As I recover from my ill-advised attempt at in-school employment, I’m sprinting through a book for class called Living the Story by R. Paul Stevens & Michael Green. It’s not bad as devotionally oriented books go (though I wouldn’t have picked it out for myself – I’ve gone over a lot of their points before), and it actually very interesting insights, particularly on the Wisdom books of the bible.
But I wanted to pull out something on Revelation that I seem to be coming across a lot lately: it’s this description of the Revelation of John as being a product of John’s imagination.
I’m not really sure what to make of it. The idea seems to stem from the fact that Revelation falls clearly within the apocolyptic genre that was popular in the classical age, a genre that is particularly inaccessible to modern readers. So to make it easier to understand, we play up the fact that this kind of literature was particularly accessible in the era in which it was written, and that these kinds of images were common to the age. Fine so far. But then we start talking about sanctified imagination, and things start to get a bit blurry.
So Stevens says (admittedly in a chapter on prayer),
John uses apocalypse to help people to pray. He wants people to learn to pray and worship on the job, in the marketplace, at the trade-guild meeting, at the neighbor’s house. So John presents a thoroughly “lay” spirituality, intended for ordinary Christians like the ones in Pergamum compelled to worship Caesar, and the Christian bronze workers in Thyatira struggling with the orgies and idol feasts of the pagan guilds to which they were forced to belong (Rev. 3:20).
Somewhere there’s a disjunct. Honestly, in reading the Revelation, it’s difficult to see how there could be any of John’s intent in it at all, at least if we assume no mendacity on the part of John. He says at the very beginning,
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
In other words, John says, “I’m not making this stuff up.” Unless we call him a liar, we have to believe that at some level of what we call reality, John had a real experience, which he has tried to record as faithfully as possible. I would have some severe reservations in thinking that, whatever this experience was, John took upon himself the mantle of a romantic poet and selected a particular form in which to recollect his experiences in tranquility. It seems to me that he experienced them as literally as he wrote them.
Please understand that I’m not accusing these otherwise orthodox Christian writers of impinging on the inspiration of scripture. I’m not one of those people who thinks that “inspiration” requires estatic transcription from the mind of God. It’s pretty clear in reading I Corinthians, that Paul is responding to news he has heard from Corinth, not to an ecstatic experience. It’s also clear that the gospel of Luke came about as a result of Luke’s careful research.
But understanding how a text was written gravely affects our understanding of it. It seems to me that the language of “John selected this imagery” is completely appropriate in his gospel or in one of his letters, but disengenuous in his Revelation.
Granted, it was still quite a mystical experience, and it’s wise to take lessons from apocalyptic literature that it isn’t necessary to find a one-to-one symbolic relationship for every image in the book. But there’s nothing wrong with saying that God, knowing John and the culture in which he lived, gave him an experience that meshed with his perspective, and that therefore we need to understand this kind of literature so we can be sure to interpret in such a way that it says to us *at least* what it said to John and other first century Christians. But there’s a distinction to be made between saying that God crafted these images, and that John crafted them under God’s direction. In terms of the inspired status of the final product, the result is the same, but in terms of how we read it and how we understand it, there is a difference. Scripture doesn’t have to come by ecstatic experience to be inspired, but some inspired scripture is ecstatic in nature.
You might call this quibbling, and it could be. I like a good quibble. But it plays in, I think, to the growing dichotomy we’ve been having the last 400 years over scripture and experience. (Also the subject of a merry war between Dan Phillips and Adrian Warnock. See Jollybloger for a synopsis. :))
Since the dawn of rationalism, people have played scripture against experience, as if one could trump the other. Unorthodox people of all persuasions have argued repeatedly that their experience undermines the authority of scripture. The Orthodox for their part, especially evangelicals and protestants, have often responded by insisting that scripture ought to be believed *despite* experience.
Of course, it’s ludicrous. Either scripture is truth or it isn’t, and if it is, it will comport nicely with all kinds of experience. The trouble is that it’s the easiest thing in the world to insert any kind of philosophy between my view of the world and Scriture or experience either one.
Among Western Protestants, though, this has had the added effect of driving a wedge between *religious* experience and the text of scripture. So prophecy is ruled out, as well as all kinds of mystical experiences. It seems that it’s feared that any kind of experience, other than the experience of careful exegesis, may lead the believer astray.
Now, this just undermines plain common sense, to the detriment of the Gospel. Either you have religious experiences or you don’t, and denying them is no different from denying a sunny day: it divorces you from reality. But more to the point, how can you read the Bible while casting aspersions on religious experiences when the Bible itself describes such experiences?
Ultimately, I think, the result is that your mind subversively begins to edit out the experiential aspect of the scriptures. The classic example is probably 2 Peter 1:16-19
> We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
If ever a there was a religious experience with profound implications on theology, it’s this one. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured as they never imagined, glorified, and speaking with the prophets of old. After this experience, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they knew who was Messiah, and that the prophecies were being fulfilled in their midst. And there’s just something about witnessing a prophecy being fulfilled that gives a person confidence in the text , which is just what happened. Peter says, “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it.” Because of his experience, his confdence in the text of scripture has been redoubled many times over.
But usually when you hear this verse cited, it’s with the exact **opposite** understanding. They say, “And we have the word of the prophets made more sure,” meaning that our confidence in the text should supercede any confidence that we might gain from religious experience. But, considering that the religious experience in question is the revelation of the glorified Christ, it strikes me as having something of the stink of blasphemy to it. What audacious bravery to credit to anything, even God’s word, a higher status than Christ gorified, in whom ultimately all things shall be summed up! If you *must* make a distinction between *ha grapheis*, the written text of scripture and *ha logos*, the Christ, the final word of God, do see to it that the Son of God goes on top.
So when I read that John’s Revelation is *John’s* Revelation and signifies a divine blessing on the imagination, I get a little nervous. I believe in divinely sanctified imagination. I love the work of C. S. Lewis, and I’ve engaged in it a bit myself. I believe God can use it, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find boldly creative imaginative imagery in the inerrant word of God.
Nevertheless, I want to be careful when I try to clarify who’s imagining what.