In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Yii-Jan Lin about the book of Revelation, it’s historical context, and it’s influence on immigration as they explore the following questions:
- What is the historical context of the book of Revelation?
- What genre is the book of Revelation in?
- Is Revelation predicting the future?
- What is the connection between Revelation and immigration?
- How did Ronald Reagan use imagery from Revelation?
- How does Revelation lend itself to both immigration and keeping people out?
- What does the whore of Babylon represent in Revelation?
- How was the Page Act of 1875 influenced by Revelation?
- How has relating the US to a New Jerusalem been harmful to American’s perception of immigration?
- What does the symbol of a wall represent for people?
- Does Revelation have a purpose for Christians today?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Yii-Jan Lin you can share.
- “There’s imagery that you have to decode to understand.” @janjancl
- “Thinking about America as a New Jerusalem, you’re suddenly thinking about this vast country as a city and that kind of shrinks the whole thing down into one thing.”@janjancl
- “If you imagine a city and you’re framing it that way then you also have a wall, then you also have a smaller space, you also have scarcity of resources.” @janjancl
- “[Walls] have a very particular rhetorical force; it’s a protection, it’s a barrier, it assumes we have control and I think that those are those symbolic meanings that people want when they think about a wall.”@janjancl
- “Is it really the text that is going to tell us what to do or do we bring a stable sense of ethics to the text? And I would say, for a book like Revelation, and maybe for most texts if not all texts, it has to come from us.” @janjancl
Mentioned in This Episode
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Pete: Hey folks, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Our first recording, Jared, in the –
Jared: Quarantine epic.
Pete: Quarantine epic. And we’re like, how many, did we break any laws getting to this studio today? I don’t know. People were out and about.
Jared: We’re pretty close to six feet away though.
Jared: We are pretty close to six feet.
Pete: I hadn’t even thought about that.
Jared: We are now.
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Jared: There, I just backed up a few a few feet.
Pete: You backed up.
Yeah, anyway, and not to make light of it, but that’s it. So, we were like, almost, we were going to stay home and do this from home and do this remotely, which we hate doing, because I have dogs that bark, you have kids that bark. One of those two things.
Jared: Yes, lots of barking basically.
Pete: So were a little bit afraid of that, but then I thought to myself, hey, if that happens, people understand. People are doing all sorts of stuff.
Jared: Well, and you’ll see when our guest had some kids in the background.
Pete: Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
Jared: It’s just the new reality, you know?
Pete: It is the new reality.
Jared: At least we’re not on video conference and our spouses like, accidentally walk in behind us with their underwear or something like that.
Jared: So, right. We’re actually ahead of the curve here, so.
Pete: Yeah. We’re doing pretty well, so enough criticism.
Jared: But today, our guest is Yii-Jan Lin, and she actually goes by JanJan,
Pete: Right, yeah.
Jared: So that’s what we call her in the podcast, but why don’t you give some of her credentials here, Pete, you’re super smart.
Pete: Well, the topic is immigration and the book of Revelation, which you might not think go together very well, but they do. But JanJan is an assistant professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, no slouch, and her Ph.D. is in New Testament and she got really interested in the book of Revelation.
Jared: Well, and if you look in her history of the things she writes about, she’s very good about drawing, synthesizing these things that you wouldn’t normally put together in these really interesting, not, you know, sometimes you can kind of say, oh, I don’t know if that really goes, but she’s done her homework and I think it was really good conversation.
Pete: Yeah. Well, and the whole idea of synthesis, I mean, she’s a trained New Testament scholar who is interested in integrating that text with something, let’s say, relevant. You know, and not just, I mean, I shouldn’t say just, but, you know, a lot of biblical scholars, and I like to do this too, we stay, we want to stay in antiquity, but then the question is, well who cares? Right? So, she’s taking this book and talking about how it has informed political rhetoric in the United States and elsewhere, and once you see it, it’s like – oh, yeah. I guess that does come from the book of Revelation. And it affects and has hurt people, and it’s been a little bit toxic, and xenophobic, and violent, and misogynistic, and it sort of rooted in this book and I thought it was just a fascinating study on ancient and contemporary and how those things come together.
Jared: Excellent, well let’s have this conversation with Professor Lin.
JanJan: Is it really the text that is going to tell us what to do, or do we bring a stable sense of ethics to the text? And I would say, for a book like Revelation, and maybe for most texts if not all texts, it has to come from us. So, it’s not as if I just sit here and let Revelations do its work. It’s rather that I come, and I make meaning out of it. And as a person who wants to be ethical, then this is the kind of interpretation I want to put forward, or point out harmful interpretations that have come from the past.
Jared: Well hello JanJan. Welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People.
JanJan: Hi, thank you.
Jared: Yeah, absolutely. So, we have a lot of fascinating stuff to talk about. Pete and I have been nerding out about it all day here. But before we do that, just, you have this interesting story of starting your academic career, if we can put it that way, in English Literature and then you made a turn to Bible. So, we’re curious, what prompted that turn for you? What was that shift about?
JanJan: Sure. So, yeah, I was in English Literature, and when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I thought, okay, I’m definitely going to pursue something in academia, and I thought I would be English lit. And I went to the University of Chicago to get a masters, and it’s not really the most friendly place in the world, let’s just say, and I was completely unprepared. So, I got there, I was taking these courses, and I was completely in over my head. I had never read theory before and it was just really a shock. So, at the end of that year I just didn’t want to go on. I didn’t know what to do. And a close friend of mine at the time was enrolled in his master of divinity at a nearby seminary, and at the time, I’m in a different place with my faith now, but at the time I thought, you know, maybe I could really make a difference or have something that feels more immediately relevant to my life, to rhetoric that’s floating around if I did something that, that’s still text based, but instead thinking about scriptural texts and sacred texts rather than in English literature. So that’s when I then got the M.A. in New Testament and then moved on from there.
So, that’s really the big shift was thinking about, I still want to go on some sort of intellectual journey, but I felt so burned at the time. You know, I might have done things, I might do things differently if I go back now, but I kind of just went to a completely different track in thinking, also in a different way about relevancy of academia. That’s not to say I don’t think literature is still, not, is still relevant or any of those things, but, or not relevant. But yeah, so that’s basically it in a nutshell.
Pete: Yeah, and you have a huge interest in the book of Revelation.
Pete: Yeah, that’s not a secret.
Pete: So, I question I get a lot from like, when I ask students in an intro course in Bible, like, for those who know something about it, because not all young people do, even in Christian context, but like, what do you want to talk about, somebody always says can we talk about the book of Revelation because it still is very fascinating.
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, can you, just on a real lay level, just give us your take on what that book is about. Like, you know, where might it be set historically, and what is largely the point? Because there are all these different competing camps and approaches to this book, so, what’s yours?
JanJan: Yes. So, I mean, if you are interested in its original historical context, you know, people hypothesize that it was probably written under Emperor Domitian, that it was written during a time where there was some sort of persecution of Christians, that it’s written by a Jewish Christian in imitation of Jewish apocalyptic literature. So, in the mode of Daniel, for example, or passages we find in Daniel and other apocalyptic works that we can find in Jewish lit. And so, that is the setting in which it’s projecting this other vision of what reality really is. What’s the real real to pose that against what might be the reality faced by its original audience, and whether that’s under the Roman empire in some sort of persecution suffering in some sort of way. So that is the historical context most scholars would agree on in terms of thinking about the book of Revelation.
Pete: So, it’s not predicting the future, like, it’s not like reading todays newspaper or something like that.
Pete: It actually has something to do with historical moments, and you used the word apocalyptic and then you said the real real. Can you tie, because that’s really interesting, tie those together.
JanJan: So, I mean, the genre of apocalyptic is, what is it is kind of up for debate, but one thing that it seems to do, so, apocalypse or apocalyptic is something that reveals, right? That’s based on that Greek word. So, revealing something underneath or behind or kind of, just that that’s real beyond what we think immediately is real. So that’s where, that’s why you have something in Revelation where it’s like, it seems like code or its imagery that’s really bizarre, but it’s trying to convey something that says there is a different reality that is better or coming, or any of those things, right, that will replace this reality or that’s actually going on beyond what you see right now. Beyond the Roman empire, beyond the reality that you’re suffering at the moment. So, there’s a revelation of that, and so, that’s where we get that term is this unveiling of something real behind what you’re suffering at the moment. And so, I think that’s the major concern in a book like Revelation where you have a different throne room, a different power seated on the throne, a different judgement and condemnation of things set against Rome, definitely, and placing on that throne, ultimately Christ, right, the slaughtered lamb. And so, presenting a completely different reality to, in a coded way, so to speak, that’s full of imagery and all these things to show what’s really happening. So, it’s a document of faith, really, and inspiring in a particular way, and also kind of a double speak. You know, there’s imagery you have to decode and understand. So, that kind of bleeds into now, more contemporary readings of telling the future and decoding that book. But it in its original context, that might not have been the intention. The intention might have been simply, you know, we know something and here’s a way of expressing it that you can understand that’s not the reality you’re suffering.
Jared: So, one of the things that’s really interesting about the work that you do is connecting. You know, I link in my, when we think about the Bible we often think about the original context and we think about how we use it maybe today to apply to our lives in churches or some context like that, but you’ve done this historical work of connecting how American’s in generations past have used the book of Revelation to talk about immigration.
Jared: And some of the points there. So, could you, just an overview of that work, or maybe connect the dots between Revelation and immigration and how you thought to connect that.
JanJan: Yeah, sure.
Pete: Yeah, it’s not the kind of thing people would just like, wake up in the morning and say, you know, I bet you there’s a connection between the book of Revelation and immigration.
JanJan: Yeah, for sure. I mean it’s –
JanJan: Yeah, of course! No. It seems like a leap, right? What would ancient Jewish literature have to do with immigration? Especially, you know, in a 20th, 21st century setting. That’s not something that comes to mind, but it all started with my thinking about, I guess that the hopes and dreams of immigrants and the whole experience of immigration, right? In which you’re arriving at a new destination and you have these hopes that are kind of utopic, right? You feel like you’re going to experience, or there is a talked about hope of experiencing some kind of dream or there’s a vision of something that’s beautiful, wonderful, in which you can leave something behind, or you’re fleeing. So that in and of itself is apocalyptic and as I began to think a little bit more about that and thinking about that kind of framing, the more I thought this really does relate to the language we have in Revelation. And then, when I do the historical research and looking in the archive, that’s when I start finding that there is a shared language, and that language from Revelation is used in describing America, first of all, right, as kind of a New Jerusalem in an apocalyptic way, and as an utopic destination, but also in describing who gets to be in the U.S. or America, and who is excluded, and that kind of rhetoric is also using apocalyptic language from Revelation. And so, more and more of those themes seem to overlap as I looked at what seemed like two disparate entities.
Pete: Yeah, and so, you’re actually saying that’s it’s not just the language is similar, but that there’s really, like, an influence –
Pete: Right, on the part of the book of Revelation on how people have talked about immigrants.
JanJan: Yeah, and I mean, I could just pull up one example here. We talk about city on a hill, right? City on a hill is used to describe America and the U.S. in many, many different speeches and that comes from Matthew. That comes from the Sermon on the Mount. But it is apocalyptic in some way, right? It’s talking about some sort of example and shining city, and in Matthew, the context is Jerusalem, that that’s going to be the city on a hill. Now what’s interesting, is that Reagan in his farewell speech at the end of his presidency, goes to talk about city on a hill, which he references all the time in his political speeches. He describes in detail what he sees. And the way he describes it is taking exactly from Revelation 21 almost. So, he’ll say things like, “a tall proud city on rocks, stronger than oceans, windswept, teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony, if there had to be city walls, walls had doors and the doors were open,” so that’s coming from Revelation 21, I would argue, in which you have Jerusalem, New Jerusalem on firm foundations, the twelve foundations. It’s the nations are walking by, it’s like the kings are entering it, the gates are never shut by day.
JanJan: And all of those things, right? So, it starts, it’s very much a borrowing of language from Revelation.
Pete: Yeah, and, I mean, that’s, I had never put those two things together, but to me it’s pretty darn obvious as you describe it. And this is, you said this is Ronald Reagan?
JanJan: Mm hmm, that’s right.
Pete: So, would you, I mean, I guess we don’t know whether he’s necessarily thinking about this connection himself, or whether he’s really heir to a longer tradition –
JanJan: That’s true, yeah.
Pete: Of using this kind of language. It goes back pretty far, would you say?
JanJan: Well, the city on the hill goes back to Puritan days, and it’s kind of brought back to life by JFK and Ronald Reagan takes that up. But I would say that using, maybe not this particular set of elements, but using New Jerusalem as a framing of America has been around since the Puritans were coming to colonize New England. And so, there we have, you know, all sorts of references to building a New Jerusalem and their vision of what they’re establishing in this place they’re going to. So that is an understanding, and really, definitely, an apocalyptic understanding of what their mission entails.
Jared: Is that, is this apocalyptic, you just mentioned the word utopic, and when you start thinking about the immigrant’s vision of America or wherever they’re going to end up, there is this utopia way of describing that.
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Jared: Is that where, is that where this Revelation language comes from is this sense of America as this utopia, this set apart place and so, basically, we’re just kind of paralleling heaven on earth as America, and how many of our politicians through the generations have equated those, I mean, I would guess for often times their own political gain in terms of speeches of what kind of America they see in their future.
Jared: But is that where these connections come from?
JanJan: I think, I think I would say yes. In the beginning, it does come from the very first immigrants. So, we don’t usually talk about Puritans or explorers as immigrants, but they are, right, coming to this. So, they’re framing it as a destination, and they’re viewing it, at least in terms of some of those traveling to the “new world” to make discoveries, and then the Puritans are understanding it in a Christian, apocalyptic sense. They’re very explicitly doing that. Now, as people become established and take over the land that they find and colonize, that rhetoric continues, but who are the immigrants and who are not begins to change, right? Obviously, we have those who are established Puritan communities in what becomes New England, and then others coming in from Europe, right, that starts to change and then as the population of who’s coming now, and who’s claiming nativism, those populations start to change what the rhetoric around Revelation is. So, Revelation is really useful, both in casting an apocalyptic vision of a destination for those first arrivals, right? But then it becomes really useful in talking about exclusion, because then you have the flip side of Revelation, which is also about those who need to be kept out. And so, it lends itself very well to both sides of immigration, and whether a destination or whether it’s part of exclusion as well.
Jared: And if we can keep going on that, because there was this fascinating thing I read that you had been talking about around prostitution –
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Jared: And the U.S. border. Could you say more about that particular example and how it fits in this narrative of exclusion?
JanJan: So, when I think of Revelation in terms of thinking about gender, right, there’s definitely one particular figure that comes to mind and that is the whore of Babylon, right? And she is representative of a kind of corrupt power and danger, and all of these things, and there’s an exoticizing of her in the language, and which is, you know, dressed in these clothes, and she’s part of this commerce and wealth and all of these things. It’s very Orientalizing and I make the connection of that with the first laws in some of the first laws and policies that we have in the U.S. government against immigration, which is the Page Act in 1875, which is prohibiting particularly, Chinese women from entry and understanding any of them as just, by assumption, as prostitutes. And so, as seen as either vulnerable to this, or as a corrupting, exotic female sexuality that’s going to come and enter into something that’s pure, which is the nativist Americans who are on the shore. So, that’s where I draw that parallel between the two.
Jared: And was there, were there examples of the language of that kind of whore of Babylon, or is it more imagery that would have been in the air that you would make that connection with?
JanJan: So I think there, it is less the language that’s being used in Revelation, but more of the kind of Orientalizing, exoticizing, sexualized imagery that you might find in political cartoons, in historic newspapers, in depicting, you know, the threat of the east and eastern women, and also eastern men in this particular way.
Pete: So, okay, so the language of Revelation, it sort of has two angles that you could take depending on where you’re located, so to speak. It’s the vision of the future, and hope, and a fresh start.
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Pete: It’s apocalyptic. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a beautiful one, but then what do you do then?
Pete: You know? Like, fifty years goes by, a hundred years, two hundred years, and now the rhetoric of Revelation is keeping Rome out, so to speak, and in anything that, you know, what you don’t agree with, or what doesn’t support your, the social network, the community you’re a part of, that gets, I guess, demonized, really. And you look for those things to keep you safe and separate from the bad people out there.
Pete: And that sounds like it’s very deep in the American psyche.
JanJan: Yeah, and I would say that using the New Jerusalem as a framing of this, the identity of this land, of this nation, has really had this domino effect in every other way we think about people who should be included or excluded, right? So, they’re on several levels. So one, just thinking about American as a New Jerusalem, you’re suddenly thinking about this vast country, right, as a city. And that kind of shrinks the whole thing down into one thing, right, that becomes very unified in identity, and so imagines this unified identity.
And then it also imagines, if you imagine a city and you’re framing it that way, then you also have a wall, then you also have a smaller space, you also have scarcity of resources, so it does all these things when you start using this metaphor over and over again. So you can play on different fears and concerns that a city has, which, you know, the U.S. really isn’t, right? But it’s a giant country and it has lots of opportunities for people coming in, but when you shrink it into a city, and you think about it as a New Jerusalem, then you have defense, and you have threat, and you have scarcity of resources, and those are all the tropes that are trotted out when you think about exclusion and inclusion. And I think having that metaphor haunt the identity of America leads to a lot of this kind of thinking. I mean, of course there’s also political desires and things like that, but this metaphor then, is very expedient to keep using because you want to play on people’s fears of those who want to come in and invade the city.
Pete: Alright, well, you used the word wall, I didn’t.
Pete: So, I mean, it’s, I mean, not to polarize things here, but I mean, I guess one of the bigger picture, let’s say, for understanding the rhetoric of building walls today in America, I mean, maybe getting a broader historical perspective on that might be helpful. It’s not, the mentality isn’t a new thing.
JanJan: Right, no.
Pete: Again, it’s baked into our fear of outsiders, our wanting to stay safe –
Jared: Our mythology.
Pete: Our mythology, right. Yeah, yeah.
JanJan: Yeah, I would say so. And I mean, walls have, I mean, this sounds stupid and obvious, but walls have been around for a long time, and they serve very particular purposes, and they have a very, you know, particular rhetorical force. Right, it’s a protection, it’s a barrier, it assumes we have control and I think that those are those symbolic meanings that people want when they think about a wall that we have control of who’s coming in, we know, and there’s some sort of defense so that we are safe. Those are all things that walls, and wall symbolism have meant through the centuries and centuries they’ve existed, when we did have cities that were surrounded by walls all the time. And so that continues to be expedient today to talk about, in terms of our country.
[Producers group endorsement]
Jared: Well, with that too, there’s many different ways of thinking. And I’m thinking, because we’re recording this now in the midst of this COVID-19 thing, and I can’t help but think too, of some of the things that are being associated with China or Chinese people –
JanJan: Yeah, mm hmm.
Jared: In relation to that, and then other ways of thinking of, you know, what are we trying to keep out? And there’s probably also, like, diseases and, there’s a lot of theologizing about this. And is this God’s way of dealing justly with our injustices, is this, you know, how is God involved in a lot of this, and I think that’s very, not just Revelation, but comes from, kind of Deuteronomic theology, retribution theology, that if you do bad things, God will do bad things to you and a lot of that comes in the form of disease and other things. So, is that part of this as well?
JanJan: Yeah, absolutely. So, disease and divinely inflicted disease is throughout both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and Revelation plays on that as well. And you know, when I started to look more carefully at the text and thinking about cleanliness and disease, it comes out in places that you wouldn’t think. So, for example, in Revelation 22, when you have entry into the city, and the saints are coming, they are called the, blessed are the ones who wash their robes and so they can enter the city.
And the outsiders are the evildoers and the filthy, right? The filthy will stay filthy. That’s what the text says. So, it’s as if cleanliness is literally next to godliness, right?
JanJan: It is the symbolic nature of righteousness. They have these white, shining robes that they can come in, and also you think about bowls of God’s wrath, and there’s like a three repeated series of plagues that are visited on people outside, or before the New Jerusalem descends, and there’s plague and there’s also these foul, painful sores that break out on people. So it’s, there’s definitely this association of those who are excluded as diseased and not able to enter into the city.
Jared: That’s interesting, because I think it’s an important thing to say, that you, this is in the Bible itself. You know, there are those things that we say, oh, we’re maybe reading that into the Bible, or we’ve put our own things onto or projected onto, but we see in the Old Testament and New Testament and here in Revelation, that that’s actually part of the theology of our Bible is this is how God deals with problems.
JanJan: Yeah, partly, yeah.
Pete: Except for Jesus when he says, no, God doesn’t do that.
Jared: Yeah, but what does Jesus have to do with the Bible, Pete?
JanJan: Right, right.
Pete: Our diverse Bible, here you go, but –
Pete: But I guess, there is a political rhetoric in Revelation, I guess. Right?
JanJan: Yeah, absolutely.
Pete: And, which is fueled with, by the apocalyptic rhetoric, and you can’t divorce those two things. And, you know, it’s just sort of their way of expressing their faith in that particular context and I think that’s tempting for people of faith to sort of, well, we’ll just do the same thing. Whether it’s instinctive, or whether it’s deliberate, or whether it’s just through osmosis. So, I mean, how can people approach this book of Revelation and, like, take some of this – this is a big question – but to take some of the rhetoric seriously and understand it, but not do that.
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Pete: Right? Like, not do that. Don’t use it to proclaim insider status and others are dirty on the outside, or demonizing people who look different and come from different countries and things like that. Basically, not to be afraid of immigration. Not to be afraid of the outsider coming into your holy space.
Pete: How can, I mean, just on a very practical level, if, you know, this is a hard book, but, to help people think about like, what some of those images might mean, how they could be reimagined, transformed for different contexts in different cultures.
JanJan: Yeah, so, I have a couple thoughts on that. So, the first is, it is important to recognize the kind of text that Revelation was in its historical context and keep that in mind. That it is strong rhetoric, political rhetoric as well, as you mentioned, against a particular empire that is Rome. So, there’s some of that that needs to have a role in the way we’re interpreting, to have that knowledge, and to not say, well, there’s an obviously a one-to-one transfer to what’s going on right now, and that obviously applies. At the same time, Revelation is a bizarre book, right? It has things in it that we don’t know what to do with, and many people have tried, and I think that’s what’s fascinating about it. It’s kind of this changeable set of images, that you have, you know, if you look at interpretations of Revelation in scholarship, and then also in popular culture, people have done lots of different things with Revelation. Whether it’s seeing it as a really redemptive, liberative text that really talks about lifting oppression and offering liberation. People have read it as an eco/green text that is about protecting the earth, or having a vision of some sort of redeemed earth and heaven, etc. And then there are other ways to read it, right, which are millenarian, or we have, you know, thinking about end times and things like that, and also in the ways I’ve talked about it in terms of exclusion. So, it lends itself, because it’s so bizarre in its imagery, it’s almost like you can do whatever you want with it, because there’s no stable ground in some sense. So, at that point I would say, okay, is it really the text that is going to tell us what to do, or do we bring a stable sense of ethics to the text? And I would say, for a book like Revelation, and maybe for most texts, if not all texts, it has to come from us. So, it’s not as if I just sit here and let Revelations do its work, right? It’s rather that I come, and I make meaning out of it. And as a person who wants to be ethical, then this is the kind of interpretation I want to put forward or point out harmful interpretations that have come from the past.
Pete: Yeah. That’s, that is a new way of thinking, I think, for a lot of people. I mean, Jared and I are sitting here nodding our heads, but the, just the honest recognition that at times, you have to interrogate the Bible sometimes –
Pete: On the basis of an ethical standard that, maybe we can anchor in the Bible, you know, I joke before about Jesus saying that, no, you’re not, you’re not hurting because you sin. You’re not, the tower didn’t fall on you, you didn’t get some disease because of something your parents did, right? We have that, and maybe it’s a matter of highlighting, I mean, frankly, people say don’t have a cannon within a cannon, or don’t pick and choose. We all pick and choose. We all have a cannon within a cannon, and maybe this is a really good example, the book of Revelation, for not letting it guide our theological discourses for today. You know, Jared, we had Brad Jersak on, you know, a couple of years ago –
Jared: Yeah, Brad Jersak.
Pete: Brad Jersak is an Orthodox theologian, and he enlightened us to how the book of Revelation was, it didn’t make the cut in the cannon until quite late.
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Pete: And after the ecumenical councils, and, so he says the Orthodox church doesn’t get their theology from the book of Revelation. They use it for worship, because it didn’t make the cut early enough. That’s sort of a nice way to get out of it, I think, you know?
Do you see, like, a fundamental disjunction between how the book of Revelation is really the voice of the disenfranchised and how the rhetoric is used in our context by the group that’s in power.
JanJan: I think, I mean, what do you mean by disjunction?
Pete: Or, no, disenfranchised, you know, in the first century –
Pete: It’s the people who are getting beaten up by the Romans and looking for some hope to hold onto this slain lamb of God, when they’ve got the Roman economic war machine just down their throats, and temping them to give up on all that.
Pete: But today, that same rhetoric is used by people who are not the powerless, but the very powerful. And I find that to be an interesting kind of juxtaposition that has to be addressed on some level.
JanJan: Yeah. I mean, I think, yes. There’s definitely the use of that by people who are not recognizing that the audience of this kind of literature, I mean, mostly Jews, right, who do not have power, who do not have a domination of the world that they exist in at the writing of Revelation. At the same time, what’s troubling to me though, it kind of takes your question a different way, is that there are also parts of Revelation that mimic Roman empire, right, that take the structure of a throne room and Roman victory, and power, and you know, domination, and then rewrite it as divine. But at the same time, it’s reusing that symbolism, right? So, it’s troubling to me, it’s, I don’t think it’s, you know, that’s where I say it’s like it’s neither/nor.
Pete: Mm hmm.
JanJan: It’s neither fully redemptive, nor fully, you know, let’s smash everybody who doesn’t fit into this picture, but rather, I mean, you can use it in so many different ways. It is both critiquing power, but also re-inscribing it, right? Re-justifying it by its vision of what divine power is and the symbols that it uses. So, I think it’s troubling in that way. And so, again, I think interpreters have to be careful.
Jared: So, in some ways it’s still participates in the systems of imagery that would represent, kind of, I think of like a political system. All it’s saying is, I think of, for some reason I think of Nietzsche here –
JanJan: Mm hmm.
Jared: And his concept of kind of ressemtiment. We’re not really smashing the system of power, we’re just going to resent the people who are powerful now –
Jared: We want to be in that seat at some point –
JanJan: Yes, yup.
Jared: And that’s kind of what Revelation does, it’s just recapitulating it, but now we’ve just switched players, rather than questioning the system itself.
JanJan: Yeah, yeah. I would say so.
Pete: I think what feeds into that is the sense of the persecuted Christian minority in America.
Pete: You know, we’re the disenfranchised, so you know, we want the power back.
Jared: Well that’s what I was going to say, is you know, the problem with having Jesus as the center of our faith and having this narrative of, we want to work on centering the decentered and the disenfranchised is, what happens when you’re in power?
Jared: Like, that’s the cognitive dissonance. And so, my tradition growing up, it didn’t matter, really, I think, I’m going to be careful how I say this, but it didn’t really matter how persecuted or not we were, or how in power or not we were, we had to have our identity be persecuted and the minority –
Jared: Or else the rest of our narrative didn’t make sense.
JanJan: Yeah, yeah. There’s a struggling against that becomes very formative, right? That it has to be part of that.
Jared: Yeah, that’s well said.
Pete: Yeah, I want to get back to what you said before about describing Revelation as using some of the same imagery that the people in power were using against them. And I think that’s a really, really important point.
I hadn’t quite put it together like that before. I guess that’s an example of, I mean, sort of all theology does that, you know? I mean, isn’t is true? Maybe I’m overstating it, but –
JanJan: I’m going to hesitate and not –
Pete: Yeah, let’s hesitate when we say all. But I see, it’s common that we use the language of the culture we’re in –
Pete: To talk about the gospel. Hopefully in a redemptive way, but it seems almost inevitable that, and so, you have here, to me that normalizes the book of Revelation in the sense that I see what they’re doing. Now, I need to be really careful how I use the rhetoric of this book in a different time and place. So, it’s a recognition that all theology is going to have, maybe, one foot in something that maybe it shouldn’t be stepping in, you know?
Pete: And maybe if we interpret God according to American ideals, right, we’re sort of falling into the same kind of, you know, potential just, very problematic way of talking about God, and about the life of faith.
Jared: So, are you saying, Pete, because I want to, I think you’ve made this point too, is, in the past, I want to be clear, there’s a sense in which we have to judge Revelation 4, like you said, JanJan, you mentioned we have to bring out own ethical framework to it.
Jared: And so, in some places we have to judge it as, that is not the kind of ethical framework we want to embody and enact in our current time and place. Like, the book of Revelation participates, perhaps, in some unjust imagery of political situations or whatever it is, but I hear you saying, Pete, yes, that’s true – and – we have to recognize that it could do no other in the sense that it’s simply participating in the imagery and symbolism, the representation that’s available to them, the language that’s available to them. Because I don’t want it to come across as, I think and sometimes we create this binary where we say we can, we want to dismiss or judge Revelation in terms of that it just couldn’t possible keep up with. Like, we’re going to call it immoral or unethical in a way that, what do we expect it to be? It was written a few thousand years ago in a context that was very different than we are today, so in some ways we may want to judge it or dismiss it for that, but on the other hand, I don’t think what you’re saying is we can forgive it and just go about continuing to circulate these, maybe, unjust ways of thinking either.
Pete: Right, yeah. Because it’s using the language of, the only language they know, ya know? And we do the same things, we’re sort of human beings.
JanJan: Yeah, yeah.
Pete: But, ya know, most people, ya know, the topic, just talking about immigration again and the political scene. We’re having a pretty sophisticated discussion right now on the book of Revelation and most people who like the rhetoric just see that it’s in the Bible, it’s the word of God, and it’s got to be relevant somehow. So, like, how effective has that been, in your opinion, in either recently, or, you know, over the past maybe, two, three hundred years. Has that been effective? Has that worked for the people in power to continue this kind of rhetoric?
JanJan: Oh, absolutely. I think, I mean, we brought up plague for example, or disease in one, and I’m thinking of the fear of disease in 19th and 20th century rhetoric about immigration, and even, of course, more recently in the current crisis where you have depictions of, for example, Chinese people in China-town as literally embodying malaria, small pox, leprosy, or you know, Irish immigrants as being blamed for cholera and then having imagery that’s very apocalyptic in showing the specter, kind of looming over the country. Or I have a political cartoon in which Chinese people are actually grasshoppers, or locusts actually, but the faces of Chinese coolies and they’re eating up the land. So, it’s using this imagery very politically, right, to say we need to keep these out and using these kinds of images coming from a relation in a very politically expedient way to make that point and to show that kind of danger that’s coming in. And so, I think, I mean, that’s one kind of extreme example, but I see, it’s been politically expedient to use it in other ways. When we think about those who are excluded in terms of wall symbolism, and thinking about how it keeps out, you know, murderers and those who are dogs, so bestializing other people, and that kind of rhetoric too, coming from understanding America as the New Jerusalem. So, I think that’s definitely been very useful in talking about exclusion in a negative way in the last couple of hundred years.
Pete: Yeah, and, you know, that rhetoric, I guess it doesn’t originate from the Bible in the sense that, I guess we have to treat people like this because the Bible says so. It’s more the Bible comes along for the ride.
JanJan: Right, yes.
Pete: There’s something already there.
Pete: And I mean, what would, can we say more than just hatred or fear, or is that really what it is, is just people are just afraid and they’ll appeal to things that they trust in like the Bible, and they know other people will listen to, to sort of foster that kind of fear, or is there, I mean, I guess we’re getting sort of psychological and sociological here –
Pete: But why do people do that? Why go out of your way to make somebody who looks different than you do, and get God on your side to drive them into the ground?
JanJan: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it’s, I guess I’m of two minds. The one is yes, I think it is fear. I think a fear of change, a fear of identity, a fear of a different world than one we’re used to. That’s always gonna be, you know, change is hard. And change makes people really uncomfortable, and unsure, and it’s unfamiliar. At the other side, if I want to be more cynical, I would say that it’s power, right? That you don’t want a loss of power, and you don’t want to be dethroned in the comfortability that you have or in a political sense from having political power and domination of a particular place, and so you use this kind of rhetoric that you know is vastly appealing to a large community of believers, so that, I think there’s two, I mean, obviously more than that. But those are the two that come to mind for me.
Pete: Yeah, so in the face of a threat –
Pete: You sort of scape goat. You pin it on somebody else that’s a threat to you like calling it a Chinese virus.
Jared: Well, and when you bring it to the Bible and how we read the Bible too, I think it’s also very difficult for people not to see themselves as the protagonist of all these stories. Like, I don’t know of many people who would look at their own tribe and say, look at how we’ve been a scourge, look at how we’ve been a plague too, and so there’s something, I think it’s sociological or psychological about that, which, for me, again, would come back to the diversity of the Bible, which I think is why the prophetic books are so valuable, because you have this self-critiquing that is often absent in a lot of these examples, JanJan, that you’ve given, and how we use this rhetoric. It’s used as a weapon outwardly; it’s rarely for critical, self-reflection.
JanJan: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Pete: So, I mean, one thing that you’re going to talk about in your book that’s going to come out in the next fifteen years or something, right?
Jared: Is that a safe time frame?
Pete: Academic books, they take forever.
Pete: But something just caught my eye that you make a connection between immigration and what you call apocalyptic bookkeeping.
JanJan: Right, yeah.
Pete: Right? Which I think is a hilarious way of putting the book of life, and have your name written in the book of life. That’s just a very interesting theological connection. Can you flesh that out a little bit?
JanJan: Yeah, so I have to be honest, that’s the one that I’ve had the least time to look in the archives yet for, but to kind of give it the historical background, there is a theme in apocalyptic literature and also, of course, in Revelation in which you do have these heavenly books and you have, when people are waiting to come into this place in order to gain entry, you need to open the records of everything you’ve ever done. So, either that’s the book of life, or the book of deeds, they have different names. In Revelation, it’s the book of life or the book of the lamb, and there’s actually more than one book that gets open, so I see it as the most bureaucratic passage of the New Testament –
JanJan: And books were opened, right? It’s kind of like, you know, if you’ve ever been in an immigration office or seen that kind of thing, it’s very reminiscent. You have huge lines of people, right, and this is like everyone who’s ever died and lived, right? And you have to have these books opened, and then at the end, it’s all kind of arbitrary because they open all these books, the only thing that matters is if your name is in, written in the book of the lamb. And I don’t, I don’t want to be totally flippant here, but it just seems like, oh, a lot of this is mirrored in the way we think about who gets entry and the process of, you know, entry into this country and records and, you know, your deeds and, you know, all of these sorts of things that then become this bureaucratic in and out kind of gatekeeping. It doesn’t always have to be the case, right? Why do we even think about immigration in terms of records? And, you know, of course there are reasons, right, but I think it’s become a very matter of fact way of thinking about it, and I think reading it, cross reading Revelation sort of asks important questions like, why do we existentially believe in this kind of thing? What are the theological groundings of understanding records, recordkeeping and inclusion?
So, I’m not sure that there’s a one-to-one, right, of book of Revelation inspiring the way we do immigration, but I think there’s a lot of overlap and I think it asks important questions of each other. So, the things we take for granted in Revelation and the things we take for granted in immigration, why? Right? Ask the big questions of why is this necessary and for what reasons?
Pete: Maybe they can each help us understand the other.
JanJan: Yeah, I think so.
Pete: The contemporary scene and the past, right, that’s very interesting.
Jared: So, this has been a fascinating conversation. I love how we’ve pinged from various things, plagues and bookkeeping and all kinds of things and related them back to immigration and the book of Revelation. So, before we go, if people want to continue the conversation, kind of like, go a deeper way either with you or other materials, where can people find you?
Pete: Yeah, what’s your house address?
Pete: Where do you live?
JanJan: Well, we’re all in quarantine right now.
JanJan: So, you cannot come here. But you can reach me at my Yale email address which is email@example.com. That’s my email address.
Jared: And you don’t mind if people reach out and ask you follow up questions based on what we’ve talked about today, because I think there may be a good amount of questions.
JanJan: Sure, that’s fine. I mean, I can’t promise how quickly I can respond –
JanJan: But that’s fine, yeah.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thanks again so much for being on and sharing your expertise with us.
JanJan: Well thank you for having me.
Pete: Sure JanJan, thanks so much.
Jared: Thanks for listening everyone. We did want to draw your attention to one thing. Just a few weeks ago, we were able to do a course called “How to Read the Bible (Like Adults)”, so if you want to look into that, you have some free time in this COVID-19 environment, we would encourage you to check it out at https://peteenns.com/course/. We talk about things like how to read the Bible with some flexibility, some wisdom, also the importance of context and genre, so if you want to take this conversation further, learn a little bit more, you can check that out. Again, it’s at https://peteenns.com/course/.
Pete: And a quick shout out to our team that makes this possible. To Megan Cammack, our podcast producer.
Jared: Our audio engineer, Dave Gerhart.
Pete: Community champion, Reed Lively.
Jared: And Stephanie Speight, our transcriber. We couldn’t do it without you guys.
Pete: Thank you, see you folks.