Transforming the Imagination

John’s Apocalypse as Story

David L. Barr

Professor of Religion

Wright State University

A Lecture Presented at

Wright State University

January 28, 2000

What good is the Apocalypse if it doesn’t tell us about the future?  Those of you who have heard the other two speakers at this symposium already know some ways to answer this question.  Dr. Friesen used images of the physical remains associated with the cities to which Revelation was addressed to reconstruct for us some of the everyday social, religious, and political reality of the audience.  Hearing Revelation in the context of this reality both enlivens the book and vivifies the people of the book.  We are able to reconstruct the lives and circumstances of folk quite unlike ourselves.

Dr. Duff carefully unpacked the rhetoric of the Apocalypse, both its direct rhetoric and its implicit rhetoric, to highlight the factions within John’s community.  He allows us to trace the tensions between liberal and conservative, between isolationists and assimilationists, between men and women.  Using a very different method, Dr. Duff’s conclusions differ somewhat from Dr. Friesen’s (I say “differ from” rather than “contradict” for their two sets of conclusions have a certain compatibility.).  I’ll return to this in a moment, but first a word about methods.

Methods, I tell my classes, are like those colored transparencies that come with some children’s games.  You lay the red transparency over the page, which to the naked eye looks like random squiggles of various color lines and, presto, a picture or message appears.  Remove the red and overlay the blue, and a different picture or messages appears.  Each color hides and reveals different things.  So too methods, by focusing our attention on certain elements, allow us to see a picture.  But each method must, of necessity, hide other pictures.  Of course one difference between this and the children’s game is we can be sure the pictures are actually there in the game.  We may be creating our pictures along with our method.  But let’s save such skepticism for later in the lecture.

You have now seen two pictures, a rather nice likeness of the Emperor and an intriguing gallery of John’s competition.  Dr. Friesen derives his picture using what we might call “thick social description” or—as the subtitle of his forthcoming book has it—Reading Revelation in the Ruins.  By immersing ourselves in the everyday reality of the first audience, we see the images, themes, and significance of John’s writing more clearly.  Dr. Duff is also concerned with the social reality of the Apocalypse, but approaches it differently.  He reconstructs the social dynamics of John’s community by rhetorical analysis.  Unlike Friesen, he operates entirely within the book—or at least he only leaves the book when the rhetoric points to something outside it (such as Paul’s stance of idol meat).  I find both pictures helpful in thinking about the Apocalypse.  But I, of course, want to draw a third picture and for that I need another method.

Formally, my method is called narratology or, as normal people would say, trying to figure out how and why stories work the way the do.  It will give us a new picture of meaning of the Apocalypse and allow us to formulate an answer to the question: what good is Revelation if it doesn’t tell us about the future.

To start let me contrast a narratological approach to the audience of Revelation with the more traditional historical view.  Scholars have often read John’s Revelation as if it provided a direct window on the world of Roman Asia Minor.  Laodicea’s tepid water and Pergamom’s throne of Satan were artifacts the archaeologist could find.  Jezebel was a libertine prophet and Domitian a demonic persecutor of Christians.  From a narratological perspective this is all wrong.[1]

Narratives are not windows on history; they are mirrors reflecting a self-contained, artistically created world.[2]  A narrative is an invention, a fiction, and never corresponds exactly to the world of experience.  Even if a writer were to try for such correlation, the need for selectivity, summary, and meaningful relationships between events would preclude mere recording.

Thus from the perspective of modern narrative theory, the audience of the Apocalypse is not simply the people we meet in the text.  To avoid such easy and erroneous identifications, we must distinguish three aspects of the audience: the actual audience, the implied audience, and the narratee.  These correspond to the three aspects of the teller of the tale: the actual author, the implied author, and the narrator.

We are long accustomed to the distinction between the author and the narrator, understanding the narrator to be only the voice used to tell the story.  As the invention of the author, the narrator may be like the author or may bear no resemblance to the author.  Male authors may use female narrators; female authors may speak through males.  The narrator may even prove an unreliable guide.[3] The narrator is not the author.  Nor is the more shadowy figure that critics call the implied author.  This is the author that can be posited from the text; it is the view of the author that the author chooses to show in the text.  It may be a close likeness; or it may be highly selective, even misleading. 

These three “teller” roles correspond exactly to three “hearer” roles: the narratee, the implied audience and the actual audience.  It is common to set forth these relationships thus:

 Author» [ implied author »narrator » narratee » implied audience ] » Audience

[   the brackets represent the boundaries of the text   ]

The narratee is the audience to which the narrator tells the story; sometimes the narratee is a clearly defined character in the text (the caliph in Arabian Nights); more often the narratee is undefined, uncharacterized.  The implied audience is the sum total we can reconstruct of the audience from the statements in the text.  This is the author’s picture of the audience.  Like the image of the implied author it may be a close likeness to the actual audience, or it may be highly selective, even misleading.  At the very least it is a fictional creation of the author.

In the Apocalypse, the author, the implied author, and the narrator are all named John, but we must be clear that it is not the same John.  For example, John the narrator professes not to know certain things about the story (5:4; 7:13f), but clearly the implied author and the author have no such limitation.[4]  The implied author resides on Patmos while John the narrator travels to heaven; neither tells us anything for certain about the location of the real author.

In the same way, the narratee is characterized as those who gather to hear this work read aloud, probably for public worship (1:3).  The implied audience consists of similar people who live in seven named cities in Asia Minor—going about their daily business.  And the actual audience?  Were they limited to these seven cities or is seven here symbol for all?  The implied audience merely “tolerates” the assimilationist views of the one John labels Jezebel, but one suspects that the actual audience included many who were more enthusiastic for this viewpoint—judging by the vehemence with which John denounces that position (2:20ff).  The implied audience embraces (or at least reveres) male virginity (14:4) but it is doubtful there were many such in the actual audience.  Such examples could be multiplied.

The point here is that narrative theory teaches us to be very careful in moving from the world of the story to the world of history.  Both the narratee and the implied audience are fictions.  This does not mean we can know nothing of the actual audience; the previous paragraph suggests that I think I know some things, but this knowledge is not direct and is always tentative.  Further, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has argued persuasively that there must be some correspondence between the rhetorical strategies of a text and its actual audience, else it fails to be persuasive.[5]  Narrative theory does not preclude us from knowing the actual audience of the Apocalypse, but it does caution us not to think that everything we read in a text tells us about the real men and women who first heard the text read.

Now let me say a bit more about the story of the Apocalypse.  Listen to how it starts:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. (Rev 1:1-3)

Things shown, things heard, things told; whatever else the Apocalypse may be it presents us with a fascinating story. It is an unusual story, a kind not often encountered in the modern world, full of strange and marvelous characters doing fantastic, unlikely, and even impossible deeds. All too often readers have encountered the Apocalypse only in short excerpts, which—yanked out of their contexts in the story—are interpreted in the wildest sort of way. 

There is, of course, much in the Apocalypse that lends itself to wild interpretation. This is a collection of ecstatic visions, visions about heavenly beings, about a trip to Heaven, about monsters and cosmic battles.   It is most often read as if it contained a blueprint for the end of the age.  Let me just say most briefly: a narratological reading has no interest in such concerns.  Read as narrative, Revelation is not about the future.  I’ll return to this point at the end of the paper.  For now let’s concentrate on how the story works by looking at the series of actions and at the temporal distortions of the story.

As I read it there are three main actions, each distinct.  After some preliminaries, the writer begins to tell an autobiographical tale:

I, John, your brother and partner in the oppression, the reign, and the consistent resistance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a scroll what you see....” (1:8ff)

This first story segment details what happened to the author on Patmos. (A majestic human—clearly the risen Jesus—appears to him and dictates seven messages to the angels of seven churches; chapters 1-3.)  Having finished this task, John begins a second.  He is called up to heaven, where he observes a scene at the divine court.  Heavy with description, the actions slows to a snail’s pace, but eventually Jesus—in the new guise of a slaughtered-standing lamb—opens a book sealed with seven seals.  Trumpets sound (seven of them) and then a great voice announces:

The rule of the world has become the rule of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever. (Rev 11:15)

Someone hearing the book read aloud might be tempted to think this is the end of the story, but it is not.  John now redirects his gaze into the heavenly temple, and new characters appear, engaged in a new action.

A woman appears in the sky, followed by a dragon.  The rest of the book is consumed with the struggle—indeed, all out war—between these two and their surrogates, resulting in the seemingly utter destruction of evil and the establishment of the heavenly city on earth. 

I make two preliminary observations about these stories.  First, they are ever more fantastic.  The audience is led into ever stranger territory and witnesses ever more bizarre actions.  The story progresses from John standing on Patmos (a real world event), to the vision experience, to a trip to heaven, to a cosmic battle.  Then we are taken quickly back to earth again in the closing address to the reader.  It is a fantastic journey—rather like a shaman’s journey.[6]  In literary terms, we find three different literary types sandwiched between realistic narratives of John on Patmos: a divine appearance (theophany), a throne vision (common in mystical experiences of John’s time), and a cosmic war story. 

Second, while these three stories are themselves sequences of causally connected action, there is very little connection between the incidents in the separate stories.  Each sequence has its own logic, its own set of characters, its own base locale, and John plays a somewhat different role in each.  Let me summarize the action, locale, and John’s role in each segment. Scene One: A majestic human being appears to John on Patmos and commands him to write a scroll and send it to the seven churches of Asia.  After a detailed description of this divine figure, the figure comforts John, explains particular symbols to him, and then dictates seven messages to the angels of the seven churches.  John functions as scribe. Nothing here requires any further action and, in deed, none of the later actions in the book grow out of these letters. Scene Two: John ascends to heaven at divine initiative, sees God on the throne surrounded by the heavenly court, and hears the heavenly liturgy.  Another scroll is presented, but this one is sealed and no one can open it, causing John to weep.  Then a character, announced as a lion but revealed as a slain-standing lamb, proceeds to open the scroll in seven stages.  In the silence of the seventh seal, seven trumpets sound, followed by the announcement: God’s rule has come.  John functions as a heavenly traveler or mystic who sees a throne vision.[7]  Scene Three: A regal, heavenly woman about to give birth is pursued by a heavenly dragon who seeks to consume her child. The woman is saved and the child preserved, but the dragon turns to make war on her other children.  Two great beasts are conjured from the sea and the earth; the lamb gathers 144,000 on Mt Zion.  Scenes of heavenly harvest predict earthly judgment, then enacted in seven plague events, leading to the great announcement: it is done (16:17).  Just what is done is now related in two sets of scenes; one set is grouped around the great prostitute (war against heaven, heavenly warrior, destruction, a thousand years of peace, final battle, final judgment, new creation) and a second set is grouped around the bride/wife of the lamb (restoration of the city).  In this scene of war and restoration, John witnesses the action from afar in his role as seer.

John’s three dramatic actions do not constitute a sequential, unified action.  One does not happen before or after the other.  They represent alternative tellings of the story of Jesus with a common theme and overlapping characters.  The Dragon does not attack the Woman’s children (chapter 12) after Jesus dictates the letters (chapters 2-3) or after the triumphant consummation of heavenly worship (chapter 11); that attack is contemporaneous with the life of the church and is as old as Eve.  The third action is a retelling of the story of the coming of God’s rule with a new focus.  It is as if the narrator finished the triumphant heavenly announcement that the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of God and of the Christ (11:15) and then turned to the audience and said, “Do you wonder how that came about?  Well, let me tell you . . ..”  The focus now is on the attack of the Dragon and the ensuing cosmic war, with Jesus being presented (rather ironically) in the guise of the Divine Warrior. 

This lack of causal sequence can be seen in the ending of each of these story segments, for each ends with a partial closure, a sense of an end that is no end.  At the end of the Letter Scroll Jesus promises to come to any who will open the door (3:20); at the end of the Worship Scroll, the voice announces that Messiah’s kingdom has come (11:15); at the end of the War Scroll evil appears to be destroyed and the new Jerusalem descends (21:1).  Yet even in this last instance we are told that nothing unclean can enter the city (21:27); and as life in the city is described in glowing terms we are also told “Outside are the dogs” (22:15).  This is a story that appears to end, repeatedly, but never finally does.

This continually deferred end and the lack of clear causal sequence already suggest that there is some interesting things going on with the use of time in this story. Narrative critics regularly look at three types of temporal distortion: order, duration, and frequency.[8]  In regard to order there are only three logical possibilities.  Events can be narrated in chronological order, or they can be told either before their order (prolepsis) or after their order (analepsis, or flashback).  In addition, one may occasionally find an incident whose chronological relation to other incidents is ambiguous and impossible to specify (achrony).  While simple in theory, narrative order becomes very complex in practice.  Thus in the first narrative segment everything appears to be narrated in order.  John is on Patmos.  Jesus appears.  Jesus gives seven messages.  John writes them.  But this simple order dissolves when we look at the messages themselves, for they are filled with analepses and prolepses.  We learn of past and future deeds with equal clarity, each sometimes cast in the present tense.  Such prolepses and analepses permeate every segment of John’s story.

Two things are important for understanding how these temporal anomalies shape the story. First, the order of narration must not be mistaken for the order of the action in the story.  The War story may as well occur before the Worship story as after; or it may be simultaneous or even repetitious, as we will see in the discussion of “frequency” below.  Only patient attention to temporal markers and a reconstruction of the story can determine relationships between story incidents.  Second, anachronisms between story segments and between incidents within story segments reveal the plotting art of the storyteller, helping reveal the structure of the narrative.

Duration refers to the temporal ratio between the time an incident would take to occur and the time taken to tell about it.  The major options are the summary (told much more briefly than it would occur), scene (told in a realistic analogy to the time in which it would occur, such as a dialogue), and the stretch (or slow motion, when the telling takes longer than the occurrence, often because of extensive description).  The whole of chapter four, for example, is the equivalent of a slow motion shot, for virtually nothing happens except the description of the heavenly court.  Seals one, two, and four are told in summary; seals three, five, and six are scenic; seal seven is so summarized that one cannot even be sure what it consists of.  Even this cursory attention to duration hints at the artistry with which John has woven his story.

The third kind of temporal distortion, frequency, is much used in the Apocalypse.  A narrative may treat its incidents as unique (each narrated only once), repetitive (some incidents narrated more than once), repetitious (similar incidents repeatedly narrated), or iterative (several events are collapsed into one narration).  Revelation is both repetitive (with at least five narrative enactments of the final battle, for instance, and perhaps a half-dozen depictions of the fall of Babylon) and repetitious (as the seven bowls are repetitious of the seven trumpets).  Such redundancy eliminates the possibility of any direct correlation between the events of Revelation and the events of history and obviates any need to make these events fit on a simple linear sequence.  Once we recognize the redundancy of the text there is no reason to think that the action of the Heavenly Warrior (19:1ff) must be something different than the actions of the slain Lamb (5:1ff).  The recognition of repetitions opens up new understandings of this narrative as a circling, spiraling story more akin to a dream or a shaman’s tale than to a realistic story.

Rather than one unfolding event, Revelation presents three interrelated tellings of the story of Jesus.  One does not lead to the other; their relatedness depends more on common themes and characters than on continuous action. Let’s consider the question of the common characters.  John is the only character that persists by name through all three stories, and even his characterization varies from scene to scene.  He appears as a scribe in scene one, as a heavenly traveler in scene two, and as a prophet in scene three.  These function together to give us a rather full characterization of John.   Jesus appears in all three stories, but under radically different images: majestic human, lamb, divine warrior.  But just here something interesting happens, for the lamb wanders.

While the lamb belongs logically only to the second story, a story of liturgy, temple, and sacrifice, he shows up also in the third.  Often this is a mere reference, having the effect of referring back to the second story.[9]  But in three places in the third story the lamb actually usurps the action of the divine warrior.  At the beginning of chapter 14 it is the lamb who gathers the 144,000 sacred warriors on Mt Zion; at 17:14 it is the lamb who will conquer ten kings; and at 19:7 it is the lamb who will marry in the post-war victory celebration.  These are all strikingly inappropriate places for a lamb, of course, and its appearance here will cause the reader to reinterpret the action.  More in a moment.

Most of the other characters stay home, with modest exceptions.  The 144,000 sacred warriors first emerge in the throne vision (7:1ff); the beasts make an unannounced appearance in the throne vision (11:7); the elders make cameo return appearances in the war sequence (14:3 & 19:4).  At one point the voice that dictated the seven messages seems to appear out of nowhere in the war sequence (22:7), and the heavenly warrior is given some of the descriptive traits of the majestic human of the theophany story (19:12-16).  All in all, these overlapping characters give one the illusion that these actions are related.  What is related is not the actions of the stories, but the meanings of those actions.  This can be seen most clearly in the characterization of Jesus.

It is easy to assimilate the first and third characterizations, for the human figure of scene one and the heavenly warrior of scene three share basic traits: both are majestic, powerful, mysterious, and in human form.  In every basic way they are unlike the slaughtered-standing lamb of scene two.  This contrast can be seen most clearly in the introduction of the lamb, near the beginning of scene two. 

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  (Rev 5:1-6)

Notice the elements: there is a seemingly impossible task (opening the scroll); no one in any of the three worlds (heaven, earth, or underworld) is worthy; the one declared worthy is the Lion of the tribe of Judah.  This lion figure is quite in keeping with the other characterizations: powerful, majestic, mysterious.  But John subverts all that by reporting what he sees: the slaughtered-standing lamb.

This subversion was such a revelation to me (if you’ll pardon the expression), that when I first saw it I emphasized it too much.  I saw it as the “real” meaning of John’s Jesus: Jesus the victim.[10] This was, I now think, too one sided, but it was a liberating insight to see that John is never far from his conviction that the divine will prevails through faithful witness rather than through the exercise of power.  Even when the heavenly warrior is portrayed, he slays his enemies by “the sword of his mouth” (19:21).  So before moving on let me emphasize this side.  The lamb represents an ideology of sacred suffering, and carrying over the character of the lamb into the war narrative allows John to undermine much of the ideology of sacred violence and holy war, deconstructing the basic framework of his own third story.

But more than a new ideology is at work.  By carrying over this character John ties these two stories together and sets up echoes between them.  Either story, taken by itself is disastrous.  Were we to have only the lamb story we might be tempted to accept suffering and oppression and leave all injustice in the hands of God.  Were we to have only the warrior story, we might be tempted to the exercise of violence.  John’s portrayal of Jesus-as-victim and Jesus-as-victor are both inadequate until the two images permeate each other.  The only power that can finally overcome evil is the “sword” that comes from his mouth, which John repeatedly defines as “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”  This testimony is, first and foremost, Jesus’ life and death, but it is also the story of that life and death.  It is this story.

As a story the Apocalypse cannot easily be identified with history; it embodies a self-contained, artistically created world.  We must understand that world before we can say anything about the historical world in which it was experienced.  When approached with the questions and tools of modern narrative criticism, the Apocalypse does not appear to be a continuous sequence of events.  Rather it consists in three basic narrative sequences, each highly repetitive and anachronistic, with some continuity of characters between the sequences and some progression of results.  These story segments are tied together in various ways, especially by overlapping characters, producing a complex story that both utilizes the ideology of sacred violence and extols the ideology of innocent suffering.  It remains to ask how this complex story would have functioned in the lives of men and women in Roman Asia Minor. How might narrative theory help us understand why this work was written?

There is a stark contrast between traditional views of Revelation that see it as providing some sort of information to its hearers and literary views that see it as an imaginative narrative designed, not to inform, but to express and perform.  Traditional views have generally coupled the idea that Revelation was written in a time of persecution with a view of language that sees it as providing information to its audience, in this case the information has to do with the coming end of the age.  This information is thought to be comforting to those undergoing persecution.  For example, Jürgen Roloff reflects this approach when he writes:

At the same time John offers the church comfort and hope.  It should know that the powers opposing God will soon have exhausted themselves and that the ultimate victory of God, which is already reality in heaven, will also soon be made manifest on earth.[11]

This has probably been the dominant view of Revelation among interpreters of all theological stripes: conservatives taking the information at face value and liberals taking it more metaphorically.

A narrative approach comes at the issue from an entirely different direction, for narratives are not understood to be written to convey information so much as to express the feelings and convictions of the author and to instill feelings and convictions in an audience.  That is, the function of narrative language is more expressive and performative than informative.[12]  A narrative analysis would look for the imaginative effect of the story.  At it’s most basic level a story functions to create an audience.

Sharing in the experience of this story functions to bind the hearers into a community of shared vision.  Community creation is one of the most basic function of stories, whether it be the joke told in the bar or the campfire tale reciting tribal lore.  To share a story is already to share a sense of community, and the longer the story, the more esoteric, the more personal, the greater the sense of bonding.  In addition, the story of the Apocalypse creates identification through the use of praise and blame.  This is most obvious in the name-calling in the letters (which establishes those who are outside), but is constantly reinforced by reference to the deeds of the saints and martyrs and the contrast with those who accept the mark of the beast.[13]

By having this story repeatedly enacted in the diverse churches of Asia Minor, our author binds them both to himself and to one another.  Whereas before the story there were many different communities, after the story there is one.  The story creates the community.  In part, this creation of community results from the power of the story to transform the hearers. At least three suggestions can be made as to how such a story transforms its audience.

First, apocalyptic stories generally are designed to shape the imagination of the hearer, to allow one to view one’s historical situation in a new way, and so allow one to act in a new way.[14]  All stories teach us to see the world in certain ways, but apocalyptic stories reverse our expectations for they are revelations.  What they reveal is a new way of looking at life and history, a way that shows God in control and the believer on the side of truth and justice—and ultimate victory.  One function of the Apocalypse was to alter the audience’s perception of the world—to transform them from victims of Roman oppression into victors over the ultimate forces of evil.

This transformation is related to the literary notion of catharsis, first elaborated by Aristotle.[15]  Adela Yarbro Collins has argued that the function of the Apocalypse was to produce an emotional catharsis in the hearers.[16]  Just as, in Aristotle’s analysis, tragedy evokes pity and fear in the audience—arousing these emotions so that the audience experiences them in a purified way—so the Apocalypse, Collins argues, evokes feelings of fear, resentment, and revenge.  The symbolic arousing of these emotions is satisfied in the imagination, thus purging the audience of their harmful effects.  This is quite at odds with my own reading of the story, but does offer some insight into the how stories affect people. While critics disagree on how to define catharsis, there is general agreement that stories produce an effect in their audience—whether that effect be emotional, psychological, or intellectual—or all three at once.  Collins is closer to the mark, I think, when she argues:

The task of Revelation was to overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.  His purpose was to create that tension for readers unaware of it, to heighten it for those who felt it already, and then to overcome it in an act of literary imagination.[17]

The narrative provides experiences of an alternative world in which things are as they ought to be and these experiences can change one.

Reading a story is like visiting a foreign country, where people act and speak in unaccustomed ways.  One learns things on such a trip, but the information is subordinate to the experience.  One could have read the information in an essay but it would not have been the same thing as visiting the place

My own view is that the complex psychological effect of this story is to distance the hearer from Rome and from Roman culture.  To disillusion the hearer—to destroy their illusion—that they can be at home in the Roman world is the primary effect of this story.  Revelation was not written in a time of persecution, as is often alleged, but in a time of peace and prosperity.  People need to be taught that Rome is the enemy, and the first effect of the Apocalypse is to shape the imagination to this point of view.

Second, this transformation of the imagination can be seen more particularly in the context of myth and ritual as a kind of mythic therapy.[18]  Myths are special kinds of stories, often telling what happened “in the beginning.”  Hearing the myth one enters again into that ideal time and so adjusts one’s life to the world as it is meant to be.  A marvelous example of this power of myth is told by Claude Lévi-Strauss in “The Song of the Cuna Shaman.”[19]  The incident concerns a woman ready to give birth but unable to do so.  The midwife is baffled and goes to the shaman for assistance.  The shaman visits the woman and recites a lengthy tale, beginning with her difficulty and his coming to visit her and proceeding to recount his preparation and his quest for her lost power including his descent into the inner world (here the womb) where he does battle with beasts and finally bests the one blocking the birth.  His victory frees the woman to deliver her child, and the song ends with instructions to those present.  Here more than the imagination is transformed, for the myth changes the physical situation in which it is spoken.  It provides the woman with a kind of therapy that allows her to understand her suffering and so prevail over it.  This is not unlike what happens in modern psychotherapy, where the patient is provided with hidden explanations and a new way of explaining problems.  Such stories have the power to transform.

Like the shaman, John begins and ends by addressing his audience and tells of journeys to other worlds where battles are fought and victories won.  One entering into the myth will be transformed.  In fact it is the very performance of the story that releases its power.  Its function is not to relay information or express the author’s views so much as it is to create a new situation for those who hear it.  The audience is changed by the experience of the story.

This leads us to a third, still more powerful suggestion.  Building on these insights into the power of stories and myths to transform, and looking at them more specifically in their ritual setting leads us to look at Revelation as a kind of ritual text.[20]  Rituals are of two kinds.  Some rituals serve to confirm the world as it is, to preserve the present order.  This would be the function of various rites connected with the emperor: they reaffirm the rightness of Roman rule.  Other rituals serve to transform, to change the world and one’s place in it.  Examples of such rites would be weddings, puberty rites, and college commencement rituals.  The process of ritual transformation is seen most clearly in rites of passage, which involve a three stage process, according to anthropologists.[21] 

The ritual participant moves from stage A to stage B through a transitional stage of vague and ill-defined boundaries (for example, from childhood to adulthood through a puberty ritual wherein one might be alternately taught the secrets of adulthood and terrorized with the fears of childhood).  This transitional stage or state is a time-between, related to both but like neither. Anthropologists refer to it as a liminal state—a boundary crossing. It is a time when the world is reordered and the participant achieves a new place in it.

It is the dynamics of this liminal state that interests us, for here a person passes through a temporary experience and is permanently changed as a result.  This model allows us to avoid undervaluing the imaginative experience of hearing the Apocalypse.  Writers who interpret this experience as merely a denial of reality[22] or as a temporary, ephemeral event soon to be eclipsed by life in the real world,[23] fail to appreciate the transformative function of language.  One passing through this rite, this liturgy, can be permanently altered.

We need to try to imagine the power of this story, recited in the lamp-lit darkness as Christians gather to worship God, give thanks, and celebrate the Eucharist.  As they prepare to eat and drink with Jesus, they first hear of his coming to their prophet who now sends his representative to them with the story; they then hear the very voice of Jesus himself, prophetically enacted, saying, “surely, I am coming soon” (22:20).

They have been told a wonderful story in highly symbolic language, revealing a reality behind the everyday.  They have been taken on a fantastic journey into another level of existence where they have met the risen Jesus, participated in the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God, and witnessed the attack of the ancient dragon.  They have seen the cosmic conflict and experienced the overthrow of the powers of evil—conquered by the death of Christ and the faithful witness of his servants.  This cosmic conflict correlates with and explains the cultural and political conflict of the world they live in every day, a world that seems to coerce the worship of lesser gods.

Far from being an escapist story, far from being a fantasy about some far-off future, the Apocalypse functions to transform its audience into a community embracing a shared vision of the struggle between Roman culture and Christian conviction; it engages them as participants in a cosmic struggle of good against evil; it transforms their identity and status.  They are now the army of the slaughtered lamb ready to battle with the forces of the dragon.  Hearing the Apocalypse provides the means for the “consistent resistance” John so often calls for.

Now let me step aside a bit from my usual scholarly role and ask what such a narrative reading of revelation might mean to those of us who live at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  I have three comments.  First, a narrative approach to Revelation has no interest in the future.  This may sound like a shocking statement, for so much of the commentary on Revelation has been concerned about the future and so many of its interpreters have resorted to predictions about the future.  But when viewed as a narrative Revelation is no more about the future than it is about the past and present. From a narratological perspective reading Revelation to learn about the future is like reading the Genesis creation stories to learn about the past.  Rather it is about an alternative world, one in which all the elements of this world are taken up, shuffled, and made to mean something entirely different than they meant before.

In the world of this story, the simple prayers of the saints bring ultimate judgment on the world (8:3ff; 6:10f).  In this story slaughtered lambs have more worth than anyone else (5:5f).  In this world losing one life is not only finding life, it is defeating the powers of death (12:10f).  This is an apocalypse in the most basic sense, a story that removes the veil from ordinary reality and reveals what is truly happening.  And as a story it is a far different medium than a sermon or theological treatise on the sovereignty of God.  It is an experience.

The effect of this experience on the hearers is to communicate to them something of John’s feelings and convictions and to enable them to act in new ways.  This effect does not depend on some supposed prophecy about the future or some change that is going to happen “soon.”  The effect of the Revelation is achieved in the hearing of it.[24]

Second, the application of modern narrative theory to the Apocalypse represents a basic paradigm shift.  Not only do we get new questions and new answers to old questions, the work itself becomes new.[25]  The application of narrative theories to the Apocalypse re-invents this ancient work.  It elicits experiences and insights that are interesting to those of us who live in a world where horses dropping out the sky can only be absurd and where the end of history cannot be expected.

Third, we who stand afar off and overhear their story can better understand how we might stand against the oppressors of our own day.  We can perhaps discover in John’s story that it is possible to stand resolutely against the power of the forces of domination without engaging in the kinds of violence characteristic of those forces. 

Whether this ancient story of Dragons and whores, of brides and virginal warriors, of gods and monsters, can transform our imaginations is at least debatable.  But that it functioned to transform the imaginations of its first audience I have no doubt.  It helped create a climate of steadfast resistance to Roman domination and created free men and women who could experience the coming of their Lord enacted in this story.  We can at least learn from their experience that such resistance is possible.  If only we can find a good story.

And now it’s your turn.  Maybe you can answer the question with which I began.  Just how does an audience respond to three differing perspectives on Revelation?

[1]Of course it is problematic from many modern historiographical perspectives as well; see R. G. Collingwood, "The Limits of Historical Knowledge," In The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (Robin W. Winks, ed. Harper & Row, 1969:513‑22) and Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton & Co, 1994).  And neither of my colleagues here operate this directly.

[2]The metaphorical contrast was invented by the literary critic Murray Krieger and applied to the New Testament by Norman R. Petersen, Literary Criticism for New Testament Critics (Fortress Press 1978). 

[3]For a summary overview see Shlomith Rimmon‑Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (Methuen 1983, chapter 7).

[4]I am assuming that John the character in the story is the same as John the narrator, though in fact the situation may be still more complicated.

[5]See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,  The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985:192-99); see also her more elaborated application of the method in "Rhetorical Situation and Historical Reconstruction in I Corinthians," NTS 33 1987:386‑403.  More recently John R. Donahue has argued for the possibility of moving from narrative text to history using rhetorical analysis, "Windows and Mirrors: The Setting of Mark's Gospel," CBQ 57/1 1995:1‑26.

[6] See the vivid story of the shaman's descent into the womb/underworld in Claude Levi‑Strauss, "The Effectiveness of Symbols," In Structural Anthropology (New York: Anchor/Doubleday 1967) 181‑202.

[7] For discussions of this genre see, Ithamar Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980, and Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1954.

[8]See the seminal work of Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1980:33-160).

[9]This referential effect can be seen at 12:11; 13:8; 14:10; 15:3; 21:14, and 21:22-23.

[10] On subverted images see David L. Barr. The Apocalypse as a Symbolic Transformation of the World: A Literary Analysis Interpretation 38(1984) 39‑ 50.

[11]Jürgen Roloff, The Revelation of John: A Continental Commentary, translated by John E. Alsup (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1993:10).

[12]See the classic study of G. B. Caird,  The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979).

[13] For an overview of naming as a means of social formation see Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, Calling Jesus Names: The Social Value of Labels in Matthew (Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1988:35-42).  For specific reflections on Revelation see Adela Yarbro Collins, "Vilification and Self‑Definition in the Book of Revelation," HTR 79 1986:308‑20 and "Insiders and Outsiders in the Book of Revelation," In To See Ourselves as Others See Us: Christians, Jews, "Others" in Late Antiquity (eds. Jacob Neusner and Ernest S. Frerichs,. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985:187‑218).

[14] John J. Collins,  The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (Los Angeles: Crossroad Pub. Co., 1984:32.)

[15] See Aristotle's Poetics, 2.11; Leon Golden, elaborates a rational explanation of the concept in Leon Golden, "Catharsis," Transactions Of  the American Philological Assoc. xciii 1962:51‑60 and in "The Clarification Theory of Katharsis," Hermes 104/Band 4 1976:437‑52.  For a general overview see Adnan K. Abdulla,  Catharsis in Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

[16] See Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis, Westminster, 1984:141-60.

[17]Adela Yarbro Collins,  Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984:141).  While I find much of what Dr. Collins writes to be instructive, I remain unconvinced by her notion of catharsis.

[18] John G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice‑Hall., 1975:49-57.)

[19] Claude Levi‑Strauss, "The Effectiveness of Symbols," In Structural Anthropology (Anchor Doubleday, 1967:181-202.)

[20] Jean‑Pierre Ruiz, "Betwixt and Between on the Lord's Day: Liturgy and the Apocalypse," In SBL 1992 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992:654‑72).

[21] Arnold van Gennep,  The Rites of Passage (University Chicago Press, 1960) and Victor W. Turner,  The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti‑Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969).

[22] So Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984:155).

[23] So John G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice‑Hall, 1975:56).

[24]I pursue the implications of this experience more fully in ""How Were the Hearers Blessed: Literary Reflections on the Social Impact of John's Apocalypse," Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwestern Biblical Societies 8 1988:49‑59 and in an article, "Blessed Are Those Who Hear: John's Apocalypse as Experienced," in a Festschrift for John Priest, Biblical and Humane: A Celebration, to be published by Scholars Press.

[25]At least it has for me, as I try to show in Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Polebridge Press, 1998).

adjust margin & type size to get on one line