Apocalypse Now: Should the book of Revelation be consigned to the wastebin or transformed?


An excerpt from the Book of Revelation

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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.

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9 Comments on “Apocalypse Now: Should the book of Revelation be consigned to the wastebin or transformed?”

  1. Alexandra Pett
    June 5, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    It’s hard to know where to begin. I am not a biblical scholar, and tend to dip into the bible in search of wisdom, for long periods of time, every day, and then not at all for a while.
    I love the book of Revelations because it is visionary and embodies the dreamscapes which we all have in one form or another. For me, it is about the search for purification and wholeness in a fragmentary universe. It is energy gone wild, and the personae remind me of Hindu gods and goddesses. I do not think it has anything to do with the life and death of Jesus, and maybe little to do with Christianity as a religion.It does predict the end of the world as we know it, but each one of us will have that experience when our own little world comes to physical close.
    One biblical question I have this week is: what do you make of the precious ointment that the sick woman placed on the head of Jesus in the hours leading up to the time of his betrayal?
    These random thoughts come from Alex Pett.

  2. flouann
    June 5, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    My wise niece told me just this weekend that the 666 number originally represented wise women. How can it mean either?

  3. June 5, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    Susan, your words are “clothed in the sun”. Such inner and outer beauty. Thanks too for the context Pagels offers. “Revelations” is so rich in poetic metaphor that has (sadly, frighteningly, to my mind) been flattened into literal manifestation.

  4. Diane Tucker
    June 5, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    As poets I hope we would stand for the amazing imagery of John’s visions and the power of imagery itself to portray great truths beyond our understanding without it. The Jesus who said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” is shown as the one who not only speaks the truth of the triumph of justice, but also brings it about. The “Lamb-ness” of God, lived by Jesus through his sustitutionary, sacrificial death, is shown to be an eternal quality of the Godhead by the gorgeous picture of the exalted Lamb worshiped in the garden. Misuse does not disqualify right use, and though it sends chills through many hearts, including my own (it is about the Living God, after all; shouldn’t this shake us up some?), its vital place in the canon must be asserted. It offers us the kind of encouragement and understanding that only great poetry can bring.

  5. June 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Interesting and important question, Susan. I think Revelations has indeed been used for reasons that are essentially ‘evil’ and have never considered it a central text for my religion, even if I acknowledge its poetry and power. Dante certainly got a lot of use out of it.

    But I do find it interesting how different individuals pull different parts of scripture out to use as justification or guidance for decisions. Perhaps we need to understand why that happens differently in different brains rather than removing the potentially ‘damaging’ bits from the big lumpy canon.

  6. June 5, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Thanks folks, for your oh so thoughtful and eloquent posts on the book of Revelation. The essay in my book argues for the mythic and transformative power of its symbols. Pagel’s book, however, made me aware of its historical context and how it has been misused. I think we need to include all these levels of awareness in our reading of the book. I wouldn’t have it ripped from the bible by any means, but transformed for our use in more universal ways. It reveals the human being at our best and our worst. I like Penn’s words about how the book has been “flattened into literal manifestation.” I also agree that it is a book of visionary landscapes. I love Alex’s comparison of its figures to Hindu gods and goddesses. As for Alex’s question about the woman anointing Jesus with precious ointment before his death, to me that is one of the most profound images in the bible. Some have associated her with Mary of Magdala, but she is unnamed. Very complex to piece it all together. I think she is divine feminine wisdom and compassion. The poet H.D. explored this scene imost evocatively in her Trilogy. These deep images and symbols can’t be exhausted or summed up in a post but its a delight to be part of the conversation.

  7. Eileen Curteis
    June 5, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    I think any part of the Bible can be misinterpreted because of the way people look at spirituality or religion. Some people use passages from the bible to use in a judgemental way, pointing fingers at others who don’t follow the rules. For me, I choose those Scripture quotations that inspire me to be a better person whether it be from the Book of Revelations or wherever. I walk in the Mystery knowing that we only have a portion of the truth and all of us, in our own unique way, are led by Spirit and the more we grow into being our authentic (God-like selves) then revelation comes to us in brand new ways. We are meant to be a people of Light and each of us are led to that reality in different ways.

  8. Doug Beardsley
    July 22, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Might I be so bold as to suggest another approach to my friend, Susan. An essential source to the Book of Revelations is the commentary by Bibical scholars Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible series published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco.The best single book I have read on Revelations is “Coming Soon, Unlocking the

    Book of Revelation and Applying Its Lessons Today” by Micha

    el Barber published by Emmaus Road of Steubenville, Ohio. Elaine Pagels is not a Biblical scholar but rather a speculative interpreter, one who writes solely from the Gnostic point of view.
    The Patristic tradition, formed over nine centuries, would also be an excellent place in which to chart the historical overview of Revelations over time.

    • July 23, 2012 at 3:13 am #

      Thanks, Doug! Let me know which Patristic writers I might start with? I don’t actually argue in Arousing the Spirit that we should consign Revelation to the proverbial trash can, but just the opposite. My chapter makes the case for transformation, using a Blakean interpretation. It’s only when this ancient apocalypse (unveiling) gets apopropriated by fundamentalism and literalism that it can be dangerous. I threw the question out on the blog as a kind of hyperbole to get some respoonse. Thanks for responding.

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