NBC’s “Revelations” aired tonight (hear NPR's review). The program immediately reminded me of the 1970s film the Omen. It turns out the same writer put pen to paper for both. Many Christian fundamentalists are lauding the show – very loosely based on the biblical book Revelation (more fully known as The Revelation To John). God’s enemies in “Revelations” are disbelievers and judges and state officials hoping to pull a brain dead girl off life support (see Terri Schiavo). Those behind the mini-series offer a traditional millennialist interpretation of the biblical text. The world is set to end and only true believers will survive the apocalypse. This view of Revelation – re-enforced by NBC’s program – has dangerous implications.
Oregon State University biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes that those who subscribe to the millennialist interpretation of Revelation are those who believe the text speaks to an “imminent second coming of Christ.” Generation after generation of Christians has used this interpretation to argue their own time will be the one in which Christ returns. Cults have even formed around the idea. So far they’ve all been wrong. Yet this view of scripture has an important impact on how many Christians view our current period. Borg writes in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time:
The gospel (if it can be called that in this context) becomes “the good news” that you can be saved from the soon-to-come wrath of God by believing strongly in Jesus. The focus is on saving yourself and those whom you love (and as many others as you can get to listen to you) from the fate that awaits most of humankind. The message also has striking effects on our attitude toward life on earth, including issues of social justice and the environment. If the world is going to end soon, why worry about improving conditions here? Why worry about preserving the environment? It’s all going to end soon anyway.
Many fundamentalists argue that public policy should be based on the millennialist interpretation. This is seen most clearly in the advocacy of Christian fundamentalists for policies in the Israel that have the effect of increasing conflict. Vincent J. Schodolski writes today in The Chicago Tribune:
Modern interpreters of Scripture sometimes speculate that current events are signs of ancient prophecies coming to pass. Some view the United Nations as a vehicle for the modern Antichrist. Others see the European Union in that role.
There were those who even singled out the late Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist. Others have cited former President Bill Clinton or former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, notably for the mark on his forehead. Some theorists see that as the "mark of the beast."
Part of the biblical interpretation indicates that a re-established Israel--within its biblical boundaries--must precede the end of the world because that is where the battle of Armageddon is to take place.
As a result, there is a relationship between these conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews in Israel. Some of these Christians support efforts by Israelis to occupy lands not part of the modern state of Israel because, in doing so, the Christians believe the Israelis are hastening biblical prophecy and thus the end of days.
The support is welcomed by some Jews, though there is a paradox in that these Christians hold that any Jew who does not convert to Christianity will be sent to eternal damnation by Christ upon his second coming.
How we understand the Bible matters. A literal interpretation of Revelation can do great damage. It can, as Borg notes, allow Christians to abdicate responsibilities laid out for us in other texts like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. A literal interpretation can even allow people to advocate policies that can lead the war (surely the opposite of Jesus’ teachings). The Bible is not about death and destruction. God does, however, call us to do justice and even that theme is prevalent in a critical reading of Revelation (though critical interpretation is a no-no in NBC’s program). So what is Revelation actually about?
The book was written by an author named John. Most biblical scholars reject the idea that this John is the same John who authored the Gospel and Letters of John (The Harper Collins Study Bible, p. 2307) and instead advance the theory that the author was an early intenerate preacher. Revelation is a series of letters to early Christian communities living under Roman occupation. The author intended the material to be used by these communities and could not have imagined that 2,000 years later people would have claimed the texts as prophesizing the outcome of our time. Borg writes that there are three themes that run through Revelation:
Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord; Caesar and the beast are not.
God will soon act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its incarnation in Caesar.
Therefore, persevere, endure, be confident, take heart, have faith.
Christians can find much in Revelation to learn from. The dominant economic system of our modern time oppresses and wreaks havoc in much the same way Rome did. God calls us to oppose these systems the same way God called early Christian communities to oppose the oppression of their time. NBC’s interpretation of the Bible misses the core message of the faith – and all for money and ratings. There is an irony in that NBC is one of the two networks that banned the United Church of Christ for airing television commercials the network claimed other Christians might find offensive because of their progressive theological message. Nothing could be more offensive than twisting the fundamental message of the Bible for profit. Does NBC simply not understand the theological implications of their show or do they simply not care?