The man who had
The ancient world knew all about dreams: they even classified them. They ranged from the vision (a truthful dream sent by the gods to tell the dreamer something about the future) to the dream caused by indigestion (a confused dream which meant nothing at all). In the nineteenth century Sigmund Freud taught us that dreams revealed deep unconscious drives and fears hidden from the sleeper's waking mind. If you were as smart as Sigmund Freud you could make sense of the mysterious creatures and visions that populate some people's dreams, and perhaps identify some long-hidden event in the past that had caused sickness and apparently irrational behaviour in the present.
But when Martin Luther King said he had a dream, he wasn't talking about the effects of a sick mind. Nor was he talking about some vision sent by God. He was exercising the human faculty of imagination: putting into words vivid, poetical words, his deepest hopes, his profoundest aspirations for himself and his people, the cruelly oppressed black people of America. Bob Dylan and Bob Marley have put into words and music equally memorable visions of poverty and deprivation in America and Jamaica, and their hopes for a better world than the one they knew.
Which brings me to the man who had a truly remarkable and wonderful dream. At least, that's what he tells his readers he had, one Sunday morning, on the island of Patmos off the coast of Greece. It's a tourist trap these days, but it wasn't when John had the dream he recounts. It might have been a place of escape from the ferocious persecution Christians throughout the Roman empire were suffering under the orders of the Roman Emperor (perhaps Nero). It might have been a Roman prison island, a place of banishment, in the final years of the first century when most scholars think the book was written. John calls it a revelation (the Greek word is apocalypse), a sort of divine movie created by God and passed on to Jesus Christ, who personally sent it down by special angelic messenger to John himself. He assures us that he wrote down absolutely everything he saw, and swears that his book is the genuine work of God, guaranteed by Jesus Christ, passed on to be distributed to John's fellow Christians. Truth or fiction, the result of an over-vivid imagination, or a divine revelation? What do you think?
I can't begin to tell you how wonderful the dream is: you'll have to read it yourself to get the measure of it. It's a digital film-maker's dream script, populated with horned beasts, trumpet-blowing angels, seven-eyed lambs, huge red dragons, vomiting serpents, lakes of glass, deadly riders on pale horses, sealed books and swallowed scrolls, giant locust soldiers equipped with terrible scorpion stings, bowls filled with plagues, a woman drunk on blood, clothed in purple and scarlet, holding a golden winecup and riding a scarlet beast. There's an insane hellish landscape of bottomless pits, fire and brimstone, violent earthquakes and poisoned seas; but there's also a river of life and a city of gold with walls of diamond and gates made of enormous single pearls; a flying city that descends from heaven, as beautiful, says John, as a bride dressed for her husband. O, it's a wonderful dream all right, and it takes 22 chapters and an epilogue to get it all down . . . . Which must have made it a long Sunday's dreaming.
For all its marvels and its nightmare visions, the theme of this piece of writing is plain and direct: it is a tract for the times, written to stiffen the determination of Christians to hold on and survive bitter persecution within the Roman empire, by prophesying the downfall and destruction of Rome's imperial power, and its replacement as a world ruler by the new faith. Its prophetic celebration of the final triumph of Christianity guaranteed it a place in the canon of the books of the Bible. Anyone can see the appropriateness of closing off the whole Bible on a high note like this. As the old hymn says, the Bible 'begins with a scene in a garden and ends with a city of gold'.
But the Book of Revelation is more dangerous than I am making it out to be. I propose that it is one of the least Christian books in the whole Bible. It has shaped Christian thinking into a form which we must discard completely if we are to be true to the message of Christ. This book sets Christ on a white horse as a 'warrior for justice', a rider whose cloak is soaked in blood, the slayer of all the rulers of the earth and their armies, leaving behind him heaps of corpses for the birds to feast on.
This is also an obsessively Hebrew book, written for communities of "Jewish" Christians. Christ is the sacrificial lamb (now exalted), the lion of Judah, the root of David. The code for the enemy is Babylon, Sodom and Egypt; the holy city is New Jerusalem; the faithful consist of precisely 144,000 souls drawn from the twelve tribes of Israel; the seven plagues that John says will afflict the world are a repeat of the plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians to force them to let his chosen people go. Many of the most extraordinary creatures in John's visions come from his memories of the bizarre images in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. In the first two chapters of Revelation, reprimands addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor focus on a false prophetess named Jezebel, and those who falsely claim to be Jewish.
Conversely the persecutors are accused of every sin and crime the writer can imagine. They are idolaters and devil worshippers, sorcerers, murderers, fornicators, thieves and liars, guilty of every luxury and vice, heartless traders in the souls of men. That is, they are guilty of all the corruptions attributed to large cities in every age and culture.
The Book of Revelation is further a males-only vision: this book is not kind to women. The 144,000 redeemed souls are 'those who have kept their virginity and not been defiled with women'. The most sensational and detailed image of Roman imperial power is of a Great Whore riding on a scarlet beast. The ferocious locust horsemen who slaughter the faithful have 'the hair of women'! Although some scholars struggle to explain that, following Old Testament practice, 'virginity' just means faithfulness to true religion, and fornication or adultery are metaphors for idolatry, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in this book women are bad news -- and sex is worse. Everywhere evil is identified with sexuality; there is far too much fodder in Revelation for women-haters and holier-than-thou puritans. Where is Jesus' natural and easy relationship with women? His defence of women against narrow-minded and judgmental men? The female love and support which went with him to his death and beyond?
But above all this book perpetuates and re-invents the primitive pre-Christian idea of the furious wrath of God, enraged by human wickedness, acting to exterminate the evil ones. 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored': that's pure Revelation thinking. Understandably perhaps, suffering Christians are assured that whatever they endure God will make it worse for their persecutors some day soon, and what a hell this writer can imagine for them! Earthquake, plague, fire and brimstone, a poisoned world, mass slaughter, starvation, a fearful winepress of God's anger where the pagans are 'trodden till the blood that came out of it was up to horses' bridles as far as sixteen hundred furlongs away'. 'I saw a great white throne', John tells us, 'and the One who was sitting on it. In his presence earth and sky vanished away. I saw the dead, great and small standing in front of his throne while the Book of Life was opened, and the record of what they had done in their lives. The sea gave up its dead, and Death and the Underworld were emptied of the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to the the way in which he had lived. And anybody whose name could not be found in the Book of Life was thrown into the burning lake.' All this is magnificent, unforgettable poetry -- but are we talking about the Father Jesus knew, or the love which suffers long and is kind, which forgives if necessary seventy times seven?
Can this torrent of imagery, this tortured anguished piece of writing, have any meaning or value for us today? I think so. Whenever I attend a funeral and hear again those precious words of consolation, -- 'And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away' -- I know that despite its tortured morality the book of Revelation still speaks to the human condition in any age and at any time. Revelation strikes a deep chord with all those who know intolerable suffering, loss and oppression, unendurable tyranny and persecution, whether that is personal or community-wide. It boldly addresses one of the hardest questions of all: how can we make sense of the unfairness, the injustice, the cruelty, of this life as we know it? Buddhism says you can't; the best you can do is escape into the next life and leave the mess behind. Christianity has always affirmed that there is meaning and purpose in this life; that God will not be defeated by evil; that the mystery of suffering and injustice will be resolved in God's good time; that love, and not moral indignation, is at the heart of all things.
Once upon a time a man had a wonderful dream: let the dark side of that dream be understood, forgiven and forgotten. Let the faith and courage and consolation of that dream be honoured and made part of our heritage.
© Colin Gibson