Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

Image result for beauty and the beast musicalBeauty and the Beast is probably my all-time favorite Disney musical.

My aunt took me to see the theatrical version on Broadway for my 14th birthday, and that sort of experience tends to be pretty formative (my 13th birthday was Phantom of the Opera, and I can still basically recite that play by heart without needing the music). But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the story:

  • It’s a call for open-mindedness and diversity that was pretty unusual for its day (1991) and remains relevant today.
  • Its heroine, Belle, is a much stronger woman character than had been typical to that point (only Jasmine is comparable until we hit the Tangled/Frozen era)
  • And its climactic song, unimaginatively titled “The Mob Song,” is a rousing and chilling exploration of how fear turns people into the beasts they so despise and war against.

I’ve been thinking more about this song lately, especially its 2017 live-action version, which makes the subtext more explicit when Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou (played by the wonderful Josh Gad), mutters to himself: “There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question/But I fear the wrong monster’s released.”

A Beast of a Word

Few words in English carry such weight as “Beast.” Although technically dogs and cats are beasts, the rhetorical impact of the word is to conjure something much larger and more ferocious – unsettling in its potential for violence.

Image result for beast xmenA brief look through even the notoriously cynical regions of slang and pop culture show us that a beast is intimidating: In the X-Men comics and subsequent films, Beast is a human mutant whose portrayal grew to include “blue fur, both simian and feline facial features, pointed ears, fangs, and claws.” Beast has superhuman strength.

In slang, “beast” has become adjectival to describe an overpowering, dominant force. This is especially seen in sports: “a beast of a team” or lineup or roster. Meanwhile, the actual adjective form of “beast” is “bestial,” a word that thesauri link to “savage,” “barbaric,” “cruel,” and “inhuman” or “subhuman.”

There’s a sense in the word that a beast is more than an animal but less than a human, occupying a middle ground that is perhaps not foreclosed to human descent. As the new line indicates, the sense of a beast is that not only is it something to be feared, but it’s something we can become, even unwittingly.

That Other Beast

Image result for iron maiden number of the beastOf course, those of us in the Christian tradition are familiar with a whole other set of connotations surrounding the word “beast,” and these have leaked into the broader culture as well, mainly through Iron Maiden and other heavy metal bands:

And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. … This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. (Rev 13:1-3, 18, CEB)

Or maybe it’s 616 instead. But never mind.

Many, many years’ worth of time has been spent trying to decode this bit of Revelation’s bizarre and seemingly impenetrable series of visions. Who is the Beast* that rises out of the sea, takes over the world, commands worship, consolidates all commerce under its control, and is identified by the number 666?

Over time, the answer has proven to be quite simple: Whomever you don’t like.

When I was coming of age in the Clinton years, there was a lot of speculation about who would be “the Antichrist” (which is conflated with the Beast even though Revelation never uses the label; it’s the result of reading references from 2 Thessalonians [“the lawless one”] and 1 and 2 John [the only books to use the word “antichrist”] into it).

* For the sake of clarity, I’m capitalizing references to the Beast of Revelation 13 and keeping all other beasts lower-case.

Some thought Mikhail Gorbachev’s large red birthmark fit the description of a “deadly wound” that had been healed. I remember having a completely serious conversation with a friend while in high school that if Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, he’d probably be the Antichrist. As recently as 2009, I was flabbergasted to hear a member of the church we attended say with all sincerity that he believed Barack Obama was the Antichrist.

Others have thought it must be a European leader because the ten horns would clearly represent the countries of the European Common Market. Others were sure it would be an American president – this was presented in Paul Meier’s 1993 novel The Third Millennium – because the Old Testament book of Daniel refers to beast with a “little horn,” which could refer to a younger country like the United States.

Anyway, a lot of this – at least in my experience – was fear-based. Questions about whether Christians would be raptured before, during or after the Great Tribulation; questions about exactly who would be raptured; questions about the precise nature of the cataclysms and violence to be visited upon creation during the tribulation … all of these served the purpose of keeping at bay the fear that at any moment, you could be “left behind” to face the end of days by yourself.

And the answers to these questions almost inevitably revealed more about who the interpreter most feared – religious and political opponents would either be left to face God’s wrathful judgment or they would be the demonic agents that help bring to power the Beast. In other words, fixation on the nature and rise of the Beast has led many Christians to turn into theological Gastons – unwittingly becoming the monster they hated.

The result among those who no longer share – or never have shared – the assumptions upon which such interpretations are based has been to dethrone Revelation, not just from its place as a kind of current-events decoder ring, but from even being a part of the discussion about what the Bible has to say to 21st century American Christians.

Understandable as that impulse is, it’s a mistake.

Revelation and the End of All Things

1369659An excellent book for unpacking a healthier way of looking at the perplexing imagery of the Bible’s last book is Craig Koester’s Revelation and the End of All Things, published by Eerdmans in 2001.

Koester rejects the “left behind” (nerd term: premillennial dispensationalist) interpretation of Revelation, which focuses on using it to decode the future. He also rejects the purely historical (nerd term: preterist) view that shoehorns past events and people into the visions instead of present or future ones. Rather, Koester acknowledges the historical realities referenced in the visions while also arguing they have a purpose that speaks to all Christians in all contexts, not simply those living in the first century or at the end of days (whenever that might be).

That people for centuries have found contemporary figures and events within Revelation’s visions indicates the book is more timeless than they perhaps realized. Just as Christians keep reading the signs of Jesus’ Little Apocalypse (Matt 24: 6-13: famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars) into their own generations, so do they find the signs of Revelation all around them, no matter when and where they live. Koester argues this should tell us that John’s message is more universally focused than we’ve been treating it.

Speaking of the Beast specifically, Koester points out that it is presented as a “demonic counterpoint to the Lamb.” In Rev 5 and 12, John describes Jesus as the lamb who was slain. This imagery was not used to conceal Jesus’ identity, Koester notes. John’s readers – including us – recognize that Jesus is not actually a lamb, nor that we should expect the rise of some earthly leader whose physical characteristics represent in some way a lamb that has been raised from the dead.

In fact, according to Koester, describing Jesus as the Lamb reveals elements of Jesus’ character and actions in a particularly evocative way. So too with the Beast (p. 126):

John refers to the beast in order to reveal something about the destructive power of evil, not to conceal the beast’s identity. Describing Christ as the Lamb helps attract readers to the innocent victim who suffered for their sakes, while portraying the agent of evil as a horrible beast helps repulse readers from all that this evil figure represents.

In fact, Koester says, the Beast’s characteristics reflect – and distort – those of the Lamb:

  • The Lamb is an agent of God, the ruler of heaven, and suffered and died for others; the Beast is an agent of Satan, who was expelled from heaven, and causes suffering and death.
  • The Lamb “shares the power, the throne and the authority of God” while the Beast shares Satan’s power, throne and authority.
  • The Lamb was “slaughtered” but now lives; the Beast has a head that was “slaughtered” (the same Greek word in both contexts) but was healed.
  • Because of the Lamb, the world worships “God the Creator;” because of the Beast, the world worships “Satan the destroyer.”
  • The Lamb “conquers” by dying for others; the Beast “conquers” (same word again) by killing others.
  • The Lamb intends “to free ‘people of every tribe and language and people and nation’” so they can become priests serving God. The Beast intends “to oppress ‘people of every tribe and people and language and nation’” so that they are forced to worship the Beast itself. (126-7)

Physically, the Beast is a pastiche of biblical and cultural references: Many have noticed the similarity to Daniel 7, where a series of beasts signify the rise of various empires, each looking like a predatory animal (leopard, bear, etc.). The Beast not only contains characteristics of each of those four animals, but it does the same blasphemous and violent things as the “little horn” of the Dan 7 beast.

Does this mean that we should try to discover the identity of the Beast by figuring out those of Daniel’s four beasts? No. As Koester says, “By replacing four individual beasts with one great beast, Revelation indicates that the threats presented by four successive empires are part of one great threat” (127-8).

Besides, to the extent it represents any specific earthly power, John’s Beast clearly signifies Rome: In Rev 17, he identifies the seven heads as kings of the city built on seven hills. The beast’s “blasphemous names” and efforts to “make war on the saints” would have been seen by John’s audience as descriptions of Rome’s divination of its emperors and Nero’s brutal persecution of Roman Christians. Koester points out that rumors of Nero’s resurrection abounded in the years after his death, when Revelation was written.

The Beast, in other words, is the ultimate opponent of the Lamb – its physical characteristics are reminiscent of empires past and present; its violent, despotic nature is diametrically opposed to the sacrifice and generosity of Jesus.

After his initial description of the Beast, John concludes: Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints (Rev 13:9-10).

Koester points out that John is clear that the Beast is doomed to fail, that the Lamb and the martyred saints have already conquered it – but not by resorting to the tactics of empires (129):

Since the beast operates by inflicting suffering and death on others, readers are warned not to adopt the same tactics. People “conquer” the beast not by inflicting more damage than the beast does, but by following an alternative course of faithful endurance and resistance to idolatry and oppression that has been set by the Lamb.

A final characteristic of the Beast is perhaps his most infamous, as described in Rev 13:16-18, which describes the works of the false prophet (the beast from the land), who is dedicated to compelling worldwide worship of the beast:

It forces everyone—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to have a mark put on their right hand or on their forehead. It will not allow anyone to make a purchase or sell anything unless the person has the mark with the beast’s name or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

While the Beast’s initial description describes overt forms of oppression – violence and death threats – this passage describes a more subtle form of coercion that we know was a problem for some of the seven churches to whom the letter was written because John was explicit about it in Revelation 2. Namely, the Beast – the power of Satan in the world, the opponent of Jesus – also works through economic pressure and cultural assimilation.

As Koester notes, at the time Revelation was written around the turn of the second century, Christians would have experienced pressure to join trade guilds whose rituals included pagan worship and feasting, and win contracts by schmoozing with Roman officials who would have authorized, condoned or participated in the persecution and murder of Christians. “People were advancing themselves economically by relying on political powers that did not recognize the true God (131-2).”

Of course, the Beast has a number, whether it be 666 or 616 – depending how you spell it, both can represent the phrase “Nero Caesar” when written in Hebrew. By connecting the beast so closely with Nero, Koester argues, John is trying to slap complacent Christians out of their assumptions that accommodation to the empire’s violence and oppression is harmless or acceptable (133).

If the Beast describes any particular person, then, it describes Nero, a uniquely traumatic figure in the history of the early church. But Nero had been dead for at least two decades when Revelation was written, which means the point is not the identification itself, but what it signifies – a universal tendency for the corrupt powers of the world to coerce Christians with violence or seduce them with wealth.

“Instead of then asking when the beast will appear, we might better ask when the beast’s presence not apparent. When is idolatry not a threat? When do the followers of the Lamb not experience pressures to give up their commitments? … The summons to persevere is not simply a message for a generation living in the first century or at the end of time; it is a message for all generations that are confronted with idolatry and violence (135).”

John writes to draw a stark line: You are either with the Lamb or with the Beast.

A Contemporary Challenge

This is indeed a challenging message for us in 21st century America – not only because we face overpowering temptations presented by a hegemonic capitalist culture that crosses and subsumes political boundaries, but because the weapons of the Beast are more subtle and insidious than even John foresaw.

When John wrote Revelation, his message was to stand strong in the face of fear – fear of what a violent, oppressive empire could do to a person’s body if they persisted in flouting religious and social convention by maintaining their commitment to Jesus.

This fear is largely absent from the American experience. For those of us in the Bible Belt, the idea is ludicrous that we should fear even something as relatively minor as social ostracism for gathering with other Christians or publicly stating allegiance to Christ.

But a new fear has gripped much of our culture – a fear that can only afflict those who are no longer outside looking in, but rather sitting in the comfortable seats and reluctant to let Others join them.

This fear manifests itself in reinterpreting Revelation to dehumanize and demonize political and religious foes. It manifests itself in a toxic nostalgia that seeks to restore a mythological era of cultural, economic and political stability. It manifests itself in a deepening embrace of the coercive tools of empire in order to maintain a position of power. It manifests itself in the quest to make their society “great again.”

In short, Christians in thrall to this sort of fear form an alliance with the very Beast against which they believe they are so carefully guarding. They know a beast is running wild – there’s no question. But do they realize the wrong monster’s released?

To be clear, no Christian is immune from this. We are all susceptible to the Beast’s blasphemies that the Lamb has not, in fact, conquered the forces of evil and death and freed us from fear. That we can conquer them ourselves by using the tools of violence and coercion.

At the conclusion of Revelation and the End of All Things, Koester argues, “The challenge is to hear Revelation’s summons to see and resist the forces of sin and evil that are afoot in the world, especially as these manifest themselves in preoccupations with wealth, callousness toward violence, and the notion that it does not really matter what one calls ‘god.’” (204)

Revelation, so long miscast as a book of horror, is ultimately a book of hope. The Lamb conquers suffering and death through his own suffering and death. Those who suffered and died for their faith rise again to reign with him. People from all nations are given multiple opportunities to reject the Beast and enter the New Jerusalem, whose doors never close. Revelation indicates that God’s grace is wider and deeper than we can imagine, while Satan’s tactics are more ineffectual than they appear.

That’s an important message, not least because the fear and anger bubbling among those who reject the selfish cruelty now at the center of our society’s policymaking apparatus can easily curdle into a deal with the devil, an embrace of the Beast in order to defeat the Beast.

We cannot afford to lose sight of that hope, even if our brothers and sisters have. The Beast is no far-off vision; fighting it will require the weapons of the Lamb, lest we, too, succumb to fear and join the mob, oblivious that we have become what we fight.

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