Collective Response from Lee

Hi everyone,

We’re off to a great start with these first posts. This time I am going to write a collective response rather than commenting on individual ones, and I hope each of you will continue to read each others’ posts and respond to them here and of course in class. So far, Kaitlyn has led the way in comments. She wrote her post first, actually, and sent me a copy of it because the server was down and she couldn’t post it until later.

Although there are many intriguing strands of thought that we will pursue further in discussion, for now, three main inter-related themes emerge as key to this set of posts: the question of authenticity of the Book of Revelation, Revelation as a fear-mongering text, and representation of the body within apocalyptic belief. Whitney has posed the first astutely thus: “how is the value and credibility of a religious text maintained?” As we will see with the remaining chapters from Kirsch, this entails numerous clashes of power, including bloodbaths that seem to emulate Revelation’s descriptions. It also, however, entails less visible forms of power relations that entice followers—at times, Revelation’s revenge fantasy has functioned as a supreme inducement to join a specific group of true believers, both establishment and anti-establishment. Aparna takes this question up and provides a useful way to divide the question into three levels of inquiry: 1. how an author establishes him or herself as a true visionary/prophet; 2. how institutions establish authenticity; and 3. how multiple uses and effects of 1 and 2 have occurred historically.

Concern about these three lines of thought is paramount to the posts by Colby, Emily, Ariela, and Ilirjan, although from differing angles of vision. At times, these may blur together more than they should. Here I would like everyone to think about differences and similarities between propaganda and proselytizing. Also, is it necessary, as I think Ilirjan argues, to assume a conspiracy at work in a text like Revelation? (And don’t forget, no “s” on the end—it’s a single revelation.) Colby’s point about a diminished sense of personal agency and a counter to social change is both cause and effect.

In regard to issues surrounding bodily representation, Joe’s discussion of the purified body as the one best suited for heavenly reward continues to be a key issue within apocalyptic thought to this day. How one defines purity has altered over time, which allows us to grasp some of the changes of culture historically as well. In John’s day, there was certainly a gender dualism at work, with male bodies seen as superior to female bodies. The issue of sexuality for the sake of reproduction was a vital element. Reproduction isn’t necessary if the endtime is truly “coming soon” as Jesus reveals to John. On the other hand, if one believes that it may be delayed for a while and that the earth should be populated by more godly people, then it makes more sense to reproduce a lot, which we see as a principle in many denominations. A chaste version of heteronormative sexuality is one of the main themes in much contemporary religious discourse. Again, the apocalyptic version is always the most visible, but other forms also incorporate such views. Kaitlyn’s focus on zombie bodies is also a contemporary variation on the apocalyptic body—but it is more of an inverse apocalypse, since the undead are like the chosen elect, only decayed and impure rather than transcendent and pure. A final note—Springsteen uses lots of images and phrases from the Book of Revelation, so Stephen King’s borrowing from the Boss is also from the Big Boss.

Here to Stay for the Apocalypse

Revelation, as an apocalypse, seems to be inherently invested in the future, and of course a certain rendering of the future founded not in the historical present of its writing, but a future that will be radically disconnected from the present day, and in effect, will be totally disruptive and transformative.  As Kirsch writes, salvation in Revelation must await the reordering that the apocalypse will bring, which stands in contrast to the view of salvation in the gospels, as something actively achievable in the world in which we live today (58).  Revelation finds little hope for ourselves on this earth; salvation, and the apocalyptic moment, seems in want of a site, a place, if this earth is insufficient for such purposes. Continue reading

Fire and Brimstone with a Side of Salvation

“For the great day of his wrath is come and who shall be able to stand?”

I think of all the quotable material from the Book of Revelation, this line struck me the most. At first, it was because it reminded me of one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books, The Stand by Stephen King. (I did check to see if this quotation had inspired the title. However, King’s epigrams suggest that honor goes to a Bruce Springsteen song and not the Book of Revelation – though it is certainly relevant.) On further examination however, what struck me about this line from Revelation is that “his” does not refer to Satan, but to God. Continue reading

The Question of Legitimacy

Kirsch credits the Book of Revelation as one of the primary texts that began the apocalyptic tradition in Western society. Even today, Christian fundamentalists maintain that Revelation is a truthful account of the events that will come to pass at the end of the world. For a text that has such a far-reaching effect on Western culture, I found it interesting that there is a surprising amount of doubt surrounding its legitimacy. As Kirsch mentions, when Revelation was first transcribed, it was “regarded with alarm and suspicion by some of the more cautious church authorities,” who did not want to acknowledge the work of an ordinary man that claimed to hear the voice of God. Furthermore, while it is traditionally maintained that John the Apostle wrote the Book of Revelation, some scholars point to evidence within the text and in historical records that proves the author was an entirely different John. I think the difference lies in the meaning of the word “legitimate” for a fundamentalist as opposed to someone like Kirsch.

Within the Book of Revelation, John takes great care to establish himself unquestionably as the true prophet of God. In Rev. 13, he introduces the character of the beast, a false prophet that is conjured up by Stan in order to deceive mankind. Men, enthralled by the miracles that the beast performs, create and worship an image of the beast, highlighting the power of images to deceive and lead men astray from the word of God. In contrast to the false prophet, there is John, who has heard the true “voice” of God. As much as his vision consists of him seeing the end of the world, much of the narrative also focuses on what he has “heard” from the voice of God. Therefore, throughout the text, he admonishes true believes to listen through the refrain of “he that hath an ear, let him hear” (and if in not those exact words, then with a similar sentiment). In conclusion, this is a rather convoluted way of saying that John establishes the primacy of speech as opposed to images as the medium of heavenly communication. This is particularly interesting when considering that originally Revelation was most probably a sermon and those that believed it were known as “hearers.”

If the sermon (or the text) and its communication are most important, then the identity of the individual author seems unnecessary to its interpretation. If the text is seen as the product of a higher being, where the author is merely the vehicle for divine inspiration, then it doesn’t really matter which John wrote the Book of Revelation, as long as the book was written. The importance of the identity of the author to the interpretation of the text seems to me to be the product of a more modern type of literary criticism. For Kirsch, who to some extent treats the Book of Revelation as a historical and literary text, it is important to evaluate the text in light of the author’s identity, as well as the biographical details that might have influenced its creation as well as its propagation. For a true believe, on the other hand, I think it would be heretical to even assume that the text holds the biases of a human author, as opposed to the prophetic warnings of a heavenly voice. As long as people believe that the author of the text is a true prophet, then there is no need to question its legitimacy.

As a quick aside, I don’t have a background in the Judeo-Christian tradition so I have to wonder what makes the Book of Revelation different from other apocryphal writing with questionable authenticity, which were excluded from the New Testament.

Apocalyptic Propaganda

Although there are many Christian fundamentalists who consider the Book of Revelations to be an essential part of the bible, many scholars have rightfully denounced the last book as a peculiar and contrived tale of propaganda.

The Book of Revelations may have some religious inspiration, however it is mostly an “intelligent” story that is based on themes John’s potential converts may connect with. In the story, John encounters a book with 7 seals, a sea beast with 7 heads, 7 angels with 7 plagues, and so on. Kirsch argues that the number 7 originates from the Book of Genesis among other parts of the bible in which God creates the world in 7 days. John also borrows language from the Hebrew bible in another attempt to have Jewish readers relate to his messages. Moreover, the 7-headed beasts and the story of the pregnant woman clothed in the sun are themes that Pagans are familiar with. Along with his obsession with numerology and symbolism, these all make John’s story seem to be an artificial attempt to create an “intelligent” story that Jews and Pagans of the time could relate to.

The blatant juxtaposition of grotesque apocalyptic images with a heavenly new earth is clearly a contrived effort to scare his Jewish and Pagan readers into converting to Christianity. Most of the Book of Revelation includes chapters about 7-headed creatures, red dragons and other fantastical themes which remind readers of gory science fiction novels. However, there is a stark contrast in the final chapters in which John describes the new heavenly city that will be created: “the city had no need of the sun … for the glory of God did lighten it”, “there shall be no more curse”, etc. After the previous bloody chapters, John finally creates a peaceful atmosphere for his readers. Before he ends on a positive note, though, John reminds the reader that whoremongers, murders and those that do not follow the commandments would not be entering this city – yet another contrived effort to force this idea of being saved onto the non-Christian readers.

The author of the Book of Revelations and many Christians may have genuinely believed in his apocalyptic messages, however it is evident that John had a not-so-hidden agenda of scaring non-Christians into being saved by converting to Christianity.

Apocalyptic Skepticism

In A History of the End of the World, Jonathan Kirsch aptly included a parallel to the Lewis Carroll novel Alice in Wonderland when he wrote, “Once we follow the author of Revelation down the rabbit hole of the apocalyptic tradition, we find ourselves in a place where the sights and sounds are curiouser and curiouser” (40). As I read through the Book of Revelation for the first time, I couldn’t help but think of Alice in Wonderland as well. Alice woke up at the end of that novel only to realize Wonderland was a dream. My first impression of the Book of Revelation was that John, author of the Revelation, was much like Alice, except that when he woke up, he considered his nightmare an apocalyptic prophecy. Continue reading

Does the End of the World Have a History?

The initial reading of Jonathan Kirsch’s A Hisotry of the End of the World introduces many apocalyptic notions that have grown amidst the culture and spirit of our society since antiquity. This reading paints an interesting picture of the different social practices and how various groups have responded and continue to react to the end of the world phenomenon.

In many ways, Kirsch regards the Book of Revelation and its contents as both the source and supplement to the human fear and anticipation of the end of the world. After all, anything that counters established religious ideology or proposes an interdisciplinary end to theology and universe alike is destined to have some type of grand effect on the public. While Kirsch defines the controversy over the Book of Revelation in a religious scope, he broadens his explanation for our apocalyptic hype with social and cultural realms. He renders this text as a “petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity”; this argument has certainly been validated by the ways in which the Book of Revelation has resonated throughout history. I myself marvel at how events and figures in history gained such prominence using the end of the world as an element of justification. Its interesting and simultaneously, unsettling, how entities such as The New World , the AIDS epidemic, and even UFO invasion can be explained by the Book of Revelation. One can certainly argue that these connections are the natural ways by which the human race deals with such an abstract and intangible issue. Rather than fearing the unimaginable, we look for past instances that fit John’s apocalyptic scenario and then use these past occurrences to gage our anticipation of the future (or lack there of, in this case). This is also seen with historical figures such as Hitler, and even more recently, Osama Bin Ladin, who have been coined the Antichrist in their period of time. Are we to believe that any cultural manifestations of opposing force represent the Antichrist and signify our impending doom? If so, then the line between imagination and reality becomes completely obliterated when culture and politics collide.

Despite my skepticism towards this historical resonance, Kirsch does present a reasonable explanation for our cultural belief in the Book of Revelation. We are the descendants of a time when only the “hearers” of the Revelation were blessed and all who undermined John’s beliefs were “corrupted by Satan” . While these notions are not as prevalent in contemporary society as they were amongst fundamentalist Christians and Jews hundreds of years back, the aftermath of these beliefs still reign among us. Certainly, belief in John’s apocalyptic revelation provided a means of survival for the religious and outlandish zealots of that era.

Perhaps when the day of judgement would come, God may have more mercy on the “hearers” and believers of this revelation. This supports Kirsch’s idea of “morale boosting propaganda” that arises from the Book of Revelation. If we were to live according to this propaganda, its almost as though we’d be in limbo forever, waiting for God’s judgement and hoping that he finds a place for us in his New Heaven and Earth. As we can see here, Dante’s Inferno and John’s Book of Revelation have overlapping elements. Both most definitely possess the same nightmarish, strange, and out of reach elements. Ironically enough, Dante was excommunicated for his ideas, while John’s were added to the holy scripture. Such a discrepancy further debunks this proposed apocalypse.

Its obvious that our society feeds off of cultural pastimes and beliefs. However, we must not forget that even traditional beliefs have been distorted over the years, and we have lost sight of true reasoning. Many do not know why they fear the end of the world, which weakens apocalyptic arguments altogether. In fact, proponents of the Book of Revelation rarely understand the imagery and symbolism of John’s vision. Here, history does not provide any meaningful groundwork since all historical examples have been proposed as theories and have no real connection to the actual scripture. One could argue that Kirsch’s History of the End of the World is really an account of religious, cultural, and political conflict than a true explanation for doomsday.

What Makes a Text “Count”?

As I read through the first portion of Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World, I found myself incredibly frustrated with the controversy over authorship and authenticity. The message of religious texts is generally valued more by those who practice the corresponding religion, but it seems like people are so focused on pulling out what they want to hear, or what they need to hear as the case may be, that they fail to consider where the text they put so much faith in is coming from. I have a background in Catholicism, and in general, the Book of Revelation was avoided, but it does have a place in the Bible, which means that as unsettling as it may be, it cannot just be omitted from the religion. I suppose the biggest question that this controversy raises for me is; if religious texts are considered sacred, but religions and religious practitioners pick and choose what is “most” holy, how is the value and credibility of a religious text maintained?

Kirsch explains in his text that Revelation is theorized to potentially have multiple authors from different periods of time, coming from different backgrounds. For the sake of his own argument, Kirsch goes with one popular theory about the identity of the author, John. I understand that for the sake of any argument one must select a school of thought to work from, but it is still frustrating because there is immediate conflict in terms of understanding the source of Revelation, not to mention the proceeding conflict about understanding the author’s credibility.

I think that my own religious skepticism has created more difficulty in my reading of Kirsch, but some significant claims are made in Revelation, and major movements continue to form because of John’s words; it’s important to think about why so many people willingly accept, fear and live by hand picked selections of a text, rather than the text in it’s entirety.

In my opinion, the authority of the Church has a lot to do with people’s sometimes blind trust in the message of scripture. I am certainly not a religious scholar, but I know that in a religious service, people avidly listen to the words of their religious leader, because there is an understood trust between leader and attendee. In general, I would argue that people who attend religious services enter their place of worship with a certain need. Whether it’s the need for a sign from God, or something smaller like a need for the sense of support and community that comes from attending a religious meeting. The presence of that need makes it difficult, I think, for people to question what they are hearing and what they are agreeing with. In general, the leader’s reading of scripture is not nearly as revered as the leader’s interpretation of the verses he or she recites. The cynic in me can’t help but think about how a person in power uses their position to influence those following them.

The author or authors of Revelation obviously had their own motivation in spreading the prophecy they were sent so vehemently. Their decision to commit to spreading the word suggests some motivation beyond faith, especially when one considers what might have been at risk when the prophets spoke their prophecy. For example, Kirsch explains that their was some degree of competition among prophets claiming that his or her message was the one to listen to, the authentic word of God. He explains that John was adamant about discrediting the prophetess Jezebel. Unless God himself really did despise the acts of this individual woman to the point that he mentioned her in his declaration to John, it seems that John may have tweaked prophecy to serve his own desire to beat the competition. Instances like this, immediately make the scripture less credible for me, because I recognize that it was altered to serve the needs of an individual. It’s not a pure message from some higher power; it is the self-serving “prophecy” of a man who needed to wipe out the competition in order to gain the biggest following.

This seemingly obvious moment of failed credibility is apparently not enough to dissuade the masses that follow John’s words to this day. Kirsch mentions that modern follower’s of John’s message and strong believers in the impending apocalypse are often mentally unstable individuals who have strong persuasive skills. To me, it seems like madness to think that there are people who will follow selections of a message without even knowing where the message is coming from or without making their own interpretations and decisions about the words that they are told.

In John’s time, Christians were persecuted for their religion, so a text that promised to avenge their suffering, obviously spoke to a cultural need, which makes the massive following more understandable. Today’s world has its fair share of problems, but the intrinsic message of Revelation has been skewed and no one seems to really consider it. This constant shifting of meaning and context is frustrating and leaves me asking my initial question. Credibility and source, in the case of religious text (Revelation in particular), don’t seem to be nearly as important as the interpretation and recitation (performance) of the words.