Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 4-There will be blood

 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”  – Revelation 17:15-18

Guernica (Pablo Picasso)

Beginning with the wine press in Chapter 16 going through to the binding of satan in 19, we are met with images of horrific violence. Perhaps more than any others, these passages are difficult for me to honor as scripture. Yet it is important that we wade through them; that we neither turn away, nor give into the temptation to merely skim them. Even though they are bitter we must drink deeply here, or risk missing one of the greatest lessons of Revelation.

When John first sees the woman, the whore Babylon, he is “amazed”. Earlier the same amazement led others to worship effigies of the beast. There is something attractive about this woman. She bears all the markings of wealth and trade, education and culture. She is all that is best in Roman civilization–all the art and accomplishment the security of empire makes possible–and there is something attractive about her.

But she rides upon the beast– upon power and force and corruption and deceit–on all the things that keep an empire going. That beast will inevitably turn on her; it will destroy her. John shows us that, all that is good and attractive in an empire will eventually be stripped and devoured by the violence that sustains it–that is empire at its heart.

Picaso knew this. He painted it. There is a great story about Guernica. When Picasso was living in Nazi occupied Paris, a German officer was inspecting his studio, as they did from time to time. On the table were post cards of what was by then his most famous painting–post cards of Guernica. The officer picked on up and thrust in Picaso’s face. “Did you do this?” he asked. “No,” said Picaso, “you did. Have one. As a souvenir.”

Guernica is Picaso’s remembrance for a Basque town massacred, at the request of Spanish Fascists, by a German air raid. It is not easy to look at, no it is utterly disturbing. But even though it is bitter, we should look on it and take it in deeply. It is Picaso’s echo of John’s warning: This is what violence does. It may sustain an empire for awhile, but all violence eventually destroys.

That is not to say that our only valid option is quitism. I’m sure even Picasso was quite thankful for the tanks that eventually liberated Paris. And One of the most violent figures in Chapter 19 is indeed Christ, but though an army gathers behind Him, only Christ is said to slay. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. In this life, it is inevitable that there be world powers, we are one now, as Babylon and Rome, and Spain, and Turkey and England were before us. And it is perhaps inevitable that such powers are violent. But we must be careful. Where the empire becomes an object of worship, where violence is as much an end as a mean, where power and corruption run amuck…there is Guernica.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 3- In the wilderness

 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth…And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.  -Revelation 12:1-2,5-6

Landscape with Butterflies (Salvador Dali)

I think one of the most misunderstood symbols in the Bible is “the wilderness”. Which is a little sad because it is also one of the most common. Jacob passes through the wilderness, so does Joseph. Moses is called there; the Israelites spend 40 years there (infact “Numbers” is named “In the Wilderness” in Hebrew). David hides out in the wilderness, so does Elijah. Ezekiel is taken there. Isaiah’s prophesies reference it over and over. Even Christ spent time there.

Actually I blame that last one for the trouble. Matthew leads with “Jesus was lead into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” but Mark is more ambiguous. In both cases Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days before anything happens with Satan. Most readings seem to miss that (i know mine frequently do), and so miss the real purpose, the real power of being “in the wilderness”.

The wilderness is not a place of trial and temptation. It is not to be endured, it is not where we get lost (thank you very much Dante) The wilderness is where we end up when we are already lost; when the trials have been too much or will be too much. We come to the wilderness when it most reflects our spirits: dry, barren, lonely, quiet. The wilderness does not sap us or challenge us, it mirrors what we already are.

Wilderness is liminal space. It is the space, the time in between. Something has come to an end when we arrive in the wilderness; but something is also about to begin. Again an again the wilderness is a place God takes people to prepare them for what comes next. For new relationships, for new roles. For difficult callings, and new realities. God shelters and cares for us in teh wilderness and shows us the possibilities to come. God makes new things spring spring forth like rivers in the dessert.

So it is in Revelation, there is new life, new beginning in the wilderness and that’s why I find Dali’s landscape most appropriate.

After the seven scrolls and the seven trumpets, before the seven bowls, there is (what some translations call) a parable. More often than not, when we come to this section we focus on the Beast and its number, or the dragon who calls it.

But we shouldn’t forget the woman, the pregnant woman. Like creation she groans for the coming of a new thing, a new life, a new kingdom. The child is born, and she is taken to the wilderness where she is sheltered and cared for. I believe John here claims the paradoxic nature of the Kingdom of God. It has come–the child is born–but it is yet to come–the child is taken up to heaven to come again. In the mean time we live in the wilderness–sheltered, cared for, and being prepared for the new thing that is coming.

Reading Revelation with the Surrealists: Part 1-Assumptions

I was in the spirith on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”  –Revelation 2:10-11

Things are not what we perceive them to be, they are what they are. Or maybe better said, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

We are not in Kansas (well most of us aren’t) Nor are we in 1st century Smaryna, Ephesus or Sardis. That doesn’t mean John’s Revelation has nothing to say to us, but as we read, we should be aware of some things.

John writes to and for particular people at a particular time in particular places with particular internal and external problems; problems he seeks to address. He addresses them in a medium they were comfortable with (more comfortable than we are), drawing upon scriptural language and symbols they know well. This is a vision, the normal rules of time, physics, and sensory observation may or may not apply. John sees a voice, is transported to heaven and to Jerusalem, figures have more than one appearance simultaneously. Things are certainly not what they seem, they are what they are; they are truths that transend (and transgress) our normal perceptions.

John’s vision can be utterly strange and even frightening. This is impart, because we are not his intended audience. The ancient fathers were quite confident that John wrote about things immediately past and present for them, as well as about things to (quickly) come. Yet John also writes for the whole Church, including us today. The symbols of his vision are strong enough to bear interpretation, and re-interpretation. We must just be aware that we are re-interpreting, and must strive to do it faithfully. As we read our new context and its assumption should never obscure the core of John’s vision, for that is still true.

Even in all that has changed, from John’s time to now, God is still glorious, still with us, and still calling us into new life in God’s present/coming kingdom.

“This is not a pipe”
The Treachery of Images (Rene Magritte)