60 in 60: #26 – Revelation and the Book of Job (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

Jeff VanderMeer • January 13th, 2009 @ 7:15 am • 60 in 60

revelation

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
by ??

Memorable Line
“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 Skinny
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.

Relevance? Argument?
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 [2007], 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 “This isn’t like writing for your penny-dreadfuls, Jeff. This is the big-time. This is for real.”

“Okay,” I say. “How about you tell me about the project.”

Creative Director: “I used to work at [big comic book company], I know what I’m talking about. This is for real.”

Me: “I’m looking forward to it. Do you have a particular slant?”

Creative Director: “Just think of Adam as being Batman except without parents and you’ll do fine.”

Me [thinking]: “But Batman had parents and–”

Creative Director: “Just remember this isn’t those penny dreadfuls you’re used to writing for. This is a real audience.”

Me: “I understand it’s updated Bible stories.”

Creative Director: “Yeah. The snake is called Stevie and he tells fart jokes. The kids love the fart jokes.”

Me: “So what do you want from me?”

Creative Director: “Pitch us the Tree of Life, Jeff. Pitch us the Tree of Life.”

Me: “Green? Leaves? Large?”

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.

Conclusion
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

28 Responses to “60 in 60: #26 – Revelation and the Book of Job (Penguin’s Great Ideas)”

  1. Allen says:

    The Bible is the most abused book ever written. I’m reminded of a line by Blake where he says to the fundamentalists of his day “Where you read black I read white”.

    My favorite book in the bible is the Gospel of Mark. Jesus comes across as a complex, highly passionate, enigmatic sage who sets out to confound every one’s expectations – including those of his family and disciples.

  2. Bill Ectric says:

    The Book of Ecclesiastes is my favorite. It’s almost an anomaly in the Bible for being told from a down-to-earth, mortal viewpoint as opposed to talking donkeys and magical fish.

    The writer of Ecclesiastes tries to find happiness by every means possible: Money & possessions, hard work, food, leisure, laughter & wine, sex, and knowledge. The great thing is, he doesn’t conclude that any those things are bad or sinful. He appreciates the women, the possessions, and that good feeling one gets after completing a task, but he sometimes feels like it’s all so futile in the end.

    His conclusion is to go ahead and dive into your work and your life with gusto, but “remember your creator” and “fear God.” This might sound bogus to some people, but the writer speaks comfortably of god, giving me some leeway to accept god as either a separate being, or an untapped part of my own brain, telling me to do the right thing. Then again, you could look at different parts of your brain as separate beings. Yet again, maybe there is an actual God who created the world and lives outside of it, looking in. Maybe his plan is so unfathomable that we ask questions like, “If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow suffering?” And come up with answers like Schopenhaur’s idea that we only know we’re alive when we’re in pain (to crib from another of Jeff’s Great Ideas summaries), and also “Because the gift of love involves free will; you can’t love someone if you’re forced to do it against your will, and the side effect is suffering” but then, sometimes I think that is all bullshit, and God really is just a collective part of everyone’s brain, and I realize it doesn’t matter, because it’s real no matter which door you perceive it through.

    Ecclesiastes may not say all of that, word for word. I get carried away.

  3. Natania says:

    Back in my churchgoing days I was always attracted to the weird books, the odd books, the books (like the two you’ve profiled) that just seemed too… mystical for their own good. Reading these sorts of books always felt such a contrast to the preaching I heard at the pulpit, and in my teens I was pretty convinced that, if I studied hard enough, some great Truth would be revealed to me through them.

    Daniel has some great prophetic images, right in line with Job and Revelation. Definitely poetry.

    But believe it or not, for sheer poetical merit, the book of John has always been my favorite. I remember hearing a sermon once about how the first few lines, in fact, recount all of Genesis in just a handful of words. Regardless of one’s religions slant, it is a remarkable (and surprisingly metaphysical) take.

  4. Matt Staggs says:

    I’ve always suspected that many of the miraculous occurrences reported to us by various holy men, saints and shamans were the result of hallucinogenic drugs taken either by way of ceremony or accidental ingestion. It’s an interesting image: all of those anchorites and holy men wandering the wastelands quietly tripping their brains out on sacred sacraments.
    Some people even think that ergotism – hallucinations and other symptoms caused by the ingestion of bread infested with the Claviceps purpurea fungus – were to blame for the Salem Witch Trials.
    Ritual or accidental ingestion of powerful hallucinogens could certainly address why the “age of miracles” has passed and God doesn’t seem to talk to us anymore.

  5. Bill Ectric says:

    Matt, I think you are onto something, there. I’m a Huxley man, myself, though my mystic visions are few and far between these days. A little nirvana goes a long way, or, as they say, ‘Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water; after enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.’

    I’ll add this to your speculation. True, mind altering drugs may very well account for magical experiences, and on top of that, think what an early, early human must have felt when a voice in their head (an idea, a thought, a memory of a parent’s voice), “Don’t stick your hand in the fire!”

    They might be like, “Who said that?”

  6. David Wesley says:

    As a Christian, I suppose I should be most partial to the New Testament, but the story of Moses and the burning bush has always resonated very strongly with me. When God told Moses what he had in store for him, he rightly pointed out that he was only a man and not a particularly powerful one at that. But God said “I’ll be with you.” There was no sense of trying to convince Moses, just a statement that exuded a protective power and authority.

    I find that comforting.

  7. Ellen Denham says:

    I grew up in a church-going family and was an avid reader of fantasy from an early age. I had to read the bible for Sunday School, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much. Then I read Revelations on my own, and thought it was pretty cool because there were monsters.

    I recall a Sunday School teacher asking me, when I was maybe in sixth grade, what my favorite part of the bible was. “Revelations,” I said without having to think. I recall she looked surprised, and maybe distressed. Little girls weren’t supposed to be into that, I suppose.

  8. Zephid Bebex says:

    We had an illustrated Bible around when I was a kid and I just loved it for all the stories. Still do. Not so long ago, when visiting home, I grabbed it from the box of books I had stored away from childhood and brought it back to light. What I like about the Bible is the range of stories, from slice of life or surreal extravaganzas.

  9. Morpho Ophelia says:

    I’ve always loved the Book of Job. It’s horrific if you think about it. When I was younger I looked at it through the perspective of Job, dedication, and all that suffering. Now I see what a monster God can be. Laughing. Old age will do that to you.

  10. Larry says:

    Well, for me, it’s usually the Book of Job, 1 Corinthians 13 (the passage on love), some of the Proverbs/Ecc./Wisdom/Sirach passages, and bits and pieces from the Gospels.

  11. Timblynod says:

    The Bible certainly seems to offer a solid framework upon which to construct ones life. In the chaos of the universe, of life, it’s immeasurably better to turn to something that has order, even if possibly it’s maybe not necessarily the thing staring back at us at the deepest level of reality. It’s beautiful though, like language. And compelling. And, thank God, at least it’s not too boring (courtesy of Job and John the Beloved).

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    isn’t chaos a kind of order.

  13. Timblynod says:

    Sort of like absolute zero being merely theoretical? Everything is actually various degrees of order? That makes my brain hurt.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    chaos is just a pattern we don’t understand yet.

  15. Timblynod says:

    Sounds like Job.

  16. Seth Merlo says:

    I haven’t said it here before, but I am a Christian. I grew up in a Christian household, with a mum and dad who made sure we went to Church every Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t do it because they were a couple of religious nutcases. They did it because the Christian faith is what they genuinely believed (still do, in my mum’s case – dad died three years ago). Their example is what made me decide to continue on as a Christian, so I don’t have one of those amazing, tear-filled born-again conversion stories. My dad wasn’t the kind to bible-bash an unsuspecting coworker, but he genuinely tried to live out his faith and what he read in his Bible. While I’ll never have all the answers, I’ve also never seen or heard anything to contradict what I believe and what my dad taught me. To that end, if Christianity was good enough for him to go his grave believing, then it’s good enough for me.

    Please don’t misunderstand me everyone – I didn’t intend this to be a sermon, and I don’t think it could be since it’s quite a personal story. However, I’d just like to point out the Christianity does not automatically equal Catholicism and similar highly organised denominations. Apologies to any Catholics, but to be perfectly blunt it’s this kind of Religion with a capital R that has abused and skewed people’s perceptions of what Christianity is. My experience of Christianity couldn’t be further from this popular image of Bishops and Popes, and I’d encourage anyone whose interested to find a different Church. My own denomination is (open) Brethren (not to be confused with the scarf-wearing Exclusive Brethren cult). We have no central structure, only a set of Elders and Deacons elected from within the Church membership. It tries to mirror the early Church and eschews any further organisation than that.

    I also grew up an avid fantasy reader, so my favourite book for a long time was Revelations, if only for the imagery and prophecy. Nowdays I enjoy the New Testament as a whole as it reveals God’s plan as it effects us and is a guide for loving, if you want it to be. At the moment, I’m really enjoying re-reading Acts for its history of the early Church.

    I think this easily qualifies as my longer post yet. Sorry for making you all sit through that!

  17. Richard Hutchinson says:

    I think it’s an interesting choice of books to put together in a series such as this. Both are extremely dense and a bit of a slog to get through, and with Revelation, certainly, I’m not certain exactly what a casual reader could glean from it. I am an avid reader of the Bible (or try to be in any case) but the Bible needs to be read as a whole to get the full scope. What impresses me about it after what is now 10 years of study is how every book of it feeds into each other, and reading any one passage can lead me off into reading 3 or 4 passages in other books, Old and New Testament, that not only help understanding but are necessary for a proper grasp of it. And every time I pick it up it’s completely fresh and something new is waiting for me (men who’ve been studying it for 40 or 50 years assure me that this is still their experience too).
    Revelation and Job don’t seem like obvious entry points to me, and seem odd candidates for stand-alone books. But it’s interesting to see your take on them both, Jeff.

    Incidentally, I’d LOVE to read some re-written bible stories from the VanderMeer pen, though I could do without Steve the Serpent telling fart jokes.

  18. Bill Ectric says:

    Seth, I appreciate your willingness to discuss your faith. I didn’t mind “sitting through it” at all. The test of whether or not something is “too long” is, could it have been shorter but still expressed completely? Some things take longer than others to say correctly, and I think your comment is succinct and well structured.

  19. Conschobhar says:

    For me, without question, the two books of Samuel. They’ve got about every element you need for a good story. Seriously… just epic.

  20. Seth Merlo says:

    Many thanks, Bill. Though I probably should have done a quick re-read before posting – ‘guide for loving’?!? Of course, it is, but I meant ‘guide for living’. Just to clarify.

  21. Larry says:

    Well Seth, after those Biblical Diet and Biblical Finance books, why not a Biblical Sex Guide? :P

  22. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Seth–yeah, that was great. I have very much enjoyed all of the comments.

    Re having these in the series, I have to confess that any of the books in verses, or micro sections, like this one, Confucius, Sun-tzu, seem less suited to the concept of 60 in 60. just means I need to go back to them.

    Retold Bible tales are unlikely–it just doesn’t connect with me on that level–although a fair number of verses from Jewish prayer books are hidden in Shriek, along with some other mystical Jewish stuff.

  23. Seth Merlo says:

    Larry – there’s plenty Bible-based sex guides out there. Apparently Christians are a terribly sexually repressed people who wouldn’t know an omlette from an orifice, if you go by the sheer quantity available and the range of topics covered.

    Re this particular 60 in 60 – it makes a kind of sense to pair Job and Revelation together. In Job you have a man whose faith that is severely tested and who must hold on to a hope that isn’t fulfilled in his time, then in Revelation you have that faith justified and that hope fulfilled in the most absolute of ways.

  24. Matthew Sini says:

    Why is it that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Illiad and other mythological works are not also in this series? It seems odd to me that two parts of the Bible are included in this series along with the likes of Cicero, Marcus Aurealis, Camus, Confucius, Sun Tzu, Nietzsche and so on. The series is called “Great Ideas,” not “Great Stories/Fables.”

  25. Ranking the Classics: Weeks Four and Five of the 60 in 60 | Appml says:

    [...] – Revelation and the Book of Job - The apocalyptic Revelation portrays Christianity’s ultimate victory over its enemies. [...]

  26. Seth Merlo says:

    @ Matthew – maybe because for all its stories the Bible is also a book full of history, teachings and principles. As such it present a ‘great idea’ (to use Penguin’s phrase) on spirituality, as does Confucius and others in the series. The Illiad and Gilgamesh aren’t usually read in that context.

  27. Cris says:

    Vern Poythress, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, thinks that Revelation should be read as a picture book: The Returning King.

  28. Jonathon Howard says:

    I’ve never liked the Bible, ever. Depsite the fact I read through it multiple times. There might be some few enjoyabe verses, but digging through all the dross to find them isn’t worth it to me.

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