Apocalypse: Subversion, Protest, or Fantasy?
Similar texts can be used in the service of vastly different causes, as the history of European religion down the centuries has shown. Of no text is this truer than the Apocalypse, the book of Revelation. It has probably been used more often in the service of those who have set about subverting the contemporary social order, but has also been a corner-stone of political quietism (as with the Jehovah's Witnesses) and political reaction (as with modern fundamentalists; Kovacs and Rowland 2004). Apocalyptic symbolism, therefore, has never been the sole preserve of the oppressed and the poor. Even in post-exilic Israel, in the very years when eschatological hope was being formed, there was a common stock of images which two sides in a struggle for power used to achieve pre-eminence for their own positions. It can be found buttressing the projects of those whose quest for utopia is firmly rooted in conventional values and the nostalgic yearning for a golden age of moral perfection based on hierarchy and subservience. Here apocalyptic symbolism serves to undergird a view of the world which supports the conviction of a comfortable elect that they will ultimately be saved.
Revelation's stark contrasts and uncompromising critique have appealed to those who find little hope in compromise with the powers that be and demand something more than a meek acceptance that the way the world is, is what God intended. In this reading it gives little comfort to the complacent church or the powerful world. For the powerful and the complacent it has a message of judgement and doom, whereas for the powerless and oppressed it offers hope and vindication. The characterization of contemporary society in the apocalyptic symbolism of Beast and Harlot is a denunciation of the ideology of the powerful, by which they seek to legitimize their position by persecution and economic exploitation. A critique of the present is effected by the use of a contrast between the glories of the future and the inadequacies of the present. The process of unmasking involves an attempt to delineate the true character of contemporary society and the superhuman forces at work in the opposition to God's righteousness in the world. Revelation seeks to persuade its readers that the present moment is a time of critical importance. Although it often comes close to drawing its readers into an escape into fantasy, the readers of the Apocalypse are not allowed to dream about millennial bliss without being brought face to face with the obstacles which stand in the way of its fulfilment and the costly part to be played by them in that process.
A text will not usually produce a particular ideology in a ‘pure’ form whether it be supportive of the status quo or not. The apocalyptic outlook could be appropriated and neutralized by its incorporation into the dominant ideology (as, for example, the way in which the Augustinian dualistic world-view in The City of God, a work so dependent on the Apocalypse, offers an implicit resistance to an impetus to social change). Religions in particular offer excellent examples of the way in which this process of domestication can take place. Movements of protest born as the way of keeping alive ideas and aspirations contrary to the dominant culture can in the course of time lose their cutting edge and become part of a diffused cultural phenomenon incorporated into the needs of the dominant economic system. Accordingly, however loud the note of protest in a text, it is often going to be shot through with the ambiguities of being part and parcel of a world that is itself full of contradiction and pain. Any text's relation to that struggle may well be ambiguous. Sometimes it will manifest the voice of the oppressor and his ideology in the process of seeking to articulate that subversive memory. It is part of the task of interpretation to lay bare the ambiguities and contradictions that are inherent in all texts.
Nowhere is this more true than in the attitude to women in the Apocalypse. There is a real problem for modern readers of Revelation because of its negative attitude to women (Pippin 1992; Schüssler-Fiorenza 1993). The book's images of women are of either whores or brides, active Jezebels or passive wives and mothers. Women are viewed in terms of a patriarchal culture and its attendant economy. Women are either idealized or demonized in Revelation, using conventional tropes. Whatever its radical politics and subversive attitude towards empire, in terms of gender it presents huge ideological problems—yet another reminder of the complex nature of a text's ideological position. Yet, paradoxically, as a prophetic book, Revelation has offered space for women as well as men to enable their spirituality to flourish and for them to emerge as characters in their own right, created in God's image, in the midst of a society permeated by patriarchy. The prophets and the mystics have found in Revelation an inspiration to explore the inner life and to exercise a ministry denied by much else in Scripture and tradition. They found in this allusive text a licence to resist received religion and practice precisely because a canonical text opened a door for an experience of God which enabled them to transcend the boundaries imposed by what was conventionally possible. The problem is that the medium can detract from its message, so that far from rubbing our noses in the reality of our world, the unpalatable character of its imagery becomes an obstacle.
Apocalyptic symbolism strikes us as bizarre today. It represents a powerful form whereby the oppressed can keep alive the oppressed culture in the face of a dominant and powerful ideology. The apocalyptic imagery and cosmology themselves betoken a view of the world where protest and resistance to compromise are the order of the day. Walter Benjamin wrote of the necessity of ‘brush[ing] history against the grain’, in order to rescue tradition from the conformity imposed upon it by the powerful: ‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it’ (Benjamin 1978: 248). The Apocalypse has certainly served this social purpose down the centuries.