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A Christian Perspective on Revelation and the Word

John Breadon's picture

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A Christian perspective


The Harry Potter novels have sold in their millions around the world. Very likely at this very moment someone somewhere is settling into a chair to find out – if friends haven't told them already – who dies at the end. Great claims have been made about the impact of the Potter series on the reading habits of the British public. Some suggest that JK Rowling has more or less single-handedly brought men, women and children back to reading. While this may be a bit overcooked it was surely a great sight to see young teenagers queuing up outside Waterstone's at 11.55 pm to buy the latest novel. Such Beatlesque-like obsession has certainly restored something of the semi-magical aura that once clung to that peculiar object we call the Book. Growing up I was constantly being told to look after my books by putting them away safely and neatly. This advice was in addition to two chief rules: don't bend the spine and never mark the pages with ink. I've long since given up on the last rule; I nearly always make my margin notes in pen. Perhaps these rules were drummed into me because books were scarce in our home. We weren't a particularly bookish family in all respects. However, the one book we had plenty of copies of was the Bible, the best-selling text of all time. Every year some 100 million Bibles are sold around the world. Whether they're actually read is another matter.


The ultimate block-buster!


The Bible is the foundational book of Western culture. Its influences on how we live today, even in a nation as secular as modern Britain, are many and profound. As well as influencing public law and personal morality the Bible gives us a great deal of the language and vocabulary of everyday speech. Many great literary works – including those by Shakespeare, Dante, Milton and James Joyce – cannot be fully understood without first understanding the Bible. But to look upon the Bible only through the lens of culture and literature is to miss the function it performs for Christians across the globe: a living Word of hope, assurance and challenge.


Every Christian reads the Bible differently: some will treat it akin to a car maintenance manual, seeking in it advice and guidance for every problem life throws up. Others will go to it – as I do – for a clash of horizons, for that primordial wisdom and insight that comes best through story, metaphor and image. In other words, for some it is an infallible book of answers and for others a source of endless questions, moral conundrums and religious insights that can, nevertheless, be put to good use in the life of a modern person.


Navigating your way through


As William Blake once put it, 'Both read the Bible day and night, but thou readst black where I read white.' How each Christian interprets what they are reading – and this is slightly easier to do with the Gospels than with the book of Ezekiel – lies at the crux of well-documented disputes that often make it into newspaper headlines. Usually, the disputes are about sex and what 'the Bible says' about homosexuality. Some Christians will argue that the Bible doesn't need any interpretation. It has no more need of painstaking thought and careful handling than a phonebook or a menu. It simply means what it says. I doubt it. For me the Bible couldn't be further from the simplicity of a menu –oh, that it was! In the book of Deuteronomy alone one can find laws that urge charity for the poor on the one hand and permission for public stoning, slavery, the death penalty and the slaughter of entire races on the other. (Deuteronomy 7:1, 20:16-18).


In the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament Philip, a pillar of the early church community, meets an Ethiopian reading the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Here's part of their encounter: Philip asked, ' “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”'(Acts 8:30-31) What a wise man the Ethiopian was! Without help – without employing some of the tools of interpretation – the Bible will completely overwhelm us and we're likely to give up even before we've got going. A little learning may be considered a dangerous thing, but coming to the Bible with no learning at all is even more dangerous. For like all great books the Bible is replete with multiple viewpoints and contradictory points of view. (The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes doesn't believe in life after death, but the New Testament does: which should I believe?). Without a navigator we'll get sucked into word whirlpools and we may never be seen again. The best place to begin is by understanding and accepting from the outset that the Bible is more like a chaotic library than a single book and that its rough edges are part of its charm and overall message.


The Christian Bible refers to two separate books, or collections of books. The Old Testament, formed by books that were (and are) part of the Jewish faith; and the New Testament, the collection of documents written 200 years or so after the death of Jesus. Taken from beginning to end – Genesis to Revelation – the time span covered by the Bible is roughly a thousand years. As a sort of portable library the Christian Bible contains every genre or literary type under the sun. Whatever your taste, you'll find it's catered for: history, poetry, comedy, wit and wisdom, dramatised philosophy, letters, visionary monologues and much more besides. In a sense the Bible contains the world.


But, alas, the Bible suffers more than ever from a terrible image problem. For most people, if it means anything to them at all, it's a book of considerable bondage and boredom. Few would say it means liberation and life to them. The truth of the Bible, for me, is otherwise. A book like no other, it offers more magic, mystery and authority than Harry Potter ever will – or any other book for that matter. If I had to distil into one sentence what I find at the heart of the Bible, an idea that runs throughout both testaments, it would be this line from Proverbs: 'Where there is no vision, the people perish' (Proverbs 29:18). The vision produced by the Bible is grand, cosmic, eternal, glorious. And in equal measure you'll find plenty to infuriate, anger, and baffle as well. But what good book doesn't contain opposites? Finding your way between the light and the dark is what reading, and life, is all about.



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