staring up at the ceiling

On Reading Revelation “Literally”

Reading Revelation seemed to bring up many more questions or difficulties than usual in our class. These questions seemed to revolve around the problem of “how exactly are we supposed to read this,” which flows into “how exactly are we supposed to read the Bible”? We usually, it seems, assume we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to the big hermeneutical questions – at least, we don’t talk about them much. Revelation, however, evidently tests that assumption.

Maybe this is because Revelation triggers our realism reflexes. It is such a strange mix of concrete imagery (God looking like something as specific as jasper and carnelian, for instance, and sitting, on a throne), bizarre imagery (like the figure with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth in chapter 1, or the hybrid figures of cherubim, with different kinds of faces and “full of eyes” in chapter 4), and those discontinuities, those jump cuts and scene shifts (all of a sudden there’s a door in heaven; wait, now the one seated on the throne is holding a scroll; oh, now there’s a lamb right in the middle of everything). If this were a film by Luis Buñuel that would be OK, maybe. But all of this is in the Bible, so we are supposed to take it seriously as truth, somehow. This may be why reading Revelation seems to drive some of us a little crazy.

So I thought I ought to say a few words about why reading Revelation does not drive me crazy.

It’s not because “I don’t take the Bible literally.” I do take the Bible literally.

And I maintain that everyone else does, too. Everyone else takes the Bible literally, just like everyone else takes Shakespeare literally, and Jane Austen literally, and J.K. Rowling literally. Because honestly, if we didn’t read every text for its plain text meaning the first time through, we wouldn’t have a clue what we were reading. Language has to work as literal language before it can work as any other kind of language. For instance, you have to know what bread is, and what it would mean for Jesus to be a loaf of bread, before you can understand that when Jesus says he’s the bread of life he can’t actually mean he’s a loaf of bread, assuming he’s still in his right mind, so he must mean something else.

And it’s not because I don’t think the Bible is true. I do think the Bible is true.

So I think I understand where that urge to fight “taking the Bible literally” comes from. A lot of us – me, too – grew up in neighborhoods of the Christian world where we learned that we were supposed to treat the Bible as the same kind of literature as a history textbook or a Zagat Guide to New York restaurants. In that kind of literature, we know we’re supposed to be able to match the details of the narrative to our objective world the way our grandmothers matched plaids when they sewed our school uniforms. Because, the Bible is True.

But here’s the central, maybe buried, question: what genres, what kinds of literature, can be True?

It’s when we think that the only kinds of literature that can be true are those history textbooks or those Zagat Guides that we buy ourselves all kinds of grief. That’s when we find our realistic selves fighting with our faithful selves, feeling compelled to accept Revelation as a walking tour of heaven, when our modern rational realistic selves can’t do that, but our faithful selves can’t say “this can’t be true” about the Bible, thinking those are our only alternatives, feeling crazy and wishing we could make the Bible say something other than what it says.

But long ago, so long ago that I’ve forgotten where I read it or who wrote it or what the context for it was, I read that when a Pacific Northwest indigenous storyteller tells a story, she will say, in the way an English storyteller will say “Once upon a time” at the beginning of a story, “Now, I don’t know if it happened exactly this way, but I know that this story is true.”

That insight – that a story can be true, even if it didn’t happen “exactly this way” – has been life-giving.

But first, I have to find out what “exactly this way” is. So, I have to start by letting the teller of the story tell the story, the way that story needs to be told. I have to start by listening to what the narrator is saying, and asking myself something like “what kind of a story is this?”

So I think reading Revelation doesn’t drive me crazy because I don’t fight taking it literally.

I read Revelation literally, and I go with John’s description of his vision of heaven, in all its concrete, bizarre, dreamlike scene-shifting glory. [When I was a little girl, some of my favorite books were books about children who had magical adventures. Maybe my preferences have not changed that much.] That is, I don’t start reading Revelation by bringing my modern or post-modern realism and its practical objections to the reading table, and freaking out when something happens in John’s vision that “wouldn’t happen in real life.” I wouldn’t do that when I’m reading Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, either.

Some people might object to comparing reading the Bible, which is True, with literary works that “everyone knows are works of fiction.” But no English teacher will let you get away with saying that novels (e.g., Middlemarch) or dramas (e.g., Macbeth) don’t tell the truth. And in fact, we know that the Bible doesn’t have just one genre; there are lots of different genres in the Bible. Some of those genres are not “realistic.” The genre of Revelation, for instance, is a description of a visionary or mystical experience. We wouldn’t expect that kind of experience, or an account of that kind of experience, to conform to our expectations of normal, realistic, everyday life. That doesn’t mean it can’t tell the truth. So I’m willing to trust the Biblical storyteller’s claim “I know this story is true” and not worry too much, from verse to verse, whether it could have happened exactly this way.

Eventually, I know, I’ll have to ask the question: what is this story true about? What do I come to know, what can I come to know, from reading this text? Where precisely might the narrator be saying “well, I don’t know if it’s exactly that way,” and where is the narrator saying “I know this is true”? Eventually, I know I’ll need to make some decisions about what I think about that. I’ll have to “match the plaids” of the Biblical world and the empirical world (that God created and that is a different source of revelation) and say, at least to myself, what my working account of reality includes and what it doesn’t. But that’s a theological exercise. I don’t start with that. I start by listening to the story.

staring up at the ceiling
staring at the ceiling

2 responses to “On Reading Revelation “Literally””

  1. Growing up, our parish had a priest that told stories. He often started by saying, “All of my stories are true, but this one really happened.” Thanks for the post that brought that back with a smile to my face.

    Liked by 2 people

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