Sunday, March 8, 2009

Thoughts from Vicar school 2

Dr. Bob is leaving after dinner on Saturday. He is a significant scientist in some discipline or other and University Reader in science education at Sheffield Hallam University and someone thought it would be appropriate for him to preach in Sheffield Cathedral at the beginning of National Science Week. I was privileged to hear the sermon on Saturday afternoon. I lay on Dr. Bob's bed while he preached an excellent sermon to me. I am going to arrange that I receive all sermons from henceforth in such a manner: it is surely only my birthright.

Over coffee Ian related this sad tale:

He was at a football match - a significant cup-tie no less, when he noticed a sad looking man to his left and beyond him an empty seat. Being a good sort, our Ian, and knowing how expensive such seats can be, he asked the sad looking man whether the seat was one of his. "My wife died very recently." confided the man "We are both season ticket holders and the seat was hers." "I'm sorry to have pried." Ian replied. "Don't give it another thought." Emboldened by this Ian asked "Don't you have any friends you could have given the ticket to?" "No, they're all at the funeral."

And on to some teaching about Revelation.

This is a book I have not spent much time on. This is because I have never felt that I have been taught to use it appropriately and I have always known that there are conspiracy theorists and others who give it tendentious interpretations so I have tended to stay well clear and treat all pronouncements on it with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Not feeling, then, that I can blag my way through this one, I pay more than usual attention to the pre-reading. My mood of apprehension is not much improved when I read in the opening sentence on Revelation of Luke T. Johnson's The Writings of The New Testament that:

"Few writings of all literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation. Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation resulting from a fundamental misapprehension of the work's literary form and purpose...Its arcane symbols...have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing."

That's good then.

We begin to look at symbols and Dr. Christine talks about the importance of metaphor.
"Give me an example"
"He eats like a pig"
"He drinks like a fish"
"Actually" says Dr. Bob "those are similes because they say something is LIKE something else. A metaphor says something IS sonmething else"
"O.K." I reply "Here's one for you then. You're a smart-arse."
"That's the sort of thing." he says.

The writings of Revelation have a distinct dream-like quality to them, or possibly nightmare-like, leading Danny to say in our session: "Can I have some of what he's on please?" This has led some scholars to speculate that this text was not written as a mystic mystery but as the remebrance of a sequence of visions. As to whether the author fully understood what he recorded is open to conjecture.

It is clear that Revelation is a "problem book": it was the last to have been included in the canon of the New Testament and one can almost hear that learned committee letting out a collective groan: "Oh no. Not another apocryphal vision." It is clear that the early church was in two minds about it. What we do know is that there are elements within the text which connect with the human psyche - sometimes unhelpfully - at times when the world seems out of control. This may be one of the clues to the text which is likely to have been written at a time of severe persecution, around 81-96 CE in the reign of Domitian.

What may have tipped the early church into an acceptance of Revelation is its association with the writings of John the Apostle. Today, however, there is some dispute about authorship with some experts favouring authorship by a man known as John the Seer. Whoever it was he certainly knew his Old Testament: without any direct quotes there are 128 allusions to Isaiah, 99 to The Psalms, 92 to Ezekiel, 82 to Daniel and 53 to Exodus.

So how are we to understand this difficult text? I am of the opinion that Revelation is another book like Daniel: a book written in code at a time of persecution to put those who are unsympathetic or downright hostile off the scent. What better way to express yourself at a time when free expression is dangerous than in code? You then have a text which confounds the uninitiated and inspires those in the know.

This book seems to be a new Exodus story: there is a journey into liberation; salvation by the death of a lamb; exile and nourishment in the wilderness; pursuit by an enemy (Pharaoh/The Beast) and crossing a sea (reeds/glass). We seem to have a story of violent conflict between God and the powers that oppose him (Egyptian oppressors/spiritual oppressors).

This is a hard book to pin down by genre. It is most certainly apocaplyptic but in the first eleven verses alone we have elements of letter, prophecy, apocalypse, poetry, allegory, benediction and doxology. It is a heady mix indeed for some readers. However, the bulk of the text contains prophecy and apocalypse in a loose letter form. The issue to me seems to be the understanding - or more often misunderstanding - of the genre of prophecy. All too often today we see prophecy in the sense of foretelling whereas to be more accurate the Biblical genre of prophecy is more about forthtelling: the Prophets of the Bible did not predict the future so much as proclaim the word of God to their own generations. The distinction is very important. That being the case this text is less divine blueprint than the proclamation of God's word in coded form to a people under persecution.

We are back to the idea of the perceived audience and the modern audience: are we to make the same of Revelation today as the original readers did? If so what would that mean in practice? If not, how should our understanding and our subsequent response differ?