Monday, October 31, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Seals and Trumpets (Chs. 6-8)

With the beginning of chapter six it becomes significantly easier, and more tempting, to slip into quarrels about hermeneutics and misadventures into decoding symbols. While there are certainly eschatological questions to be answered in the chapters to come and there are serious disputes which require resolution, there are perhaps less contentious truths--though they are not, for this, less important or deliberate on the part of John--which can be embraced. What John offers the readers in the opening of the seven seals and the blowing of the first four trumpets is undoubtedly cryptic. It is even probable that his audience would have found the text equally cryptic, though they may have been less baffled by what was a more typical phenomenon at the time. What is apparent, however, are several central themes which run throughout.

The first of these is the way that John alternates deliberately between destruction and salvation, between judgment and mercy. For four seals, one terror after another is released upon the world. God's agents unleash war, death, conquest, and famine in rapid succession until one quarter of the earth's population is destroyed. Then the narrative jerks violently away to the martyrs of God beneath the altar, and the divine agents are depicted clothing the suffering servants of God and telling them to be at rest. Immediately, the sixth seal is broken and even greator horrors are unleased on the earth, leaving its inhabitants to cry out to the mountains, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb." After spending most of a chapter on the wholesale destruction of the earth, the scene breaks away for a full chapter of the angels proclaiming salvation on the servants of God. "...he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." The imagery is as tender as the former was alarming.

The juxtaposition is not merely a matter of demonstrating that God is both loving and stern. John also goes to great lengths to clearly contrast the responses of the children of God with those who are hopelessly set against Him. The saved, from every tribe, nation, and tongue, cry out together, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" This is almost certainly intended by John to be ironic, considering that mere verses ago the objects of God's wrath sought salvation from the mountains. While the saints offer their prayers to God, the lost pray senselessly to the mountains for salvation. They should have known that God is God over all creation, even the mountains.

Which is the second theme running through the text. The catalogue of destruction which is offered up in the opening of the seven seals and the blowing of the first four trumpets is not some litany of divine sadism and must certainly be more than a mere ennumeration of destructive methodology. Instead, Revelation 6-8 is a creation text supremely concerned with reminding God's creatures in astonishing fashion that He is creator and Master of His creation. God created the myriad and magnificent flora of the earth; with the first trumpet He permits their destruction. God created the oceans and the life which teems in them; with the second trumpet He permits their destruction. God created the fresh water rivers which sustain all life on earth; with the third trumpet He permits their destruction. God made all the lights of the heavens; with the fourth trumpet He permits their destruction. Over the course of the divine drama, God rolls up His heavens, displaces His mountains, casts down His stars, opens up His depths, unleashes His wind, and shakes the very foundations of His earth until all creation is reminded that He is in fact Almighty. Even death, that most pernicious of Christian enemies, is not above God. He is its master and will allow its persistence in accordance with His will, be it through war or through famine. In a trivial sense, the whole passage boils down to the great, familiar Bill Cosby adage, "I brough you into this world; I can take you out of it." Except God can say it to the whole of creation.

Finally, the reader is reminded throughout this text that God is not only a God who judges, who forgives, who creates, and who can uncreate but He is also a God who listens. This would have been uniquely important to the Christians of John's audience who were suffering great trials. One can only imagine the countless prayers for deliverance which were offered up and which, by all appearances, were never answered. It would be a long time before Christ's church ever found longterm safety, and in many places it still languishes in waiting. That we suffer, John reminds us, is not because our God is apathetic. When the saints beneath the altar cry out to God, their pleas are not ignored. They do not get the retribution they are begging for, but it is not because God does not sympathize with them. His plans just supercede our impatience. Later, the prayers--presumably the similar prayers to those before--of God's people are offered up with a censer before the throne. In response, that censer is filled with fire from the altar and cast onto the earth with "peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake." The prayers of the saints were not ignored nor were they wrong simply because they did not result in immediate action. They were heard and answered in power, an expectation that we can share provided that our prayers align themselves with the will of God.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pope Shocks World by Doing the Right Thing

The Catholic Church is making positive strides, at least as far as I'm concerned. Reuters reports:

Pope Benedict, leading a global inter-religious meeting, acknowledged Thursday "with great shame" that Christianity had used force in its long history as he joined other religious leaders in condemning violence and terrorism in God's name.

Benedict spoke as he hosted some 300 religious leaders from around the world - including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Taoists, Shintoists and Buddhists - in an inter-faith prayer gathering for peace in the city of St Francis, a universally recognized symbol of peace.

The highlight of the article was this section, where it appears that the pope is taking the appropriate stance toward Christian violence in history. Rather than trying to deny it or to justify it, apparently "the pope asked forgiveness for his own church's use of violence in the past."

"As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith," he said in his address to the delegations in an Assisi basilica.

"We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature."

The emphasis is mine but appropriate. There is no truer way to approach the shameful Christian history of violence than to admit that its very exercise is contrary to the heart of the Gospel: peace, love, humility, and waiting on God. The actions of the pope emphaize another central feature of Christianity: repentance. For his leadership on this matter, we should all be grateful.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Songs of the Church (Excursus 1)

With the exception of the Psalter, there is no text quite so littered with songs as Revelation. Yet, unlike with Psalms, questions of worship rarely arise when reading through Revelation. They are buried unceremoniously under a spate of eschatological quandries. With the exception of the occasional hymn writer, most readers skim quickly over the at least fifteen distinct songs in Revelation. That sad fact is unfortunate when one considers the rich fruit even a cursory study of them can bear.

One of the most immediately striking facts about the worship is Revelation is precisely who is engaged in praise of God. The congregation of praise ranges from the limited company surrounding the throne of God (4:8,11; 5:9-10; 7:12) to a comprehensive picture of the whole creation (5:13). Certainly this should teach us that none of God's creation is exempt from the obligation to worship, but lest we think that the phrase "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea" is just a euphemism for all humanity, John throws a few curveballs our way. For example, at one point (16:7) the altar of God joins in the praise, singing "Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!" Not to be outdone, later (19:4) the throne of God will offer its own worship: "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great." Without trying to be too flippant, it is clear that John truly believes that if God's people won't praise Him then at least His furniture will.

More critical, though perhaps less amusing, than who is doing the praising in Revelation is who the object of that praise is. John makes a particular point of contrasting throughout the book those who worship God and those who worship the beast (14:9) or those who worship demons (9:20) or the dragon (13:4). Much of the contents of the hymns deal directly with God's worthiness to receive praise. From the outset (4:11), the elders declare "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power," and, of Christ, the multitude in heaven says (5:12) "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" At the triumph over the beast (15:3-4), the victors ask in praise "O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?" Finally, as the narrative winds down (19:1-3), "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God." In contrast, those who worshiped the beast are recipients of God's wrath (14:9-11). The good news for those who are constantly tempted to offer devotion to false gods--whether it be the genius of Ceasar or the perennial temptress of wealth--is that John shows himself not entirely immune to the temptation of false worship. On two occasions (19:10; 22:8) John tries to offer worship to an angel. In each instance, the angel rebukes John and offers him the simple command "Worship God." The latter of these instances occurs at the very end of the text, indicating that John's message is central to the whole book: whatever other idols vie for our allegiance, the duty of the whole creation can be distilled into "Worship God."

Finally, the content of the songs in Revelation have a great deal to teach us, in part because they say so little. While Psalms is notorious for its, at times, expansive, florid poetry, the psalms of Revelation are often no more than a couplet of Hebrew verse. For the most part, the conspiciously short hymns all have the same basic theme: glory to God. This is, undoubtedly, in part because the overarching purpose of Revelation is to demonstrate the superiority of God to all other powers which may be oppressing the churches. Still, it cannot be denied that John clearly demonstrates that the unqualified--not to mention unassuming--worship of God is appropriate in every situation. Before God has done anything (4:8), they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!" When God is blessing (7:12), they sing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." When God is punishing (16:5-6), they sing, "Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments." And when the end of the book comes (19:6-8) and God has fulfilled all His people's expectations, the same theme resounds, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory." At all times, in all places, in all situations, the core message, simply and repeatedly expressed is fitting: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" (5:13)


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Friday, October 28, 2011

William Lloyd Garrison Turns Over in His Grave

In a largely symbolic gesture, PETA is suing Sea World for keeping slaves:

A federal court is being asked to grant constitutional rights to five killer whales who perform at marine parks — an unprecedented and perhaps quixotic legal action that is nonetheless likely to stoke an ongoing, intense debate at America's law schools over expansion of animal rights.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is accusing the SeaWorld parks of keeping five star-performer whales in conditions that violate the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. SeaWorld depicted the suit as baseless.

First and foremost, the action is highly amusing, as all sideshow attractions are intended to be. The political cartoons of swearing in orcas in open court basically draw themselves. More pertinent, however, the action highlights the fundamental incompatibility between the ideology of groups like PETA and a theologically motivated environmentalism. In spite of considering myself a person who is most decidedly for the ethical treatment of animals, I cannot endorse a PETA paradigm which understands the role of animals in creation as somehow identical to that of humanity. However we interpret it, Scripture clearly indicates an economic if not an ontological distinction between humans and animals. We have a different role in the cosmic salvation plan than orcas.

In truth, however, PETA's argument is entirely consistent with the materialist understanding of the world which presents the clearest alternative to a faith-based understanding of the cosmos. Science would have us believe that the difference between Homo sapiens and Orcinus orca is one of human perspective. We see all animals as distinct from all humans only because we are on the inside looking out. An objective viewpoint reveals that the relationship between humans and animals is most like that between cheddar and cheese. If one species of animals has the right to self-determination and is legally protected from enslavement, then it is for Sea World to explain why another species of animals--distinct only in incidental ways--should not be afforded those rights. There are pragmatic or egocentric arguments to explain it, but PETA's argument is by no means as absurd as it appears at first blush. In fact, it likely only appears odd because we have a shared cultural heritage in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity. Would Sea World even exist of native shamanism had continued to dominate in the Americas?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Throne Room (Chs. 4-5)

At the close of Chapter 4, with nearly one fifth of the book now completed, John has spent strikingly little time doing anything like predicting events of the near or distant future. Chapter 4 itself, quite the opposite, is dedicated to John's first direct experience of God. He finds himself standing before the divine throne in a surreal and awe-inspiring landscape. Heralded into the throne room by a trumpet like voice, he beholds the divine person seated on a throne, ruddier than the most fiery gemstones, and crowned with a emerald rainbow. The great throne, from which issues pleas of thunder and flashes of lightening, is surrounded by dozens of lesser thrones, seven burning flames, and a sea of crystal. Just to punctuate the scene, the four most gruesome creatures ever devised in Old Testament apocalyptic--all eyes and wings and bestial visages--surround the throne.

What should immediately strike the reader, and it is hard to imagine that this was not John's intention, is that these creatures--infinitely more terrible and wonderful and awesome than John himself--devote themselves constantly to worship. "They never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'" These creatures are the kind of divinities etched on hundreds of ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian reliefs; they are the type of figures you would expect to find Canaanite idols of scattered throughout the Levant. They represent the epitome of human imagination and our conception of the supreme otherness of the demons and deities which populated the ancient world, and yet they have no other purpose in the throne room of God but to declare His holiness for all eternity. What's more, as often as they offer their praise to God--which is ironic, since John has always told us that this is a continuous act--the two dozen regal figures on the lesser thrones prostrate themselves before the throne of God and cry out "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power..." In other words, John bursts into the throne room of God, and no sooner does he describe the splendor of its royal figures and mythic creatures than the whole scene erupts into a celestial liturgy in which all the most magnificent inhabitants of heaven take turns bowing and praising God eternally. The reader can even infer, by turning back to the narrative in Ezekiel 1 which John is clearly invoking, that John himself responded much as he had when confronted with the presence of the Lord in chapter 1 and joined the divine company in worship.

It is perhaps enough to take from this scene that the God whom we serve and who the persecuted readers served is greater than all other powers, familiar and fantastic. Certainly this is true and would have come to John's readers as a continued reassurance that the forces which oppressed them, both civil and celestial, were immediately reduced to nothing in the presence of God. There is, however, an additional message which can be derived from experiencing this scene with John. A professor of mine as an undergraduate once told our New Testament class that the greatest lesson that no one takes away from Revelation is that it teaches us who we worship and how we should worship Him. It is telling that the worship of God begins first with who He is and moves into what He has done. Beginning with a tripartite recognition of that supreme divine quality of holiness, the four creatures announce that God is praised as the one who was and is and is to come. Merely that God exists and that He exists as He is seems enough to warrant never ending praise from the four creatures. The elders, in turn, offer an antiphon announcing that God deserves all glory, honor, and power because He "created all things and by your will they existed and were created." If it were not enough that God is God, then the fact that He deigned to create obliges all of creation to glorify Him for their existence. Quite contrary to a modern attitude which praises God most fervently when some blessing is bestowed or some calamity averted, the lesson in worship given by John is that before you ever encounter God on a personal level or entreat Him for any specific blessing He is worthy of your unreserved, unqualified, unceasing praise. The moment He spoke everything which is into existence--and before even that by virtue of who He is--He deserved everything. That He settles for less is a testimony to His mercy; that we expect Him to, a testimony to our hubris.

Much the same formula continues passing into chapter five. After having been introduced to "him who sits on the throne," the reader is then confronted with the equally dramatic image of the Lamb: seated at the right hand of the throne of God with the appearance of a seven-horned, seven-eyed slain lamb. The response of the living creatures and the elders is no less immediate and no less unqualified than it was for the Father. They instantly begin a new song dedicated to the lamb which declares his worthiness for praise in terms equal with that of the one of the throne. The message becomes clear in the closing lines of the whole throne scene which summarize all of creation's appropriate response to God: "And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!' And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" and the elders fell down and worshiped." There is no other appropriate response to the presence of our blessed, honorable, glorious, mighty God but immediate, unconditional, and unqualified worship.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sex Ed Gone Wild

The New York City public schools are introducing a new, salacious sex education curriculum which, though optional, is still rousing controversy. Why? Well we could start with the fact that, according to NBC, the co-ed classing include "role playing on how to resist sexual advances and on "negotiating condom use." What parents don't relish the idea of sending their son or daughter into the classroom to act out their first 'condom-use negotiation' in the presence of their peers? That appears to be only the tip of the iceberg. Outside of the classes, students have no less unsettling homework assignments: go to the store and take notes on important condom features like lubrication before you seek out a clinic that treats STDs and write out its confidentiality policy. It is important, after all, that students be prepared for when they get their first STD and need it treated without their parents finding out. The stated goal of the new curriculum, according to the deputy mayor, is "to help kids to delay the onset of sexual activity, and if they choose to engage in sexual activity, to do it in a healthy way" neglecting--by accidental oversight I assume--to add, "and if they don't do it in a healthy way, to get their crotch rot treated without mom finding out."

I certainly am not on the streets beating the drum for abstinence only education. After all, why should we expect a world full of non-Christians to accept the sexual morals of the church? Without faith as a moral compass, the motivation for avoiding premarital, adolescent intercourse is essentially non-existent. Frankly, speaking for those of us not so far removed from the heated, hormonal passions of youth, even faith provides only a paperthin preventative. Still, even as the sexual mores of society evolve such that an active, robust teen sexuality is becoming accepted, there are features of this curriculum which should give pause.

It seems to assume and affirm a kind of sexual libertinism. The guiding principle is "whatever you want is fine, provided you're doing it safely." Consider, for example, that they are giving flash cards to children as young as eleven to teach them the dangers of "intercourse using a condom and an oil-based lubricant, mutual masturbation, French kissing, oral sex and anal sex." Weren't you thinking about how to have safe anal sex at eleven? Me neither. If that weren't enough, the curriculum directs children to such resources as Columbia University's lascivious manifestation of Dear Abby called "Go Ask Alice!" Wonderfully open-minded Alice gives this advice to a homosexual teen:

Leading HIV research and care organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), say that the risk of being infected with HIV via receiving oral sex without a condom is virtually impossible.

Where your braces are concerned, if you are giving oral sex, proceed with caution: be gentle with partners and avoid sudden, erratic movements (both of you). If you decide not to take your partner's penis into your mouth, your lips, tongue, saliva, and breath can be wonderful sources of pleasure.

Admittedly, that unnerves me more than it might most, but surely most of us can find common ground when Alice reluctantly tells one seeker that sexual contact with an animal is probably wrong in practice but is normal to fantasize about. I confess that at the sexually vigorous age of twelve the concept of sex with other people was novel and mysterious enough. Sex with donkeys hadn't occurred to me. Then again, I didn't have Alice to plant the idea in my head that it was normal. I also didn't have her to help me learn how to massage my prostate, locate the clitoris, or give me a script for phone sex. Amusingly, the man with the prostate question was concerned that his question might be too kinky. He clearly didn't see the bestiality question or, for that matter, the poor coprophiliac who Alice had to disappoint by telling that eating feces, while not poisonous, increases the risk of disease. Lucky for him, its still okay to play with scat provided it is done safely.

That seems to be the theme here: whatever you do--eating feces, fantasizing about wombats, fellating unprotected with braces--is all good just so long as it is safe. The curriculum and the resources it recommends affirm no socio-sexual norms except safety. While I realize that safety needs to be the primary focus of sexual education, there is a distinction between "This is how to have sex without getting pregnant" and "This is how to sexually gratify yourself with your partners feces while minimizing the risk of disease." It introduces children to sexually aberrant (if I can be so judgmental of the woman who gets aroused by men who "adjust" themselves in public) to which they may not otherwise have been exposed and then tacitly approves their normalcy by only commenting on the safety of such behavior. It is precisely this philosophy which "abstinence only" proponents fear will create a society even more consciously enslaved to sexual libertinism. As a culture, it should cause us great alarm that anyone believes (perhaps correctly) that eleven year olds need to know the risks of mutual masturbation, twelve year olds the perils of anal sex, and high schoolers the best way to conceal their sexual activity from their parents. One can only hope that, if the public schools really are still public, public morality will prevail. Then again, maybe this is a sign that it has.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Letters (Chs. 2-3)

After promising the readers a prophecy of things to come in the opening lines of his text, John takes a brief aside to record letters to the churches which are less like prophesies and more like sermons. It is perhaps telling that after the first chapter focuses so keenly on the persecution suffered by Jesus, John, and the churches these letters are not primarily calm reassurances of the seven churches but strongly worded indictments. In a reverse of the structure of Amos--who first directs his attentions to God's enemies before turning viciously on God's people--the frightful Jesus of the first chapter, as the author of the letters, takes aim at his own kingdom even though we all know that his sights will ultimately be set on her enemies.

Amid accolades for their staid endurance under hardship, Jesus peppers the letters with biting imprecations. The Ephesians have forgotten their first love, and, if they cannot get their act together, Jesus promises to come and "remove your lampstand from its place." Pergamum and Thyatira are dens of sexual iniquity, with the latter harboring a seductive prophetess. Of the church in Laodicea he writes, "you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." And if those words to the "lukewarm" Ladocieans are not strong enough, he says of those in Sardis that they are "dead."

The purpose here is obviously not to rain down unqualified condemnation on the churches, and certainly any reader should anticipate--and rightly--that infinitely more forceful judgment is just a page turn away for those who persecute Christ's imperfect churches. The point, then, is to set the right attitude for John's audience. It would be all too easy and altogether inappropriate for the churches to take a divine pledge of fire and brimstone for their enemies and to adopt an air of unjustified self-righteousness. God's judgment is coming not because the churches are perfect but because God is perfect, and Jesus makes clear from the beginning that any hint of self-glory, any impulse to rest on their spiritual laurels would be dangerous.

Instead, he delivers a message of perseverance to the churches which ought to convict contemporary readers as well. Over and over in the letters he repeats his promise to the churches--they will get new names, eat from the tree of life, be spared the second death, sit on a heavenly throne, and more--but he precludes almost every promise with some variation on the phrase "to the one who conquers." It is not enough that Thyatira has endured thus far, that Ephesus once loved God truly, that Pergamum did not deny Jesus' name in the days of Antipas, or that you can remember a time when your faith was strong. In a book which is so often touted as being about "the end," the initial emphasis is not on will happen at the end or when the end will come but on how Christians are to live until the end. The first duty of these suffering Christians, and of all Christians, was not the condemnation of their enemies or dreams of escape into an eternal home but living righteous lives of faith. Jesus forcefully turns the focus of the churches away from his promised justice and onto their own need for personal and corporate repentance. It is almost as if Jesus is playing on his own teaching in Matthew 7, "We're going to deal with the speck in the world's eye, but first let's have a word about the plank in your own."


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Encountering Jesus (Ch. 1)

Significantly, the first verse of Revelation begins by rooting the entire text immediately in Christ and his authority. The first three words (five in English) rapidly establish that what follows is not a word from John himself but "the revelation of Jesus Christ." It should not be surprising, therefore, as Jesus takes center stage that what we read in Revelation is not only a revelation belonging to Jesus but a revelation of Jesus himself. John is writing to churches that are hurting in some form or another, a fact which he makes clear in presenting his own credentials. Immediately upon the first mention of John's name, he identifies himself as the one who "bore witness," the Greek for which is quickly becomes a technical term from which we get our English word "martyr." As he starts in the first person, John again immediately identifies himself as "your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." John knows that his audience is suffering and wants them to know that he suffers alongside them.

It is unsurprising then that for this persecuted author writing to a persecuted audience the first image of the savior for which they suffer is so crucial. After his introduction, John spends most of the first chapter describing his initial encounter with the celestial Jesus. It is immediately apparent that this is not the Jesus on whose breast John lay at the last supper, at least not in appearance. The "son of man" that John encounters is like something out of an apocalyptic prophecy with woolen hair, flaming eyes, bronze feet, and a roaring voice, audible apparently in spite of the double-edged sword protruding from his mouth. It is understandable, if a bit melodramatic, that John should all "at his feet as though dead." Frankly, the encounter would frighten most of us out of our right minds. In a single motion, however, this son of man reveals that he is the same compassionate Son of Man whom John knew. He reaches out, touches the prostrate John, and says "Fear not."

In this paradoxical image of our Lord and Savior--an appropriate title--as both terrible and merciful is the heart of the picture of Christ which will be echo throughout the rest of Revelation. It is an encounter with the divine which spoke to the heart of John, tried to the limits of endurance, and to the churches as they suffered unspecified trials. They served a Lord who was compassionate without being weak, a Savior who was terrible without being malicious. He declares his sovereignty; "I am the first and the last." He reveals his sympathy; "I died, and behold I am alive forevermore." He reiterates his promise; "I have the keys of Death and Hades." He is a suffering king, perfectly suited for a kingdom beset on all sides.

This encounter should continue to resonate with us as often as we strive for our faith, be it against worldly powers or against spiritual ones. We can be reminded by this image of Jesus, bursting dramatically onto the narrative scene of Revelation, that we do not serve an impotent Lord nor an apathetic Savior. Ours is the Christ who reveals himself to John, "who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom." He will come and will make trivial the demons which haunt us because he loves us and because he has in him the power to actualize that love. It is a message of hope not for some distant point in chronology but in a living God who is right now, in this moment, ready to bless those who read the words of his prophecy and who keep to them.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose

There is perhaps no more contentious issue in biblical studies than how to interpret Revelation. There are certainly more important issues, more uplifting issues, more fruitful issues for our examination, but for whatever reason--most likely because the cryptic nature of the book allows for such a breadth of interpretation--nothing inspires the kind of doctrinal knockdown-dragout fights that Revelation does. Today, of all days, is the perfect day to illustrate this, as I assume that once again Harold Camping's predictions will have fallen short of expectations. No matter if you are a radio evangelist, a theologian, an exegete, a minister, a layman, or (as I am) a historian, one can easily weary by looking at contemporary and historical disputes over premillennialism versus postmillennialism versus amillennialism versus millennialism and more. At a more basic level, there are preterists and historicists and idealists and futurists and probably -ists so remote in their thinking that they have yet to find a label. A thousand issues which ultimately transcend Revelation inevitably get bogged down in its enigmatic imagery.

In a recent discussion with someone about a thoroughgoing preterist approach to the text, I made the suggestion that we might all be better off if we could just set aside the eschatological questions we bring to the text and read Revelation for the many truths it reveals about God: who He is, what He does, and how we ought to respond to Him. In reflecting on that conversation, I realized that it had not been since my early youth--ignorant as I was of the complex of controversial questions which the book generated--that I had read through Revelation for anything other than polemical purposes.

I propose to remedy that now and in the process to share what I believe are some of the eternal (and incontestable) truths which Revelation has to offer readers that have little or nothing to do with the what, the when, or the how of the end of the world. As a disclaimer, I should clarify that I do not think that Revelation is totally without anything to say on these matters. Clearly, the text raises important questions about God's ultimate plan for the world, questions that require serious thought. I am by no means a full-fledged idealist (or really a full-fledged anything). I do believe, however, that there are ideals which the author of Revelation, assumed to be John, embeds in the text, those that he wants to teach to his audience and those which are implicit by virtue of their common faith in a single God. It should not be forgotten that while the eschatological questions which dominate the study of Revelation are certainly valid, they are probably not primary. John was, after all, writing to comfort and strengthen an audience in a time of intense trial. He was not writing an academic treatise on the end times. The approach that will be taken here will be to look at Revelation as a spiritual text from an apostle to the languishing churches. The truths which will be the focus will be those that resonated with the foremost desire of the audience for salvation, for vindication, and for a glimpse (a revelation, if you will) of the God whom they served. In re-reading Revelation with these specific principles in mind, Christians can be enriched and find strength and solidarity in a text which has been the source of so much divisiveness.

List of Entries:

Encountering Jesus (Ch. 1)
Letters (Chs. 2-3)
Throne Room (Chs. 4-5)
Seals and Trumpets (Chs. 6-8)
Two Woes (Ch. 9)
Kingdom Come (Chs. 10-11)
Great Battle (Chs. 12-16)
Fall of Babylon (Chs. 17-18)
Joy and Judgment (Chs. 19-20)All Things New (Chs. 21-22)
An Invitation (Ch. 22)

Songs of the Church (Excursus 1)
Three Angels (Excursus 2)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In Other News

In supporting his new bill designed to bring back firing squads--or, as he puts it, lead cocktails--as a means of execution, Florida's Rep. Brad Drake confesses, "I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane."

In ironic and unrelated news, a new study published Molecular Psychiatry found that depression alters brain chemistry in such a way that people often turn hate for others into self-loathing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blame to Go Around

A recent USA Today poll shows that more Americans blame the federal government than "Wall Street" for their financial plight, if only marginally more. In fact, while 78% seem willing to ascribe a great deal of the blame to Wall Street, only slightly more, at 87%, believe the government also shoulders much of the blame. While the article focuses on the fact that more than twice as many Americans answered that they blame the federal government more for the bad economy, the more important feature of the polls seems to be that the overwhelming majority of Americans seem to have the good sense to blame both. After all, if there is anything that can match the federal government avarice and malicious self-interest, it is Wall Street. The two are locked in an eternal cosmic game of one-upmanship when it comes to playing free and loose with other people's money.

What the article seems to be missing, however, is a statistic for the number of people who think that they themselves are to blame for the financial crisis. In fairness, neither the government nor Wall Street are actually sentient, independent entities. They are both collectives of people who do what their constituencies want, be that the voting public or consumers and shareholders. More importantly still, people seem to be ignoring the fact that the American government and American financial institutions learned fiscal responsibility at the feet of the masters, the American public. We're all quick to point out how unconscionable it is for the government to borrow forty cents of every dollar it spends, but we don't seem at all concerned with the countless millions of dollars which the American public has amassed in credit card debt, car loans, mortgages, and students loans. The whole twenty-first century financial paradigm is structured around the maxim that you can get it today and pay for it later. I recently read an article in a waiting room magazine about how revolutionary the introduction of GMAC was because it freed people of the burden of saving up to buy cars and allowed them to purchase on credit. The idea was distasteful to Ford and his antiquated fiscal sensibilities. Now, it is the idea of paying for a car, or much of anything, upfront which is anomalous.

It is perhaps time for Americans to realize that there is plenty of blame to go around, to accept the brazen hypocrisy of those of us with student loans or credit cards or mortgages attempting to lecture the government or Wall Street about the reckless abandon with which they spend other people's money. It is especially time for Americans to stop wondering about whether or not the financial system is "personally fair to them" and begin to ask whether or not they, the public, are not equally to blame for a government, a financial sector, an entire culture that thrives on fiscal irresponsibility

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Government Involvement in Marriage and Its Ironic History

In his book Moral Reconstruction, a history of moral lobbying and legislation between the Civil War and Prohibition, Gaines M. Foster recalls a period at the turn of the century when Christian lobbyists and special interest groups were pressuring the government for stricter laws regarding marriage and divorce. Interestingly, among the measures proposed was an amendment to the Constitution which would explicitly give the federal government power over marriage. In all, forty-two resolutions to give the government power over marriage were introduced to Congress between 1892 and 1920, none of which received so much as a favorable committee report. Given the striking parallels between the moral polity of the period and the current political climate (a secondary purpose of Foster's book), the three reasons given for the widespread failure of reformers to achieve such federal legislation is intriguing:

1) Such legislation met with overwhelming opposition in the South because many southerners feared it would result in federal intervention in state antimiscegenation laws.

2) The American Bar Association and the Interchurch Conference opposed the measures because they preferred state measures to regulate marriage and divorce.

3) Christians could not effectively mobilize support for legislation because there was widespread disagreement about precisely what the Bible said about marriage and divorce.

The obvious, superficial irony is immediately apparent. Unlike contemporary movements to grant the federal government powers over marriage, Christians and southerners were the key to opposing extending federal powers. The role reversal becomes even more pronounced when one considers that the new support for such measures in the South is born out of the desire of southerners to have their peculiar discriminatory marriage laws universalized. In the past, southerners feared for their idiosyncratic conception of a "true" marriage. A look at the history of moral legislation would seem, thankfully, to justify the fears of nineteenth century southerners rather than bolster the aspirations of those in the 21st century. Granting moral power to the federal government tends to have a liberalizing effect on public morality. Which makes almost amusing the fact that so many supposed supporters of "states rights" also support an amendment granting the federal government a new and unprecedented field of power, while their predecessors had the foresight one hundred years ago to oppose federal involvement in marriage consistent with a belief in restricting the power of the federal government.

In the interest of learning from history, it is perhaps time to realize that whether moral legislation fails (as did federal marriage legislation at the turn of the century) or succeeds (as did Prohibition), in the long term the tendency of the federal government is never toward stricter moral codes. If American history is any judge, progressive moral ideologies win the war of attrition, and time is a surer constant than political favor.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Wisdom of J. D. Tant

The following sentiment is so near to that of J. W. McGarvey, that for a moment I thought I had incorrectly attributed the quote when I shared it this summer. While the sentiment and even the manner of expression are very much the same, the following--in my opinion--bears repeating as often and in as varied a way as possible:

I would as soon risk my chance of heaven to die drunk in a bawdy house as to die on the battlefield, with murder in my heart, trying to kill my fellow man.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Plea for Persuasion

In 1810, following the passage of a controversial law requiring post offices to be open every day, outrage arose among the American religious community over the patent immorality of requiring a government official to work on Sunday. From that point onward, all the way up to and through the Civil War, there was a powerful and outspoken lobby in Washington to end Sunday mail service. There were appeals to divine law, protections for religious freedom, and even the temporal benefits of Sabbatarianism. While we now know that the concept of no Sunday mail would eventually prevail, it would be 1912 before the religious lobby would win out after more than a century of effort.

In 1829, the prevailing mood in the government more nearly reflected that of Democrat Senator Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky. Johnson was a staunch opponent of ending Sunday mail service, reasoning that to do so would be an endorsement of the religion of the majority, to the exclusion of minority groups, such as Jews, who observed a different Sabbath or no Sabbath at all. Johnson argued that the "principles of our Government do not recognize in the majority, any authority over, the minority, except in matters which regard the conduct of man to his fellow man." Johnson did not, however, necessarily believe that Christians were wrong about the propriety of work on a Sunday. He merely saw an alternate route to their goal. In his address to Senate in 1829, Johnson exhorted churches, arguing that if achieve their goals through instruction of

the consciences of individuals to make them believe that it is a violation of God's law to carry mail, open post offices, or receive letters, on Sundays, the evil of which they complain will cease of itself, without any exertion of the strong arm of the civil power.

Here Johnson makes a powerful and persuasive argument the superiority of moral persuasion. One need only look at the history of moral legislation to discover that the "strong arm of the civil power" is always ineffective in achieving genuine moral reform. Take the ongoing history of Sabbatarianism as an example. In 1912, the government stopped delivering, for the most part, mail on Sundays. Yet are we today any more reverent of the appointed day of rest because of this? Plenty of Americans, including no small number of Christians, gladly work on Sundays. Those who don't primarily abstain as a luxury rather than a moral conviction. Even then, what they are doing is hardly setting aside a day for the Lord. If they are devout, Christians set aside their morning for Jesus, leaving their afternoons free to devote to the more passionate religious exercise of professional football. The only moral result of stopping the mail on Sunday is to tempt me to rage that I have to wait one more day for the book I ordered from Amazon.

Examples could be easily multiplied. Prohibition did not make Americans any soberer. Sodomy laws never stopped homosexuals from having intercourse. Anti-piracy laws have not resulted in the abatement of illegal downloading. Abstinence only education certainly hasn't prevented teenagers from being sexually active. While you might debate the merits of each of these programs and discuss whether they are really attempts to make society more moral (as is probably the case with abstinence only education) or merely formalities to allow punishment when its immorality inevitably manifests (as is probably the case with anti-piracy laws), one thing ought to be clear: the government is powerless to legislate morality.

Given what ought to be this obvious fact, one cannot but wonder at the wholesale abandonment of persuasion by the religious right in favor of civil coercion. Are we, as Christians, so doubtful of the appeal of the divine ethos that we have been reduced to the belief that we can only convince people to live righteous lives by the forceful application of morality through law? More importantly, have we honestly been so deluded into believing that a homosexual who is unable to marry or legally to admit to sexual intercourse is somehow better off for our moral coercion? Righteousness acheived by force is no righteousness at all.

It is time for Christians to recapture the art of moral persuasion, to have faith again in the appeal of Christ and the truth he came to teach, and to take our cue from our Father who had the wisdom to realize that it would have been meaningless to force humanity to be moral. We need to stop using unholy means to acheive unholy ends, no matter how religious they appear. Instead, we need to emulate our Savior who revolutionized the world not through the power of his might but through the persuasiveness of his teaching and the example of his life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Newt Gingrich endorses marriage by implication

There are few things that upset me more than a bad argument for a good position. In view of this, I was understandably unnerved when I saw that Newt Gingrich is making waves (third-tier GOP candidate size tsunamis) for suggesting that homosexual marriage is "a temporary aberration that will dissipate." The fuller quote reads:

I believe that marriage is between a man and woman. It has been for all of recorded history and I think this is a temporary aberration that will dissipate. I think that it is just fundamentally goes against everything we know.

In short, Gingrich attempts to overcome homosexual marriage on two grounds: intuition and history. We'll leave aside the former, since it would seem that Gingrich is woefully out of touch with presently goes against everything his culture knows. What is left is the question of history. As the linked article shows, many are content only to go so far back as Gingrich's own checked marital past and dismiss his argument at that. The problem with this, however, is that such a shallow engagement doesn't address what ought to be the startling truth of Gingrich's historical assertion, at least on the surface. Same-sex marriage is a historical novelty, such that even in cultures where homosexual behaviors were tolerated and even idealized the idea of a homosexual marriage was unthinkable.

The real problem with Gingrich's argument is not his personal disqualification on the basis of adultery and serial monogamy or even an incorrect assumption that same-sex marriage has some kind of historical precedent. The quandary arises when anyone attempts to apply Gingrich's historical canon to marriage more generally. For example, a majority of societies historically have permitted if not widely practiced polygamy, and the practice has been historically permitted in four of the five major world religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Numerous contemporary cultures continue the practice, including sub-cultures within the United States itself. By the historical logic of Gingrich, polygamy should be permissible under US law.

We might apply the same historical logic to the proper age of marriage. In ancient Greece, the ideal age for a woman to be married was her early teens. This expectation carried into that other archetypal Western culture, and is enshrined in Roman law which permits marriage before the age of twelve provided the consummation does not occur until twelve years of age. The Corpus Juris Civilis even includes this curious law which addresses what happens to a wife who cheats on her husband prior to that age of consummation: "Where a girl, less than twelve years old...commits adultery...she cannot be accused of adultery by her husband, for the reason that she committed it before reaching the marriageable age." Medieval law proves more telling, in that Gratian allows that a girl may consent to be married as young as seven. In Elizabethan England, a girl could consent to marriage at twelve and could not revoke that consent after fourteen. By Gingrich's historical logic, I ought to be able to marry a girl on the very cusp of pubescence--though it is perhaps up for debate what legal recourse I have if my eleven year old wife elects to have sex with another man.

The implications of applying such a historical logic for marital practices raises countless more problems. Should we allow for arranged marriages that do not have the consent of those involved or perhaps have a coerced consent? Should women have the right to file for divorce? Should we go back to the borderline chattle slavery system of marriage in classical Athens? Or to the guardianship system of Rome? Will we go back to a system of marriage by capture (in which case, can someone find me Jena Malone's address)? Which parts of recorded history do you suppose Gingrich is interested in endorsing?

There is no doubt that I do not think people of the same sex ought to be having intercourse, cohabitating, raising children, or getting married. My arguments, however, are moral and religious. Attempting to appeal to history as an arbiter in the discussion of the legal permissibility of same-sex marriage raises more problems than it solves, in large part because the history of human dependence on prolific procreation--only recently escaped--is an appeal to a dead priority. More obviously, it is an appeal to the human race which has proved more than willing to shape legal and cultural norms to its whims for the entirety of its history. That means that if marrying multiple young girls through rape was expedient and enjoyable (and why wouldn't it be), then it was culturally and legally enshrined until countervailing ideological (or more commonly military) forces dislodged it. Unfortunately, much like advocates of the amusingly oxymoronic "civil Sabbath" in the nineteenth century, opponents to same-sex marriage are forced to find a secular logic for their fundamentally religious opposition the practice because admitting their exclusively religious motivation would disqualify their position from consideration. Of course, if Gingrich were to admit this it might represent a frightening step down the road toward incurable Ron Paul.

Monday, October 3, 2011

War and Peace (A Short Post)

While it must be remembered that Harry S. Stout's stance in Upon the Altar of a Nation is outspokenly not pacifist and that he uses the following quote as a launching point for a discussion of jus in bello, I was struck by the truth of the following quote and its at least superficial harmony with the transformative ethics espoused by, among others, St. John of Sinai:

There are no ideal wars. Peace is the only ideal, and every war is at some level a perversion of it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

You have been weighed in the balance...

On this Lord's Day, let us give thanks for the punishment which is dolled out against that most heinous sin of apostasy. Particularly those apostates Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas A&M, each of whom suffered upsetting losses yesterday in their new home conferences. Texas A&M's sins must have been particularly heinous, since--to match their loss to a middle-of-the-pack SEC team this week--they had an equally embarassing loss to a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team last week. Clearly, "the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish." (Psalm 1:6)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In Other News

Yet another Muslim nation has implemented measure which will passively and unintentionally suppress Christianity within its borders. Here is the news out of Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan's upper house of parliament approved a bill Thursday that backers say will help combat religious extremism, but that critics call a blow to freedom of belief in the ex-Soviet nation.

The bill approved by the Senate will require existing religious organizations in the mainly Muslim nation to dissolve and register again through a procedure that is virtually guaranteed to exclude smaller groups, including minority Christian communities.

Passage of the bill marks a reversal of authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev's earlier attempts to cast Kazakhstan as a land of religious tolerance. One activist estimates that two-thirds of existing religious groups could be abolished as a result of the new law.

Maybe, if they're lucky, the Kazakh Christians will get a taste of the Arab Spring. Other Christians seem to be thrilled about it.