Biblical Studies

Many strange monsters

This has to be my favourite quote on the book of Revelation, or rather the interpretation of Revelation:

… though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.

Who could have said this but G. K. Chesterton (in Orthodoxy), who, as a rhetorician, is impossible to beat.

Biblical Studies · Fiction

An evil book? C. J. Sansom on the book of Revelation

Revelation was the first C. J. Sansom book I have read, primarily because the plot is built largely around the seven bowls (or vials, as they are called in the King James Version) of judgement found in Revelation 15–16. I shall say more about the novel in an upcoming post, focusing on some of its comments on the book of Revelation for now. These comments are of particular interest to me, as Revelation is one of the biblical books that I am working on at the moment.

Sansom, a historian by training, has interesting things to say about how the book of Revelation was interpreted during the troublesome times of Henry VIII, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries and during the bitter conflicts between the radicals (i.e. those influenced by the Protestant reformers) and the conservatives (those wishing to preserve Catholic traditions).

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in conversations among the novel’s main characters is Revelation’s obscurity. Consider the following conversation between Barak, the assistant of Matthew Shardlake, the book’s protagonist, and the latter himself. They are discussing the seven bowls of judgement:

‘I remember our vicar reading about that once. I couldn’t follow it, it sounded like a mad dream.’
‘A mad dream. Yes, well put. …’

In another conversation they reflect on Revelation generally:

‘This book makes no sense,’ Barak said at length. ‘It tells the same story in different ways, different versions of how the world will end, angels and wars and vials. There is no …’
‘Narrative? I know. It is the only book in the New Testament that is so obscure.’

Indeed, the book’s obscurity is causing all kinds of problems, as Shardlake points out:

There are as many interpretations of Revelation as there are interpreters, each one saying his understanding is the true one. And most are ill-educated fanatics. This book is causing much trouble in the world.

It is Guy Malton, a doctor and ex-monk, who puts his finger on one of the key problems:

Thrown into a different world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal fact, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.

But it is not only the interpreters that are at fault. The book of Revelation itself is deemed to be deeply problematic, as both Matthew Shardlake and Guy Malton repeatedly suggest. This is how Shardlake characterises Revelation:

The last book of the Bible; full of wild, fiery, cruel language, hard to understand, unlike anything else in the New Testament. Erasmus and Luther both doubted whether Revelation was really the word of God …

He then goes on to stress how different this book is from the rest of the New Testament, especially ‘in its violence and cruelty, its representation of Jesus as God’s harsh judge, who holds the keys of hell and death’. Indeed, Revelation appals him:

I read its cruel barbarous message and I despair.

Malton, for his part, comments:

What an evil book it is, for it says that humanity is nothing, is worth nothing.

And so he concludes:

Christianity would be better without that book. It preaches nothing but cruelty and destruction. It teaches that the destruction of human beings does not matter, is even to be rejoiced over. It is evil.

That these characters express Sansom’s own views about the book of Revelation is confirmed by the ‘Historical Note’ that concludes the novel. Here Sansom talks about ‘a London increasingly divided between radical and conservative parishes’ and notes that:

the radicals, with their view of themselves as persecuted saints, often comforted themselves in the belief that Revelation foretold their eventual victory against the ‘Beast’ of Rome. Many believed then, exactly as Christian fundamentalists do today, that they lived in the ‘last days’ before Armageddon and, again just as now, saw signs all around in the world that they took as certain proof that the Apocalypse was imminent. Again like fundamentalists today, they looked on the prospect of the violent destruction of mankind without turning a hair. The remarkable similarity between the first Tudor Puritans and the fanatics among today’s Christian fundamentalists extends to their selective reading of the Bible, their emphasis on the Book of Revelation, their certainty of their rightness, even to their phraseology. Where the Book of Revelation is concerned, I share the view of Guy, that the early Church Fathers released something very dangerous on the world when, after much deliberation, they decided to include it in the Christian canon.

Most of what Sansom says, especially about fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation, is very well taken. But his novel also leaves us with the question whether the book of Revelation is indeed evil in and of itself. And that is one of the issues I shall have to ponder in the coming weeks, as I reflect, among other things, on ‘Revelation, Apocalyptic Worldview and Violence’.

Biblical Studies · Spirituality

Every chance he gets

Luke’s Gospel is … the most forgiving of all four Gospels. Every chance he gets, Luke has Jesus forgiving people, right up to the thief on the cross and the prayer for his persecutors. … Mercy and inclusivity – Jesus’ ministry to outcasts, to gentiles, to the poor – are emphasized a great deal in Luke. … Luke’s sacred text is also called the gospel of women. Far more than any other evangelist, Luke brings women into Jesus’ life and shows Jesus’ unique way of relating to women. He wants to make Jesus available to the forgotten and diminished, and women usually were.

And sadly still all too often are.

The quote is from Richard Rohr’s ‘Daily Meditations’.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs V

Auguste Rodin, Kissers
Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), ‘Kissers’

Many of us will have come across statistics like: the average man thinks about sex every seven seconds. I have always thought this to be a rather timid estimate. My fifth reason for reading the Song of Songs is that it makes me think about sex all day.

I have been seriously tempted to hit the ‘Publish’ button after finishing the previous sentence. Perhaps I should have done. I am rather worried though that I could be misunderstood, that I could be taken seriously. Of course, I don’t buy that statistic. It seems ludicrous to me, and yet I do believe that there is nothing wrong with thinking about sex all day. In fact, given Christianity’s tarnished reputation in this area, perhaps more of us should think about sex all day, provided we manage to move beyond that endless preoccupation with sexual ethics to a simple enjoyment of our sexuality and sensuality. Should that not always have been the starting point, in our thinking and our talk about sexuality? The Song of Songs would seem to suggest so.

So, yes, I read this delightful book because it makes me think about love, sex and sensuality. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs IV

My last post in this series was about the imagery of the Song of Songs. And so is this one, because, having commented on its strangeness, I must say something about its dazzling beauty as well. Or perhaps illustrate it with some further examples:

O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your lovemaking is better than wine.

You are so beautiful, my love.
You are so beautiful.
Your eyes are doves.

Like an apricot among the trees of the forest,
so is my lover among the young men.
In that shade I always delight to sit;
the fruit is sweet to my palate.

Prop me up among blossoms,
spread me out among apricots,
for I’m sick with love.
His left hand is under my head,
his right hand embraces me.

My lover is mine and I am his.
He feeds among the lotuses.
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, be like a gazelle, my lover,
or like a young stag on the cleft mountains.

You’ve stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.
You’ve stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes,

How beautiful is your lovemaking,
my sister, my bride!
How much better is your lovemaking than wine,

Your lips drip honey, my bride.
Honey and milk are under your tongue …

You are beautiful, my love, as Tirzah,
lovely as Jerusalem,
awesome as the stars.
Turn your eyes away from me,
for they make me tremble.

Come, my lover,
let’s go out into the countryside,
let’s spend the night among the henna shrubs.
Let’s go early to the vineyards
to see if the vine has blossomed,
if their blossoms have opened,
if the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I’ll give you my love.
The mandrakes give off their fragrance;
at our doors are all kinds of delicious fruits,
new as well as old,
which I’ve stored up for you, my lover.

I delight in the fact that the Old Testament features a whole book of love poetry, one of the many reasons why it deserves far more attention than it usually gets these days. I do realise, of course, that these extracts contain some further examples of imagery that may not be entirely intelligible for those unaccustomed to the Song of Songs’ ancient language, but I hope that they nonetheless illustrate its supreme beauty. The translation, still a work in progress, is, as always, my own.

So, my fourth reason for reading the Song of Songs is its beautiful poetry and imagery.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs III

Like an apricot among the trees of the forest,
so is my lover among the young men.

Your hair is like a flock of goats
streaming down Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock ready to be shorn
that have come up from the washing pool,
every one of them having twins,
not one of them bereaved of offspring.

Like a slice of pomegranate gleams your brow
from behind your locks.
Like the tower of David is your neck,
built to perfection.
A thousand bucklers hang on it,
all kinds of warriors’ shields.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
which feed among the lotuses.

His cheeks are like a bed of spice,
towers of herbal spices.
His lips are lotuses,
dripping liquid myrrh.

Your belly is a heap of wheat
fenced about with lotuses.

Your eyes are pools in Heshbon
by the gate of Bath-Rabbim.
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon,
overlooking Damascus.

This stature of yours is like a palm tree
and your breasts like the clusters.

This is a selection of the Song of Songs’ intriguingly exotic imagery. To modern readers, it can be somewhat impenetrable. Even scholars have struggled with it at times and have thought of some of these comparisons and metaphors as ‘bizarre’, ‘grotesque’, ‘comical’ or ‘puzzling’ (as noted by Marcia Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible: A Translation and Literary Study of the Song of Songs).

That kind of effect was obviously not intended by the author, who in these lines describes the beauty of the Song’s two protagonists. It is simply our distance from the culture that produced this ancient text that causes us such difficulties of perception.

And that brings me to my third reason for reading and studying the Song of Songs, which is my desire to come to a better understanding of the Song’s imagery and poetic language.