Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.
Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.
In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.
Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”
The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.
Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.
Fox recently announced that, after four seasons, Sleepy Hollow is being cancelled. The news, while not unexpected, is still disappointing. The initial success of the series caught just about everybody by surprise. Intelligent, witty, and literate, this program tapped into a number of themes dear to American sensitivities. One of those sensitivities, surprisingly, was the Bible. I sometimes wonder if the Bible might’ve been able to save Sleepy Hollow. In my limited view the first season was the best. It started out with an all-American apocalypse. To survive an apocalypse you need a Bible. George Washington’s Bible featured throughout the mythology of the first installment. Two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse had arrived in Sleepy Hollow. Then something went wrong.
In season two, Moloch—clearly a stand-in for the Devil in the series—was killed off. Apocalypse no. The end of the world, in Scofield’s canonical view, had been cancelled. Even Ichabod and Abbie began to wonder what good it is to be mentioned in Revelation if your role as world saviors has been made redundant. A new arch-villain was needed. The coven that had shielded Ichabod, headless without its horsemen, simply faded away. Ichabod learned how to drive. Where’s an enemy when you need one? Enter Pandora for season three. But wasn’t she rather a sympathetic figure? Sure, she unleashed lots of negativity but hardly with malicious intent. There’s no villain like a biblical one.
Where do you go after the apocalypse is over? What use is the Bible in such a world? Pandora has no book of Revelation behind her. No special effects budget can rival Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. What can make you shudder like that pale horse and its skeletal rider? In a world with ebola and zika it would seem that pestilence still has a place. Famine in a world of plenty is horror defined. Two out of four isn’t bad, I suppose, but when you start off with Death you’re not leaving yourself much room for maneuver. Of course, after the horsemen there are three seals left. Perhaps if Sleepy Hollow had stayed with the script and followed through until just before the final trump, it might still be here among the land of the living. Just like creation, the “end of the world” has multiple versions in the Good Book. The Bible’s a consistent narrative only in the imagination of harmonizers eager for easy answers. The possibilities are endless. Where there is no vision, the people parish.
io9 is a progressive website. Its futuristic stories delight and entertain. When a friend sent me a story on io9 titled “New Fan Theory Asks the Obvious Question: Is Wall-E Satan?” I had to read. Then wonder. People know so little about the Bible. The idea is simple: in Wall-E the people live in an undisturbed paradise until Satan (in the form of EVE’s plant) tempts them to leave paradise and return to an earth they’d forgotten existed. Okay, so the Genesis parallels are blindingly obvious (Peter Gabriel was even formerly a member of a band named with the title of that very book). What’s wrong is that there’s no Satan in the Bible’s first book. I give Katharine Trendacosta credit—she discounts the connection of fat, immobile future humans and paradise. The idea that the snake of Genesis is Satan, however, is about as biblical as original sin.
Genesis never calls the snake Satan. It doesn’t mention original sin. In fact, many (Christians, especially) don’t realize the event isn’t called “the fall” in the Hebrew Bible at all. The gaining of knowledge by the first human beings is painful yes, but can be a good thing. Some Jewish interpretations of Genesis 3 suggest precisely that. The story goes that Eve and Adam were living, stupidly, in the garden. The snake points out that the fruit will make them wise—and it does. They do not immediately die as God said they would. Instead they lose a blissful ignorance and have to grow up. The serpent is never said to be the Devil until the very last book of the Christian revisionist scripture, Revelation. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. That’s the way it is in the book of Genesis.
Christian interpretation, however, took over the story of humanity’s awakening and made it into the fall into sin and evil. Things have been so bad ever since than that we have to elect Trump to start a war that’ll end it all. That’s Christian revisionism writ large. Read Genesis again. Slowly. The snake is not said to be Satan. “The fall” isn’t sinful. In fact, the word “sin” doesn’t occur until the story of Cain and Abel in the next chapter. So, is EVE inspired by Satan to end the paradise of the Axiom, unaware of its true origins? Only in a revisionist history of the Bible. The idea existed long before io9, and, according to Genesis, it was wrong even then.
I grew up believing in “the Antichrist.” As I came to realize that much of the New Testament pointed to contemporary problems (for them) with the Roman Empire and that what appeared to be predictions were actually safe ways to discuss forbidden topics, I began to worry less. It was about the past, not the future. Recent political events have ratcheted up my anxiety level again—maybe there is such an evil after all. Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession is an important book in this regard. Although end-time worries have diminished among some now that we’re safely into a new millennium, for the true believer none of that matters. The Antichrist is a great motivator. I hadn’t realized until reading this book just how much of contemporary culture has grown from this fabricated fear.
Let’s get this straight from the beginning. In the Bible there is no figure known as “the Antichrist.” The generalized word antichrist is used only twice and in neither instance is the book in question Revelation. Early Christians speculated that the beast of Revelation might be “the Antichrist” but that identification wasn’t solidified until the beginnings of the Fundamentalist movement in the late 1800s. By the time Fundamentalism was a fully developed system, by about the 1920s, believing in the Antichrist and trying to identify him had become a cottage industry. I grew up in the shadow of Hal Lindsey and the pressing concern that “the Antichrist” was alive in the world today. Face it, The Omen loses something if he isn’t. This strange, non-biblical belief has come to define a large number of true believers.
Fuller’s book is important for the insight he brings into why some “Christians” are avowed enemies of peace, toleration, and the improvement of human conditions. Those who believe their tribe is the only correct one hold the double standard of ethical treatment of those inside and scorn and hatred of those without. This view believes that the world is to be condemned, natural resources used up, wars started, and civil rights suppressed, in the name of Christ. Perhaps you may begin to see why a chill ran down my spine as I was reading this book. We need to try to understand this perverted way of looking at the world in order to understand the forces that would rather see a dictatorial billionaire run the country than an eminently qualified woman. Reason’s got nothing to do with it. It’s all about conviction. Failure to understand that is perhaps the surest way to bring about the end of the world. We ignore religious thought to our own peril.
I pity the nation that doesn’t have divine founders. Origin myths help to orient our thoughts about where we belong in the order of things. Given enough time, any national founder will become a god. When a friend recently shared a blog post about Gogmagog, I had to dust a few cobwebs from my memory to place the mythic founding of Britain. During our years in Scotland my wife and I read about the heritage of the British Isles, according to bards before the Bard. Bede, Geoffrey, and the anonymous author(s) of the Mabinogion. Long before the Romans arrived on those islands, there had been gods, demons, and giants. The Medieval writers, of course, were drawing from the Bible. Gog and Magog are figures from Ezekiel, borrowed by Revelation. Sacred writ says enough about them only to make them mysterious. Their combined role in British myth makes one think they might be giants.
The founding of Israel, of course, is treated as history by many. I don’t mean the recent founding of the political state, but rather the biblical version of things. Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive Egypt, miraculously through divided waters. Foundation myths are that way. We can watch the process unfolding, even after just a few centuries. George Washington’s literal apotheosis is virtually certain. Even Alexander Hamilton experienced an unlikely resurrection when he was in danger of being removed from the ten-dollar bill. For nations to thrive this kind of transformation must take place.
This is perhaps easier on states whose origins are lost in antiquity. There was nobody there to see the general fall off his horse or the commander in chief inhale. This was what folklorists call illud tempus, the time of events unlike those of today. Quotidian time has become profane—just look at the headlines if you don’t believe me. Those who are gods today are only those who make themselves so. We can see it happening all the time, if we pay attention. The implications should give us pause, when we consider those we think of as heroes or giants. Time makes gods. And it is just possible that we might be better off without a pantheon so terribly large.
Delicate isn’t a word we’ve been taught to associate with Islam. I remember a priest speaking to me oh-so-earnestly about how Islam by nature wanted to take over the world. I wondered about his education in the history of Christianity. If you turn the clock back far enough, even the early Israelites, according to Judges, attempted genocide. We do religions a grave injustice by reifying them in this way. A recent story on NPR tells about the restoration efforts of a library in Fez, Morocco. As Leila Fadel points out in this story, we tend to suppose Islam is ISIS destroying history, but this library, full of Arabic manuscripts, is one of the oldest in the world. We sometimes forget the great contributions Arabic—yes, Islam—has made to world culture. Including literary culture. Some of the scientific works of Aristotle were preserved only in Arabic. Even the word “algebra” bears the distinct signature of its Arabic roots. What we should be attempting to halt is extremism.
One of my readers commented the other day about absolutism. This was in the context of Christianity, but it applies here equally as well. Absolutism tends to see only sharp divisions in a world where everything, in reality, blends into everything else. Islam emerged from a prophet who was influenced by Christianity and Judaism in the context of Arabian polytheism. Many of the tenets of Islam would settle comfortably in the pew, if we would let them. “Revealed” religions, however, take no prisoners. The concept of “revelation” means that your scriptures come straight from God’s anthropomorphic mouth to your all-too-human ear. When your religion is revealed, you can’t mix it with the best of your competitors. That’s one of revelation’s greatest dangers.
It does my soul good to see the begloved curator of the Qarawiyyin Library touching an Arabic manuscript so gently. It is the very picture of a pair of lovers. Those who love books—truly love books—can wish no harm on their fellow human beings. Reading is, after all, exploring the minds of others. All texts, in this way, are sacred. All are revealed. Too often we listen to those who tell us this is all an apocalyptic struggle to the death. In reality, revelation never ceases. Of its source I’m uncertain. Of its literary progeny I am certain that human minds are only richer for having received the words of the many prophets of the literary endeavor.