I mentioned a few months ago that I’d read the Book of Revelation for the first time, and found it mostly off-putting. The other day I mentioned this difficulty to Telford, who said that the way he teaches the apocalyptic genre is that its closest modern analogy as an editorial cartoon. In September, in fact, he used a post-hurricane cartoon as an illustration in class. From his description, it must have been this one.
I can see why he chose that cartoon, because it conveys its message purely with image, unlike most other cartoons that label its characters or add captions to make sure you get the point. By doing so, it manages to convey two messages at once: that Bush is indifferent to the suffering of others, and that he’s oblivious to the danger to himself.
At the same time, of course, it is extremely contextual. The image of being underwater implied the flooding of New Orleans only at that moment in history; if I came across it even now, I wouldn’t know what it was about unless I saw the date. The image of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is more lasting, but still depends on a certain shared cultural knowledge. The idea is that Revelation commented on current events in a similar way, by using images that were outlandish and yet instantly recognizable to the people of the time.
All this suggests two things to me. One, that editorial cartooning, like fairy tales and rock music, is a modern form of “low” art that descended from much grander, even sacred, origins. I had never thought of it that way before, but it might say something about the current hysteria going on over a certain set of editorial cartoons. To say that they’re “just” cartoons is perhaps underestimating the impact of such absurd images. (On the other hand, the fact that Bush manages to be president despite being probably the most cartooned person on the planet suggests that this impact might be diluted by abundance.)
The other thing this makes me wonder, heretical though this may be to Protestants, is how much this makes Revelation worth studying today. What’s the point of reading the text yourself if you need an expert to explain practically every single image in it? If the Spirit was, in fact, speaking to people in such an extremely contextual fashion, I wonder how much it is even meant for us all these years later. And the underlying message of it all — God is in charge, he will overthrow evil empires and reward his followers — appears elsewhere in the Bible, often in more comprehensible form.
So have any of you out there studied Revelation? Is it worth getting some tour guide (Telford recommended Bauckham) to take you through it all, or is it one of those things that’s better read about than actually read, if you see what I mean?