Given what he wrote in his revelation, I am pretty sure that John of Patmos and I would not be besties. I would not like the author of the Book of Revelation: his theology is not only troubling, it’s violent and sexist. It’s likely that he had some noble motivations – trying to help the newly emerging, not yet distinctive community of Jesus followers to stabilize and survive; trying to resist the long arm of the occupying Roman Empire as it oppresses and assimilates peoples in the lands it takes over.
He sounds a little bit like Julian Assange (of Wikileaks fame)…
John of Patmos was a great writer and likely a great orator. No doubt, he was convincing – fiery rhetoric designed to evoke fear can be that way. I am pretty sure John understood his powers of persuasion and hoped that the circular letter he sent to the seven churches and the story he told about the end of the world would reach thousands and sway the listeners.
John was an itinerant prophet among many itinerant prophets at a time when Christianity didn’t even have that name and was just figuring out how to be separate from those Jews not following Jesus. There was a variety of ways that people and communities were trying to be this new religion. Sometimes there was disagreement about which way was right; at other times, there was tolerance for multiple interpretations. There is no way that John knew that his fiery rhetoric, and his version of Christianity, would be chosen as orthodox. He didn’t know and couldn’t know because that choice was made nearly three centuries after he wrote the text.
Sometimes I imagine that John, in an extended fit of revenge, furious at the pain caused to his family and to his people, wrote a literary masterpiece of violence and possible salvation, what was then called an apocalypse (the Greek word for revelation or unveiling), a popular genre at the time.
In an attempt to befriend him and his revelation, I spent one whole class trying to get inside the head of the author of the Book of Revelation. In fact, while listening hyper-attentively to my wise professor (if you are reading this, Dr. Smith), I began writing the early seeds of a fictional psychological biography. It’s sketchy and not fully formed. It’s not big on character development. However, in writing it up for this blog, it’s in better shape than the first draft:
John is a young man, married with three children with whom he is strongly bound. He loves them dearly. Yet they die a tragic death, attributable to the Romans and their occupying force. His own people, educated and who share his love for storytelling and literary endeavors, either stood-by and did nothing, or were made powerless to stop it. Maybe she was sexually assaulted while he was away on one of his prophet tours and the guilt is eating away at him. Maybe they starved due to favoritism bordering on persecution because the family followed the new teacher, Jesus, and he would not allow them to accommodate to the Empire, not like that Jezebel in Thyatira or the Nicolaitans in Pergamum or Ephesus.
Already John had been among the new Jesus followers, a charismatic storyteller whose animated and lurid details attracted people from all over the realm. John believes in the power of these new teachings, to turn away from greed, to love one another, but in his heart of hearts, he also knows the incredible power of this messiah. He is discouraged by what his friends and neighbors fail to see: that with their buying and selling with their Pagan neighbors, by eating with them at social occasions, they are supporting the very machine that is oppressing and endangering them. How can they not see it?
His teacher has been tortured and murdered by the Empire, and now he has lost his family. What person can contain such grief without going mad? He searches and finds in his new faith answers to his desperate questions about justice, about revenge, about surviving in the face of overwhelming odds. He develops a comprehensive explanation for how the world, heaven and earth, work; how this new faith will respond to corruption, injustice, and evil. He preaches this with even more passion, which attracts others who are hurting, who have been cast out, who are trying their determined best to be true to their messiah who died and some say he rose, but did not stay.
As he preaches, his message is refined. His fury grows, as does his sense of righteous vengeance. He is convinced that an end, violent and unforgiving, is nigh. He decides to put his message into writing, so that it might spread further and faster. The images he writes are vivid and fantastical: the dragon, the whore, the slain lamb. People are fearful and desperate; this message gives them all pause and gives the “right ones” hope.
Once John does write it down, the message is one thing. It is made stone and does not change.
At first, this does not bother him. But then he begins to notice differences between what he currently believes and shares directly with people and that which comes back to him from out-of-town visitors who heard his message through the letter he sent out to the seven churches.
Time passes. He ages. He marries again and her company is a salve. So are their children. A deeply religious man, he tries to find inspiration in the story of Job, which he has heard since he was a babe, but never made sense until now. The fire inside him – the passion, the grief – is not the same it once was. It has mellowed. Though still connected to those visions that have always set him apart, the urgency has lessened. The messiah has still not returned and John’s personal message has been evolving, even if that letter remains set in stone.
Towards the end of his life, though others are still finding that revelation to be inspiring and prophetic, the author himself has tired of it. He has other observations and messages now, though only sometimes does it write them down, and only sometimes do people listen to him. In his old age, he finds it ironic that the people would rather listen to a written message now several decades old than to the author, wiser in his years, now. He comes to realize that though he does not agree with the text anymore, it will not die when he does.
He cannot know just how long the text will outlive him. But we can.
I have come to believe that if a person is spewing toxic bullshit, there is a very high likelihood that their internal world– their psyche, their soul – and personal history is the source, saturated with poison that will out. Not always the case, but more often than not, trauma is, if not the primary source of that poison.
This is highly instructive for us. It is a warning we should heed. There is an extreme downside of what happens when we allow people seeking revenge to articulate religious concepts or set our civic laws. Though it is understandable that our primal impulse in the face of injustice or violence done to a loved one may be to return evil for evil, a mark of an advanced civilization is not to enshrine such aggressive urges into our laws, but to structure a more nuanced and prudent system of justice, not one built on vengeance.
Neither should this be canonized into our sacred texts. Apparently, some of Christian bishops towards the end of the fourth century didn’t get that memo.
The final post in this series will make a humble offering in a very daunting arena: a conversation about evil.