Fundamentalist legacies (IV) St John's Revelation  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,


This morning I noticed an ad for a company I had never heard of before, a watch company. The name got my attention, as did the slogan:

A revelation.

I don’t wear a watch, but I must say my first impulse was to buy one.

Leaving fundamentalism is an arduous affair. When you are trying to leave, the difficulty is seen as evidence that you are leaving a community of truth-lovers for a dangerously compromised and compromising world. Once you have left you realize it actually was because such groups spin a cunning web of guilt and fear to keep their members in line. When there is no safety to express doubts, raise questions, and explore challenges to faith, when withdrawal from the world is imagined to be righteousness, when life gets divided into spiritual and physical (meaning less spiritual) spheres, and when there is pride over the purity of “our” beliefs and practices compared to everyone else—the web gets spun even if no one sets out to do it.

The fundamentalism of my childhood put great emphasis on biblical prophecy, and St John’s book of Revelation was often featured in sermons. Newspaper headlines were listed as proof that we were in the “last days.” Christ would return soon, which was always the point in the sermon when non-Christians were warned their time was running out. This is the theology that gave rise to the Left Behind series, and to Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth.

In the final days a horrible beast would arise out of the earth, incite the world to crass idolatry, and bring the global economic system under its control. The beast’s number, which would appear on people’s forehead or hand, was 666 (Revelation 13:11-18). One elder mentioned he’d never knowingly buy a car in which 666 appeared in the VIN number, just in case. We were warned to be on our guard, on the need to be withdrawn from a dangerous world, and assured that all those who remained true would never receive the dreaded mark of the beast.

Hear that enough times and of course it becomes hard to break away.

One of the legacies of my fundamentalist background was an almost a physical revulsion for the last book of the Bible. All my life I had heard dire warnings about interpreting it wrongly, but try as I might I couldn’t keep the convoluted diagrams and tortuous explanations straight in my head. Even after I broke away to discover a biblically orthodox Christian faith that was grace-full (rather than legalistic), safe and free (rather than fearful and defensive), and that spoke to all of life and culture (rather than withdrawn), my distaste for Revelation continued.

Anyway, in my next post on Fundamentalist legacies I’ll share some reflections on St John’s Revelation, and why I have come to cherish the book. Here, I’ll end with a discernment exercise.

The discernment exercise is this. Would it be wrong for me to buy a watch from 666 Barcelona? (This is a thought experiment only, since I can’t afford one—still, I must confess having a deep desire—is it a perverse desire?—to trumpet my freedom by wearing one!)

[to be continued]

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6 comments

Well I don't know about it being wrong or not to buy one (whether as an act of freedom/rebellion or not) - sounds like perfect L'Abri lunchtable discussion fodder to me, but they make flippin gorgeous watches. And on the art and design basis alone (alas, not the price), I want one!

May 26, 2010 at 5:43 PM

Denis,
In the past you've mentioned that The Message isn't your favorite translation. This seems understandable for someone with a Masters of Theology (congrats to you, by the way!) but for some of us Eugene Peterson has been a great grace. I especially love his short essays that open each book with valuable contextual insight. Recently I revisited Revelation for the first time since my early days of belief in the 70's and actually enjoyed it after Peterson's introduction: "...if we persist through the initial confusion and read on, we begin to pick up the rhythms...and find ourselves enlisted as participants in a multidimensional act of Christian worship."

After an upbringing by a woman who would have shamed the Pharisees themselves, I found grace but sadly ended up in a fundamentalist church with a controlling pastor due to their sponsorship of the college Bible group I encountered upon my first registration period. Nearly every sermon ended with rants against long hair and rock 'n' roll with the pastor's eyes locked on mine as best he could through my long hair. When I left the church a few years later upon making friends with the Inter-Varsity crowd who gathered at a more grace-filled church, the old pastor told me he was thankful there was at least a place in town for people like me who couldn't really live up to the standards of a truly called church...or words to that effect. Of course they firmly believed that any translation other than King James fell under the judgment of the last verses of Revelation, warning against adding or taking away from the words of the prophecy. Even then this seemed suspicious to me since the KJV was a translation itself and not the original Greek or Hebrew. They're probably using the Message as a sign of the last times!

May God continue to bless the efforts of your ministry with Margie. The recent topic of how we tend to focus on the fall & redemption while forgetting creation & restoration was very timely for me. Wish I was closer to Rochester so I could hear the full presentation.

Oh yeah, one last humorous (or sad?) note: Years ago I was working the reception desk of a major oil company in Dallas, and our visitor badges eventually became numbered in the 600's. Every time I attempted to give a visitor a badge with 666 printed on it they would throw it back and refuse to wear it! Just another day in the Bible Belt, I suppose...even for the oil tycoons.

May 26, 2010 at 7:16 PM

keepfishing:

Quite correct, this would make a good lunch discussion, at L'Abri or anywhere else a group of Christians are eating together. And I agree on the design--they are arrestingly beautiful.

May 27, 2010 at 8:10 AM

Arthur:

I may have overstated my reaction to The Message. It is not the Bible I am most drawn to for regular reading, but I regularly check how it expresses the texts I am reflecting on. Peterson has had a rich service to the church in his writing over the years.

Your pilgrimage is interesting, and has a familiar ring (in some sad ways). The fundamentalists I left still use the KJV, the Scofield notes variety, and in some cases when I've visited Bible studies are little more than following the notes, so the same tired ideas are endlessly recycled.

Thanks for your encouragement, your kind greetings, and the humorous story. I'm still waiting for readers to tell me about buying a watch, but if I were an oilman I'd gladly accept a name badge numbered 666.

May 27, 2010 at 8:19 AM
PW  

Oh yes, been there, done that, too, Denis. What a relief to have moved on. And, hey, buy the watch; it would probably lead to some interesting conversations like the one Margie related in a recent blog post.

Thanks for your ministry. Good food for thought especially for us who grew up in the fundalmentalist realm who are trying to figure out what "being in the world, but not of it" looks like.

May 28, 2010 at 11:35 AM

PW:
Ah, yes, the conversations. That would be good.
Except for the ones with my relatives who would see the watch with jaundiced eyes--on the other hand, they've already given up on me, so not much would change.

May 28, 2010 at 11:49 AM

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