by Susan McCaslin
If the Song of Songs can be called “the sexiest book in the Bible,” the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament might be called “the most violent book in the Bible.”
You may recall the imagery of Christ as a sword-wielding warrior, horses with blood up to their bridles, or vultures encircling the corpses after the great battle of Armageddon.
Of course, Revelation is also a psychodrama of enormous beauty and power where images of love and compassion abound. Who can forget the luminous mystical Christ standing in the midst of the sacred menorah, the Christ knocking at the door of the heart, the Christ of the open door? And then there’s the mythic woman clothed with the sun, the poignant moment when God wipes all tears from all eyes, and at last, the magisterial descent of the heavenly city of peace, the New Jerusalem, clothed as a bride. It’s a book about our longing for justice; Revelation offers hope that oppressive regimes will ultimately self-destruct and the lowly will be raised high.
Clearly, the book is a mixed bag, and it has been appropriated for uses good and ill since it was first scribed by John of Patmos, whoever he was and whatever his perspective.
The original historical context of the book was the oppression of the embryonic Christian communities by the Romans. The Beast with the number 666 could have been related to Nero, or to any of the succeeding tyrannical emperors. But when the bishops formed the canons and the creeds and the new empire of Christendom rose out of the ashes of the Roman Empire, the church’s own fellow Christians soon became the new “enemies – those who held “wrong beliefs” and indulged in unauthorized, diverse practices. During the Crusades, the Muslim world became the “evil empire,” and so it went.
Today we hear various politicians and preachers declaring the ones they call terrorists the anti-Christ. Some fundamentalist leaders justified George Bush’s lethal bombings of Iraq as a way to bring on the return of Christ. Whatever the intent of the visionary John, the book has been used repeatedly to “other” the “enemy” in order to justify vengeance and violence.
When I was writing the final chapter of Arousing the Spirit, “Re-visioning Revelation,” I followed the lead of visionaries like William Blake who have attempted to reclaim the imagery of Revelation as symbolic of a transformation of consciousness, where the dross is burned away and the integral self and integral community emerge. I still think this approach is valid.
However, let me be honest about the writing process. The written word reflects a singular point in time. We writers move forward, see things from other angles, and may even change our minds about things like anyone else. Currently, I’m increasingly concerned about how the book of Revelation has been misused.
I recently finished reading a brilliant book by biblical scholar Elaine Pagels called Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking, 2012). I won’t summarize her arguments here, but if you want to know how the Book of Revelation ended up in the Bible, given that there were so many other apocalypses (“unveilings” of the end times) floating about, I highly recommend her book. Her writing is accessible and compresses a world of knowledge about the early centuries before the formation of the official church.
One point she makes is that John of Patmos was likely a practicing Jew who believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, but was none too happy about Paul’s converts who were claiming to be the “new Jews” and appropriating the real Jews’ spiritual status and prophetic writings.
Over to you. If you have been exposed to Revelation, do you think it has done more harm than good? Or, can the book be redeemed and looked at in new and transformative ways?
Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. Her most recent volume of poetry, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011), has recently been named a finalist for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her website at www.susanmccaslin.ca.