"[The Book of] Revelation has served as a "language arsenal" in a great many of the social, cultural, and political conflicts in Western history. Again and again, Revelation has stirred some dangerous men and women to act out their own private apocalypses. Above all, the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one's enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. For all of these reasons, the rest of us ignore the book of Revelation only at our impoverishment and, more to the point, at our own peril."
The mysterious author of the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse, as the last book of the New Testament is also known) never considered that his sermon on the impending end times would last beyond his own life. In fact, he predicted that the destruction of the earth would be witnessed by his contemporaries. Yet Revelation not only outlived its creator; this vivid and violent revenge fantasy has played a significant role in the march of Western civilization.
Ever since Revelation was first preached as the revealed word of Jesus Christ, it has haunted and inspired hearers and readers alike. The mark of the beast, the Antichrist, 666, the Whore of Babylon, Armageddon, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are just a few of the images, phrases, and codes that have burned their way into the fabric of our culture. The questions raised go straight to the heart of the human fear of death and obsession with the afterlife. Will we, individually or collectively, ride off to glory, or will we drown in hellfire for all eternity? As those who best manipulate this dark vision learned, which side we fall on is often a matter of life or death. Honed into a weapon in the ongoing culture wars between states, religions, and citizenry, Revelation has significantly altered the course of history.
Kirsch, whom the Washington Post calls "a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing to modern audiences," delivers a far-ranging, entertaining, and shocking history of this scandalous book, which was nearly cut from the New Testament. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Black Death, the Inquisition to the Protestant Reformation, the New World to the rise of the Religious Right, this chronicle of the use and abuse of the Book of Revelation tells the tale of the unfolding of history and the hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares of all humanity.
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Jonathan Kirsch is the author of ten books, including the national bestseller The Harlot by the Side of the Road and his most recent work, the Los Angeles Times bestseller A History of the End of the World. Kirsch is also a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a broadcaster for NPR affiliates in Southern California, and an adjunct professor at New York University.From The Washington Post:
The question of whether religions have historically done more harm or good is one of those debates that persist well beyond their proper sophomore-year expiration date. But there is a less futile variation on the argument: What is it in specific faith traditions that can lead to dangerous interpretations?
In the five years since 9/11, much time has been devoted to identifying the elements of Islam that lend themselves to a hateful jihadist ideology. Less has been devoted to what is incendiary in the other two Abrahamic traditions: Judaism and Christianity. Jonathan Kirsch, the author of several acclaimed books on religious themes, goes some way toward remedying that deficit in this thoughtful history and analysis of the most controversial book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation.
A work so problematic that many early Church Fathers found it unfit for inclusion in the canon, it also troubled many later Christians. "There is one sufficient reason for the small esteem in which I hold it -- that Christ is neither taught in it nor recognized," wrote the great reformer Martin Luther. Even those Christians who made an uneasy truce with the book urged caution: St. Augustine, for example, warned against any literal interpretation of its symbol-strewn wordscape.
Unfortunately, Kirsch shows, Augustine's admonition has been honored more in the breach than in the observance. The book's notion of the imminent end of the world and its "phantasmagoria of words, numbers, colors, images, and incidents" describing the end-times have been employed in works of high art, as well as in some of the wilder fantasies and fulminations to issue from pulpits, religious tracts and popular fiction. The Antichrist, the Great Whore of Babylon, the Battle of Armageddon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the number 666: These have been picked up by zealots bent on any number of religious, political or cultural crusades, from the art-destroying Savanarola in 15th-century Florence to contemporary figures as different as the Waco cult leader David Koresh and the hectoring Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell. "Above all," writes Kirsch, "Revelation is now -- and has always been -- a potent rhetorical weapon in a certain kind of culture war, a war of contesting values and aspirations that has been waged throughout human history."
Although apocalyptic themes can be traced to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia, it took the Hebrew idea of a God working through history to give the vision real purchase. Apocalyptic writing actually emerged rather late in the Hebrew tradition, though it borrowed from the earlier literature of prophecy. But instead of pointing to a future earthly kingdom under a god-anointed king, as the prophets had done, apocalyptic visionaries proposed an otherworldly paradise and offered a new explanation for evil in the world, elevating Satan from a mere tempter (Genesis) or accuser (Job) to the full-blown adversary of God and the source of all evil.
But what accounts for the emergence of apocalyptic writing? Part of the answer, Kirsch helpfully explains, is a culture war that erupted in Judea in the 4th century B.C. between strict Jews and those who had adopted the Hellenistic ways of their Greek conquerors -- ways that included participation in Greek athletic games. Finding the conspicuous hedonism of these Hellenized Jews repulsive, the other faction launched a moral crusade against it.
Another instigation to apocalypticism was an actual armed struggle that broke out in the 2nd century B.C., when the followers of Judah Maccabee revolted against a tyrannical Syrian despot, Antiochus, who was trying to eradicate Judaism from the land that the Syrians governed. To strengthen the Maccabeans' resolve, charismatic authors wove tales rich with strange visionary elements and the promise, Kirsch writes, of "a day of bloody revenge against their enemies." Only one apocalyptic tale found its way into the Hebrew Bible (the book of Daniel), but scores of others were produced throughout Judea. Those written during the decades preceding and following the life of Jesus, when the Romans tightened their rule over the rebellious province, gave new importance to the figure of the messiah, casting him not just as a mortal prince but also as a celestial savior.
So while Revelation, like many other New Testament books, contains what appear to be strongly anti-Semitic elements (including its rant against the "synagogue of Satan"), it grew directly out of a literary tradition associated with one important strain of pre-rabbinical Judaism. Indeed, the obvious Jewishness of the text is one reason that it gave pause to later Christian leaders. Where was the sweet emphasis upon love and forgiveness that comes through so strongly in the Gospels? Some scholars suggest that the core story of Revelation, minus certain superficial Christian additions, was written by someone who wasn't even a Christian.
But Revelation nonetheless was canonized as part of the New Testament, and Kirsch offers a thorough account of the intellectual and spiritual mischief that Revelation has spawned -- and also some of the good. Medieval Catholics used the book to justify the Crusades, support reform efforts and validate persecution of the Jews, while later Protestant reformers (including the same Luther who objected to Revelation) drew on its imagery to attack Catholicism and the papacy. "I do not know whether the pope himself be Antichrist or his apostle," Luther wrote, apparently without blushing.
Ironically, enthusiasm for Revelation was always stronger in western Christendom than in the eastern part of the Christian world where the text was produced. That irony proved most true, Kirsch shows, when Revelation made its way to the New World, where apocalyptic imagery was applied to practically every major development in American history, from the Puritan witch-hunt craze to the Civil War to any number of social and moral crusades in the 20th and 21st centuries. While apocalypticism has inspired progressive causes, including the civil rights vision of Martin Luther King Jr., it increasingly came to support a fundamentalist conception of a properly Christian society.
Apocalyptic notions are never scarier than when they creep into politics, as they did quite openly in the pronouncements of Ronald Reagan. "Apparently never in history have so many of the prophecies come true in such a relatively short time," the then-governor of California declared in 1968. And though Reagan learned to tone down such pronouncements as president, he never abandoned his belief in the approaching Armageddon.
If the current occupant of the White House "does not speak in the familiar vocabulary of apocalyptic fundamentalism," Kirsch writes, "it is mostly because a new and updated 'language arsenal' has been deployed in contemporary America" -- an arsenal that in this case, Kirsch explains, uses code phrases such as "intelligent design" and "culture of life." But many of the president's policies resonate powerfully with a large fundamentalist community that takes apocalyptic notions, including those that apply to Israel, with a fervent literalism. For them, and many others, the rapture draws nigh.
Reviewed by Jay Tolson
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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