Elaine Pagels, the noted Biblical scholar and author, came to BU this week. I was super excited as I find the early history of Christianity fascinating. How did such a marginalized sect become so dominant? I had heard Pagels a few times on the usual suspects: Fresh Air, Bill Moyer’s, and so on. Add to that the intoxicating aroma of fire and brimstone and I had high hopes for a mind-blowing lecture.
I was not alone! Trout Hall was packed to the gills. Curious students? Nervous Christians? Wild-eyed present day prophets? All there!
The lecture was a bit of a flop. She presented three interesting questions, in this order (which is also the order of interest to me):
- What is Revelations about?
- How did it make it into the canonical Bible?
- What explains its enduring popularity?
The strength of the lecture were her clear explanation of the content of Revelations. She had several images from Western art from the 15th century to now. She explained that Revelations was anti-Roman propaganda meant to counter Roman propaganda. Babylon, in Revelations the source of worldly, political, profane, hedonistic power and society, is a stand in for Rome and is then shown to be an ally or pawn of monstrous, dark forces. I am not a religion scholar, but I thought this point was already well-established.
As to the other two questions, she did not get very far in exploring or answering them. All right, that is excusable. She did say it was a work in progress. She went to Q&A after about 50 minutes or so. She did not really engage in dialogue with anyone and her response was usually a variation of “I’ll look into that.” Disappointing.
You would think someone as visible as she is, writing on such touchy topics as religion and original texts would be used to lots of challenging questions from the folks who take the Bible VERY seriously. The man asking a question before me really got into his rambling groove. The long beard and switching between Hebrew (I think) and English added to his modern-day Ezekiel quality. To me, and most, it was incomprehensible. I think he was saying that that Ctaholic church is the “whore of Babylon.” In fact, it is the Catholic Church literally, that the author of Revelations is doing the future and not his own times. Anyway, the whole audience went from polite indulgence to awkward silence. I almost asked him to wrap up after five minutes of this before Pagels cut him off. She needed to step in earlier and politely dispatch him. Take a page from Obama v Republicans!
The upside of his ramble was it gave me time to formulate my own suggestion to her about the staying power of Revelations. Caveat: I am not a religion scholar and this is all off the top of my head. Take it or leave it, but I won’t be doing more witht his than what I write here.
Premise 1: Revelations is full of multi-valent symbolims. This is part of its appeal. The reader can see many possibilities in any one image.
Premise 2: Revelations is about the tension between socio-political struggles of this world and how to understand them from a religious worldview.
My assertion: For any present day reader, Revelations DOES NOT MAKE SENSE. I mean, it can not cohere in its entirety. It offers the illusion of total allegory with the first two premises. But it can never really deliver. So, it’s very nonsensical essence is part of its enduring popularity.
Furthermore, there is a deep resonance with the ultimate incoherence of the text and the inability of interpreting it to reach a final resolution because the socio-political struggles of the messy world of human affairs also never really resolve. I heard someone quoting some British politician recently who said that all political careers end in failure. The point: there is never any enduring permanent victory for any side or actor in any of the many struggles that define our wordly existence.
Revelations can not make sense in terms of a final conclusion. The real world also can not make sense.
But the multi-valent imagery and symbolism invites the reader to try to wrangle coherence out of Revelations, and by extension the real world. The result is that the act of reading becomes an act of heroic interpretation. The heroic interpretation then becomes a binding moment. The reader becomes their own prophet, becomes one who sees the implications of the future in the present.
Revelations is popular because it doesn’t make sense.