Centaurs, Harry Potter and the Book of Revelation

Once you teach a class focusing on a single book of the Bible for 10 straight weeks, you notice allusions everywhere, even if the author didn’t have that in mind.

Last week, it was while I was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my daughters.

The scene was when Harry and his friends are serving detention in the Forbidden Forest, looking for a unicorn who seems to have been wounded by someone or something – an act of unimaginable evil.

The group runs into some centaurs, and quickly grow frustrated at their enigmatic answers; they read portents of danger in the stars but provide no practical help.

Firenze, a centaur with apparently different views on relationships with humans, eventually rescues Harry from a sticky spot. His centaur brethren are less than pleased:

“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets? … Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!”

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Firenze responds with some heat of his own: “I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.”

Later, Firenze tells Harry, “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times.”

It strikes me this could apply to many interpreters of Revelation – so certain they have read the signs correctly, they disengage from the world around them. Evil runs rampant, but that’s just what the prophecies foretold so there’s nothing that can be done. Better to wait for the rapture and let God take care of business.

But that’s not the message of Revelation at all. It’s very interested in this world – in the powers that control it and the ability of the followers of Jesus to resist them. It’s filled with warnings about assimilating into the dominant political and economic cultures and compromising the self-sacrificing example of Jesus.

In fact, to take it one step further, I’d argue it’s precisely because so many Christians have trained themselves to look for portents in the heavens that they have become so vulnerable to the whispers of Revelation’s corrupting and violent Beast.

Let me be clear: Donald Trump is not the Beast. To the extent any world leader ever was the Beast, it was probably Nero. But the Beast as a symbol for the rapacious and seductive power of empire lives in every time and culture, including ours.

And perhaps no one better personifies that power in our time and culture than the American president – especially when that president uses fear and paranoia to amass power and wield it against the marginalized.

This is one of the greatest and saddest ironies of the current American moment: Numerous Christians raised to scrutinize world leaders for signs of the Beast have fallen prey to it. Senses dulled by the drugs of fear and paranoia fed them by the False Prophets in their pulpits, over their airwaves and on their televisions, they have embraced the Beast’s promise of security and victory in this world, abandoning the values of grace, love and self-sacrifice typified by the Lamb and his promise of eternal security and victory in the next.

To merge the metaphors, we are now deep within the Forest, and the Beast is lurking. A large number of Christians, believing they read the stars correctly, have abandoned the fight against the Beast – many have even embraced it, mistaking it for a savior who will lead them to safety. Which of us will stand against it, no matter who is alongside us?

The prophecies of Revelation have been read wrongly many times before now, even by Christians. I hope this is one of those times.

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7 Revelations About Revelation

People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.

Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.

Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.

And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God can get a little dark.

So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?

I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.

So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?

1369659Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.

  1. We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
  2. Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
  3. Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations.
  4. Rather than a linear story, Revelation is cyclical.
  5. The judgments are real, but so are the promises bookending them.
  6. We all fight the Beast.
  7. God’s grace is beyond what you can imagine.

Continue reading 7 Revelations About Revelation

Reading a Different Revelation

Image result for revelation and the end of all thingsWhen I was a kid, my favorite book of the Bible was Revelation.

Granted, this almost certainly was because it was easily the most interesting book to read for a kid who wasn’t allowed to bring an activity bag or any other distractions for worship service – also known as the slowest 45 minutes of my week. All I had was my Bible, and beasts, earthquakes and other calamities helped the time fly right by.

Obviously, growing up in a conservative evangelical faith tradition, I learned the “left behind” interpretation of Revelation, or to use the fancy technical term: premillennial dispensatiionalism. Rapture, Tribulation, World War III, Armageddon and all the rest.

Fast forward two decades or so, and I’m now teaching a class on Revelation at the Episcopal congregation my family attends. Far from repeating the code-book style of interpretation so common in American Christianity, we’re trying to find a healthier way of reading the book that would be recognizable to the original recipients. After all, it seems like the ultimate practice in arrogance to assume that a letter written 2,000 years ago is somehow all about you, and it certainly does us no favors to uncritically accept a reading that argues, as philosopher-theologian Randy Harris once called it, that “God so loved the world that he sent World War III.”

Continue reading Reading a Different Revelation

The Radical Incarnation

It’s the late 100s CE. A century has passed since Roman troops have destroyed the Jerusalem temple and crushed the Jewish revolt, unwittingly scattering a sect of Jews who followed an itinerant preacher whom the Romans had crucified some decades earlier.

Over the decades, that sect had separated from its parent faith; its followers were known, perhaps derogatorily, as Christians, claiming the crucified preacher they followed had in fact risen from the dead and was the son of God, if not actually God in some way. Subject to occasional persecution by various local officials in the Roman Empire, the Christian movement nevertheless had grown to a size and influence that it reached the notice of a Greco-Roman philosopher named Celsus.

We know very little about Celsus, except that around this time before the end of the second century, he felt compelled to respond to the Christian claims – the earliest known attack on Christianity. Called The True Discourse of Celsus the Epicurean, his work is only known insofar as it’s quoted by the famed bishop of Alexandria, Origen, in his apologetic work Contra Celsus, written around 247.

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In his The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Hendrickson, 2000), John Granger Cook writes: “Celsus was something of a social conservative who viewed Christianity as a departure from everything that was ancient and true in the Hellenistic tradition.” (p. 17)

To the extent Origen fairly caricatures Celsus’ argument – and to his credit he does seem to quote Celsus at length without apparent modification, though you can’t really be sure about that sort of thing – what jumps out at me, especially in this season, is how much Celsus hated the notion of the incarnation.

The bulk of Celsus’ argument against Christianity could be boiled down to just one sentence: Gods don’t do that.

Continue reading The Radical Incarnation

Facebook Flashback: Racism, Demons and Loving Our Enemies

Image result for reviving old scratchOriginally posted to Facebook on Sept. 21, 2016. It has only suffered minor edits in transplanting it here.

I just finished reading Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch, a book about the devil and spiritual warfare for people who question, if not totally reject, literal notions of demons and angels.

It cautions against overpoliticizing and over-metaphorizing those concepts because the Bible talks about them not just in relation to political power, but also to internal moral struggles found within each person. Fighting for social justice is spiritual warfare, but so too is loving others – emptying yourself for them, fighting daily against the fear of death and the fear of loss and the love of money and country and possessions that militate against radical, sacrificing love. Lots of food for thought in that book, for those who believe in a literal Satan, and for those who don’t.

Beck believes we should recover a language of the demonic, understanding that powers greater than humanity do indeed ensnare us. Call them what you will, but Nazism, Stalinism, systems of fascism and totalitarianism and apartheid are demonic. More, they are demons that burrow into the fabrics of societies and require active struggle, both collective and individual, to defeat and defang.

Our society, more than at any point in the past 50 years, is actively doing battle against the demon of Racism.

It’s a demon born to justify the much older demon of Slavery; together, they were carried aboard ships across the Atlantic. They planted deep roots in America’s urban centers and in southern labor camps. They joined with the demons of Materialism and Consumerism to build an economy unrivaled in the world. Together, they unseated whole nations, destroyed families, murdered millions. A physical war was required to break the partnership and loosen the hold of Slavery on our society. But Racism persisted. It persists. It is weaker than it was, but it is wilier. When Martin and Malcolm and Stokely and others helped to cast it out of our laws, it sank deeper into our cultures. It wrapped itself in a flag and called itself Heritage.

It remains the demon we are most likely to condemn – and least likely to confront.

Continue reading Facebook Flashback: Racism, Demons and Loving Our Enemies

A Brief Review: ‘Texts of Terror’ by Phyllis Trible

Image result for texts of terror phyllis tribleQuick, name the absolute worst parts of the Bible.

Chances are, you thought of one of these four stories [TW]:

The rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in order to fulfill a vow he made to God, and the use, abuse and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

These stories – all of them describing violence against women without overt condemnation by either God or the narrator(s) – are what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she analyzes these passages not to explain them away or redeem them with a pro-woman retelling, but to simply sit with them, to understand the fully the depth and breadth of the horror these passages inflict on the characters – and therefore on us, the readers who cannot help but sympathize with them.

In so doing, Trible hopes to memorialize them. These four women – two of them nameless, one of them voiceless, all of them utterly vulnerable to the whims and lusts of powerful men – do not get preached from pulpits, featured in liturgies or adhered to flannelgraphs. Yet they are essential parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If nothing else, they personify, as Trible expertly highlights, the qualities of the “suffering servant” in Second Isaiah’s famous prophecies.

Although originally referring to Israel, Christians, taking cues from the gospels, have appropriated the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus – “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” etc. Trible moves in the opposite direction, identifying these four women as suffering servants, and given the longstanding Christian confession of Jesus as the sufferer, implicitly identifying them as Christ figures.

Most poignantly, Trible makes this association explicit in her analysis of the concubine in Gibeah. Echoing the more famous tale of Lot in Sodom (do these stories reflect a single event buried deep in Israel’s memory and adjusted as needed for different contexts? I’d say it’s likely, but that’s not Trible’s concern here), the concubine and her master spend the night in an old man’s home, where men of the city arrive and demand the male guest be given to them to rape. The man offers the concubine instead, and she is raped and tortured until morning (and potentially killed, although Trible points out the text seems to indicate the concubine’s master actually murders her once they arrive back to his home in Ephraim). Trible describes the key moment this way: “Truly the hour is at hand, and the woman is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

Trible’s insight and deft handling of the texts make Texts of Terror a swift and insightful read – I’d almost call it a joy, but the subject matter makes that an impossibility. She refuses to get bogged down in questions of authorship, redaction or historical criticism, all things I enjoy getting bogged down in, but which would serve to distract from the women at the center of Trible’s focus. Her goal is to dig as deep as possible into the texts as they are, under the assumption that the text we have is there for a reason, no matter how it got that way.

Therefore, Trible points out patterns and structures of the original Hebrew that have become invisible under the layers of translation and interpretation that have accumulated over the millennia. Some of these are brilliant and beautiful; others feel like more of a stretch. But all of them are fascinating and demand careful consideration. Almost uniformly, Trible ends up highlighting how the original text mercilessly marginalizes and degrades these women.

But that’s the point: Trible is “telling sad stories,” as she puts it in her introduction. That they are sad does not mean they are worthless. Indeed, sad stories often tell us more about ourselves than happy ones. They force us to wrestle with the world as the world is, with God as God is, and with the Bible as the Bible is – not as we wish those things would be. For wrestling with them, we hopefully emerge stronger, with greater insight on what it means to be a “suffering servant” in whom we should see the life and work of Jesus.

Published 34 years ago in 1984, Texts of Terror remains a vitally important work, one that should be on the bookshelf of every preacher, every counselor and every church leader. In a day where many women are finding their voices for the first time, we would all do well to return to Trible’s classic, in which she helps four ancient women cry, “Me, too!”

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.” Continue reading Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You