Down with Rome!

I’ve been reading apocalypses recently: Revelation, an ancient Christian apocalypse, and Joel, an ancient Hebrew apocalypse, to be specific. As a Transcendentalist, I have a soft spot in my heart for Joel’s insistence that everyone is going to have transcendent visions: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2.28-29)

Politically, however, I’m more interested in Revelation, which rails against the oppression of the Romans, and longs for the destruction of the Roman Empire. It’s the vivid expression of an oppressed people’s longing for the destruction of their foreign oppressors, filled with extravagant imagery. I know conventional Christians see Revelation as the coming of the End Times when they all will get raptured up to heaven; but to me it reads more like political hate mail for the Roman overlords.

To better understand Revelation, I’ve been reading bits of a non-canonical apocalyptic book, the Sibylline Oracles, written somewhere around the same time as Revelation, give or take a century or two. This passage from Book VIII makes the political content quite clear:

God’s declarations of great wrath to come
In the last age upon the faithless world
I make known, prophesying to all men
According to their cities. From the time
When the great tower fell and the tongues of men
Were parted into many languages
Of mortals, first was Egypt’s royal power
Established, that of Persians and of Medes
And also of the Ethiopians
And of Assyria and Babylon,
Then the great pride of boasting Macedon,
Then, fifth, the famous lawless kingdom last
Of the Italians shall show many evils
Unto all mortals and shall spend the toils
Of men of every land….

There shall come to thee sometime from above
A heavenly stroke deserved, O haughty Rome.
And thou shalt be the first to bend thy neck
And be razed to the ground, and thee shall fire
Destructive utterly consume, cast down
Upon thy pavements, and thy wealth shall perish,
And wolves and foxes dwell in thy foundations.
And then shalt thou be wholly desolate,
As if not born….

The Sibylline Oracles, trans. Milton S. Terry, 1899, Book VIII, ll. 1-15, 47-55; pp. 161-163.

Nothing about the Rapture here, just straightforward hate mail for Rome. In my reading, Revelation is also hate mail for Rome; it makes more sense that way. Yes, it is a lot less straightforward than the above passage from the Sibylline Oracles; yes, it is filled with bizarre imagery; but it makes a lot more sense as an ancient religio-political tract predicting the downfall of Rome than as a onto-theological text predicting — um, from a theological point of view, I’m not sure exactly what Revelation is supposed to predict.

Just to state the obvious

When confronted with a twelve year old girl who had just died, the story about that radical rabble-rouser and rabbi Jesus of Nazareth does not have him saying: “Your daughter is in heaven now because God needed another angel”; nor is he reported as saying, “I know just how you feel, but your daughter is in a better place now.” Nope, the way the story runs is that Jesus walks into where the girl is lying, takes her hand, and says, “Girl, get up!” and she does. (For you Bible geeks, this is in Mark 5.35-43.)

Mind you, I’m not someone who believes in the literal factual truth of the stories in the Bible, nor do I believe in the literal truth of the stories told by Shakespeare, and in fact I have a limited amount of trust in the literal factual truth of stories in the New York Times or on Fox News. Stories have their own narrative logic that is different from, but no less true than, literal factual truth.

So reading this story is not going to make me go out and try to do some faith healing — no more than reading King Lear is going to make me say to my sweetheart, “I love you according to my bond; no more nor less.” (For you Shakespeare geeks, that’s act 1, scene 1, lines 94-95.) However, reading this story in the Jesus saga is going to make me think twice before uttering platitudes to the parents of a dead child. Jesus did not try to placate them by saying, “Your twelve year old is one of God’s angels now.” Instead, he showed up. He didn’t weep and wail. He was matter-of-fact. He paid attention to the parents, and paid attention to what they really wanted.

Just to state the obvious, this story is not a literal story about a dead girl that came back to life, but it is about a different kind of miracle: showing up, not freaking out, and paying attention to someone who needs it.

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Notes from a week of study leave, pt. 1

I’m re-reading the Gospel of Mark, in preparation for developing some curriculum materials for upper elementary school. When I can break away from the over-familiarity of the text, it seems like a strange and alien book to my postmodern sensibilities. If I try to read Mark as nonfiction or history I expect plot and rich characterizations; but there is little in the way of a coherent narrative, and the characters are often flat and not entirely believable. If I try to read Mark as a book of religion, that doesn’t work either, because I have come to expect religious books to read like platitude-filled self-help books; but Mark does not sound in the least like Eckhardt Tolle, or the Dalai Lama. If I try to read Mark as a book of theology, I’m also baffled, because I’ve become accustomed to theology written in boring academic prose with lots of footnotes and bizarre quasi-Germanic grammar. So I’m trying to let go of my preconceptions (or at least not cling so tightly to my preconceptions), accept the strangeness of the book, and decide what might be appropriate to present to fourth and fifth graders.

For example, do I want to tell them the story of the dead girl and the sick woman (Mark 5.21-43)? — Jesus is prevailed upon by some grieving parents to restore their dead daughter to life; on his way to see the dead girl, a woman who has been bleeding for fourteen years touches his robe and is healed; Jesus feels the power going out of him when she touches him, and turns around to confront her; then they eventually get to see the dead girl, and she comes back to life.

On the scale of supernatural occurences, this is no stranger than Grimm’s fairy tales and Harry Potter. Certainly it would be great fun to present this story to upper elementary children, compare it to fantastic stories with which they’re familiar, and then decide in what way the story is true. Upper elementary children are still concrete thinkers, but they are able to understand the difference between journalism, myth, fantastic fiction, and other types of stories. Children in this age group would also be able to understand that the moral or message in this story is not simple: the story wants to show us that Jesus is a miracle worker, but then Jesus tells the woman that it is her faith, not him, that has healed her. There’s a purpose behind these miracles, and today’s orthodox Christians will tell us that the purpose is to prove God’s existence to an unbelieving populace, but I think children could also understand that these stories are telling us something about the nature of subjectivity. I’m not sure how the parents of the children I teach would react to this story; many of them understand religion to be something that exists entirely in a plane of objective reality that can be proved or disproved scientifically; explorations of the subjective side of religion can be very touchy in Unitarian Universalist circles.

The story of the rich man (Mark 10.17-31) offers a critique of materialism; in today’s world, it can be understood as a critique of consumer capitalism. The rich man says that he keeps all of the ethical commandments, and asks Jesus what else he needs to do. Jesus replies that he must sell everything and give it to the poor, and then he will have “treasure in heaven.” I would love to present this story to children in the context of an interpretation of Jesus’s teachings in which the “Kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “Web of Life” (this is Bernard Loomer’s interpretation in his booklet Unfoldings); if you are well-to-do, you are doing damage to the interdependent web of all life (human and non-human life), because you are taking more than your share. But this could get uncomfortable if I were to take the next step, which would be to point out that most Americans are rich by world standards; we are not going to have “treasure in heaven,” that is, we are currently doing damage to the Web of Life, simply by being rich by world standards.

In short, Mark is a very challenging book. To present it honestly, so that I’m not doing violence to the text, might be more than I want to do with upper elementary children. That being the case, do I simply say that I’m not going to present stories from Mark to upper elementary children? Or do I present a watered-down version that removes the most challenging bits of the book?