Elaine Pagels: Revelations

“Myth is what we call other people’s religions…Every religion is true in one way or another…true when understood metaphorically…But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then we are in trouble” (Joseph Campell)

“We believe that we know, without knowing that we are believing” (Humberto Maturana)

“The crisis that the world finds itself in as it swings on the hinge of a new millennium is located in something deeper than the particular ways of organizing political systems and economies” (Huston Smith)

Throughout the study of human history religion can be understood, both as a causal source, as well as a powerful resource in experiencing individual and social trauma. While spirituality is important for me I would not describe myself as “religious”. As a cultural Christian I grew up in a protestant family, and benefited greatly from an undergraduate education at a Catholic University. My husband is Jewish, fluent in Hebrew and spent many years in Israel restoring ancient pottery and frescos at Masada.

Prior to changing careers, I was an admittedly bookish art historian, deeply immersed in a field wherein the history of art could not be understood without an understanding and appreciation of the history of religion. As a social traumatologist, it has become increasingly clear that history, religion, individual and social trauma are closely interrelated and integral to even the most basic understanding of our human condition.

End of the World memes and themes are nothing new and have replicated in various forms throughout recorded history and probably existed even earlier. Apocalyptic (apokalypsis: Greek = unveiling or revelation) scenarios are often related to times of crisis; and also cycles of time, and thus gained some renewed momentum with the advent of our new millennium. Soon thereafter, Doomsday scenarios were again predicted, along with misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar, as a predictor of the end, with their long count registering a precise date for “the end of time”. In many ways such dire prognostications found some degree of resonance with believers in the Judeo-Christian texts of Old Testament prophesies, and the New Testament’s phantasmagoric Book of Revelations.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Elaine Pagels latest book: “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book Of Revelations, published in that iconic year of 2012, soon appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List.

I began to follow the work of Elaine Pagels, Princeton Professor of Religion and esteemed scholar of the Early Christian era, after reading The Gnostic Gospels (1989) based upon the 1945 discovery of a collection of Gnostic Christian material, written in the 2nd century AD. Long buried in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, this accidentally uncovered cache revealed 13 leather bound ancient papyri codices, containing over 50 texts buried in a sealed earthenware jar. Pagels believes that these fragile texts were likely to have been buried during a time when the Orthodox Fathers of the Catholic Church decreed that all non-canonical texts were to be suppressed as heretical, and thoroughly destroyed. Gnostic Christians (Greek: Gnosis=knowledge) were condemned as heretics and their records referring to women as important leaders in the Early Church deemed both dangerous and unacceptable. Also considered heretical were the following Gnostic beliefs: that God is envisioned as both Mother and Father, Jesus as a human being and his relationship with Mary Magdalene, resurrection as a symbolic event and self-knowledge as a path of God. These texts, which awakened interest in the role of women in the life of Jesus and the Early Church, have appeared in popular culture as a kind of backstory for Dan Brown’s novel and the film, The DaVinci Code.

In Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Professor Pagels presents a profound exploration of the modern Bible’s strangest and most controversial book; containing dreams, visions and phantasmagorical nightmares expected to manifest at the end of time. At one time it was thought that this last book of the New Testament was written by John the Disciple. Now however, most scholars suggest that it was written over two thousand years ago by Jewish prophet, John of Patmos (a small island off the coast of Turkey). This latter John is now believed to have been a member of a second generation of Jesus followers during the decadent waning days of the Roman Empire, suffering under the notoriously cruel, probably insane, Emperor Nero and his successors. The catastrophic years around 70 AD saw a total destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, the massacre of remaining Jewish zealots at Masada, as well as a terrifying volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in Southern Italy, that destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. The fiery mountain exploded with a deafening roar that shook the earth, as clouds of black smoke and sheets of flame rose up, while molten lava rained down and thousands and humans and their animals fled in terror. Most were either suffocated or burned to death. Contemporary observers recount that smoke and ash darkened the Mediterranean skies and was carried by winds as far as Africa, Egypt, and Syria.

Elaine Pagels maintains that John invoked visions from Israel’s prophetic traditions that he found in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; in order to interpret and find meaning within the devastating events of his own times, just as Old Testament prophets had done during their much earlier times. As a result, John conjures a cosmic war of good versus evil in which chaotic events of this world are finally set right through divine judgment followed by an astonishing gift of new life, with a Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Redemption, he makes clear, can only come after the necessary, divinely ordained, and extreme violence of the Apocalypse.

Throughout the ages, those cataclysmic, terrifyingly graphic, sadistically cruel visions, written down on the small island of Patmos, have served to fortify the religious anger of those who suffer and long for incendiary retaliation as their understanding of justice. During those all too many religious wars, both Protestants and Catholics have invoked these texts in order to justify their actions, as well as sanctimonious grounds for demonizing “the evil other”. How many bodies, we might ask, are buried within those and the many other high moral grounds used to carry out any number of genocidal campaigns.

During the relatively modern times of our American Civil War, Southern Confederate loyalists depicted Abraham Lincoln as an incarnation of the Beast of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, Northerners adapted their war anthem to include John’s prophecies into their Battle Hymn of the Republic written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, which links judgment of the wicked to the end of time (Rev:19), with the American Civil War: (and victory for the righteous Union).

“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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword;
Our God is marching on….”

An overview of Apocalyptic politics reveals that the incendiary language of Revelations can be adapted to serve as political propaganda in the service of any and many of our crises du jour. Professor Pagels warns of very real dangers in using this text as a pretext for committing all manner of atrocities against others, by any and all who see themselves “in good conscience” as emissaries delivering God’s divine judgment.

In a vastly different context, novelist and devout Christian, Annie Lamott suggests that “you know that you’ve created God in your own image when you realize that God hates exactly the same people as you do.” This delusion, of course, extends to nations as well as individuals. Passages from Revelations, as well as angry rants read from Old Testament prophets, were invoked during our quasi Holy-Wars against “evil Babylon”, now in present- day Iraq. Most recently the USA has attempted to seize some high moral ground as justification for a “humanitarian bombing” of Syria. And again, Christian, End Times fanatics seized this opportunity to litter their web sites with dire Biblical prophecies. Isaiah 17 went viral: “Behold Damascus is about to be removed from being a city, and will become a fallen ruin”.

On Madison Ruppert’s web site “End the Lie”, for example, on the subject of tribulations, he mentions a new survey by Life Way Research, which found that one third of (Christian?) Americans surveyed, believe that the Syrian conflict is a sign of Biblical End Times. Still, only one fifth believe that the world will end during their lifetime. Also of note is that one quarter of those surveyed believe that a U.S. military strike could lead to the Battle of Armageddon, since Syria as mentioned in Isaiah, shares a border with Israel. On September 18, 2013, right wing media outlet, Fox News, devoted an entire segment to this very same subject.

All apocalyptic thinking is not necessarily religious in nature. In The End of The World Again: Why The Apocalypse Meme Replicates (2012), Temple University Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies , Barry Vacker examines the absurdities and anxieties in Doomsday scenarios that proliferate in our culture; from economics to ecology, theology to technology, biology to cosmology, Plato’s Atlantis to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). As the director stated in an interview with Nils Thorsen on the Zentropa web site, “So, if the world ended and all suffering and longing disappeared in a flash, I’m likely to press the button myself.” In contrast, Vacker offers a vision within which we are evolved stardust, stardust that has become self-aware, a form of cosmic cognition that enables the cosmos to contemplate and know itself, and the direct-conscious experience of the cosmic sublime. This doesn’t mean that we are the center of the Universe, for there are surely other life forms and civilizations in the cosmos. Yet, in one small part of the Universe, humans are how the cosmos knows itself and that alone makes us worthy of continued existence, worthy of avoiding the cosmic apocalypse in Melancholia.

Journalism professor and devout Unitarian, Robert Jensen, addresses this subject in We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing and Speaking Out (2013) and All My Bones Shake: Politics in the Prophetic Voice ( 2009), Jensen allows that for all of humankind’s rational capacities, we are driven by non-rational forces that cannot be fully understood nor completely controlled. He nevertheless argues that apocalyptic thinking allows us to let go of fanciful visions of the future – there is nothing available to save us from ourselves. Our task is to deal with our future without delusions of deliverance; divine, technological or extraterrestrial. Our planet is not a way station in a journey to some better place. Earth is our home, and the only home that we are likely to know – and the task at hand is to make peace with ourselves, each other and the ecosystem upon which all life depends.

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