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!”

Image result for harry potter and the sorcerer's stone

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.

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

On the United Methodist Church’s Decision

Noah’s flood might have required 40 days to drown the world, but the Methodist General Conference of 1844 nearly matched it, with the tide of slavery washing over the denomination and leaving it shattered after 41 days of acrimonious debate.

For decades, the question of slavery festered within the body of the nation’s largest denomination; by 1844, only one American organization was larger than the Methodist Episcopal Church: the federal government itself.

And like the government, Methodists were paralyzed by their divisions over the ownership of human beings. Initially one of the strongest anti-slavery voices in American Christianity – inheriting the convictions of its founder, John Wesley – Methodism in the South, like all of southern Christianity, had become increasingly tolerant, even supportive, of the institution as it became increasingly vital to the regional economy.

Northern bishops, however, became increasingly convinced of slavery’s evil, following in the tradition of evangelist Francis Asbury, who relied more on natural law than the Bible when he argued that “every perfection [God] possesses must be opposed to a practice contrary to every moral idea which can influence the human mind.” Likewise, slavery was “totally opposite to the whole spirit of the gospel.”

Methodist slaveholders took a different approach: using the plain text of the Bible – especially the Old Testament, which provided justification not only for slavery but also for the enslavement of Africans, descendants of the cursed son of Noah, according to a literal reading of Genesis.

Further, proslavery Methodists – again, like southern Christians as a whole – pointed to the several places in the New Testament where Paul sets out conditions of a master-servant relationship. It would be unscriptural, these slaveholders argued, to go beyond the plain, literal text of scripture.

As one southern Methodist bishop put it, there existed “no warrant from apostolic precept or example” to upend this relationship, and to do so would “go beyond the [biblical] charter and transcend the bounds of our commission.”

When Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited a slave through his wife – and with no way to easily free him under state law – abolition-minded northern Methodists were outraged. Andrew proposed resigning, but fellow southerners insisted he stay and fight. After 41 bitter days, the General Conference of 1844 requested his resignation – and within a year the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born.

Reunification would not occur for nearly a century.

History does not repeat itself, the saying goes, but often it rhymes. History rhymed pretty clearly last week.

Continue reading On the United Methodist Church’s Decision

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

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

Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

Continue reading Our Postmodern God

Can Faith and Learning Coexist?

NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week aired an interview with Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels who has written a new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Setting aside my inability to get over having the same word twice in one book title, the interview is fascinating and well worth a listen. Growing up with a belief in “Left Behind” eschatology, I find the idea that this particular interpretation is wrong both intriguing and compelling, but I haven’t done my own research into the subject. So I basically store whatever information I glean from interviews such as the one with Pagels for whenever I have the time to really dive into Revelation on my own (or, even better, as part of a class).

One thing that struck me, however, was Pagels’ response when asked near the end of the interview about her own faith.

Pagels discussed how she first read Revelation as a teenage member of an evangelical church. From a family of nominal Christians, Pagel said she became an evangelical at age 14 because of “the intensity of the emotional power – of the  music, of the preaching, of the group identity.” She left a year later, however, because she couldn’t stomach the theology of a Jewish friend being condemned to hell.

I just suddenly said, “Wait a minute. That’s not what drew me into this group. That’s not what I loved about the messages I heard here. That is not anything to do with the power of Christianity, as I understood it.” It’s ridiculous because Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, to say nothing of anything else.

So I had to leave that group, and becoming a scholar of religion is an interesting path because later I had to think, “What is it about Christianity that was so compelling and powerful?” I think it is about the religious imagination and a sense of a spiritual dimension in life. But I also had to think about why did I have to leave that group, and I think it’s that insular sense of being in a righteous, homogenous, good group against a sort of a faceless mass of people who are Satan’s people. That is a very dangerous way of looking at the world in the 21st century, particularly.

So far, this makes complete sense. I fully believe narrow views of us versus them (with “them” inevitably defined with increasing narrowness) are a large part of why churches are bleeding followers these days.

Continue reading Can Faith and Learning Coexist?