Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation

In case you missed it, Mark Driscoll caused quite a stir yesterday with his comments on Jesus, God, and pacifism.  I’ve already offered my general thoughts on why Driscoll is wrong about Jesus (Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal) as have others (three particularly thoughtful responses can be found herehere, and here).  But, I still think there is more to say.

You see, I understand why people struggle to understand God as consistently nonviolent.

Let’s be honest.  There is a lot of violence directly attributed to God in both the Old and New Testaments.

If you take away Driscoll’s flare for controversial rhetoric, I’ve found that his view represents that of a large amount of Jesus-centered, Kingdom-focused Christians.  They understand Jesus’ ethical priorities in the Gospels and don’t want to dismiss or compromise them, but they have no idea how they could possibly interpret Revelation (and other parts of the Bible) without doing so.  I think it is important to not simply dismiss these concerns, but to instead offer alternative readings of these problematic passages.

How could one possibly read the violent imagery found in Revelation 14:14-20 (cited by Driscoll) without concluding that Jesus will one day shed the blood of his enemies?

I think Michael Gorman, in his excellent book Reading Revelation Responsibly, provides a possible way forward.  He suggests that we take another look at the proper (and intended) function of the violent symbolism in Revelation:

“The language and images of death and destruction (in Revelation) symbolize – in comprehensible, if disturbing, idiom – the universality and finality of God’s ultimate eradication of evil rather than the means by which God brings about that eradication.  As the omnipotent One who spoke creation into existence, God hardly needs to resort to literal violence to effect the cessation of evil… Instead, Revelation should be understood as portraying symbolically what God does actually with a divine performative utterance, an effective word not unlike the word that spoke creation into existence.” (p. 152)

There is an abundance of symbolism in the second “harvest scene” of Revelation 14.  Is anyone really willing to interpret this apocalyptic passage “literally”?  Will there really be a giant angel with a cosmic sickle harvesting grapes and putting them in a divinely-wrathful winepress that produces blood when trodden outside the city?  Is the blood going to literally flow as high as 184 miles?  Will the Guinness Book of World Records be there to measure it?  If not, why must we read the “blood” as real blood being poured out of deceased human bodies that have been ripped apart by Jesus?

What if the symbolism and imagery isn’t mean to communicate the means of judgement but the effect of judgement?  This isn’t just special pleading by the “pansies.”  After all, there are plenty of nonviolent themes in the book of Revelation.  Jesus is declared worthy to rule because of (not in spite of) his nonviolence.  The church is commanded to follow Christ’s example and conquer by their blood (not that of their enemies).

And why do we have to assume that God can’t effectively eradicate evil nonviolently? Gorman points out that Revelation itself provides clues that this might be the case.  For instance, the sword that strikes down Jesus’ enemies comes from his mouth in Revelation 19:11-16, 21.  As Gorman says, “This signifies the effective word of God’s judgement – the wrath of God and the Lamb – that needs no literal sword, and which a literal sword could never accomplish.” (pg. 153)  Likewise, Gorman notes that there is no fighting recorded during the five great “battle scenes” of Revelation.  No blood, no guts, no bombs, no swords, no violence.  When I teach through the book of Revelation, this is always a striking feature of the book to high schoolers – it is anti-climatic.  Revelation never follows through on the expectation it builds in the Western reader for a classic Armageddon battle. Why?  Gorman answers, “Because the images of battle are supposed to suggest to us the promise and reality of God’s defeat of evil, but they are not the means of that defeat… Christ’s only weapon is the ‘sword’ of his word.” (pg. 155)  I think Gorman’s suggestion, that God might eradicate creatures in a way similar to how he created and sustains them, is worth serious consideration.

So then, what is the message of Revelation 14? That God will, because of his desire for a peaceful new creation, fully and finally judge all that is evil.  It is not clear to me that this passage is meant to do anything more or anything less than this.  In particular, I find it hard to accept that it should cause me to radically reinterpret the picture of God we have received in Jesus.

While I don’t imagine this reading will convince everyone (anyone?), it should at least make it obvious that pacifists aren’t ignoring these “violent” texts.  There are real, viable ways to read Revelation that don’t make God into a monster.  Maybe we should try them out.

Do you agree?

In Which I Disagree With Mark Driscoll (and it has little to do with women)

Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill recently posted a blog over at The Resurgence on Why Mars Hill uses the ESV Bible. He starts with 6 theological reasons behind choosing the ESV (or why the ESV is the King of all Bibles).

I have my own qualms with the ESV (one of which he mentions, although he sees it as a plus) but I do own an ESV bible and use it at times when I need to read an English text. I consider it to be one among many readable translations. However, I found Driscoll’s six theological reasons for choosing the ESV highly problematic from a linguistic perspective.

What Driscoll puts forward as obvious truths I see as common misconceptions concerning Bible translation, interpretation, and hermeneutics that I hear quite often in the church.  The original post is rather long so I won’t quote it all here, but I did want to take a look at Driscoll’s third point and his reasoning behind it.

“The ESV upholds the truth that words carry meaning

Some scholars will argue that thought-for-thought and paraphrase translations do not change the meaning of Scripture, just the words of Scripture in an effort to clarify the meaning of Scripture. But this reasoning is misguided because meaning is carried in words. So when we change the words of Scripture, we are changing the meaning of Scripture.

There are a couple of problems with Driscoll’s reasoning here.  For one, linguists and other language scholars have argued the very opposite — that meaning is not carried in words.  I learned early on in my language studies that “words don’t have meaning.”

Fellow HBU graduate Kris Lyle has a great post (go read it!) on this very subject – Do words have meanings?  Kris points out the importance of CONTEXT in determining meaning because words do not come “pre-packaged” with meanings.  Linguistic research, particularly in the areas of semantics and pragmatics, has corrected this false idea that “meaning is carried in words.”

Kris provides a great excerpt from an article by linguist Vyvyan Evans (Evans, V. “Lexical concepts, cognitive models and meaning-construction,” Cognitive Linguistics 17:4 [2006], p. 492):

“That is, the ‘meaning’ associated with a word in any given utterance appears to be, in part, a function of the particular linguistic context in which it is embedded. Put another way, word ‘meaning’ is protean, its semantic contribution sensitive to and dependent on the context which it, in part, gives rise to (Croft 2000).

To illustrate consider the following ‘meanings’ of fast.

(1)   a. That parked BMW is a fast car.

b. That car is travelling fast.

c. That doddery old man is a fast driver.

d. That’s the fast lane (of the motorway).

In each of these examples the semantic contribution of fast, what I will later refer to as its informational characterisation, is somewhat different. In (1a) fast has to do with the potential for rapid locomotion. In (1b) it has to do with rapid locomotion. In (1c) it relates to ‘caused’ motion beyond an established norm: a speed limit. And in (1d) fast concerns a venue for rapid locomotion. Examples such as these show that the view of open class words, as possessing fixed meanings, is untenable on closer scrutiny. The precise semantic contribution of any word is a function of the utterance context in which it is embedded, and, moreover, the sorts of (conceptual) knowledge these lexical entities provide access to, as I shall argue in detail. In other words, words don’t have ‘meanings’ in and of themselves. Rather meaning is a function of the utterance in which a word is embedded, and the complex processes of lexical concept integration, an issue which is developed below.

Second, Driscoll argues that thought-for-thought translation changes the words and meaning of scripture by adding additional interpretation and commentary whereas a word-for-word translation does not.  Earlier in his post, Driscolls writes:

“A word-for-word translation (like the ESV) best enables this to occur by seeking, as much as possible, not to insert interpretive commentary into the translated text of Scripture.”

The problem here is that there simply isn’t an exact one-for-one correspondence between languages.  What I mean is, there isn’t one word in Greek that is perfectly and always represented by another word in English.  It is inaccurate to say that δικαιοσυνη means ‘righteousness’.  What we can say is that ‘righteousness’ is one of the English words that we can use in some instances to represent the Greek word δικαιοσυνη (depending on the context!)  Choosing a word from one language to represent a word from another language always involves a choice.  The truth is all translation involves interpretation, whether you employ a formal equivalency method (which Driscoll assumes is almost completely devoid of interpretation or commentary) or a dynamic equivalency method.  Formal equivalency translation seeks to represent as closely as possible the grammar and syntax of the original Greek or Hebrew while dynamic equivalency is concerned with representing the meaning or intention behind the original Greek or Hebrew as closely as possible.  (It’s interesting to see that both methods were employed by translators of the LXX throughout different books of the Hebrew Bible!).

In many conservative circles formal equivalency is often seen as ‘pure’ and ‘more accurate’ while dynamic equivalency is seen as ‘muddied’ and ‘less accurate’.  The truth is both methods have their strengths and weaknesses and both methods involve interpretation.

I imagine Driscoll’s post could generate a lot of discussion on Bible translation and the nature of language and it’s unfortunate that the blog does not allow comments.  What about you?  Did you find Driscoll’s reasons convincing?  Why or why not?  Is a word-for-word translation better than a thought-for-thought translation?

Good Works and Holy Troublemaking

Not long ago, Mark Driscoll tweeted:

No one gets in trouble for good works, you get in trouble for good works and for talking about Jesus.

While I understand the point that Driscoll was making, it got me thinking.  I sometimes wonder if the true reason that our society (corrupted as it is by greed, violence, and systemic injustice) is not bothered by Christian attempts to do “good works” is that our “good works” are largely unthreatening to the status quo.  What if “good works” that do not get you in trouble with a deeply fallen world are not “good” enough?  Perhaps the church needs to re-think its strategy for holy troublemaking, going far beyond making controversial or exclusive statements.

To begin with, we need to avoid undermining the church’s social significance by privatizing & individualizing both sin and good works.  As I read Scripture (Micah, for instance), it seems that God is often much more concerned with larger political sins such as economic injustice and oppression than the individual sins focused on in many congregations.  Would it surprise someone who goes to the average evangelical church that God wasn’t upset with Nebuchadnezzar for neglecting his quiet time and using foul language, but for ignoring the poor and practicing injustice (Daniel 4:27)?  Thankfully, there is a noticeable shift in the evangelical church for a greater emphasis on social justice.  However, I’d like to suggest that if our efforts at social justice aren’t causing any trouble, we need to re-think our strategy.

If I were to offer a riff on Driscoll’s tweet, it might look like this:

No one gets in trouble for feeding the poor, you get in trouble for going after the powers & systems that create & sustain poverty.

See the difference?  (Note: It’s even still under 140 characters, leaving room for a creative and witty hashtag.)  Here’s an example: many Christians “feed the poor” (or more likely, donate to an organization that claims to do so) and yet still support companies and political policies that create and sustain poverty and abuse through low wages, poor health care, and child slavery.  This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at when he said:

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

I have a hard time believing that if Christians took seriously the call to “drive a spoke into the wheel (of injustice) itself” that we would be able to stay out of trouble.  I get verbally abused for even suggesting that Christians should be more non-violent in a world of constant war, so I can’t even imagine what would happen if you seriously went after other idols like Mammon. (For instance, what trouble might a local pastor get in for faithfully speaking to Christians who live in extravagant wealth in a world that is starving?).

Can you think of any other ways that the church has bandaged the “wounds of victims” while still continuing to sustain the systems that create those victims in the first place?  Why do you think this is?  What might be the way forward?