Sunday, July 14, 2019

Revelation: inside and out

Revelation is one of those books of the Bible that many Christian readers keep coming back to. Unlike, say, 1-2 Kings, which has a straightforward plot and little subtext, Revelation is hard to reduce to a single perspective. From modern readers, the added appeal of Revelation is that it's the most cinematic book of the Bible. 

To my knowledge, premils typically think Revelation has a linear plot (at least Rev 5-22) whereas modern-day amils typically think it has a cyclical plot, although the return of Christ breaks the cycle. But perhaps that's a false dichotomy. 

Consider a comparison. A plot device in science fiction is the temporal loop. Here's an illustration of what I mean: a character wakes up in a bedroom. He glances at the clock. It shows the time and date. He gets dressed and goes outside. Nothing feels unusual. During the course of the day he witnesses a cycling accident, notices a pretty jogger, and sees a customer spill coffee at the cafe. He goes to bed, wakes up in the same bedroom, glances at the clock. Everything repeats. Between the character falling asleep or waking up, the cycle resets. 

This happens several times without variation until he has an unshakable sense of déjà vu. Hasn't he seen all this before? Hasn't he done all this before? How long has this been happening? It can't be real. He must be stuck on some sort of illusion. 

This time, when he wakes up, he tries to change a variable, hoping that will break the cycle. He intervenes to prevent the cycling accident. When he wakes up, it's the same date. So he changes a different variable. He intervenes to prevent the coffee from spilling. He takes sleeping pills to oversleep or sets the alarm clock to wake up in the middle of the night. 

He hopes, through dumb luck, to change the key variable, like flipping a switch. Finally he wakes up, glances at the clock, and it's a day later. Or he wakes up in different bedroom. He made his escape. He's back to reality. 

Is the plot linear or cyclical? Depends on the standpoint of the observer. From the viewpoint of the character, inside the temporal loop, the experience is cyclical. The action keeps returning to where it began. In a sense, it has no beginning or ending, like a Möbius strip–constantly folding back on itself. 

But suppose this is a movie. From the standpoint of the movie viewer, outside the temporal loop, the experience is linear. The movie viewer doesn't experience a day repeating itself. Rather, he watches a character experience a day repeating itself. 

In that respect, Revelation operates at two different levels. There's the internal standpoint of John. His experience is immersive. He is drawn into the world of the vision, as if he's there. 

By contrast, there's the external standpoint of the reader. He is reading the description of John's experience from outside the world of the vision, as an outside observer. His experience is characterized by linearity, as he reads one scene after another in literary succession. The reader isn't like a character who wakes up on the same day, over and over again. Rather, it's like watching a character wake up on the same day, over and over again. 

However, it would be possible for a reader, using his own imagination in addition to John's imagination, to see the action through the eyes of the narrator. Projecting himself into the world of the vision, using John's description as a conduit. Making an effort to visualize the picturesque descriptions as if the reader was standing there, seeing it for himself. That takes more effort, but it's a rewarding exercise. 

So Revelation may exhibit linearity and periodicity alike, depending on whether we adopt a standpoint inside the visionary world or outside the visionary world. These are two different reading strategies. 

Likewise, if you were a moviemaker, filming Revelation, you'd have to choose which standpoint to display. Cinematically, I'd opt for the immersive standpoint. 

And, to complete the parallel, there's a sense in which John exits the loop when Jesus returns–in the vision. The return of Christ breaks the cycle. 

In addition, there's a certain parallel with the Fourth Gospel, anchored in the dual consciousness of Christ. At a human level, Jesus experiences time from within the standpoint of 1C earthbound observer. He processes time as present, moment by moment.

Yet he also says things to indicate that he's conscious of the past, of OT history. Not remembering, as if he was there–although that would be impressive enough. But as if he is there (at least at the level of consciousness). Equally conscious of all times. In addition, he says things things to indicate that he's ever-conscious of his eternal state. From that standpoint, he's outside any particular time or place, and ultimately beyond time and space entirely. 

Moreover, the narrator says things about Jesus that reinforce the same shifting perspectives. A timebound consciousness side-by-side a consciousness that transcends time. An awareness that's simultaneous with all times and ultimately outside of time.    

1 comment: