by Duane Clinker
(The Book of Revelation is one of the strangest writings in the collection of books we call The Bible. Recently, artist Morgan Monceaux has begun to exhibit a large collection of paintings that interpret many Biblical writings, including the images in the Book of Revelation. This is a meditation on Revelation as enlightened and reinforced by this painter. You may wish to visit the body of Monceaux's work at his Exegesis page at http://morgan-monceaux.com).
By the end of the first century in Judea, the followers of Jesus were preaching a gospel of love and community which contradicted the greed, militarism, and empire-worship of the Roman empire. Rome saw this practice of militant love as a threat, and the Christians soon faced waves of repression from various emperors of Rome. Christians were put to death for refusing military service, hated for their inclusion of all regardless of sex or race or class, fed to wild beasts for the entertainment of the masses, and worse. This is the context for the last book in the Bible, “The Revelation of St. John.”
It is a strange book. It is both a symbolic attack on empire and a call to the faithful to hold on in hard times. It is written in coded story because it was (and is) dangerous to speak directly against the state. But when John writes his visions of the falling stars, a great red dragon, the great Beast, an earth wracked with ecological ruin, and the “fall of Babylon” all pitted against “The Lamb,” his readers know of what he speaks.
The Real Issue at Hand
In recent times, fundamentalists have treated these visions as a kind of secret calendar of the future. My own minister grandfather laboriously drew out the images of Revelation as a precise time-chart on a gigantic white tablecloth, as if the whole purpose of the book was to know exactly came next, rather than an invitation to participate in the on-going struggle of history.
We are far from John’s time and context, and won’t understand the meaning of all the symbols. But we may recognize in them the empires of this world that they describe, those things are with us still, and the struggle continues. We may feel in our bones the descriptions of those strange beasts and dragons and trumpet blasts, catch whiffs of them in the daily news, and know in our own souls how it feels now to be caught in a world of greed and violence that tears apart our world.
We may even hear in the drama of John, his gospel invitation to join and to be counted in the struggle to love and resist in times that feel like the end of times.
The visions of Revelation link the process of time with great cosmic battles “in the heavens.” That spiritual war is connected and in conflict with our own lives and time.
We feel it. And even though we can’t always explain it, those of us who have experienced violence and oppression, racism and hatred, and the utter deadness of the consumption offered to us by the empires of capital, know what these strange beasts and dragons described by John can do to us - and to the earth.
John is describing the ultimate struggle of creation between roads of death and those of life.
Both ways are present. The battle line between them snakes through the world. That battle line doesn’t put the good all on one side and the bad all on the other side of national, racial, gender, or even religious lines. Instead, the struggle winds through all societies and right through our own souls as well. It forces each of us us to go along with “the Beast,” or to choose another way.
Here and now, sometimes we can’t explain it any better than John, nor picture it any better than Morgan Monceaux in the images of cosmic conflict in Revelation. The whole earth shakes as if under the weight of a great red dragon. There is a woman in labor, and a child almost eaten by the evil one, and there is a great Beast and plagues and cups of wrath and so much more. Back and forth the battle rages over the direction that all of creation shall ultimately take.
We, like Morgan are drawn in - by the images and by our own life situations.
In the swirling colors of Morgan’s scene of the rider, are key symbols and story lines of John, especially the coming of Jesus in power as the Babylon empires finally (and suddenly) fall, weighted down by their lust for power and gold, oblivious to the needs of either humans or the planet itself. The red dragon, the spiritual protector of evil is finally slain and puddled as blood, undone by the sword of truth in the hands of the Lamb, and by the faithfulness and witness of those who refused to surrender to greed and violence. The earth itself shakes, and the stars of heaven will rearrange themselves as a whole new world steps finally on the stage.
Morgan Monceaux captures this and invites us into the story. The one on the horse is Jesus, the Lamb, whose own robes have been stained with blood, and whose “hair is like wool and whose eyes are like fire.” (Revelation 1:14). We see him. We sense him. We may turn away, or welcome him in joining in the new creation coming.
But beware. This is anything but a call to short-term comfort. And “the arc of history is long,” as a prophet close to our own time has said, “but it bends toward justice!”
At the end, this is the gospel. It is not a time-chart or a watch. Its stories always bear the context from which they emerged, but they also tend to cut us in two like a sharp two-edged sword and speak to our own lives and times.
It is the new creation itself that struggles to be born within and among us. We are called to midwifery and as the Apostle Paul writes, “the whole world groans as a woman in labor.” God has not created us and left us to petty dogmas, but has instead made us, and called us to join in the final process of time - to militant and patient Love - in the creation of another kind of world.