Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

Reading Revelation on the verge of a pandemic

It sounds strange, but I teach an entire course on the Apocalypse.

That’s the Greek word (apocalypsis) for the Book of Revelation.

To be clear, I’m not the kind of Christian who owns detailed charts on the “end times.” I don’t watch prophecy shows on Christian Cable (except for the hair and makeup). And I don’t have a backyard bunker filled with firearms, homemade scrolls, and MREs.

But I am a dad, and the threat of a coronavirus pandemic has made me a little nervous.

Last night, I foolishly read a blog post entitled, “The Pandemic is Coming!” and then dreamt that I had to protect our children from the viral equivalent of Season One of The Walking Dead. (I was Rick Grimes, in case you’re wondering.)

THE APOCALYPSE OF ANXIETY

One might think teaching a course on the Apocalypse would prepare me for such times. But alas, I can sometimes be as prone to catastrophizing as the next person.

When I walked through the Los Angeles airport last week, my wife smiled at me for holding a bottle of hand sanitizer like it were a vial of holy water.

Should the book of Revelation help with these anxieties?

Or is its function primarily to scare the holy Hades out of us?

Unlike some purveyors of Christian fan fiction, I do not think the Apocalypse is primarily a code to be cracked about the end of the world, a still-future “Antichrist” (a word that never appears in the text), the rapture, or the founding of the United Nations.

Revelation is written to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor, each wrestling with the affluence, idolatry, political upheaval, and (impending) persecution of the Roman Empire. (See here and here for an accessible introduction.)

John’s message is not that these churches will escape tumult, but that the way forward involves the posture of the Lamb rather than the way of the Dragon. Some parts of the book are scary, or just strange (Chapter 17 includes a drunken prostitute riding an amphibious assault beast tattooed with naughty names [vss 1–3]).

Although John isn’t taken physically “out” of the world of fire and plague, he is taken spiritually “up” to glimpse the heavenly throne. A powerful worship service ensues (ch. 4), but as the choruses conclude, John’s worry returns (sound familiar?). He weeps and weeps when confronted with a “scroll” associated with the events of the future:

no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it (5:3).

John’s anxiety is our anxiety—especially in times of global uncertainty.

We wonder what will happen next. Will peace be taken from the earth? Will the church be swayed by political idolatry, affluent pride, or the threat of persecution? Will kings and paupers be laid low?

Uncertainty over the future makes John weep.

Then comes an answer:

one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… (5:5–6).

DON’T WASTE THE APOCALYPSE

Many things in Revelation are unclear. Which prophecies were fulfilled “soon” after the book’s writing (1:1), and which ones await the future? The Apocalypse does not come with a decoder ring.

Still, I agree with Dennis Johnson, who authored an excellent introductory commentary on the book:

Our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people. If we could explain every phrase, identify every allusion to Old Testament Scripture or Greco-Roman society, trace every interconnection, and illumine every mystery in this book and yet were silenced by the intimidation of public opinion, terrorized by the prospect of suffering, enticed by affluent Western culture’s promise of “security, comfort, and pleasure,” then we would not have begun to understand the Book of Revelation.

Our only safety lies in seeing the ugly hostility of the enemy clearly and clinging fast to our Champion and King, Jesus.

To ignore this takeaway is to waste the Apocalypse–and to miss the forest for the flowcharts.

CONCLUSION

I have no idea, of course, whether fears of a global pandemic will come true, or whether this year’s flu will kill more people than the coronavirus. (Thankfully, it does seem that the mortality rate is not as bad as it could be.)

But if there is a benefit to teaching Revelation during times of global anxiety, it is the reminder that God’s people have been here before.

It is a modern myth that health and prosperity are guaranteed by science, medicine, prosperity, technology, and military might: Just ask Babylon the Great (18:2).

Regardless of the viral spread of fear and other pathogens, the overriding takeaway of Revelation is that the final “face covering” is not a medical mask but a wedding veil:

the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:1-2).

 


Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

“Looking comes first.”

“Looking comes first.”

Several months ago, I reread my old copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Christian imagination (Now submitted!).

Lewis’ tale is a creative recasting of heaven, hell, and purgatory—all couched in a dream sequence—that allows him to demur (though not entirely convincingly) that he has no intention of “speculating” on the details of the afterlife. (Nonsense; but I’ll save that for another time.)

One of the more convicting encounters in The Great Divorce involves a famous artist who visits heaven and responds with awe: “I should like to paint this!”

Unfortunately, it is precisely this desire (to depict heaven rather than experience it) that will cause him to depart willingly for hell.

Then the money quote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, deep down Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him (85).

I don’t know about poets, musicians, and artists—but this is darn sure true of preachers.

As proof, I found this note, scrawled in my handwriting from freshman year of college.

Great Divorce pic.jpeg

The command given to the ambitious artist is simple: “Looking comes first.”

There is nothing wrong with painting, describing, depicting Beauty.

Fine. Good. Do it.

But put down your brush, for a moment—Look first.

Let’s not be tour guides for a land we no longer inhabit.

The Kingdom has no need of expats trading legal residence for commentary and holiday excursions.

“…if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“At present your business is to see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

Amen.

 

 


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

Of her, not just in her

Of her, not just in her

On Mary and the womb of Christmas

For some Protestants, Advent may be about the only time we think of Mary—kneeling as she often is beside a plastic manger in our church Nativities.

Yet a chorus of evangelical scholars has argued recently (here and here) that a relative silence on Christ’s mother comes at the expense of Scripture, basic church tradition, and a proper view of women in the story of redemption.

Mary and Eve
Virgin Mary and Eve,
~Sr Grace Remington, OCSO.

After all, in the words of Lucy Peppiatt,

“Jesus is made of her, not just in her.”

MORE THAN MERE RECEPTACLE 

We might be conditioned to think of Mary more as a “receptacle” for carrying and birthing Christ, but not as one who actually supplied his humanity from her own body.

The early theologians who hammered out the doctrine of Christ, however, would have nothing of this viewpoint.

Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240) says it this way:

Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. […] He had no reason for enclosing Himself [there] if He was to bear forth nothing from it.

To say that Christ’s humanity did NOT come from Mary might seem like a minor quibble, but to go down this road is to sever Jesus from the line of Israel and of Adam—and thus to cut the saving cord that ties him to us all.

Peppiatt goes on:

Mary is not only a receptacle of the Divine [Christ], she contributes [to the baby] from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him.

When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.

When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born.

In the latest cover story for Christianity Today, Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler speak of Mary as “the first Christian”—a prophet, proclaimer, and prototype of every Jesus-worshiper.

The entire Christian life is, in a way, mirrored by the experience of Mary. Each one of us—both male and female—are called to live in Christ and he in us. We are all expected to carry Christ at the core of our being—like Mary carried Christ in her womb—and to labor with him and for him.

The Gospel writers want us to understand how important Mary was, serving from the Annunciation to Pentecost as both God-bearer in her physical body and as gospel-bearer, a faithful witness and proclaimer to the work that God was accomplishing in our Lord Jesus Christ. Both her identities matter […].

LESS THAN CO-REDEMPTRIX

None of this means Mary should be viewed as a sinless “co-redemptrix” who functions as the heavenly “good cop” to God’s judgmental “bad one.” (This has been claimed.)

Nor does it imply that she was free from original sin and “full of grace” to dispense because of her excess merit. (This view is based on a mistranslation of “favored one” [κεχαριτωμενη] in Luke 1:28.)

CONCLUSION

What the prior argument does mean is that in avoiding potential excesses surrounding Mary, Protestants should be wary of throwing the “baby” (or rather, the baby’s mother!) out with the bathwater.

Christ was made “of her” not just “in her.”

So while Jesus is rightly the focus of the Christmas season, Mary’s brave Yes to God’s call provides a model for all believers.

 

 


Want to support this blog? Books make great stocking stuffers:

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

A sermon on New Creation

A sermon on New Creation

Here’s message I gave last weekend at Fountain Springs Church in Rapid City, South Dakota.

In it, I explain important theological truths like how I accidentally burned off my hair with a blow torch–and why it matters that the Bible ends with “New Creation” for God’s people.

The message was the final installment in a series over my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements.


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


Thanks for stopping by.

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

 

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process

“I’m convinced,” writes Andrew Peterson, “that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass.”

The colorful description comes in a book on the beauty and the pain of making things—whether one is a poet, a preacher, a musician, or an artist of some other stripe.

ADORNING THE DARK

I just finished Peterson’s new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.

adorning.jpg

I’ve appreciated his work for years.

Despite a voice that (allegedly) sounds a bit like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection, his music has always moved me.

  • Brianna and I chose “Canaan Bound” to be sung at our wedding.
  • My kids loved Peterson’s fantasy novels (The Wingfeather Saga), with Lucy proclaiming them to be even better than Harry Potter. (Not true. But still.)
  • And his entirely original, Behold the Lamb of God, is my favorite Christmas album of all time.

Adorning the Dark is different from these other works. But there are still some helpful lessons for those involved in the creative process.

Here are four:

1. Write the bad ones too

Peterson tells sheepishly how a fan once approached him after a concert with a request for him to write down some songwriting advice on the inside of a CD case. Being a bit tired, Peterson wrote, “Don’t write bad songs.”

Seeing the somewhat snarky inscription, Peterson’s bandmate Andy Gullahorn wrote his own advice: “Write the bad ones too.”

Gullahorn’s insight was not just that one should be kind to fans, but that “quality control” is not the chief skill an artist must cultivate: Output matters too.

The two pre-requisites for getting published are (wait for it…) writing and finishing.

So make something, even if it isn’t great.

Excellence is for editing (and re-writing).

2. Artists need “resonators”

A second take-away is that art nurtures community and community nurtures art.

After being dropped by his record label and nearly bankrupted by the post-Napster death of album sales, Peterson founded a collective called “The Rabbit Room” with a ragamuffin group of Nashville artists.

These friendships not only allowed for cross-promotion between artists; they also provided encouragement, community, and feedback.

I’ve been blessed with fantastic “resonators.”

  • My colleague, Dr. Jerome Van Kuiken, is the smartest person I know, and he provides invaluable critique on everything I write for publication.
  • My wife Brianna reads my blog posts, and she often weeds out the lines that could get me fired and/or tarred and feathered.
  • I also have friendships with folks like the up-and-coming novelist K. M. West, who provides not only encouragement but also a (silent) reminder that there are people out there busier than me who still write consistently—and at a high level.

Art nurtures community. Community nurtures art.

Artists need resonators.

3. Boil it down

After reading Wendel Berry, Peterson tells how he and his wife sold their comfortable suburban home and bought a small, ramshackle cottage on several tree-lined acres near Nashville.

If artists need resonators, they frequently need nature too.

Since the property had maple trees, Peterson Googled “How to make maple syrup.” He was stunned to learn that a person gets one gallon of syrup for every forty (!) gallons of sap.

If you were to taste the maple sap before you boiled it down, which I did, you’d find it hard to believe there’s any sweetness hiding in there at all.

Writing is like that too.

The sweetness often comes in “boiling it down.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a copy of my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements. For the most part, I am proud of the writing—which is significant since I first hammered it out over a decade ago.

That said, upon re-reading what I’ve published, my overriding critique is that I could have cut a few more words from certain sentences and paragraphs.

I could have lost some empty calories and gained some “sweetness.”

Boil it down.

4. Plant the berries

The most moving story in Adorning the Dark involves a trip to Sweden that Peterson’s family took in 2016 after a season of busyness, burnout, and depression (another commonality of artists).

While abroad, he sought to locate the old stone cottage of his great-grandfather.

After much research, the general location of the ruined house was found, and an ancient local Swede agreed to take the Petersons by bicycle into the dark, thick forest to find it.

[The Swede] explained [through a translator] that he was looking for a certain kind of berry that would tell him where the old foundation stones would be.

A hundred years ago, he said, the berries were planted outside the cottage for food, and long after the house fell into ruin, the berry bushes lived on. If you want to find the remains of a dwelling in a Swedish forest, [he] told us, look for berries.

Lo and behold, they found the berries—along with the home.

The story forms a parable for the kind of art that matters.

As Peterson concludes:

“One day, perhaps, when I’m dead and gone, and my songs and stories lie in the ruins of some old forest and no one remembers my name, whatever good and beautiful and human thing that the King of Creation called forth from me will fall to the earth and grow brambly and wild, and some homesick and hungry soul will leave the well-worn path and say, ‘Look! Someone lived here.

Praise God, there are berries everywhere.’”

Good art is the “berry” that adorns the darkness.

And homesickness leads home.

 


I’m going to open the comments on this one.

Fellow writers, preachers, musicians (etc.): What’s the most helpful advice you’ve found about the creative process?


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

 

 

College education as a matter of life and death

College education as a matter of life and death

I’m a college professor.

But even I know there are bad reasons to attend a university.

Here is a good one: You’re much less likely to die young.

Note these findings from a 2017 study that tracks changing mortality rates amongst non-college educated white Americans especially. Pay attention to the top lines (labeled “high school or less.”)

Drug and alcohol poisoning deaths

Drug, suicid, alcohol deaths

CORRELATION AND CAUSATION

When reading these studies, it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t causation. It’s not necessarily the lack of a degree that is contributing to a frightening rise in early deaths in certain demographics.

There are many complex factors. But I suspect part of the problem is an increasing deficit of hope in certain parts of the country. And this is being expressed in everything from suicide, to opioid addiction, to a growth in scapegoating ideologies like white nationalism and white supremacy.

Note the stunning comparison between America and other nations:

US mortality compared to other nations

Some good news in the study is that mortality rates (for certain age groups) have declined amongst non whites. The bad news is that the closing gap between racial groups has come more by a precipitice decline amongst non-college educated whites than by improvements elsewhere.

A DEFICIT OF HOPE

The cause, according to the study, is more complicated than a simple look at income.

In particular, the income profiles for blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality has fallen, are no better than those for whites. Nor is there any evidence in the European data that mortality trends match income trends…

The study suggests that the cause of this decline has to do with

cumulative disadvantage[s] … triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education.”

In other words, factories and mines closed; and it was no longer possible to get a good job without education (see also my treatment of this theme in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

The way of life within the rust belt changed, and frustration over a world that no longer exists fueled a rise in opioid addiction, race-based populism, and scapegoating. (Picture the late Weimar Republic but with fentanyl in place of Zyklon B.)

CONCLUSION

The solution to all this is far more complex than simply telling young Americans to “go to college.”

But as I head back to faculty meetings today and to classes next week, it’s worth remembering that the completion of a college education is more than just a privilege or a foregone conclusion: For some of my students, it’s part of the difference between life and death.

 


Thanks for stopping by.

My new book, The Mosaic of Atonement, comes out this month! Check it out here.

Like the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter.