in our time by consumerism, materialism, nationalism, militarism, and ideological and dogmatic certainty, distracts us from what is spiritually vital and eternal.
5. In the words of the praise song, “our God is an awesome God” who is best understood metaphorically, even in Jesus.
6. Worship lifts us up, but its central purpose is to honor the holy.
7. We are surrounded by saints—past, present, and future.
8. God is on the side of the good and of the future, inspiring, challenging, chastening, comforting, and refreshing creation.
9. Joy and life, peace and justice, will overcome what opposes them, thanks be to God, who ultimately wins, as do the good.
10. In trial and triumph, in truth and in time, God is with us.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Read Revelation yourself, but not literally. Read it with fancy.
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Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.