Bible or Game of Thrones?
Michaelmas, 29th September, 2016
Nicholas Browne, Lay preacher at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Have you ever played the trivia game 'Pasta or Renaissance artist?' You get an Italianate name and you have to decide which one it is? Veronese? Artist. Puttanesca? Pasta. And so on. There's something about today's reading from Revelation that reminds me of that game. Bear with me here. In order to establish what I acknowledge is a tenuous link, I think it's necessary to put the reading into context a bit more. Here are the preceding verses:
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
I think we could use this as a similar game for a parish trivia night — is this from the Bible or from the final episode of Game of Thrones? Bible or Game of Thrones?
The cream-and-gold dragon was suckling at her left breast, the green-and-bronze at the right. Her arms cradled them close. The black-and-scarlet beast was draped across her shoulders, its long sinuous neck coiled under her chin… As she rose to her feet, the black dragon hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, and the night came alive with the music of dragons.
Game of Thrones, obviously. But you can see my point — I hope. In our materialist de-mythologised world what do we Anglicans — contemporary, reasonable and, above all, moderate, do with a passage like this? Well, obviously to begin with — we see it as symbolic and metaphorical. I imagine that would also be true of many Christians who take a much more literal view of the Bible than we tend to do here at St Peter's. But this raises two questions — firstly and most obviously — symbolic of what. And secondly — how do we deal with actual symbols? In literary terms, a symbol does not simply point to its referent in a purely neutral fashion. If we consider the parables of Jesus, such as the Parable of the Banquet in Matthew 22, for instance — you know the one where the king holds a wedding feast and the people he invites make excuses and so on. I would argue that the meaning of the passage is not just the tagline with which Matthew concludes the parable: 'For many are called, but few are chosen.' The symbol is significant and not neutral — there is something about the kingdom of heaven which is like a party!
So, then, how do we approach a symbol like:
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
First of all — Bible or Game of Thrones? Bible ... good, you were listening when the Epistle was chanted earlier. Now, I'm sure that most of us would be pretty clear about the idea to which this symbolic narrative is pointed — that God will ultimately overcome evil. So far, so good. But what do we do with the imagery here? In particular, what do we make of a symbol which suggests that Satan, the embodiment of evil, will be conquered through violent struggle?
Surely if we accept this violent imagery at face value, then we are seeing the Book of Revelation as fundamentally contradicting the direction of the rest of the Good News? Now, this point of view isn't unknown. The inclusion of Revelation in the canon of scripture was not uncontroversial in the early church, and I would imagine many liberal, reasonable Christians find it a little, well, embarrassing, even today. Similarly, this sort of imagery has fed into the 19th Century heresy known as dispensationalism — a theology still popular in some branches of evangelicalism — which sees Revelation as a guidebook to a coming violent cataclysm, which will see Christians emerge scarred but smugly victorious. Which I would argue is Game of Thrones rather than the Bible.
The Book of Revelation is in a literary genre known as apocalypse — that is 'uncovering'. And among the things being 'uncovered' is the nature of violence. Earlier this year, Professor Scott Cowdell preached from this pulpit and drew on the work of the great French-American scholar Rene Girard. At the risk of either boring you, or over-simplifying Professor Cowdell's message, Girard's concept of sacrificial violence is of a sacred, sanctioned violence which human societies institute in order to keep in check people's profane, random violence. But the effectiveness of sacrificial institutions weakens so that the sacrificial violence loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. And if a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Writers drawing on Girard suggest that, throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. We find a new scapegoat — a new sacrificial victim — the heretic, the Jew, the asylum-seeker. During these sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And this apocalyptic violence is attributed to God, or the gods, who will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit in history is to desacralise it — to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of sacred violence.
The key, I think, comes after the description of Michael's confrontation with Satan:
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death."
All of a sudden, the victory is achieved, not by the actions of a warrior angel but by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony. By those who, eschewing violence, did not cling to life in the face of death. It is the faithful followers of the Lamb on earth who win the victory, which is mirrored by the action of the angels kicking Satan out of heaven.
In the movie Gandhi, one could show the massacre at Amritsar, where Gen. Dyer's troops inflicted 1516 casualties with 1650 bullets fired. No one in the crowd was armed, a crowd which included many women and children. As the British Viceroy is trying to smooth things over with the Indian leaders, Gandhi interrupts him:
If you'll excuse me Your Excellency, it is our view that matters have gone beyond legislation. It is time you recognized that you are masters in someone else's home. Despite the best intentions of the best of you, you must in the nature of things humiliate us to control us. Gen. Dyer is but an extreme example of the principal. It is time you left....
In the end you will walk out because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350,000,000 Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate. And that is what we intend to achieve: peaceful, nonviolent non-cooperation until you yourselves see the wisdom of leaving, Your Excellency.
Gandhi is sure that the British will someday walk out of India because he has seen Satan fall like lightning.
What we have here is a revelation of the same idea that Jesus proclaims in Mark 3 — can Satan cast out Satan? It is significant that Satan is described here both as 'the great deceiver', and the 'accuser' — he is both the one who deceives humanity into seeing rivalries which multiply into random violence and the one who accuses the victim, the scapegoat who becomes the object of sacrificial violence. In this way, it could be argued, Satan casts out Satan. Yet by the end of Revelation, the Beasts of Satan are bound in their own hell-hole. A house divided against itself cannot stand and the Satanic game of violence is ultimately a self-defeating one. This is not a victory won by God's superior firepower. Once violence loses its place in heaven it eventually collapses under its own power. Anything else... well that's just Game of Thrones.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.