This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
Revelation and the Book of Job
“And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee; for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of the prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.”
The apocalyptic Revelation portrays Christianity’s ultimate victory over its enemies. The Book of Job shows one man’s faith in the face of incredible adversity.
As Edward Whittemore sees it in the amazing novel Sinai Tapestry, the Bible is composed of the “tales of a blind man, written down by an imbecile.”* Literally. It’s as good a theory as any, although that doesn’t discredit the authority of the Bible in a sense; might not God work in mysterious ways? Certainly, someone wrote it–that isn’t up for debate, just whether those people were acting at the direction of a god or not.
Writing this particular 60 in 60 is tough for me. My prior experience with the Bible was a shortlived gig in which I was going to update Bible tales for teens** and, much earlier, being dragged into a Methodist church every weekend and watching with apprehension as other people took communion. My parents were going through a rough patch and thought going to church might help the family and their marriage. It didn’t. It just seemed bizarre–a feeling I apologize for in the sense that I mean no disrespect.
Prior to that experience, we had never gone to church. I’d grown up with a mother interested in Buddhism, in the country of Fiji, which had a large Indian (Hindu) population. We celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The owner of the Chinese store seemed involved in some kind of Taoism. None of my dad’s scientist friends seemed particularly religious. We were taught from an early age to respect all people and all faiths, but we were not told how to think about religion otherwise.
The most I had to go on were Indian comic books that retold a mishmash of Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh myths–sometimes with a little nod to Christianity–and a kind of sinister-seeming Lutheranism seemingly embodied by my grandmother on my mother’s side, who lived in Chicago and was a kind of unthinking racist. (When I tried to liquidate my Lutheran life insurance during a time of financial crisis during college, I remember getting a visit from their representative that was not unlike getting a visit from the mob.)
The only other context I have is my wife Ann’s belief in God as a Jew, and therefore her readings of the Old Testament. Because I respect and love Ann, and because she is who she is–honest and smart and strong and fundamentally nice–it is impossible for me to dismiss belief in God, but for me personally spirituality comes more through nature and through creativity…and yet I am somehow very contented that Ann believes, although belief is not mathematical–there is no communicative property of belief. (There’s also the fact that I love and respect the people who attend her synagogue–in fact, being involved in that community, even from the periphery, helped ease some of my anxieties about organized religion. “Dogma” and “missionary” are two words that rarely apply to a religious conversation with a Jew.)
Which is all my way of saying that I’m looking at the Bible through a weird series of lenses, even though snippets of it have come to me from other sources. All I can really say about my readings is that in these particular selections some of the stories and images leapt out at me.
In Revelation I particularly enjoyed the following:
– The descriptions in Chapter 4 of a door opened in heaven and a throne with “a sea of glass like unto crystal” before it, flanked by “four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
– The depiction in Chapter 6 of a pale horse with Death sitting on him.
– All of the material about angels, some “with tails like unto scorpions,” in Chapters 7 through 10 is amazing, intensely odd and evocative.
– The graphic, almost Grand Guignol parts of Chapter 16, with its “blood of a dead man” has a kind of hypnotic power, not to mention that who could not be darkly charmed by a line like “I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of a dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.”
– The burning city in Chapter 18, and the accompanying description, is peculiar in the best sense, and again conveys an idea of angels as extremely strange, complex beings. Thinking about anyone in Medieval times who might have imagined angels as real…this must have been a truly awe-inspiring, but also terrifying thought.
In the Book of Job, there is both more power and less than I expected, because I’ve always heard the story in condensed form. The text gains rhetorical power from Job’s conversations with the likes of Bildad the Shuhite, but in terms of pure story it slow things down.
Chapter 24 affected me for some reason, with language like “For the morning is to them even as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.” Chapter 38, in which God speaks to Job, saying, “Who hath laid the measures [of the earth], if thou knowest? or who has stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if issued out of the womb?” Job acknowledges the supremacy of God, but I almost think it’s as much because in listing the details of the world God proves he is alive in the specific details of the world as because he is all-mighty.
In all of this, there’s a rough power to the language and a strangeness to the surreal aspects of the stories being told that appeals to me as a nonbeliever. It’s dense in the best possible way. Will I revisit it? I don’t know. But I am glad that the 60 in 60 brought me to this text.
* As summarized by Anne Sydenham on her Jerusalem Dreaming website.
** Here, from the original post, is the entire account of my freelancing encounter with the Bible:
When I first started freelancing this year , I jumped at any gig I could get. One of the leads was to write retold Bible stories for teens. It was work-for-hire and the resulting book supposedly would be sold in chain bookstores.
The creative director insisted on a conference call to suss me out, along with an assistant and the owner of the company.
I get on the phone and the creative director, in a style I can only describe as old-school Hollywood–I could just see him chomping down on a cigar–tells me â€œThis isnâ€™t like writing for your penny-dreadfuls, Jeff. This is the big-time. This is for real.â€
â€œOkay,â€ I say. â€œHow about you tell me about the project.â€
Creative Director: â€œI used to work at [big comic book company], I know what Iâ€™m talking about. This is for real.â€
Me: â€œIâ€™m looking forward to it. Do you have a particular slant?â€
Creative Director: â€œJust think of Adam as being Batman except without parents and youâ€™ll do fine.â€
Me [thinking]: “But Batman had parents and–”
Creative Director: â€œJust remember this isnâ€™t those penny dreadfuls youâ€™re used to writing for. This is a real audience.â€
Me: â€œI understand itâ€™s updated Bible stories.â€
Creative Director: â€œYeah. The snake is called Stevie and he tells fart jokes. The kids love the fart jokes.â€
Me: â€œSo what do you want from me?â€
Creative Director: â€œPitch us the Tree of Life, Jeff. Pitch us the Tree of Life.â€
Me: â€œGreen? Leaves? Large?â€
At that moment, or maybe it was well before, I realized I was never, ever going to write for these people.
And, in fact, I never did.
A wii for the events in Revelation would leave a person gasping, catatonic, or nuts.
Question for Readers
What are your favorite parts of the Bible, and why?
Next up, Marco Polo’s Travels in the Land of Kubilai Khan…