Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Writing About the Apocalypse

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.


  1. Chuck,

    I share your discomfort for the way Revelation has been used and interpreted, not just by crazy, dangerous, fundamentalist but even otherwise decent, normal, pious folks. I would like to share a different perspective though. I've at times questioned whether Revelation is indeed scripture. Many of the early Church Fathers did as well. I too am turned off by the brutality represented in the book. Was Jesus' first advent just some kind of fake out?! The one thing that stopped me from dismissing the whole book completely is its ending. I have been completely captivated by its vision of a final restoration and an end to all enmity. It seems to me to be the consummation of the world that the prophets proclaimed.

    In light of that, I have come to read St. John’s Revelation in a much different way, one that I think is ultimately far more faithful to its original intent. There is still so much about the book that I don’t understand, but I feel there is a few things I can say with confidence about it.

    It is not simply a Nostradamus-esque prognostication about some distant future. Apocalypse does not mean “the end of the world” as we have come to use it, but “unveiling” or “exposing,” hence the translation “Revelation.”

    The book was written to the Church in a time when they were suffering extreme and brutal persecution and suppression from both Rome and the religious establishment. One of the main themes of the book concerns Christians who refused to make sacrifices to the emperor or worship him as god. ( It makes a huge difference whether we read this book as the literature of the oppressed or as the literature of empire. Ironically the book has been co-opted by Babylon!) The basic question of the text is who is really Lord Christ or Caesar? John was given a glimpse behind the curtain and shown that behind the current suffering of the church a great cosmic battle was being raised between good and evil which would eventually result in the victory of Christ and his kingdom of peace and the destruction of every evil, including the enemies final weapon, death itself. The battles and afflictions depicted, while admittedly disturbing, are figurative. The battle that Christ wages is not against flesh and blood. Notice, for instance, that the sword the he wields comes from his mouth. Christ’s warfare is not like the world’s warfare, but opposed to it in that he is the victim and not the victimizer. His ultimate triumph is through the cross which is why is enthroned as a lamb who was slain. A deeply subversive image wouldn’t you say? What kind of warrior king is represented as a helpless animal made a sacrificial victim?

    There is a lot more that can be said. I think this is an important discussion. I would like to share with you a recent blog entry I read dealing with the same topic:

  2. I am Marv from Princeton, NJ and a friend of Ron. Let me say that religon and politics both run the risk of carrying us away on the wings of our own particular prejudices. Thus, it is true that in many respects the Republican party has a substantial input of Christian fundamentalists. And the Tea Party movement seems to be composed of people of more traditional values that I grew up with in Nebraska that had very little to do with religion. Or at least not Bible type religion. We had the idea that people should not get something for nothing, but rather should work for it. Thus, such people are offended by the ever growing ranks of people receiving some kind of tax benefit - close to 50% now - with nothing exchanged for it - "entitlement". Even Roosevelt had the Civilian Conservation Corp with the plan to provide government jobs in exchange for financial help. They built everything from power plants to sidewalks. That seemed ok to most people. So that is not the Christian right. They see it as fair play in a traditional sense.
    But, speaking of fundamentalism, we certainly find a form of that with what some call the Religious Left. Their values seem to support nearly every government program to help the "poor" and cite the Bible as their justification for that more left wing and "progressive" set of values. The religious left thus has a rigid set of values as well.
    So fundamentalism is a problem, and I think the Left and the Right tend to take it too literally in their own pecular way. Personally, I think we should always revise our biblical interpretation in the context of modern physical science AND social science knowledge. To use a slogan of UCC and the Mormons: God may still be speaking. As to the book of Revelations, I have read it several times and set it aside each time. After all we know that Biblical characters often drank too much fruit of the vine and perhaps used other mind altering substances as well.
    Take care and any friend of Ron is a friend of mine, if they choose to be.