Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Game of Thrones: Power and Royal Imagery in the Book of Revelation and the Song of Ice and Fire

“Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them." – Clash of Kings[1]
The Ice and Fire novels illustrate exactly what makes us uncomfortable with royal imagery.  The great iron throne,[2] forged out of the weapons of Aegon’s enemies, as regal as it is ugly, sits at the center of ‘games’ of power.  Sons and brothers and fathers of common people are sacrificed to the pretentions of the prancing Renly or the ‘just beyond wisdom’ Stannis, the pathological-if-self aware violence of Baylon, the sniveling entitlement of Joffrey, and even the youthful distortions of honor and revenge embodied in Rob Stark.[3][4]

Those who aspire to a throne are seldom worthy of it.  In fact, the very act of aspiring to a throne makes you unworthy of it.  Crowns and thrones do not seem to be inanimate objects.  They do not serve the wearer, but like the ring of power, seduce and transform and, ultimately, control the human host like some sort of metallurgical parasite. 
“Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them."[4.5]
Which makes the imagery of royal artifacts in the Book of Revelation a little awkward.  In his work of Biblical Theology on Revelation, Richard Bauckham[5] surveys some of the critical literature[6] which argues that for a book that takes such pains to avoid anthropomorphic descriptions of God, Revelation falls into unhelpful unhealthy human imagery by elevating a throne.  Revelation talks about the throne no fewer than 46 times.[7]  Outrage that a throne sits at center of eschatological hope is fair, if we think of the great iron throne that sits in King’s Landing, or of any of the actual thrones thought out history that have conspired to form this arc type.

But if cable news[8] has taught us anything, its main lesson is that public whim is a horrific king…just slightly less horrific than an actual individual human sovereign.  Democracy has not saved us from ourselves.[9]  We continue to spend our children’s money and thrash our grandchildren’s planet and majority rule seems toothless to restrain our appetites as we plunder future generations like a Dothraki horde.  I have evaluated my ability to rule and found it wanting.  I am insufficiently wise and insufficiently just, and insufficiently merciful.[10]  And being 1/200millionth king is as exhausting[11] as it is meaningless.
I have had enough ‘tyranny of the majority’ to long for a just and wise rule.  Looking to a just and wise throne no longer sounds like bondage to me…it sounds like freedom.[12]  The problem with thrones isn’t concentrated power…it is what concentrated power does to the humans that sit on them.  But what if there was a Sovereign who was just and wise and loving and impervious to the negative feedbacks of a throne?  A Sovereign so just and true and wise and loving that throne bent and conformed to him, rather than the other way around.
The Voice in Revelation, he who was and is and is to come…who shares his seat with his champion who vanquished his enemies not by slaughtering them, but by being slaughtered by them…who answers to ‘Lion’ but looks of ‘Lamb’…he is worthy to sit on a throne.  I want to live in his city, under his rule.[13]
Our resistance to concentrated power is wisdom, because the human constitution cannot bear it.  “Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them.”  But the diffusion of power is not much better.  It seems that crowns have the same power even if distributed to the rabble like so many burger king hats. 
The eschatological hope is that power will finally share a throne with justice, wisdom, and self giving love.  And that is a crown I will gladly yield my sad and thin sovereignty to.  To that throne I will happily pledge fealty.[14]
This post was written while listening to the Radical Face[15] Pandora Station

[1] Note: I have been working through these novels and love them.  I have to warn that they may be too crass for some of my friends, and I am in no way recommending the HBO adaptations.
[2] One of the great visceral symbols of contemporary art.
[3] There is a great description of when Rob first puts on a crown.  His mother watches him interact with his generals from across the room and gets the impression that he can’t seem to find a comfortable way to wear it…which she sees as a metaphor...that crowns are unatural and never rest easy.
[4] I am working on another post about the ‘moral ecosystem’ of the Ice and Fire universe.
[5] In his excellent and accessible work “The Theology of Revelation.
[6] Not least of which, includes a prolific feminist literature.
[7] Almost twice as often as ‘Lamb.’
[8] Or recent events in Egypt.
[9] I am with Chesterton who believed that “Democracy is the worst form of government…except for all the others.”
[10] Or rather, I am merciful when I should be just and just when I should be merciful.  The justice/mercy scale (which sets the axis for many of our political debates) is not a simple monotonic function.  The hardest part of their application is context.  Which is where wisdom becomes essential…which I seem to lack.
[11] Not to mention that all that time and effort I put into to my ‘civic responsibility’ is meaningless because the power I wield is so small…yet I expend effort on every decision as if I was king and my vote determined policy.  That seems like a pretty inefficient use of my mental and emotional resources.
[12] I would gladly give up autonomy to live under a just, wise and loving rule.  The problem with autonomy is that the ceiling of my choices is set by the highly mercurial gyrations of my own limited wisdom, justice, and love.  I’d gladly trade the ability to ‘make the call’ for a situation where ‘the right call is always made.’
[13] Wright points out that all our theoretical discussions of ‘sovereignty’ miss the very point of the word.  The question is not ‘what does God force on us’ but ‘how much power do we give a king in our lives and world.’
[14] And that of my dire wolves.
[15] My Pandora has been virtually stuck on this channel for months now.  I love this band.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How many words is a picture worth…I mean, actually?

Note: We are teaching Revelation this summer.  My talk tonight had a classic double-introduction.[1]  So I cut one and put it here.  If you want to read/hear the surviving intro (it’s about Mantis Shrimp) the talks should end up on my MP3 page by the end of the week. 
So, how many words is a picture really worth? 
It turns out I have had to do that math.  I recently published a paper in the Journal of Geotechnical Engineering that could only be 4 pages.  Which meant every word counted.  So to fit into 4 pages all the figures had to be converted into ‘word equivalents’.  My figures ran between 300 and 800 word equivalents.  And some were worth it and some weren’t.  It turns out, that sometimes, a picture isn’t worth 1000 words…or even 400.  As I looked over it, I figured the median[2] picture is worth approximately 550 words.
But we have this sense that pictures are just way better than words.  That images are information dense to the point that words are almost obsolete.  We are a culture of image.  We have mostly replaced words with image in our entertainment and work…and if SnapChat is any indication in our communication.
But the Hebrew Scriptures are suspicious of images to communicate anything fundamental about God.   In fact, one of the “big 10” guidelines about living life well…right there with ‘don’t kill’ and ‘don’t sleep with your buddy’s wife…actually, don’t even think about sleeping with your buddy’s wife’ and other very practical instructions about how to avoid violence to yourself and others and build a stable community of cooperating humans…there is an admonition to beware of using images to depict God.  It almost seems out of place.  It is a little incongruous.  A Decalogue non- sequitur. 
And why is that?
Well, when reality transcends the vividness of sight an image just doesn’t provide enough information density to convey reality.  Sight is the most vivid sense, but it does not set the ceiling on the vividness of reality.  There is a classic quote from a medieval church father that ‘mystery is not a deficit of intelligibility but a surplus’.  If Revelation chapter 1 is any indication, the Scriptural caution about image as a medium to talk about God is along these lines.  It is an issue of beauty that exceeds the capacity of image.[3]  Revelation 1 exists to help rehabilitate our imaginations which have grown lazy from neglect or misuse…and reclaim them as a tool to penetrate reality that is too information dense for an image. 
This post was written while listening to the “Sons and Daughters”[4] Pandora Station

[1] I love introductions so much that I usually write two of them.  In this case I had 4 and moved 2 of them to mid-talk illustrations.  This might explain a little of my difference with the venerable Dr Barth…
[2] Choosing the median skews the results low, because there was 1 figure that basically summarized the whole finding (pictured below).  If I want to give a 3 minute ‘elevator pitch’ of our findings, I’d show and explain that figure…it was worth thousands of words…and about 500 hours.

From: Gibson, S. A., Abraham, D., Heath, R. and Schoellhamer, D. (2010) “Bridge Formation Threshold for Sediment Infiltrating into a Coarse Substrate,” ASCE Journal of Geotechnical Engineering, 136(2) 402-406.

[3] Or hologram.  I mean, that’s what you were thinking right?
[4] Anyone who has read this blog can probably guess that I find ‘worship music’ as a genre to be awkward and tragically artless.  But while I love great ‘secular’ art and get most of my musical content from those sources…sometimes I just find Christocentric art* refreshing and ennobling even if the quality is uneven.  The Sons and Daughters Pandora station has decreased in quality as they have become more popular (algorithm creep) but still has the highest median artfulness of the genre that I can find.
*Note: There is a difference between ‘Christian art’ and ‘Christocentric art’ in that one refers to who does it and the latter is a description of the topical content.  The latter does not go through a 'niche bottleneck' that regulates qualtiy disadvantagoulsy.