Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Book of Revelation: the end of the world as we know it

In a recent amusing youtube video, US President George W Bush acts out his apocalyptic fantasy to the tune of REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). It is amusing, partially because the makers have cleverly synched his words to the song, and partially because it taps in to the greatest apocalyptic fantasy of all. That fantasy is the biblical Book of Revelation. The story of Revelation is told in the fascinating book “A History of the End of the World” by American author Jonathan Kirsch.

Revelation is the last book of the Bible. Revelation is Latin for the Greek word apocalypse (“unveiling”). It is a roadmap to the end of the world, according to first century thinking. It is the Omega to the alpha of Genesis. The ‘alpha and omega’ is one of the many images that have seeped out of Revelation and embedded themselves in modern culture. Others include the Antichrist, The Seventh Seal, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Whore of Babylon, Gog and Magog, and of course, 666, the fabled number of the beast. In short, Revelation is a treasure trove of the eschatology of endtimes.

However, the book is a serious anomaly. Revelation is a violent fantasy that sits awkwardly at the end of the mostly peace-loving Christian New Testament. The story of the lives of Jesus and his early followers segues uncomfortably into this misogynistic fire and brimstone Old Testament-style story of how history will end in catastrophe. Revelation’s moral calculus has been a crucial factor in the lives of many key Christians over the eras and remains a strong force especially in the religion-drenched politics of the US.

Revelation, also known as Apocalypse, has always divided the critics. The pious call it the revealed word of Jesus while feminist theologian Schussler Fiorenza called it “apocalyptic pornography” and literary critic Northrop Frye said it was an “insane rhapsody”. Thomas Jefferson was no more impressed and dismissed Revelation as “merely the ravings of a maniac”. The book was written by a man called “John” in the Romanised Asia Minor (now mainland Turkey) for an audience of early Christians. Revelation is traditionally ascribed to John the Evangelist, but no evidence supports this. However he is likely to be born a Jew from Judea, and a bitter witness to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

But John is a Jew who has converted to Christianity and he turns Revelation into a curious mix of anti-Semitism and Jewish history and tradition that made some scholars describe him as a “Christian Rabbi”. The book’s apocalyptic theme is borrowed from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Revelation is responsible for giving Satan (which the Old Testament merely saw an “adviser”) such a bad reputation. Satan is backed up by a memorable cast of bad guys including plagues of locusts, a seven-headed ten-horned red dragon and the Great Whore of Babylon. The drunken whore is straight out of Freud, a sexual monster with whom “the kings of the earth have committed fornication”. Most intriguingly she keeps a mysterious golden cup full of “abominations and impurities”.

According to Revelation, the abominable and impure endtimes will be presaged by the “Tribulation”, with its plagues and pestilence, earthquakes and floods, comets and eclipses, and battles in Heaven and Earth. Jesus will return to Earth at the head of an army to fight a battle at a place called Armageddon. After defeating Satan and his followers, Jesus will rule for a thousand year Reich. But then Satan will escape, and with his allies Gog and Magog fight a second almighty battle. He is defeated again and cast off to eternal torment in a lake of “fire and brimstone”. Everyone on Earth is killed but the Elect will be resurrected and granted eternal life in the “new Jerusalem”.

The timetable of Revelation has long been a boon to millenarianists ever since the book was written. But it suffered some early embarrassments. In the book, John reserves his wrath for the Roman Empire. The “mark” of the beast was actually a Roman coin, which “branded” Christians when they fell into their hands. The 666 (or possibly 616) was an alphanumeric code which some say refers to Nero (although he died two years before the temple fell). This anti Roman sentiment was inconvenient by the time Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion in 391 CE. The book probably would not have made the cut of “approved” books in the Christian canon if not for the belief that the author “John” was John the Disciple (who, by another tradition, was the author of the Gospel of John).

Augustine then legitimised Revelation by giving it a spiritual and metaphorical reading. But the book’s supporters were always excited by its promise that the “end was nigh”. A medieval monk named Joachim of Fiore fomented apocalyptic revolution based on his interpretation of Revelation. He saw the Muslim warrior Saladin as the latest incarnation of the Anti-Christ. His visions inspired Crusaders such as English King Richard the Lion-Heart who visited Joachim for inspiration on his return from Palestine.

In the 1490s, Dominican friar Girolano Savonarola urged the citizens of Renaissance Florence to toss their paintings and perfume into the Bonfire of the Vanities to bring forth Judgement Day. He was a religious reformer who preached against the moral corruption of the clergy and the pope. His vision of New Jerusalem held Florence in rebellion for three years before he was excommunicated and hanged in 1498.

By the time Savonarola died, Columbus had begun his voyages to the Americas. The ideas of Revelation were quick to follow the first European immigrants. The Puritans saw the English civil war as a battle between Christ and Antichrist. They took their millenarian message across the Atlantic where the apocalyptic message spread quickly. Revelation was the text of choice of the Seven Day Adventists, founded in 1863 by Ellen White and her husband James. Many turned to a new variation called “The Rapture” which believed that the virtuous would be plucked from Earth without being inflicted by the horror of the Tribulation.

The idea was imported into the US by Irishman John Nelson Derby who led a dissenting group called the Plymouth (or “Exclusive”) Brethren. Derby’s plot twist on the Revelation (the Rapture is not mentioned anywhere in the text) has proved immensely appealing to American fundamentalist Christians. Vernon Howell (rebadged in biblical fashion as David Koresh) followed the Savaranola template when led his followers into martyrdom at Waco. There he believed the battle of Armageddon was about to start.

The Rapture is also responsible for America’s love-hate relationship between Christian fundamentalists and the Jewish people. It states that Israel will be restored to the Jewish people before bringing the world to an end. The rise of Darby’s ideas in the 19th century coincided with the rise of Zionism. While early Zionists were prepared to site their nation in Argentina or Uganda, Christians pressed Zionist claims to Israel itself as a precondition of the Second Coming. To this day, Christian Zionists regard peace in the Middle East as an obstacle to their plans, and their ideas match those of the hawks and hardliners in Israel. An uneasy marriage of convenience exists between fundamentalists Christians (who tolerate Jews only as a necessary conduit to Judgement Day) and government of Israel (who think the Christian ideas are crackpot but value their support and money).

Meanwhile Ronald Reagan brought the ideas of Revelation into mainstream American politics. In 1980, he said “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon”. He surrounded himself with people who had similar beliefs. His Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger admitted he read Revelation and said “I believe the world is going to end…every day I think time is running out”. Reagan spoke of the Soviet “evil empire” which predicted would die out with human history itself whose “last pages are even now being written”.

Reagan was only half right. The end of Soviet Communism did not presage the end of history or the last man. And while no president since him has been so outspokenly apocalyptic, the two Bushes and Clinton have all been forced to declare themselves to be “born-again Christians”. Many of the leaders of the End Time movement are rich, well-connected and very powerful. And 46 per cent of all Americans claim to be "born-again" according to a 2002 Gallup poll. George W Bush himself was converted by Billy Graham in 1985 after a drunken weekend at the Bush compound. His core constituency is the fundamentalist voting bloc. While he himself has not openly declared himself, his language is often apocalyptic, such as when he describes the 'war on terror' as 'the epic struggle of good and evil'. His actions in the Middle East show that his government’s support of Israel is a pivotal issue. As it always was, the fate of the New Jerusalem is intricately tied with the old one.

4 comments:

Seven Star Hand said...

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my first blog said...

This is fairly intense end times stuff, but don't you think we can find this subject matter sufficiently described in the bible?

Ann O'Dyne said...

I think it is a great pity that your post above could not be force fed to the Kath n Kim masses in place of their willing attention to All Saints, Blue Heelers, and all similar rubbish with ratings.

Just swinging by to wish you a happy time this Christmas.

Derek Barry said...

Thanks Ann - same to you!