Seeing voices in Revelation

During the 2016-17 academic year, our school has undertaken a daunting task in the weekly chapel: to read through the Book of Revelation. To aid my understanding, I have recruited Joseph L. Mangina, a systematic theologian at Wycliff College, University of Toronto. In his contribution to the Brazos Theological Commentary on Scripture, he opens with the paradoxical title, “Seeing Voices.” As I study Revelation, my challenge is to develop aural receptivity, as indicated in the refrain of the letters to the seven churches in Asia: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Mangina writes:

The book of Revelation opens with the Greek word for revelation, apokalypsis, suggesting a disclosure or unveiling—like pulling back a curtain or lifting a lid. The metaphor seems overwhelmingly visual. And indeed Revelation is a book of visions or showings, intended “to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.”

But the Apocalypse is equally a book of auditions. Trumpets sound, thunderclaps boom, angels cry out—almost always “with a loud voice.” The absence of sound can be equally important. Silence in heaven marks a period of expectant waiting for fresh revelation (8:1), and the death of Babylon will later be denoted by the sound of silence—musicians, singers, the voices of the bridegroom and the bride all strangely quieted (18:22-23). But for the most part Revelation is a very loud book, situating us in the midst of an extraordinarily aural universe. This sets it in tension with the dominant traditions of Western thought, which have a long history of privileging the eye over the ear. From Plato onward, sight has been understood as the most powerful and reliable among the senses, the faculty that permits us to control the world in godlike fashion. But perhaps vision is not quite as sovereign as we like to think. Ein Bild hielt uns gefangen, wrote Wittgenstein “a picture held us captive.” We must allow for the possibility that the Apocalypse subverts our confidence in our capacity to dominate the world by making representations of it. 

*  *  *

In his famous work on Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the Russian novelist was a master of polyphony, creating characters whose voices are genuinely “other” to each other and who therefore convey something of the drama of human, historical existence. Dostoevsky’s people do not play out a preordained script. They discover who they are and what choices confront them only through event, encounter, and dialogue. They are creatures of history, drawn out of their self-enclosure by the voices of others. 

Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony may serve as a parable of the divine voice that meets us in the Apocalypse. Contrary to what we might expect, that voice does not present us with a divine fait accompli to which earthly reality must simply conform. It encounters us as a person, Jesus the Son of Man, whose voice, coming as it were from behind us, forces us to turn around, to listen to what he has to say, to hear his voice along with those of the almighty Father and the Spirit of prophecy. There is but one God, and one Word of God, and yet precisely as his trinitarian Word it refuses to be conscripted into the way we would narrate our own and the world’s story. The origins of the church reside in an act of profound listening. 

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