Strip Away the Weirdness and You Get Good News

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Revelation on my own. In fact, I’ve avoided it because it seemed like a book for Christian conspiracy theorists, numbers obsessives, and end-times enthusiasts — none of which I am. All those apocalyptic images of battles, beasts, horsemen, etc., are so distracting and confusing. Not to mention scary.

The Good News of Revelation, by Larry Helyer and Ed Czyewski is an antidote to all that.

The authors do not bend themselves backwards to try to make sense of those distracting images for the contemporary reader. They get down to the story basics:

Who were the people this was originally written to?

What was happening in their lives?

What did they need to hear from God?

How did Revelation give them what they needed?

I love drilling down to the core of a story, and I’ve found it so fruitful, in my own spiritual life, to use my imagination in concert with cultural research into what life was like for the people we read about in the Bible — this book was right up my alley.

Helyer and Czyewski begin each section of the book with a short story, each of which is told from the point of view of a different person who was involved in the writing, disseminating, or receiving of this communication from John. These were wonderfully grounding: a real person wrote Revelation, and real people read it and passed it along in spite of real threats to their personal safety. The stories ran the gamut from interesting to truly moving. The final one is my favorite: Lydia, whose husband was dragged away by Roman soldiers, poring over the scroll at night:

“As the rising sun made it easier to read the scroll in front of her, she traced her finger over the small letters once again. One particular line caught her eye every time, ‘He will wipe away every tear.’ She thought of the lonely nights crying by herself and those moments before bedtime where her boys cried out for their father. They didn’t feel safe. She didn’t feel safe. She didn’t know how much more she could take. While the details were vague about God’s new home for his people, she couldn’t stop reading about Jesus wiping away every tear. As good as that sounded for some day, she needed that now. She needed God to step in and deliver her. She needed God to protect and provide for her boys” (p.84).

Phillip’s response to her questions aren’t entirely satisfying, but he sums up the gist of the letter:

“Well, the point of the letter is that God is already victorious. We just don’t see it yet. However, there will come a day when God visibly rules. We don’t know what this New Jerusalem will look like, but the point is that Rome’s days are numbered. While we need to persevere for today, there will come a day when God will reward us with his presence and peace, wiping away every tear.”

All (what I think of as) the weirdness is in service to that basic message, that basic good news.

There is more to Revelation than that, of course. There are specific messages to the seven Asian churches about what they’re doing well and what they need to work on or root out of their congregations. There is prophecy, which the authors connect to the prophetic writing in the Old Testament and define as “inspired speech that appealed to the listeners to repent and to put their complete trust in the Lord;” it can reveal God’s future plans, but doesn’t necessarily give us a “blueprint of the future” (p.8). There is also apocalyptic writing that communicates the fight between good and evil via visions, symbols, and images that would be able to be decoded by those in the know, but opaque to outsiders — and that assured readers/listeners that not only will God win, but God already has.

One of my favorite writing teachers, Lisa Cron, says this about story: “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution–more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on t0” (Wired for Story, p.1). In Revelation, John is given a heck of a story to tell the seven churches of Asia, with lots of flashy elements to get them to pay attention and to help them connect this story to stories they’ve heard before, but it is, at root, a story about what and who to hang on to, and encouragement to keep hanging on.

As I read The Good News of Revelation, other stories kept coming to mind: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson. Each of them, essentially, contains the message that there is evil, there will be difficultly, you will have to choose your path, evil will come at good over and over again, there will be pain and even death for you and those you love, it matters how you treat everyone, even those “lower” than you, good (and love) will eventually triumph. This is also the message of Revelation.

Please note that Helyer and Cyzewski do not make this connection; that’s on me. You see, I love those stories. Seeing echoes of them in Revelation may give me a way in to a book I’ve avoided. As will having (finally) read all the Old Testament prophets. As will having read The Good News of Revelation. At the glacial rate at which I’m reading through the Bible, I might be at Revelation by the end of the year; I’ll report back then.

The authors are running a Goodreads giveaway, or you can just go ahead and buy it: Amazon | Barnes & Noble.

I am a recovering snob

You know how you can go about your life, not really thinking about a certain thing, until it keeps coming at you from different and unrelated sources and then it’s all you can think about? I had that recently with snobbery.

Book snob

A couple of weeks ago, a great blog post by author Matt Haig was passed around freely and with glee, although mainly by genre writers: 30 things to tell a book snob. A few of my favorites:

1. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

2. Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.

 23. Imagination is play. Snobbery is the opposite of play.
30. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

As a reader, I used to be a more of a book snob, but now I mostly read genres of fiction that many people look down on: romance (historical romance, even), middle grade, young adult. As a writer, there are books that it’s kind of fun to look down on with fellow writers, books that are known for their addictive stories but “bad” writing. This post was a good reminder to not let myself revel in that snobbery.

Philosophy snob

Then, after knowing each other for 12 years, a good friend asked me what I’d learned from my grad school experience, i.e., what did I learn from having gone to grad school to become a philosophy professor and then quitting after two years without getting my Master’s degree.

My first answer: I learned that there are phases in life, and that’s okay. I was going to be a philosophy professor until I decided I didn’t want to be one. I’d explored an option that I decided against. No harm in that. And if anyone looks down on me because I didn’t wind up with an M.A., that is not a person I’d enjoy knowing, anyway.

My deeper answer: I began my struggle with snobbery.

Before that, I’d happily called myself a big city snob as I bemoaned the lack of things to do / provincial mindsets / homogeneity in the small city where my college was. In college, I’d expanded my horizons by pursuing friendships with intellectual / culinary / aesthetic snobs. I’d read opaque and experimental novels and seen highly symbolic movies and cooked complicated meals from impressive cookbooks.

This was a direct response to not being taken very seriously by my social group back home. During college I set out to explore that side of me — even if I was one of the few who knew it was there. I hung out with wonderful people, wrestled with ideas, and ate well.

I was also incredibly full of myself and felt superior to people who didn’t do all those things I did — despite the fact that I loved the farming side of my family and that I had a deep dark secret that I knew wouldn’t be accepted and understood by my college friends: I loved romance novels. Heck, I even ratted on a classmate for hiding a romance behind the textbook and reading her Harlequins in class (while praying that nobody found the stash of same I hid in my night table).

Of course, it’s a normal college thing to experiment with your self-image and go whole-hog into new ways of being. And as a shy person, snobbery provided a relatively safe haven because I was part of a tribe of other like-minded folks.

But it started to chafe in grad school.

Even if you love academic philosophy, you have to admit that there is at least a vein of snobbery in a discipline that once called itself the queen of the sciences. There is an assumption that if you don’t think deeply about things in the way we teach you to think deeply then you haven’t truly dealt with those things. I may be embroidering this memory, but I believe one of my undergrad profs actually said this — without the caveat of “in the way we teach you to think” that my feminist-thinking self must add. On the contrary, I don’t think I have to read a philosophical treatise on suffering to know how to be with someone who is suffering or to endure suffering myself; it may help, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

I am not saying that every philosophy professor is a snob, or even that any individual prof is a snob. In fact, one of the least snobby people I know is a philosophy professor, highly respected by her colleagues and loved by her students and curious and interested in a wide range of things and I like her very much. I’m also not saying that thinking philosophically isn’t valuable — it certainly is. Neither is philosophy a bad pursuit that nobody should do. It’s a marvelous pursuit and I love that there are people whose lives have meaning and purpose because of philosophy, that it exists for the people it energizes. I’m even grateful for the ability I have to analyze an argument and a text that philosophy helped me hone.

It’s like this: philosophy, for me, is like an antibiotic. Many people can take it and are helped tremendously. I am allergic to it, so I have a bad reaction, a reaction that philosophy didn’t intend, perhaps, but the possibility for that reaction is part of it.

True confessions time. I am ashamed to admit it, but I was very freshly married at the time, and was occasionally embarrassed that my husband was not academic.* Nobody at school ever said anything remotely negative about my husband (except for the idiot who told me he’d be a better man for me because he’d have a photo of me in his wallet; the same idiot who was later kicked out of the program for harassing female students). But those fleeting thoughts taught me more than anything else that this academic philosophical world wasn’t for me. I wasn’t strong enough to resist the pull of snobbery.

So I left.

A recovering snob

Did I leave snobbery behind? Sadly, no. It’s a struggle, but the older I get, the less of a pull it exerts. The more different people I meet, the more I discover that there are many great ways to live a fulfilling life, that the way I’m familiar with isn’t automatically the best way. Being part of a multiracial church hammered that lesson home continually, because to make a truly cross-cultural ministry in which people from very different backgrounds all have power and agency, you can’t assume that your traditions are “right.” You gain so much in return, but you really do have to give that up.

A recent writing job reminded me that I still have a ways to go. I wrote profiles of 15 churches in my area, and the approach I took was to highlight what was great and unique about each of those places. Before I started, I assumed most of the churches would be similar, but they weren’t at all. Each one had something wonderful, something that surprised me, something I could learn from and be inspired by.

I’ve gotten to a place of acceptance of different points of view and ways of life, but I’d like to take it further and approach more of my interactions from a place of active curiosity. Do you like a genre of fiction I don’t — what do you love about it? Do you like a different worship style than I do — how does God speak to you through it? Do you like really dark TV shows — why?

This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned value judgments, because there is injustice, there are lifestyles that are unhealthy, and people do treat each other cruelly. I am a Christian, and there are certain tenets of my faith that are not negotiable. There is still good and evil, right and wrong. But most of my daily life is lived in between those two poles, in the realm of preference. And in that realm, I’d rather be big-hearted and curious. I’d rather play. I’d rather hear a story, maybe even yours.

 

* Just so nobody thinks I’m actually dissing my husband here, let me be clear: the man’s musical intelligence and sensitivity is off the chart, his emotional intelligence is something I rely on regularly, and he excels at his intellectually demanding job. As a student, he couldn’t habitually not study for tests and then ace them, and he didn’t generally get all jazzed up about purely academic subjects or arguments with little relation to regular life — that’s what I mean by “not academic.” A tiny drop in the bucket of the awesomeness of my husband.

 

Why I Do What I Do

“What I do” is turn the power of my imagination, my knowledge of story, and my historical research onto biblical stories in the hopes of developing a better and deeper understanding of who God is and what God wants of me by way of what God wanted of his followers in the Bible, and to share that with my readers.

That’s all 😉

Sometimes, the Bible is its own barrier. The way of life 2,000 – 4,000 years ago was so different from our own that there are all kinds of things we miss: jokes, radical ideas, contemporary ideas biblical writers may have been trying to counter.

Not to mention the differences in translations. Look at these two versions of Psalm 116, verse 5

How kind the Lord is! How good he is! So merciful, this God of ours! (NLT)

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. (NRSV)

That’s mostly a matter of style; some will prefer the more casual, others the more formal. But sometimes there’s a difference in substance, like in Psalm 138, verses 17-18 (emphasis mine):

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me! (NLT)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you. (NRSV)

Those are not the same thing. In the NLT, God’s innumerable thoughts are about me and they’re precious. In the NRSV, God’s thoughts are general and weighty. Many other translations combine the two, and have God’s thoughts as precious, but, again, they’re general thoughts. Just that one translation choice makes the difference between a God who intimately knows me and is thinking about me all the time (like a parent thinks about their child all the time) and a God who’s, at worst, inaccessible or, at best, impossible to understand.

And then there’s this: the Bible can be boring to read. There. I’ve said it. It’s out there. The more I know about the context of its writing, the more interesting I find it, but there’s no denying that getting through a book like Numbers is a real slog. If I were the editor of the Bible, several books would have been half as long, because so many verses are (unnecessarily!) repeated almost verbatim within the same book, sometimes the same chapter.

We are the problem, too, sometimes, when we approach Bible reading with too much seriousness, too much pressure to hear from God in a way that applies to my life right now; we can wind up confused and discouraged when the Bible doesn’t deliver.

A friend who read the first of the final drafts of It Is You admitted that she didn’t much like reading the Bible because she couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t get into what was going on. Indeed, it can be difficult to read, the ideas opaque, the stories violent, the heroes unheroic by today’s standards. She said that my writing brought the story of David and Saul alive for her in a way her own reading never had and that she had been engrossed in the story. That, right there, is why I do what I do.

I’m not the only person who uses imagination and research to explicate the Bible, of course. Children’s worship leaders do this every time they ask kids the “I wonder” questions. And anybody who’s been in an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship inductive Bible study does it.

My husband and I are back in an IVCF-style Bible study for the first time in 15 years, and it’s fantastic. And illuminating. For the first meeting, one of the leaders read the entire book of Ephesians out loud to us — just as it would have been read out loud, in its entirety, to the church at Ephesus. I was astonished at how different Paul’s words felt with that presentation, as opposed to the few-verses-at-a-time pace I was accustomed to. It was a much more encouraging and uplifting book than I’d ever thought.

And then, at the next meeting, that same leader shared some historical research with us. She noted that, in Ephesus, at the time, the ideas of Fate and Destiny were heavy burdens. Seers made a living both predicting your fate and accepting payment so you could buy off the more unpleasant parts of your fate. And then in comes Paul with his idea of predestination. In Ephesians 1:5, we are predestined to be adopted as sons of God — feminist though I might be, I’m sticking with sons here, because this means that daughters and lowly eighth sons were, by God through Jesus, given the higher status of the son who will inherit his father’s wealth. “Adopted as sons” is a good and radical thing, in this context.

In fact, the two times predestination is mentioned in verses 1-14, it is used in the same breath with adoption (v.5) and inheritance (v.11). This, to me, says that God has already made us part of his family: no matter what happens to us (our “fate”) or when we discovered him, God, through the sacrifice of Jesus, has already embraced us. In this reading, predestination takes away the heavy burden of worrying about our fate, which is the exact opposite of my previous understanding of the term. I find this very exciting and freeing.

And now I’m sharing it with you, my readers. In the hopes that you, too, will appreciate this take on predestination in Ephesians.

So, what do you think?