In January 2017, both St Mary’s and All Saints’ were challenged to read the Book of Revelation four times before Easter. Graham Scott-Brown preached ‘the whole book’ to both churches and I have taken up the challenge and will, thanks to our editor’s kindness, provide outlines of how each reading goes – what stands out, what I missed before, what is reinforced, and how it leads to discovery.
We were advised to do two things in our readings: (1) read slowly and aloud, and (2) avoid getting bogged down in all the numbers that are strewn through the text and can easily distract. Hard though it will be, I will use no commentators on the book throughout my readings. I do all this not to parade my thin theology, or to enable others to avoid the challenge of four readings of the final book in the canon, but as an individual’s exploration to be shared and as a general encouragement in Bible reading – and to keep me true to the commitment undertaken.
First Reading, 31st January 2017
As I have not read the book in its entirety before, much was a complete surprise. Prior to this, I was sort-of familiar with the first three chapters – the vision of Jesus and the letters to the seven churches – and the opening to chapter 21, beginning with “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. As I found out: that is not much to be going on with.
My current research focus is Eusebius, the influential author of the first history of the church, from its beginnings to the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. He is quite vague on Revelation – ‘add the Book to the canon’, he says, ‘if appropriate’. My first go-through was against that background and immediately found such vagueness incomprehensible. The Book of Revelation seems much more of a “Marmite” question, rather than this shillyshallying. As Graham’s sermon indicated it might be, the reading produces an amazing impression of colour and movement, strangeness and terror, ending in the well-known images of the New Jerusalem.
The reading released my own imagination while at the same time showing how limited it is. Curiously, I was constantly reminded of the battle scenes in the books and films, Tolkien’s Ring trilogy and the Harry Potter series. Visually, both sets of films depend on the imagery that is created in Revelation: vast forces of good and evil in terrible, defining combat. For Frodo and Harry, the ‘good’ outcome is a desperate, last-throw moment against the evil that almost prevails: evil clearly loses but is left in such a condition as to be able to return at some future point and challenge for ultimate triumph. Perhaps that is inevitable in writing or filming a series.
Revelation was different for me in two ways. First, in the book, the outcome of God’s forces triumphing is utterly certain. Satan does not have the options of Sauron and Voldemort after defeat: he, his beasts and minions are hurled into everlasting torture. At that point, the rewards of heaven are showered on the martyrs and the Christians who have been true to Jesus. That inevitability is clearly and only because of Jesus and the victory he won for us all on the cross.
Secondly, neither J R R Tolkien nor J K Rowling suggest any confusion between the two ‘sides’: evil is transparently so and always does evil; good has its troubles and doubts but remains clearly on the side of the angels. But in Revelation, events happen at Heaven’s command that are themselves terrifying: here, angels are told, “Go, and empty the seven bowls of God’s anger over the earth” (16:2) is just one example.
I found this ‘Old Testament’ and troubling – and to be explored more deeply before the next reading in a couple of weeks. Maybe – just maybe – such events and images also disturbed my friend, Eusebius, 1700 years ago, so as to make him pause before recommending the Book as part of the canon. Let’s just hope he came to like Marmite.
Second Reading, 14th February 2017
The Good News Bible was my text for reading aloud this time. Now I am all in favour of the Bible being as accessible to as many people as possible – what’s the point of Protestantism if not that? – but the use of more ordinary language does generally flatten the ‘extraordinary’ that is at the heart of Revelation.
For two reasons, I felt very close to my late father in this read-through. First, he was very strict in retiring after breakfast for his time of meditation. As one of five rowdy, naughty kids, this was the one time when not a one of us ever did anything to disturb him. His particular brand of Christianity was acutely conscious of the parallel world of the divine; archangels and heavenly beings were a subject of study for him. He continued that interest to the end of his days, dying at 92 in 2009.
Secondly, my two Rudolf Steiner Schools were both named after St Michael. At the bottom of the main stairs of one of them there was what we all assumed, being British, was a modern bas relief of St George slaying the dragon. In fact, every day at Dad’s choice of school, I passed the scene, largely unaware, of St Michael defeating Satan.
Even the Good News Bible cannot diminish all sense of the immensity of heaven as pictured, coloured, populated and moved with divine beings doing the will of Jesus, the Lamb and of God. Perhaps only an extraordinary imagination like William Blake’s – one of his painting of St Michael is pictured – can risk making permanent the images that swirl through the mind on reading Revelation.
But all of us are shifted, put off balance, set wondering, relieved that – at last, after terrible plagues and strange, sudden exterminations of a third of the earth, seas and sky and all of their living creatures – ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ are finally put in place. We are all invited: ‘Come, whoever is thirsty: accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it’ (22:17).
That invitation I missed on reading the first time and, by echoing the words of Jesus at the well (see John 4:13,14), answered my problem with the preceding ‘Old Testament’ retributive text. And there is hope that mankind will learn: the first woe (the Good News Bible, interestingly, has ‘horror’) visited upon us at the end of time leaves us unmoved, continuing worshipping idols and unrepentant (9:20-21).
By the second horror, we are shown to be terrified and praising the greatness of God (11:13). Compared to the vastness of forces at work across the book, this is a small movement but it warmed my heart.
John Milton has God say of mankind, as St Michael battles Satan in Paradise Lost, ‘I suspend their doom’. Of Revelation’s many messages, this time it was (again, in Milton’s words): ‘Remember, and fear to transgress’.