Mark is a long koan

are-we-there-yet-david-sipres.jpgRowan Williams offers a brilliant summary of St. Mark’s Jesus in his book, Meeting God in Mark:

It is absolutely vital to Mark’s story that what Jesus says is hard to digest and to understand even by those closest to him. Even those who have most reason for understanding what he’s saying are going to get it wrong: and that, of course, is a reassurance to the reader. Mark is saying, ‘If you’re finding this difficult or shocking, don’t be surprised; those who were closest to Jesus found it difficult and shocking too. If you feel stupid or at a loss when confronted with the words and work of Jesus, don’t be surprised. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.’ So the dimness of the apostles is not a point of polemic, an axe being ground: it’s basic to the scheme. Jesus in Mark’s Gospel appears as someone wrestling with the difficulty of communicating to the disciples things that there are no proper words for – communicating that they have to think again about how God works, and to prepare themselves for greater and greater shocks in understanding this. 

I’m tempted to think that perhaps one reason why Mark’s Gospel has in it very little teaching of the sort we find in Matthew or Luke is that Mark not only wants to draw our attention away from miracles, he even wants to draw our attention away from conventional teaching. He wants to tell a story and present situations that bring us up short. He doesn’t want us to go away discussing the interesting ideas that Jesus has or the poignant stories he tells. He wants you to focus on the person of Jesus and on the relation you might have with him, knowing that only so does the radical change come about. You could almost say that Mark prefers to show us a Jesus who is struggling for words, rather than a Jesus who is a fluent teacher and brilliant storyteller, as in the other Gospels. More than once in the Gospel, we hear Jesus saying something like, ‘How do I make this clear to you? What can I say to you? Don’t you understand yet?’ This is a Jesus who is searching for ways to communicate truths for which there are no clear and simple words.

So it makes some sense that this is a Gospel of secrets, silences and even misunderstandings, a Gospel which on every page carries a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: don’t think you’ve got it yet! That is what Mark wants his readers to understand. It’s just a little bit like the way Buddhists talk about the use of the koan in meditation: you are given a saying or a little story which you’re supposed to meditate on until you realize you can’t understand it in your ordinary categories, at which point enlightenment breaks in. Mark is a long koan. It’s meant to bring us to the edge, to tell us that our understanding will not manage this in clear tidy ways. It’s a truth that can’t easily be spoken – or rather, as soon as it’s spoken it provokes more questioning. We can absorb such a truth only by letting go of what we thought about God and ourselves.


The Jesus of St. Mark


Donatello, “Saint Mark” (1411-13). Florence, Italy. 

For the Lent season of 2018, I have decided to reflect on the Gospel of Mark, which I am apt to neglect because of the literary and theological appeal of the other Gospels. To deepen my understanding and appreciation for Mark, I will read Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and the Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University. Since Williams is my favorite contemporary Christian writer, the choice was obvious. Katherine B. Moorehead, the Dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville, Florida, got my attention with her endorsement: “This is the best commentary I have read on the Gospel of Mark, a must-read not just for scholars but for all who want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This fresh, new perspective on an ancient text gives us insight into the depth and wisdom of Mark as an ancient biography. Mark is not to be sidelined as the shortest of the gospels but should be relished as a deep, rich and enduring mystical resource.”

Here is the concluding paragraph of the opening, chapter, “The beginning of the Gospel”:

Mark brings off a great narrative triumph by pushing Jesus on the stage without a word of introduction. He doesn’t tell you who this is beyond his name and his place of origin – no family background, no Christmas story. The curtain goes up with a clatter, and there on stage is the central figure; no prelude, no apologies, no explanations, there is the anointed one. And that is how the text will go on; which is why the Jesus of St. Mark is not – as some unimaginative readers of an earlier generation sometimes thought – an innocent and straightforward human prophet devoid of all the theological trappings that gather around him in the other Gospels. On the contrary: this Jesus is arguably stranger, more ‘transcendent,’ more simply worrying than the Jesus of any of the other Gospels. 

Why ESV is the best available English Bible


In his First Things essay, “A Bible for Everyone”, literary critic Alan Jacobs argues that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible deserves general recognition as the authoritative replacement for the King James Version (KJV). Compared to the alternatives, he claims it is “the best available English Bible” because, like the King James Version, the English Standard Version keeps the union between literary knowledge and biblical scholarship while making needed revisions. Here is the key excerpt:

When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated “poetic” or “literary” qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the “grammatical-historical” method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared”not altogether but to some degree”by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century.

This happened largely as a result of Protestant theologians’ responses to Catholic charges that they, lacking guidance and correction from a Magisterium, were liable to say pretty much anything about the Bible. The charge stung: What was to prevent this or that Protestant leader from offering a bizarre interpretation of some passage of Scripture and claiming as warrant for it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? From the need to answer this charge arose the characteristic trait of Protestant biblical scholarship: an obsession with method. Method would be the Protestant scholar’s Magisterium, that is, his or her principle of constraint and limitation; therefore, ultimately, training in biblical exegesis would become training in the kinds of intellectual skills that could be described in methodological terms: grammar, textual history, historical philology, and so on. Sensitivity to metaphorical nuance is perforce not a part of this training; nor is general literary knowledge. Thus C. S. Lewis’ complaint that a scholar whose “literary experiences of [the biblical] texts lack any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general” is not wholly reliable as a guide. “If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor.”

Lewis’ gustatory metaphor is apt here, because he is describing interpretive skills that are really skills (they can be acquired, practiced, and transmitted) but cannot be articulated in methodological terms. Good reading, and therefore good translating, requires discerning judgment, and method can’t produce that. Many biblical scholars, of course, are quite skilled in literary analysis, more than I am; but such skills are not expected of many exegetes-in-training as part of their education.

It is not clear to me how this state of affairs can be remedied. I could lament the “increasing specialization of knowledge,” as many do, but this would be disingenuous, because the specialization of knowledge is a function of the increase of knowledge. We simply know far more today about the Hebrew language and ancient Near Eastern cultures (including their family structures, clothing, diet, agricultural practices, and economic systems) than James’ Companies of Translators could have dreamed of.

I do not suggest, then, that biblical scholars today should skimp such erudition and focus attention instead on memorizing dictionaries of literary and rhetorical terms. What I do want to suggest is that the translators of the ESV have handled this problem about as well as it can be handled, and that their judgment in this regard goes a long way towards making their translation the best now available in English.

The key principle that the ESV’s translation team employed is simple yet profound: deference to existing excellence. It is a principle that was employed by James’ Translators themselves, who graciously acknowledged their enormous debt to their predecessors: “Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.” The same rule of deference to wise elders guided the late-nineteenth-century scholars who produced the American Standard Version and (English) Revised Version (RV); indeed, the instructions given to the latter group began with this directive: “To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistent with faithfulness.” And similar commitments governed the RSV, whose preface cites the very passage from King James’ Translators I just quoted.

But with more recent translations things have changed, for two reasons. First, it is generally agreed that “King James language” (“thees and thous”) is unsustainable because alien to current usage. But the second, and more important, reason for the abandonment of strongly conservative principles of revision is the rise of a new theory of translation, the aforementioned “dynamic equivalence” or “thought-for-thought” approach, as pioneered by Eugene Nida. My colleague Leland Ryken, who was on the Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV, has provided a fine account of the consequences, largely unpleasant, of the widespread acceptance of dynamic equivalence models of translation: see his recent The Word of God in English (Crossway, 2003). So I will not pursue that matter further here except to note that if you believe that the KJV, RV, RSV, and other older versions were produced by people laboring under a faulty “word-for-word” translation theory, you will see little reason for retaining their work, just as you will see little reason for retaining the metaphors of the original writing, since those metaphors are, in the dynamic-equivalence view, themselves merely vehicles for some unvarnished and unfigurative “thought.”

You will therefore have David die, rather than sleep with his fathers; and if the Lord is your shepherd, rather than say “I shall not want,” you’ll say, “I have everything I need.” And when Jesus addresses those of “little faith,” James’ Translators have him ask, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall He not much more clothe you?” But you will suspect the metaphor of clothing and therefore translate it away, in the process eliminating the oven also and replacing it with a stone-dead cliché: “And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won’t he more surely care for you?”

By contrast, the ESV, recognizing the elegant force with which James’ scholars rendered these passages, leaves them virtually unchanged. What is at work here is the humble recognition that our ancestors in the faith may have had certain skills now neglected or forgotten, may have had their palates trained to detect certain flavors that we today cannot distinguish.

Now, from what I have written so far one might conclude that a “revision” of the KJV that left the text unaltered would be ideal. That is sometimes my feeling, but not my considered judgment. Robert Alter has written that the problem with the KJV is its shaky sense of Hebrew, while the problem with more recent versions is their shaky sense of English; but we do not gain by exchanging the latter for the former. (And even the beauty of the KJV is bought at the price of stylistic uniformity.) No, the KJV had to be revised, sometimes drastically; but that is no reason to cast aside what James’ Translators did superlatively well.

It is the ESV’s balance of thorough, up-to-date scholarship and deference to the elders’ wisdom that makes it the best available English Bible. What this means, further, is that the ESV is the best candidate yet for the long-hoped-for “replacement” of the KJV, the translation that bridges denominational gaps and strikes the right balance among the virtues of clarity, correctness, and grace.

Is this a pipe dream? Certainly, impediments are many. Publishers will continue to commission new translations and promote existing ones; “there’s gold in them thar hills,” but churches need not be governed by those imperatives. The divisions of Christendom are more intractable: that the ESV was produced largely by evangelicals would be a red flag for many even if the translation included the Apocrypha, which at the moment it does not. The ESV’s website says that HarperCollins UK “may” produce such a version; but even if it does it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church endorsing a translation produced by non-Catholics.

Still, if official agreement on a truly “standard” English Bible remains unlikely, I believe that readers and lovers of the Bible would do well to seek considerably more agreement than we now have about the Bible that we read. Everyone who grew up with the KJV feels the loss of a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear, words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts. I think now of all those generations of the English-speaking peoples separating the wheat from the chaff, lying down in green pastures, sometimes being weighed in the balance and found wanting but at other times fighting the good fight; the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly metaphorical) tells us that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share language. And since Christians are counseled to be of one mind, they should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible, one principal good one, would be a significant step towards that one mind in Christ.

Misusing the Bible

Here are some excerpts from a fascinating interview, “Stop Snacking on Scripture McNuggets,” in Christianity Today with Glenn R. Paauw of the Institute for Bible Reading and an author of Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well.

You write that a lot of people are disappointed by their experience with the Bible, which creates guilt. Why the disappointment?

We’re not honest with people about the Bible. There’s this fear that if we admit it’s a difficult and challenging book, we’ll scare people off. We want to tell people, especially new Christians, about all the great things that will happen to them by reading it.

Since we’re not honest about what kind of book the Bible is, and how it’s supposed to work, when people start reading for themselves, they encounter all kinds of crazy material that doesn’t fit the paradigm that we’ve given them. They find stuff from ancient cultures, from different parts of the world, and they don’t understand it immediately. And it’s hard for them to get something they can apply to their lives every single day from just reading through the Bible. So it leads to cherry-picking verses. Because there are these gems, these verses that seem to contain important spiritual truths.

So you get all these cherry-picked passages, but everything else gets neglected or completely ignored. Certain passages are essentially de-canonized. We end up with a partial Bible. So people get discouraged. They try again with a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, but they’re just not making it.

We need to start equipping people to understand the Bible on its own terms. We have to go back into the Bible’s world, rather than demanding it be immediately relevant to ours. We need to give them pathways from the ancient world into today’s world.

You urge people to pursue “big” readings of the Bible. What do you mean by that?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

That kind of reading requires a certain amount of education. Is there a danger of elitism?

The real danger is overemphasizing the Reformation ideal that every single person should read the Bible, and read it alone. That’s a very modern experience of the Bible. Within 100 years of the printing press, all these modern translations started coming out. Suddenly individuals are getting Bibles when they didn’t have them throughout church history.

In America, a place focused on individualism and democracy, we can all supposedly develop our own interpretation of the Bible. There’s even this idea that you’re not supposed to allow church history to influence you. It’s just you and God and the Bible. One of the big recoveries we need is to read the Bible in community. That allows community members who have done their homework and have a good grasp of the Bible to help guide others.

There’s a distrust of scholars in the evangelical church. But there are amazing, God-honoring scholars doing great work. We need more bridges between the great work they’re doing and regular Bible readers in the church. We need to be taught by those gifted to teach. That doesn’t rule out the Holy Spirit, working through the Word in your individual life. It’s just in a context that’s bigger and healthier.

You’re pretty hard on the Reformers, who gave us sola scriptura. Didn’t they put the emphasis back on Scripture?

I come from the Dutch Reformed tradition, so I know this tradition very well. I know its strengths. In many ways, the Reformation was a necessary correction in the life of the church. It was recovery of original core things: the role of faith, the role of Christ, and the role of Scripture, in a formal sense. But we shouldn’t pretend that there weren’t any unintended consequences, just because they were the Reformers.

Individualism grew out of the Reformation. So did the Protestant tendency toward schism: Not only should you read the Bible by yourself, but whenever you differ from somebody else, your duty is to start another church. The proliferation of denominations under Protestantism is a scandal, frankly. I love the recoveries of the Reformation, but we should be honest about some of the other destructive things that came from it as well. This individual reading experience is one of those things.

It was also the Reformation that gave us a modernist form of the Bible. I believe form and content have to work together. If we don’t think form matters, it will affect us in ways we’re not attuned to. The very first chapter-and-verse Bible in the 16th century, a Reformation Bible, set every single verse as a separate paragraph, and you couldn’t tell the difference between song lyrics, stories, and letters anymore. It all looked numbingly the same, just two columns down the page, a collection of individual spiritual statements. So that’s how we started reading the Bible, because the form told us to read it that way. We’re still living with the consequences.

We shouldn’t think of translations as just a word thing. We need to think in terms of literary form and genre, so people who don’t know ancient literary forms can immediately see it when they look at the page.


You propose several different “Bibles,” meaning different approaches to Scripture. Can you briefly describe them?

First off, we need to see the Bible differently. We need to have elegantly designed Bibles. We need to see Bibles that aren’t nearly so complicated, so the experience of reading the Bible becomes pleasant.

Once people see the Bible differently, they can begin to feast on it rather than snack on it. We’ve been trying to live off of what Philip Yancey calls “Scripture McNuggets.” But we’ve got to start feasting on the whole Word of God.

Then we need to get serious about the role of history. The Bible is rooted in history. We need to understand that the ancient world wasn’t like our world. That rootedness is what makes it a human story, so we need not be afraid of that. Part of the fundamentalist, modernist legacy is that the more we talk about the humanity of the Bible, the more nervous we get. We’re afraid that makes it less of a divine book.

We also need to read the Bible as a story. The Bible is not a flat document, where everything is the same. Knowing the story is going someplace, that Jesus is at the center—that’s the way to read the Bible.

Then we need to know that the Bible is an earthly book. We need to lose this semi-pagan vision of leaving this earth and recover a vision of the restoration of all things. We need to start talking about the renewal of the cosmos the way the New Testament does.

Reading in community is also essential. The yous in the New Testament are overwhelmingly plural. We need to start thinking about what it means for a community to be transformed and not just individual lives.

Then, finally, let’s bring beauty back. Beauty was one of the casualties of modernity. The Reformers are partly to blame, with their emphasis on plain churches and plain preaching. We shunned beauty, but beauty and truth are meant to go together in God’s world. Beauty is a clue that something is right. And we should recover that in our Bible-reading experience.


What can churches do to encourage deeper engagement with Scripture?

Simply facilitate a more communal Bible reading experience. It’s amazing what happens when people get together, and instead of studying right away, they just experience the Bible in big readings and shared readings—going around the room, or listening to someone skilled in reading a big portion of it. But we just don’t hear it much anymore. The Bible was born in an oral culture. It was something people would have heard, not seen.

Then it’s important to allow for discussion of Scripture. The analogy I use is of the synagogue. In Scripture you have these stories of what happens when Jesus or Paul go into the synagogue. You can tell from those stories that the settings were interactive. It wasn’t just the rabbi or leader delivering a monologue and everyone leaving. There was interaction, and everyone was expected to take part. With Paul, even when people aren’t liking what he’s saying, he’s invited back the next week to do it again.

We’ve lost the ability to process the Bible in community. We always think that someone has to be right. And that if someone is wrong, they have to be silenced or we have to leave. We just don’t have a high tolerance for a diversity of opinions. In the New Testament, there were strong opinions, and in many cases they turned into deal-breakers. But we start there. We need more open, healthy discussions. We need to get away from this idea of just me and my Bible and my private opinions, and have more open, communal discussions of Scripture.

How might a bigger reading of the Bible change the way we preach?

The practice of jumping around a lot in a sermon and using references, just the chapter and verse, tells the congregation that this is what the Bible is and that’s the way it is supposed to be used. A colleague of mine, Christopher Smith, says, “What if instead of always quoting the chapter and verse, we always referred to the Bible by context and content?” So instead of saying “John 4,” we say, “The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman that came after he turned water into wine.” That would allow people to pick up context every time we reference a Bible story.

So my advice to preachers: stop jumping around so much. Realize that the main thing is for people to understand the story of Scripture—and that their lives are a continuation of that story. I’m big on narrative preaching. I think the central thing the Bible is trying to do is invite us into its story and teach us to live out that story today.

Are we too obsessed with application?

We are. I cringe every time I hear the instructions we give to new Christians. Apply your Bible reading every single day. Pray about how you can apply it. That’s just not true. I can read long stretches of the Bible without finding an obvious application. It’s a model that leads to frustration, because people can’t find the application. So let it go. Just read the Bible and try to understand it, and the implications will come soon enough.


Mary as the new Eve and Abraham

My parents belong to a community group in their Anglican parish. At my suggestion, they are reading Stanley Hauerwas’ terrific book, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Last Seven Words. Tomorrow evening my mom is facilitating a discussion on the third word: “Woman, behold thy son!” and “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27). I told her that this word is radical in its implications. Imagine the surprise that Mary experienced when her crucified son addresses her as “woman” instead of “mother” and then names his beloved disciple as her “son.” If I see as Jesus sees, I should regard my mother as a sister and she should regard me as a brother, insofar as we are both adopted into the same family of God by virtue of our baptism and obedience to the heavenly Father. Jesus, in redefining the family as “whoever does the will of God” (Mark 3:35), holds that spiritual ties are greater than natural ties.

Hauerwas, who currently worships as an Anglican, borrows language from Catholic brethren to describe Mary as the “new Eve” and “new Abraham.” Owing to my evangelical background, which unfortunately bears some anti-Catholic prejudices, I am unaccustomed to and perhaps even uncomfortable with this language. And yet, if I take typology seriously, then I can accept the inner logic. Typology is the school of biblical interpretation that says the Old Testament contains types or shadows of things to come in the New Testament. Mary is prefigured by Abraham and Eve. Hauerwas writes:

In the New Testament Jesus is often designated or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham . . . The reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple—Mary is our Abraham. Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I” because just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness.


God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so the that we might live. As Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that this death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Issac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross.


Jesus charges Mary to regard as her own, her true family, the “disciple whom he loved.” Drawing disciples into the church, Mary shares her faith, making possible our faith. At this moment, at the foot of the cross, we are drawn into the mystery of salvation through the beginning of the church. Mary, the new Eve, becomes for us the firstborn of a new reality, of a new family, that only God could create. Augustine observed that the God who created us without us refuses to save us without us. Mary is the first great representative of that “us.” Accordingly Mary, the Jew, in a singular fashion becomes for us the forerunner of our faith, making it impossible for Christians to forget that without God’s promises to Israel our faith is in vain. When Christians repress the role of Mary in our salvation we are tempted to forget that God remains faithful to his promises to his people, the Jews. Our Savior was born of Mary, making us, like the Jews, a bodily people who live by faith in the One who asks us to behold his crucified body.

Jesus, therefore, commands the disciple, his beloved disciple, not to regard Mary as Jesus’s mother but rather to recognize that Mary is “your mother.” Mary’s peculiar role in our salvation does not mean that she is separate from the church. Rather, Mary’s role in our salvation is singular because, beginning with the beloved disciple, she is made a member of the church. Mary is one of us, which means the distance between her and us is that constituted by both her and our distance between Trinity and us, that is, between creatures and Creator. In Augustine’s words, “Holy is Mary, blessed is Mary, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why is this so? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy and excellent member, above all others but, nevertheless, a member of the whole body. And if she is a member of the whole body, doubtlessly the body is more important than a member of the body.” 

To visualize this typology, I created a chart that is worth passing along.


Why the church cannot flee history

In his commentary on the Book of Revelation, Joseph L. Mangina writes:

To say that we are the community of the end times does not, to be sure, absolve us of the burdens of history. An apocalyptic-messianic faith like Judaism and Christianity cannot flee history, not only because this is impossible, but because messianism inevitably has the life of the nations in view. There is no Messiah apart from his people or the nations he rules as king. Even the summons to flee Babylon (18:4) is not a summons to flee the human city as such; rather it highlights that in the human city fidelity to God is impossible. The question is not whether the church is in history, but how it is there. The church lives in history restless, dissatisfied, filled with longing for the final apocalypse of the one who has graciously come to dwell among us in the flesh. The reason Christianity is “beyond tragedy” as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, is that while the church suffers tribulation and has its martyrs, it knows that the death of the martyrs is their participation in the blood of the Lamb; the same holds true for those who suffer with Christ in less dramatic ways. The Lamb’s victory, his life poured out in excess and flowing like a river through the city of God, means that there is more of comedy than of tragedy in this story. The church lives in Babylon with a kind of sovereign freedom, knowing that Babylon does not get to dictate what constitutes ultimate victory, defeat, and truth. The Lamb’s followers conquer not by defeating the beast on his own terms (cf. 13:7), but by enduring faithfully to the end on God’s terms.

How time in Revelation is like the Passover and Eucharist

In the 2016-2017 academic year, our school has read through the Book of Revelation during chapel services. I have been greatly aided by the commentary of Anglican systematic theologian, Joseph L. Mangina. In the final chapter of St. John’s apocalypse, he addresses the perplexity of time. As one who celebrates the eucharistic meal on a weekly basis in church, I welcome the deep analogy about how time is connected in the Passover, Eucharist, and Revelation.

One of the most disorienting features of Revelation is the way it scrambles our sense of time. It is not that past, present, and future do not matter, dissolving into a timeless “eternal now.” It is rather that our usual ways of reckoning these things has to yield before the one who is and who was and who is to come, the God who holds time itself in his hand and disposes of it as he will. The time of Revelation is the time of the Eucharist, which means that in important ways it is like the time of the Passover. God freed Israel from Egypt, an event in history; but that event is not simply past, it is the living reality of Jewish existence, as a family gathers around the table each year for the Seder meal; and it points to the day when every Pharoah, Haman, and Hitler will have been defeated, and all that is left is celebration. Memory and hope converge and release energies and expectations of an appropriately this-worldly sort: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

This is something like the spirit in which we should approach the question of time in Revelation. If we ask ourselves “when will these happen?”—this is course the question for commentators in the decoding tradition—we arrive at the disconcerting answer that, in a certain sense, they already have. [David] Barr makes the point in the bluntest terms possible: “There is nothing described in Revelation that Christians do no believe has already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” The slaughtered Lamb has conquered, and is acclaimed in heaven—and in the assembles of Asia Minor! He is opening the seals of history even as we watch. The woman clothed with the sun gave birth to the child of destiny, who grew up to defeat the dragon and his angels. The ancient dragon fought back by sending the beast, chief among the powers that determine the character of life in this world; his seat is in Babylon, the great empire that fattens itself on the world’s wealth and enslaves kings; call it Rome, for now. Yet which of these powers was not subdued at the cross, so that—terrifying as they remain in certain ways—they are in a very real sense living on borrowed time, belonging to the old eon that is passing away. The “hallelujah” choruses in Revelation would be impossible, apart from the conviction that the cosmos is determined by what might be called life in the aorist tense: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15).

To say less than this would not be Christian, for it would suggest that there is something deficient in the Lamb’s victory. The worship of Jesus in the early church makes both a high Christology and a high doctrine of the work of Christ inevitable, indeed each implies the other. A Christ who is given the same honor as the Creator—how could his victory be less than complete and world encompassing? A Christ who has redeemed his people and liberated the enslaved earth itself—how could this be less than the eternal Son of God? Here it can truly be affirmed that lex orandi lex credendi, “the law of worship is the law of belief.” 

On the other hand, it would also not be Christian if this were the only thing we said. The gospel forbids any collapsing of the present or future into the past. Already Paul confronted this heresy among the Corinthians, who believed that they own resurrection had already occurred, and it has been a perpetual temptation ever since. While Desmond Tutu was certainly right to say that he had read to the end of the book and determined that “We win!” he was saying this in the midst of the struggle against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. It is the knowledge that the Lamb holds this scroll securely in his hand that enables the church to live confidently in the face of powers it cannot defeat, but also does not have to defeat. The church is not—to invoke the hoary but still useful World War II metaphor—the Allied forces invading across the Chanel. It is more like the resistance, holding out, bearing witness, entering without reserve into a life where God is worshipped and not the powers. Like the historical resistance, the Lamb’s resistance army is an odd and imperfect group of warriors, whose motives for joining up are perhaps better not examined in detail. Although the question of what motivates a person to request baptism or to undertake a new seriousness about the Christian life is always interesting, it is much less important than what the new Christian undertakes to do: negatively, to renounce Satan and all his works; positively, to embrace Christ, to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). 

The first coming of Christ does not make his final coming redundant, nor does it erase the life of God’s people stretched out between these two events. As Jews do not simply remember the Passover, but are themselves present with Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea, so Christians do not just look back on the apocalypsing of Jesus Christ, but are caught up in it, in a life that Revelation describes as that of the conquerors. The tribulation of the Lamb’s followers is their entrance into his victory. 

A vision of the unseen

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22-23, ESV)

Here is Joseph Mangina’s commentary on the wondrous passage above:

The vision reaches its surprising climax in John’s report of something he does not see, namely, a temple. The city has no need of a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” Their radiance is such that even the illumination provided by sun and stars is superfluous. Special sacraments are no longer necessary, because in the new eon “all truth will be openly and perfectly revealed” (Aquinas, Summa theologiae). The life of the city will not point to God, it will be in God. But John’s remark that “[the city’s] lamp is the Lamb” permits us to say something St. Thomas does not: in the age to come, the vision of God will be mediated through the risen, glorified flesh of Jesus. The heavenly city is not the end of the church, for the church is simply God’s people. It is, however, the end of religion, the demarcation of sacred space from profane space and liturgical time from ordinary time, for the purpose of making present the absent god. 

Three constants in the Book of Revelation

Light of the world small.jpg

William Holman Hunt, “The Light of the World” (1851-53)

During the academic year, our school has devoted chapel to the study of Revelation. Anglican theologian Joseph L. Mangina offers a well-articulated summary of this mesmerizing and mysterious book:

The Apocalypse opens with letters to seven churches in seven cities. Asia Minor of the late first century may be culturally remote from us, but it is, for all that, a relatively familiar and this-worldly setting. We think we can find our feet here. The book then takes us on a wild, Spirit-driven itinerary in which we behold God’s throne, see the scroll of history opened, suffer earth’s tribulation, meet terrifying monsters, observe with horror the degradation of the human city, and finally see the dead judged and death itself destroyed. Through it all, there have been three constants: (1) the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Creator God of Israel; (2) the victory of the slaughtered Lamb, both in itself and as witnessed in the lives of his followers; (3) the gathering of a community for all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages, the “kingdom” and “priestly people” alluded to in the book’s opening lines (1:6).  

Who is the Great Whore of Babylon?


William Blake, “The Whore of Babylon” (1809)

Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina answers the question in his commentary on the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters in the Book of Revelation:

William Blake brilliantly captures the dynamics of this scene in his 1809 pen and watercolor sketch The Whore of Babylon (British Museum), which shows the beast as having “seven ugly human heads; the plump whore, stripped to the waist rides him side-saddle holding her golden cup out of which fly personified ‘abominations and filthiness and fornications.’ ” Blake insightfully portrays the scene as a mixture of love and death. Thus one of the beast’s heads looks back up at the whore, with a leering expression on its face, while another is busy devouring human figures on the earth below. Most striking of all is just how wretched and miserable the whore seems. She is clearly unhappy, trapped along with the beast in a covenant of death. While it would be impossible to call her innocent, it is clear in Blake’s portrayal—as in John’s own—that she is not just an agent of evil but also its victim. The vision brilliantly depicts the self-consuming, self-destroying power of evil, which lacks the gift of affirmation (both of God and of self) that is built into the fabric of the created order and especially into the life of spiritual beings. 


Who is the whore? John tells us that she is seated on “many waters,” a convention for speaking of Babylon-on-the-Euphrates, but which might also be taken as referring to any seagoing power. She has clients who are politically and militarily powerful. She is gaudy and rich. She is drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints. All the signs point to the whore’s being Rome, the murderess responsible for the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul and more recently for the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum. In John’s time, there was simply no other “great city” on a par with Rome’s scale and ambition. This judgment seems to be confirmed by many voices in the ancient church. No less than St. Augustine called Rome “the second Babylonia, as it were, the Babylonia of the West.” 

Nevertheless, the Great Whore of Babylon is more than just Rome, as the beast is more than just the military power that allowed her to extend her reach across the Mediterranean. Any such simple, empirical identification would be guilty of what William Blake famously called “single vision.” It would mean reading an apocalyptic work in a most unapocalyptic way—that is, unimaginatively. Blake’s own watercolor of the beast and the whore points to realities of his own time—the beast to be understood as scientific materialism, perhaps, and the whore as the modern spirit of capitalism—even as it gestures toward something more universal. 

So it was, too, for Augustine, who identified “the great city” with Rome and with the earthly city as such, which is constructed not just of bricks and mortar but of imagination and desire. There is no question but that Babylon is a figure of desire, longing, eros. She is beautiful, yet fallen; powerful, but exploited; strong, but with the kind of strength that seeks to control and dominate— “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” To use Pauline language, we might see the whore as a kind of Adamic figure, a representation of fallen humanity driven by desire gone wrong: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God . . . . The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God). 


In Western theology, it was above all St. Augustine who taught us that the human being is essentially constituted by desire (eros). Passion in the negative sense (epithymia) is nothing else but disordered desire, a longing that fails to acknowledge God as what the heart yearns for: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” At the same time, desire is never simply an individual phenomenon. Far from being simple and self-validating, desire is to be seen as “a social product . . . a complex and multidimensional network of movement that does not simply originate within the individual self but pulls and pushes the self in different directions from both inside and outside the person.” What the Apocalypse reveals to us is (a) that not just the human soul, but the human city is constructed by desire—Babylon is a cooperative endeavor—and (b) that this endeavor has become hopelessly corrupted by sin. The city is the glory of humans as political animals—that is God’s purpose for it. The city is a whore riding on the back of a pimp, a seven-headed monster who will soon devour the whole world, consuming the whore in the process—that is the eschatological reality on the verge of overtaking John and his hearers. Whatever the city might be in the divine intention, now in these last days it has become violent and exploitative, ugly and deformed, an appropriately haglike consort for its master the beast. God’s people have no choice but to “come out of her.” 

The question once again poses itself, what is the referent of such language? Is Babylon what John thought it was in the first century, or does the image expand to encompass other realities that the church has had to struggle with across its history? Even if it could be shown that John believed the empire to be the apocalyptic whore, this would not fix the meaning of the image once for all. The whore is a character from the end of the story whom we encounter in the middle of the story. If the church lives out of Christ’s victory, it lives in the midst of the great city and all it entails. Just what it means to say this cannot be neatly determined in advance, since history (rather inconveniently) has to be lived before it can be narrated. What the Apocalypse does is not to narrate history in advance, but to describe the pattern of suffering, tribulation, and oppression that is intrinsic to the church’s historical existence. The church, we might say, is on a pilgrimage through time, in the course of which it encounters Babylon again and again, always in different forms and guises. The Babylon of imperial Rome will be different from the Babylon that Blake imagined in industrial England, which will be different yet again from the Babylon of late modern capitalism, where goods and services are traded electronically and at the speed of light, but where “human souls” are still being traded. The appearance of the figure of Babylon in history is not uniform, nor is every human society or economic system equally deserving of the name. What it means, then, for the church to flee Babylon for the wilderness will also differ in particular concrete situations. Discerning the shape of this pilgrimage is among the chief tasks of theological ethics. 

To use simpler and more traditional language, “Babylon” names the world (ho kosmos) in the negative New Testament sense. The church cannot avoid living in the world, but it may not itself be “worldly.” While the worldly church is a contradiction in terms, this possibility has unfortunately been realized all too often in Christian history. In extreme cases the church may be charged with actually having become Babylon, the spotless bride who has traded in her finery for the tawdry dress of the whore. This trope is biblically far more appropriate than the one that calls the church or its minsters “antichrist.” In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Daughter Zion can also be castigated as a harlot, and the harlot/bride contrast is implied by Revelation itself. If Israel can be unfaithful to God, so can the church . . . . 

We expect the world to be Babylon; that goes with its being the earthly city. But for the church to be so corrupted is an unspeakable evil. It means that the lust for worldly power and influence has replaced fidelity to Christ. Like the whore in our present passage, the church as Babylon consorts freely with “the kings of the earth,” in such a way that it is no longer fighting in the Lamb’s army; indeed, it has gone over to the enemy. What it means to “come out of Babylon” in such a situation is obviously highly problematic. Suffice it to say that, prior to the sixteenth century, the trope was not used to justify the separation from the church, but as an impetus to repentance, reform, and renewal. The church is our mother, even when it looks like Babylon. Hans Urs von Balthasar thus reminds us that the church in Christian tradition was often viewed as castra meretrix (“chaste harlot”), a people beloved by God despite its manifest faults.