Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jacob and the Dragon: How Revelation Chapter 12 is like Lost episode 117

Last year I met with a student who was really interested in the cosmic context of the Bible (e.g. what happened before God created, where did angels come from, why did God create…totally impenetrable questions like that). The Christian scriptures are mostly silent on these things. A lot of the most direct information we have on them is near the end of this 1000 page book (in the cryptic “dragon chapter” - Revelation 12[1]). The student posed the obvious question, “why is the first information we get about the beginning, at the end.” Great question. Here is my take on it. The Christian Scriptures are not a paleo-history text, they are a story that we are invited to join. So they often unfold with characteristic narrative flair.

And that’s why Revelation chapter 12 is works in the narrative structure of the Christian Scriptures like the penultimate episode of Lost.

In episode 15 of the final season of Lost,[2] 117 episodes into the story, with scarcely 2.5 hours of narrative remaining, the story went off timeline.[3] It told the story of the ancient history of the island and the cryptic origin of the good and evil characters.[4] As the narrative was building to a climax, JJ took an entire episode to finally let us in on the back story…because the ending would be more meaningful in light of the back story. Back story is tedious until we care about the story.[5] Jacob’s origin only mattered to us because we cared about Jack, Kate and Hurley[6]. This seems like a pretty good parallel for why the pre-Genesis material in the Bible lands 99.4% of the way into the book.

The stuff in Revelation about the angelic fall is temporally situated before the rest of the story. But that is kind of the point. The Bible is a story of God’s protracted rescue of our wayward species…his inversion of the human predicament. Pre-historic[7] cosmic warfare is not the point of the story. It is a different story.[8] And it is only revealed near the end of the narrative where it casts light[9] on the climactic scene of the story being told.

[1] Generally I ascribe to a preterist interpretation of Revelation (i.e. most of it was apocalyptic code about the Nero persecutions and is neither about the distant past or distant future) but I kind of think Revelation 12 is an exception.
[2] I am considering episodes 16 and 17/18 a single narrative whole, making 15 the penultimate episode.
[3] Which is an odd thing to say about a show that played so much with timelines.
[4] So, I really like JJ. We were into Alias and really liked Lost. But the guy makes things up as he goes along. This is how the Bible is different than Lost. The Bible knows where it is going from the beginning. Genesis points elegantly towards Revelation, through the lens of the gospels. Lost had to add previously unintroduced characters several seasons in just to escalate the narrative enough to sustain a ratings cash cow.
[5] I mean, who would voluntarily sit down and read the Similarion as a stand alone work.
[6] Frankly, mostly Hurley.
[7] I was going to write pre-paleozoic…but I’m not sure I can place it temporally with that kind of accuracy. In City of God, Augustine places the whole angelic narrative in Genesis 1:1. But depending on how you read Genesis 1-3 (something I will be talking about in the fall and, so, will probably trickle into this blog) it is conceivable that these events could have occurred during some era of earth paleo-history.
[8] One I look forward to hearing, but mostly do not know. But it is worth noting, if there is another grand story that we only have hints at, how many other stories are there for us to hear and tell in an eschatological existence. Reality is likely far more drama rich than we know.
[9] Um, there is a bad pun here given that the whole Lost series was about some light in the middle of the Island. I am reserving my thoughts on the Lost finale for another post (in which I’ll argue that the Lost finale left me with precisely the same senses of satisfaction and disappointment as the Battlestar Galacitca finale). This post should come out with my characteristic relevance…which is to say, within a decade of airing.


Ian and Gilda said...

To make things even murkier, the text of Revelation 12 does not necessarily require it to be read as primeval history. There seems to be an Israel/Jesus thing going with the mother and child but there is not too much indication as to what the "war in heaven" represents or how it is temporally related to what is symbolically portrayed with the mother/child stuff.

Ian and Gilda said...

Oh, I forgot to say that at least the "what happened before God created?" question is fairly easy if you already reject its presuppositions. The question presupposes that a) time has no beginning, and b) God is not outside time. I think b should be rejected and a has a good claim to be rejected or at least to be set aside as uncertain. So that's not really a problematic question unless you're something like an open theist.