Saturday, March 24, 2012

An apocalyptic blueprint lost

A great many people must now adjust how they see the world ending.

Elaine Pagels has a new book out.  It's called Revelations and takes a critical dive into that book of the Bible that always seems to be interpreted to suit the interpreter's will.  Come to think of it, that's most of the Bible.  Among the spookier examples of such actions were Biblical justifications for the invasion of Iraq.
Good thing for us that Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton and has won a National Book Award for her writings on the Gnostic Gospels.  There are few, if any, others in academics more qualified to take on the subject of Revelations.  Unfortunately for acolytes of the End Times, her reasoning and interpretation are doubtless to be disappointing.

Revelations is certainly one of the more action-packed and visually arresting books of the Bible.  There are multi-headed monsters, Four Horsemen, dragons, and Jesus on a white horse leading an army of angels against the hoary hosts of evil.  Whole thing comes off like Hunter S. Thompson on an especially bad LSD bender yet the book has granted us a few of the more amazing phrases ever translated into English.  For example.

"When he cried out, seven thunders uttered their voices."  (Loved how that line got cribbed for DC's Kingdom Come as a reference to Captain Marvel.)

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."  That gave me the title for my 2011 NaNoWriMo book: Hell's Coming With Me.

"Woe to you, Oh Earth and Sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath, because he knows the time is short...
Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast for it is a human number, its number is 

Six hundred and sixty six."
A critical line, granting us the "evil" number 666 and a great song from Iron Maiden.

It sounds to me like St. John the Divine of Patmos, the believed writer of Revelations, would have made an excellent pulp writer.  I mean, just drink in those beautifully garish and melodramatic lines, all warning us of great cataclysm and the impending end of the world. It's dope.
Yet in her book, Elaine Pagels asserts a different, far more likely meaning for the lines of Revelation.  Superficially, the answer may sound like a dreadful Dan Brown novel.  St. John was writing in code.  He used symbolism to get his point across.  The reason for this, however, was not for secret knowledge to one day be unraveled by scholars of the occult and the arcane but to save John from getting killed for being a political dissenter.  He wrote the book as a protest against the Roman Empire and a warning of what many saw as an approaching, potentially apocalyptic battle between the Romans and the people of Judea.  The monsters and pulpy whatnot are symbolic stand-ins, quid pro quos for real life events during St. John's time.  He was simply adroit at writing them that way.

Take the number 666 for example.  How many times has it been used in horror fiction and heavy metal music as the number of Satan?  Turns out that "the beast" St. John refers to with that number is actually a reference to the Emperor Nero in that 666 is the numerical value of the ruler's name. 

Now that just changes everything, doesn't it?  I mean, is Iron Maiden still going to play "Number of the Beast" live?  God I hope so.  I've got tickets to see them in July and that song is one of my favorites.  Speaking of that band, they actually have a song called "Revelations."  Singer Bruce Dickinson said the Biblical book was all about "washing your car, actually it's about opening a curtain."  That droll, British interpretation is as accurate is any, I happen to think.

So sorry all you fundies, end timers, and left behinders.  You are correct that the world will one day end.
But the means and the time cannot be found in Revelations.

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