The Revelation of St. John, the last book of the Christian Bible, has long fascinated me. And because it subverts the real meaning of Jesus, and all he stood for, it may be the most misunderstood and dangerous piece of writing in all of Western literature.
My summer class at West Chester, Writing About the Apocalypse, started this week so once again I am knee-deep in the gore and viscera of those scary old icons of Revelation: the Four Horsemen, the Whore of Babylon, the Seven Seals, the Anti-Christ and Armageddon, the "Last Battle" between the forces of good (lead by an Avenging Warrior King Jesus, after his glorious return to Earth) and evil at the End of Time.
Revelation is a myth of epic proportions, and it's not the only religious myth that predicts the End of the World. Other religious traditions feature apocalyptic scenarios, including Islam. But true believers only give credence to their own particular version of the End. If we don't debunk the myth and call it that, we do so at our own ignorance and peril.
Not surprisingly, given the boiling state of the culture wars in America, Revelation is one of the defining dividing lines between rational religious belief and a more virulent, dangerous strain of Christianity. Revelation has religious fundamentalists in a vice-grip.... and the implication that Christ is coming soon to wreak havoc on the forces of Satan is not only endorsed by far too many of our more conservative religious leaders, it's become a political touchstone for conservative politicians, too.
And therein lies the danger. As the Republican Party has cut loose its ties to political moderates who don't kowtow to religious fundamentalists, the radical fringes of fundamentalist Christianity have become increasingly aligned with the GOP.
For a while there, it was easy to believe Republican strategists like Karl Rove catered to their End Times beliefs just to gain votes that would allow them to push their economic agenda on America (smaller government, tax cuts for the wealthy). But now born-again End Timers are threatening to take control of the party. These are people who hope and pray for the Second Coming of the Lord and all its rapturous implications for a Last Battle.
The Jesus of Revelation subverts Christ's most essential teachings in his Sermon on the Mount about the nature of love and re-imagines Christ as a warrior King who will smite the forces of evil. This image of Jesus Christ is not based on anything he ever said or personally espoused. It is based on a dream that one of his disciples had. It was written down and passed around and saved as a message of hope to 1st Century Christians who were being fed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum for professing their faith.J.R.R. Tolkien used the template of Revelation effectively to give his Lord of the Rings trilogy a gravitas that resonated with readers who had experienced the horrors of World War II. Dozens of other modern novelists (Stephen King and Tom Clancy come to mind) have borrowed the Revelation blueprint to titillate readers in apocalyptic page turners.
Our summer blockbuster movies constantly recycle End of the World themes to sell tickets and keep movie-goers on the edge of their seats. The culture -- both popular and religious -- is steeped in the violence of Revelation's End of the World formula.
It's one thing to use Revelation as a subtext to sell paperback novels or tickets to blockbuster movies. It's quite another to use it to set a party's political agenda. The real danger of Revelation is that it subverts the true message of the Christ. It allows fundamentalist Christians and religious conservatives to believe in a worldview that accepts the violence of war as a political alternative to diplomacy and peaceful negotiations of political differences.
Political and religious progressives in the West should muster the strength to confront church elders about the divisive nature of Revelation. Maybe it's time to consider taking it out of the Bible, as the Eastern Orthodox Christian church has wisely done already.
Of course, that would be bad for the religion business. Christian leaders seem to like having two popular but polar opposite versions of the Christ in their Bible. Political progressives can gravitate to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the "turn the other cheek" Jesus.
Conservatives can keep the sword-wielding Savior who "comes again" to slaughter the enemy on the fields of Armageddon. It's almost as if you can hear them talking to one another behind closed doors at their religious councils: "If we can live with the inconsistencies, why not have both versions of Jesus?"
Alas, one version of Jesus is based on a wish for revenge and bloody retribution. The other version of Jesus lived and breathed and spoke the truth about violence.
Unless we reconsider the role Revelation plays in our collective faith and remove it from our most sacred texts, we must live with the threat of being doomed to seeing its bloody end played out in real time by people who are praying for it to happen and doing all they can to ensure when "the end" comes, it's St. John's version.