The Book of Revelation is the estranged crazy uncle of the Christian Bible.
The one who is never invited to family get-togethers, but still somehow shows up. When he does show up, you silently pray not to have to sit next to him at the dinner table, because he smells like sulfur and never has anything positive to say, mostly muttering about the end of the world and punishment due to many. He’s a creepy outcast, but he always seems to have groupies of one sort or another, usually people who are even creepier than he is.
The Book of Revelation is rarely preached in church worship. Most people’s exposure to it, even observant Christians, is based on popular culture rather than the text itself. Even really smart, well-educated folks associate it with the Rapture, even though it’s never mentioned in that text. (The only Biblical reference to some rapture-like event wherein an elect few are raised up to heaven in their birthday suits takes place in the 1 Thessalonians.)
If the god of the Hebrew Bible is wrathful, then the god of Revelation is wrathful on steroids. Times three. This is no kindly Jesus who teaches, heals, and every now & then puts corrupt religious leaders in their place. This is Jesus, the slain Lamb wielding a sword as his tongue and directs the total destruction of the earth.
It’s not destruction of the earth not by flood, wherein the receding waters allows for re-population of creation and hope. Oh, no. This is Armageddon destruction where a whole new world, or at least a New Jerusalem, must descend from the heavens because everything else has been decimated. Times three? Maybe times seven.
I have just finished a semester’s course on this text with its 11,983 words. Despite myself, I have developed an appreciation that I did not have before. Its images, though horribly violent, are well-crafted and thought-out. There is a complex internal logic that I admire. There is the mark of the author’s literary talent, even if the theology is impossible to stomach. I have also developed a scholarly affection for some of the more radical theologians who write about it (Tina Pippin, Stephen Moore, Barbara Rossing).
Historically speaking, the text barely made it into the New Testament in the first place, making the cut despite centuries-long opposition. Talk about irony: the man who wrote it created the Christian foundation for heresy by naming internal enemies in the newly emerging church and was himself considered a heretic by those against inclusion of the Revelation of John. In the end, it made it because it had a powerful backer, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who, towards the end of the 4th century C.E., found it to be a useful tool to strengthen the false binary of orthodoxy and heresy. He, and others, wielded the Book of Revelation as a weapon against ideological enemies to turn alternate views of Christianity into heretical ones.
So not only is it ironic that the author that helped established the category of Christian heresy was considered by many to be a heretic, it is ironic that this text that kinda barely made it into the Christian scriptural canon is one of the most widely recognized (even if it’s a distortion) parts of the Bible in pop culture. Four horsemen of the Apocalypse? Yep, that’s the Book of Revelation. Iron Maiden’s number one hit song, Number of the Beast? Yep. Television show Sons of Anarchy, season six, episode nine? Yep. American Dad’s episode entitled, “Rapture’s Delight” which is Book of Revelation, but gets the rapture part wrong (likely nearly everybody). The Battle of Armageddon: yep, it’s there, too. The whole concept of the Anti-Christ? Like the rapture, it’s falsely attributed to the Book of Revelation, but folks sure seem recognize that term.
Too easily has this text attracted the attention of psychotic, anti-social people with violent tendencies (think David Koresh in Waco, TX). It’s not because they are misinterpreting the text. It seems to have been written by just such a person. The traces of his suffering and pathology have survived these nearly two millennia, giving life to violent apocalyptic visions throughout the centuries and into modern times.
As my fellow students in class are too aware, I have struggled all semester to find the relevance of this particular part of Christian scripture to my Unitarian Universalist ministry. When I mention to my UU colleagues that I am taking a semester-long course in this single text, their jaws drop (and not in envy).
Yet, part of my ministry is to heal brokenness, and in particular, to heal brokenness caused by religion. Revelation has got that going for it: it has caused a messload of damage. Some people use it as justification against environmental activism and against care for the earth, because they see the destruction of the earth as a precursor of the arrival of the New Heaven.
So let’s sit down to dinner and invite our uncle to join us. We know he’s not the best company, but he’s living on the edge and that generally means there is something interesting about to happen. Part two of this series (next post) will address what, if anything, the crazy uncle has to say makes sense, especially about saving our beloved planet?
 This is actually the number of words in the KJV and I have been reading the NSRV, but the number is probably in the same ballpark.
0 thoughts on “That Estranged Crazy Uncle: What to Do When He Comes to Dinner?”
If nothing else, this text is a pretty deep wedge in the chasm between the conservative / fundamentalist churches and the liberal ones. I’ve never encountered the Revelation in a UU context, but I was steeped in it during my childhood and adolescence in a much more conservative tradition. I’m curious to see what you discover as you poke around in this from the liberal angle – the whole “Rambo Jesus is coming back to kick some ass” image that I grew up with still resonates for me in very unpleasant ways, a reminder of why I turned my back and walked away from the church for decades.
Claire – yes, the Rambo Jesus in full force in this text. The one so many liberal Christians forget and, in my experience, get a bit offended if they are reminded that this, too, is Jesus of the Bible. I’m only familiar with the conservative tradition’s take on Revelation from the outside, so I do not know its texture or feel personal attachment. Thanks for commenting.
I’m interested in finding contexts through which to read the Revelation that aren’t the Rambo Jesus version. Curious, but not necessarily optimistic. If you come at the Revelation from a Biblical literalism / inerrancy angle, as some conservative traditions do, particularly in the context of the Wrathful God of the Hebrew Scriptures and penal substitutionary atonement, you end up with a worldview wherein God’s love for humanity is expressed through God’s willingness to destroy all of God’s creation due to creation’s intrinsic failure to be perfect, forestalled only by God’s acceptance of Godself as a blood sacrifice in payment of the debt owed by creation to the Creator for creation’s imperfection, which acceptance is conditional upon submission to God’s demands as interpreted through the internally inconsistent but literally true and infallible text…. and if you’re still following this you’re farther than I ever got before I decided it was a crock of fertilizer and ran like hell.
My goodness, Claire, you are much more adept at following down the rabbit hole than I…
Some days I’m not sure which is more difficult: explaining to an ex-Fundamentalist how Liberal Christianity is possible, or explaining to Liberal Christians (or anyone who didn’t grow up with the “crazy uncle” in the house) just how different and scary that theology can get.
Claire: when I read your comments I think of Elie Wiesel’s quote: “The revolt of the believer is not that of the renegade; the two do not speak in the name of the same anguish.” I am just an outsider and an outsider’s view. I think you might need to write on this topic. Just sayin’
It’s in the pipe line. My Spouse decided that Right Now, before I get into CPE, it is urgently necessary to replace the kitchen floor. It’s been worn out for nine years. I know this is not about the lineoleum but why, G-d, why?
I have always found the Book of Revelation fascinating because it never fit with the rest of the themes in the New Testament. I love your comparison to it being the crazy Uncle. Revelation seems to be a carryover of the Apocalyptical literature of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Daniel). It would clearly written in response to a fierce prosecution to early Christians by the Romans (perhaps under Domitian).
I look forward to your next post because I have always thought the applicability of Revelation today is in the context of the environmental and social damage we have caused to humans and the planet due to Western economic and social systems. It seems you may be going in that direction as well 🙂
William – yes, it does stand out from the other texts, though like apocalyptic writings in Judaism, there were other apocalypses from early Christian writers that didn’t make it into the canon. So it was a genre of its time in that place. From readings, it is questionable whether the persecution was fierce at the time of its writing, or that it could be and was anticipated to come. Or there were the precursors to later fatal persecution. Thanks for being a loyal reader! ~ Karen