February 9, 2006

Is God a cartoonist?

Filed under: Bible study — Camassia @ 4:06 pm

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?


  1. The most beautiful book about Revelation that I know of is Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder. I use the word “beautiful,” not only because Peterson is a master craftsman when it comes to words, but because he renders the vision beautiful, despite all the ugly imagery that stands in such sharp contrast. Revelation is a poem, a hymn, a liturgy, a world. The point is not information, but formation, and transformation of the imagination. Revelation dosn’t give us more knowledge, it gives us eyes to see. I always think of what Flannery O’Connor said about the grotesque images in her fiction; she had to write with such caricatures because you have to write big for the blind to see, or something like that.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe — February 10, 2006 @ 4:23 am

  2. There’s a sermon by Rowan Williams on Revelation in his “Ray of Darkness” collection which I quite like. He contrasts the seemingly dark and crazy elements in Revelation with the beautiful, transcendant ones. Sort of. I can’t really do it justice.

    We’ve recently started studying Revelation in the youth group I assist with. The editorial cartoon analogy is very helpful, thanks! :)

    Comment by Elliot — February 10, 2006 @ 9:24 am

  3. I have nothing to offer but the reflection that I’ve heard from countless liberal Christians, “Why, oh why, can’t we just drop Revelation altogether?” The wingnuts who read it literally are a boil on the body of Christ…

    Sorry, that was a bit unkind. And I do love the imagery — and who among us doesn’t like to quote Revelation 21:3-4 entirely out of context???

    Comment by Hugo — February 10, 2006 @ 9:30 am

  4. I just finished Robert Farrar Capon’s book The Fingerprints of God in which he argues, among other things, that the entire Bible thinks chiefly in images as a way of pointing to God and giving us eyes to see, as Jonathan says. For instance, the Rock, the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, the Vine and the Branches, etc. are all images used to make us aware of God our relationship to him. So, Revelation is not different in kind from the rest of the Bible in that respect. And the image of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world and the New Jerusalem in Revelation are not something Christianity would want to do without I would think. I think this idea of images that we need to dwell in and be shaped and formed by is a good reason why simply having a good commentary or other secondary source can’t replace reading the text itself.

    Also, I personally like the fact that there’s stuff in the Bible that just strikes me as weird and outlandish. God forbid that we should reduce it to questionable history and ethical platitudes!

    Comment by Lee — February 10, 2006 @ 9:42 am

  5. Perhaps I should clarify that my problem here isn’t that Revelation uses images, or that the images are sometimes grotesque, but that they are so contextual. I mean, I’m postmodern enough to know that all images are contextual, but some are more so than others. Psalm 23, for instance, is enduringly popular because its imagery is pretty clear to any society with even a passing familiarity with sheep. But editorial cartoonists produce very few immortal images, because their art is very much of its historical moment. Images are powerful when you “get” them, but if you don’t get them and have to have them explained to you, I don’t see the advantages of images over explanation — it seems to just add a layer of obscurity. (Sort of the way a joke can’t be funny if you have to explain why it’s funny.)

    Or maybe I’m just trying to get out of more reading. I have way too many half-finished books sitting around!

    Comment by Camassia — February 10, 2006 @ 10:13 am

  6. I think a lot of the images in Revelation are clear, we just wish they weren’t. You can get the main theme without a skeleton key. And their clarity is in the impression they make more so than in the understanding they convey.

    Modern people seem to prefer allegory to symbolism, so we ask what each images means but we really want to know what it stands for. But symbols don’t work that way, and the most helpful thing a commentary on Revelation can do is give you some things to think about, sort of the way a wine critic can point out subtleties in the flavor.

    For instance, the seven “bowl” judgments (I think) have a certain kinship to the Exodus plagues. Pointing this out doesn’t doesn’t really “explain” them, but it does give you a bit of a help in perceiving the text better. At least, it works that way for me.

    I really like Gerhard Krodel’s commentary, but it seems to be out of print.

    Comment by Mel — February 10, 2006 @ 1:58 pm

  7. I love the cartoon explanation.

    I studied the relationship of Revelation to 70CE for my dissertation, so I couldn’t bear to turn to it for about 4 years. Added to that, was my awareness that most folks I know who are into Revelation are fruit-cakes!

    However, I did return and I’m glad I did. I’d recommend Bauckham and Caird.

    Comment by graham — February 10, 2006 @ 5:12 pm

  8. You make a good point about political cartoons. When I was doing my thesis, I studied a lot of political cartoons from the 1980s and 1990s. I’d be sitting there in the graduate room and I’d sometimes laugh out loud because I “got” the joke. I understood the historical that made the cartoon very funny. But trying to explain the satire to people who’d ask me what I was laughing about was almost impossible!

    Maybe I’m misreading you slightly but I think your point isn’t so much that individual images are unfamiliar. For example, if you wanted to understand the 144,000 you could go to a commentary, see the various options discussed and make your own mind up. It’s that the genre of apocalyptic is so unfamiliar and foreign today that we really have no tacit knowledge (like Revelation’s first readers) for making sense of it. I can’t really think of any contemporary literary genre that parallels Revelation. It’s not consistent allegory (like Narnia) and neither is it consistent fantasy like LOTR. “Cartoon” is perhaps as good a modern parallel as we’re going to get. But I’m sure both you and Telford agree that this analogy is far from perfect. Since Revelation defies such easy categrisation, maybe that shows it’s great art.

    As an Adventist, I’m part of a denomination that’s infamous for some of the more “interesting” interpretations of Revelation and Daniel over the years. Commentaries, of course, abound on the Apocalypse. But commentaries can become a crutch. Maybe what might be helpful for you (as it was for me) is to use something general on how Scripture uses language and imagery in relation to the future. This is where what Telford recommended (Bauckham) is excellent, because it’s not really a large commentary, but a small(ish) guide that gives you the tacit knowledge to read Revelation with comprehension for yourself.

    Comment by Paul Whiting — February 10, 2006 @ 5:46 pm

  9. But Revelations is just so cool! I realize it’s used and abused, but that’s because it’s so cool! There’s always something happening, something to picture, some kind of mystery. Plus it’s just about the most fun book for kids, since it features all kinds of cool, ominous stuff like dragons and falling stars and weeping and wailing.

    That said, Scott Hahn has some really interesting stuff to say about it in The Lord’s Supper — all the liturgical imagery. (And it’s a short book, thus handy.)

    So don’t give up on Revelations! It’s fun and spiritually uplifting!

    Comment by Maureen — February 12, 2006 @ 10:55 am

  10. Of course, just for silliness, you probably should check out the infamous Apocamon. (The Book of Revelation as if all the critters were Pokemon monsters.) Not a wellspring of great spiritual uplift, but very funny.

    Comment by Maureen — February 12, 2006 @ 11:01 am

  11. In some measure, just knowing that the images are inspired by events of the time, rather than translating into specific predictions for the future, helps. I like the editorial cartoon explanation. We have a Jerusalem study Bible, and, while it doesn’t have as much detail as a commentary would, it does have footnotes which explain some of the details. I also had one lesson on the book in my second year Education for Ministry class, and somewhere I have a book on apocalyptic literature. Maybe I can dig it up and lend it to you.

    There was a whole lot of apocalyptic literature in the intertestimental period.

    Comment by Lynn Gazis-Sax — February 12, 2006 @ 10:59 pm

  12. The whole New Testament is contextual. Jesus was sent to Earth at a particular time and place, and while his death and resurrection were of universal import, the particular political setting of those events is quite remote from us now. We may understand Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees more readily because that story is told and retold so often, but modern readers still need explanation and context to best appreciate the significance of those events. It may be that Revelation just seems less accessible because it’s less familiar.

    The possibly remains, too, that Revelation authentically transcribes a divinely inspired vision that St. John of Patmos had, and the parallels to events of the time simply reflect the limitations of St. John as a prophet, that he was only able to relate God’s vision in terms of his contemporary political understanding.

    Comment by Tom T. — February 13, 2006 @ 8:44 pm

  13. The book of the Apocalypse probably doesn’t absolutely require a “translator” to make sense, but it requires fastidious notetaking so as to make connections among its many sections. It also reflects much of the Old Testament, so it mandates reading one’s Bible way more than most of us do.

    But (speaking as Lutheran) without the Apocalypse, the Liturgy and hymnody would be so much poorer. “Holy, Holy, Holy”, e.g., with its “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” is cribbed directly from the book.

    For an absolutely excellent lay-person introduction that maybe doesn’t do as much as it could to “demystify” the referents, but which puts the thing together with all the appropriate evangelical tones is Craig Koester’s “Revelation and the End of All Things.” I blogged about the book and his class a couple of years ago, and my enthusiasm has not waned.

    Dwight P

    Comment by Dwight — February 14, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

  14. I heard an very good series of talks given at a retreat for a Catholic youth movement, in which the Apocalypse is presented as a guide for now, for Christian living. This sounds cheesy and as though it will be one of these things where the guy gives a talk on something he wants to talk about, and then randomly chucks in a couple of quotes or strained interpretations from the given book, but it wasn’t. You can buy the recording
    catch: the talks are in German. But not very difficult German, so if you did it at school and you are prepared to look up a word or five, you should manage.

    Comment by berenike — February 15, 2006 @ 9:46 am

  15. When I taught Revelation some years back in a Bible class at a Mennonite Church, I referred to some rather unusual sources, from the lectures of Rudolf Steiner to the more mundane Invitation to the Book of Revelation by feminist Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to the “celestial” exposition of Emanuel Swedenborg’s Apocalypse Revealed and Apocalypse Explained.

    So as to remain well grounded in this study, I used the Orthodox Study Bible and the Jerusalem Catholic Bible, both of which have excellent study notes.

    I think that the very first thing one must do after reading Revelation is determine whether one accepts as truth the very first two sentences or not. But this requires that you understand what these sentences are even saying.
    This determination, this decision will make all the difference in the world to your approach and to your understanding of this letter. The teacher of such a class must be a believer.

    Oh, by the way, “cartoon” is not the term I would use to describe anything about the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The connection of cartoon to symbol is weak and confusing.

    The Opening of the Prologue:

    “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants— things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw.” (John 1:1-2)

    Do you believe this?

    And the prologue concludes with,

    “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophesy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.” (v.3)

    Comment by José Solano — February 15, 2006 @ 7:25 pm

  16. OK, so what do you think the sentences are saying? I cannot tell you if I believe it without knowing what you would take that to mean. What do we mean by “shortly take place”? If we take this by an ordinary literal meaning, obviously all that did not take place shortly after John wrote it. So you can say that either a) it did shortly take place but in a symbolic way (i.e. the Roman empire fell), or b) we mean “shortly” by God’s scale of things, and so this has not happened yet. Or perhaps some of both. It seems to me that either is possible. But I don’t see how this particularly advances things from where we started.

    Comment by Camassia — February 15, 2006 @ 8:06 pm

  17. It is curious Camassia that you ask about “shortly take place.” This is one of the big questions related to this letter and one that most people are fascinated by. When does it all happen?

    Yet, it was not at all what I had in mind when I referred to the first two sentences and asked if you believe what it says. I was looking more at how the revelation comes about and is transmitted. So we see that it goes from God to Jesus Christ to an angel and then to John. And God gave this revelation to Jesus Christ so that He might show it to His servants beginning with John who writes it down and delivers it.

    Well, I have to ask myself, “Am I a servant of Jesus Christ?” If not, then this letter is not intended for me. I can make an intellectual examination of it, of course, but I may not be able thereby to “uncover,” unveil (Gr. apokalypsis) its meaning. It’s meaning is not revealed for me.

    First one must be able to say boldly, “Yes, I am a servant (a slave, a bondservant) of Jesus Christ for whom I live and die.” In Spanish we have a lovely reflexive verb: “entregarse,” to surrender oneself or to turn oneself in.

    The other question of belief is whether one believes that John was given this Revelation of Jesus Christ. If one believes this then one is going to approach this writing with enormous concern rather than just an academic interest. It will be of one’s ultimate concern, to borrow a Tillich term.

    During the early church formation, church planting days, not all of the churches accepted this letter. We can imagine how the seven churches referred to here might have received this letter with its indictments, indictments that appear fully applicable to many of our churches today.

    I must run to grade papers now. It would be a joy to explore this letter with you and anyone else interested.

    Thank you for bringing it up.

    Comment by José Solano — February 16, 2006 @ 10:49 am

  18. Oh, I see what you mean. Well, that’s sort of what I’m getting at. The fact that the message was directed to servants of Jesus does not automatically (to my mind) mean that it’s directed to all servants in the future as well as the then-present. It seems to me that the Spirit is really constraining itself if it’s going to deliver only messages that apply to all Christians at all places and times. Moreover, it seems to me that the Spirit is actually more helpful if it doesn’t so constrain itself. Some interpretations read much of Revelation as being about the Emperor Domitian, for instance, and personally I think it’s really helpful to get the God’s-eye view of a specific ruler or nation even if it doesn’t mean a whole lot to people who aren’t living under it. Otherwise we’re left making equations based on our own biases: does “Babylon” today equate to the U.S.? Russia? Iraq? The U.N.? You hear all manner of arguments from different quarters.

    I guess this ultimately goes to the question of continuing revelation. The incarnation of Jesus is a revelation that only happened once, and is the central event of Christian history, so naturally all Christians at all times and places should study it. The Holy Spirit, however, is meant to go on guiding us as history goes along, so Spirit actions such as visions do not seem to me to necessarily speak to universals. I think Protestants, at least, tend to assume that anything in the Bible is a universal Christian essential, and anything after that is just “history,” but I’m not sure that drawing that bright line is really justifiable. After all, Revelation almost didn’t make it into the Bible to begin with.

    Comment by Camassia — February 16, 2006 @ 11:23 am

  19. I have pondered what you have said Camassia.

    If this is truly a revelation given by God to Jesus Christ to show His servants, as I do believe, then it may well apply to Christians always and everywhere. But not to nominal Christians as they must really be servants of Christ.

    The Spirit conveys His messages as He wills. Some may be for a particular person in a particular situation or to a particular church at a given time. The Spirit may also work out His message to be multidimensional and multifaceted with various meanings applicable to diverse individuals and circumstances throughout time. God’s only constraints are those He imposes on Himself.

    Much evidence indicates the applicability of Revelation to the persecuted Church from Nero to Domitian. If the author is John the Apostle, as certain Traditions accept, he may have been alive during this entire period.

    The direct relevance of Revelation to that period of course does not negate its applicability to the servants of Christ in all times and places. The problem is naturally divining its meaning for now, and to do that one may need to be a servant of Christ.

    The letter appears filled with ambiguities and at best it may be an esoteric work whose message may be plumbed only by those willing to devote considerable time in study and prayer. It becomes a spiritual exercise and the insights in some cases may be thoroughly personal and not even be transferable, passed on to someone else.

    All of this needs to be considered possible as one approaches the study of a Revelation from God. It is the greatest of understatements to say that God is quite brilliant.

    Today, in our “age of digest,” as Hesse referred to it, people want quick conclusions and easy answers contrived perhaps by clever minds. To grasp the meaning or meanings of this Revelation may be extremely laborious and most people don’t have the time for that. This is why I suspect it was revealed for the slaves of God. It is not quite suitable for study by the Sunday Christian. For the Sunday Christian it may be titillating or amusing. Consider the state of being of those early Christians and the martyrs for whom the Revelation was first intended. Could they have had anything in common with our “Sunday Christians” of today?

    And so I feel we must return to my earlier question. Are we servants of Jesus Christ? Can we make this confession from the depths of our being? If we can make it at all I believe this letter has something significant for us.

    (Ah. The Church view for a long time, perhaps as a result of the so-called delay of the parousia, has been that “shortly take place” is in God’s time which is always imminent.)

    More perhaps later.

    Comment by José Solano — February 17, 2006 @ 9:49 am

  20. Well, perhaps the larger problem I’m dealing with here is that after a few years now of learning about Christianity I’ve discovered that there’s way more, by way of both reading and practice, available to me than I can possibly cover in my remaining 40 years of life (assuming good health and fortune). I know Christian academics who spend their careers delving into just one small corner of the faith, so obviously everybody has to make their priorities. As I’ve gone along I’ve sort of lurched from one thing to another, based on the people I bump into and their different pet interests and favorite books, but I’m not sure if I’m developing a coherent spirituality for myself, or even a good basic knowledge of Christianity itself. (I pretty much know squat about Calvinism, for instance, and I have next to no knowledge of post-biblical saints in any tradition.) This is, of course, branching into a much bigger issue than Revelation per se, but I guess that’s behind my general frustration with the fact that everybody can come up with lots of good reasons why I should engage in any Christian subject, had I world enough and time.

    Maybe I should go ponder that some more. Thanks for your responses, everyone.

    Comment by Camassia — February 17, 2006 @ 11:44 am

  21. I’m definitely of the school of thought that sees it as referring to the Roman Empire (but also, in a larger sense, to our relationship to worldly power similar to that of the Roman Empire). That makes a lot more sense to me than looking for clues as to what country in the current time resembles what particular beast. In general, I see all the apocalyptic literature as references to either current events in the time it was written, or events in the very near future of that time. (So, for example, I’d see much of the apocalyptic stuff in the New Testament as referring to the fall of Jerusalem.)

    Comment by Lynn Gazis-Sax — February 17, 2006 @ 12:33 pm

  22. “. . . The fact that everybody can come up with lots of good reasons why I should engage in any Christian subject, had I world enough and time.”

    I’m sorry. I was simply offering my two cents on a subject you brought up. Most Christian subjects do become enormously involved and as you know theologians often respond to each other in tomes of controversy. But not everyone has that kind of interest or time. I’ll pop in from time to time with bits of comments as other interesting subjects pop up.

    Hi Lynn,

    You’re of a definite “school of thought” on the Revelation of God to Jesus Christ “referring to the Roman Empire.”

    That makes more sense to you than looking for clues in contemporary nations and events. I would tend to agree with you.

    How about its application or relevance to the varied churches and to God’s people throughout history?

    Do you think this letter relates a true revelation from God?

    Comment by José Solano — February 17, 2006 @ 7:24 pm

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