Friday, May 19, 2023

Reading Revelation and Puff the Magic Dragon

If you’re my age, you probably remember a song called “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” originally
written and performed by the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. By the time I remember first hearing it, in the early 70’s, the song had already been around for 10 years or so. There’s a refrain in it that goes:

“Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee”

I don’t remember exactly when, the late 70’s or early 80’s, I first heard it confidently asserted that Puff was actually not about a little boy and his pretend dragon friend. It was instead about smoking weed. “Puff,” get it? And autumn mist is a cloud of smoke, and there was even something about Honah Lee and some place or the other that was supposed to have really potent marijuana. The boy Puff befriended was even named Jackie Paper.

     There are a lot of other lines that it would be really hard to twist into a pro-marijuana song, but that never stopped us from being certain that Puff was really about smoking. There were reasons outside the song too. Some of the adults in our lives were telling us that there were pro-drug messages encoded in our music and TV shows and movies. We were conditioned to see it. We were getting to the age where it was fun to see scandal. So it was easy to believe that Peter, Paul, and Mary wrote a song for children about pot-smoking. 

     Well, the co-writers of the song, Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton, would later deny that the song had anything to do with marijuana. It was about growing up, the loss of innocence, facing the adult world. Yarrow said, “What kind of mean-spirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?” 

     I believe them. Just Google the lyrics, and it’s obvious that the song has absolutely nothing to do with smoking marijuana. But there was a time in my life when I and anyone I went to school with would have told you confidently that it was for sure about blazing up.

     And when we read the Bible, sometimes we are just as creative in our interpretations. And for the same reasons. What we bring to the reading. Assumptions we make. Connotations that words have for us that they wouldn’t have had for the original authors. 

     And the more symbolic and metaphoric the language of Scripture, the more we’re prone to those creative interpretations. Which is why we’ve made such a mess of the book of Revelation.

     Revelation is an example of a type of literature called apocalyptic. Even that needs some unpacking, because we hear that word and think it means the end of the world. But apocalypse is just an English transliteration of a Greek word that means an uncovering, a disclosure — a revelation. Apocalyptic literature unveils secrets and mysteries. Sometimes those secrets and mysteries are about the end of the world, but that’s secondary. Apocalyptic literature is about pulling back the curtain so the ways the unseen things of the universe really work can be seen. It’s usually written to assure people who are suffering for their faith that God sees their suffering and that they will be vindicated, comforted, and rewarded. It depicts the imminent fall of the powers persecuting them and the work of God in bringing about their downfall. This is always the way apocalyptic is to be read. Them’s the rules. Read this way, even if you don’t understand all the details you get the main idea.     

     This is why one of the common refrains in the early chapters of Revelation is “be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.” Going back to an earlier post, Revelation was most certainly not originally written to us. It was written by a suffering, persecuted Christian to other suffering, persecuted Christians in his time in what’s now Turkey. It isn’t intended to answer our questions, so to build a whole systematic theology of the “end times” on the metaphors, word pictures, and scripture references in the book is the height of futility.   

     When you aren’t familiar with the “rules” for reading apocalyptic and you aren’t familiar with the scriptures it refers to, Revelation just becomes what we want it to be. You can “Puff the Magic Dragon” it to your heart’s content, and it can mean anything you want it to mean, anything you want to read into it. It’s friendly that way. Accommodating. This is why Revelation has been used by every cult leader to deceive and manipulate their victims. It’s served as a comprehensive repository of evidence for most every conspiracy theory. It’s been used to support wildly divergent belief systems about the end of the world. It’s been used over and over (and so far unsuccessfully) to calculate the day of Christ’s return down to the hour. (Causing devastation and loss of faith when those predictions didn’t come true.) It’s been a source for aberrant and abhorrent political and religious views. And it’s caused many Christians to become so focused on the end of the world that they lose their sense of responsibility to witness to the gospel in the world. 

   This isn’t the fault of the book or its original author. It’s ours. We blow some things out of proportion while ignoring others, read meaning into it, and in so doing obscure what the book may really be trying to say to us.

     Examples could be multiplied, but a good place to start would be the assumption that Revelation is primarily about the end of the world, Judgement Day, or something along those lines. We get that idea because we pay almost-exclusive attention to the more sensationalistic parts of the book. (And we read those with bad assumptions.) But we ignore some other pretty significant characteristics of the book.

     For instance, worship is mentioned at least 18 times in Revelation. Sometimes that worship is directed at God or at Jesus, “the Lamb.” Other times it’s directed at ”the dragon” (Satan) or “the beast” or his image. The beast represents Rome and its desire to replace God as the source of its citizens’ loyalty, hope, and security. Revelation, written by John, who we learn in chapter 1 is a “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance  that are ours in Jesus,” is exiled on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God  and the testimony of Jesus.” John is a political dissident who is being punished for preaching Jesus in opposition to the pride and arrogance of the Roman Empire. 

     And John wants his readers to remain dissidents in a world that wants us to worship politics, luxury, military might, youth, sex, and whatever else it packages to sell to us, and may very well exclude us if we won’t. It shows us just how to do that — by seeing Jesus (chapter 1, 4, 5), confronting the ways that even the church might turn our worship away to him and toward Babylon, (chapters 2-3), and recommitting ourselves to the age-old conflict between the Lamb and the dragon (that the Lamb has already won). It calls us to worship him, and every chapter of the book is stuffed with reasons to do so and examples of how it’s done in the highest heavens.

      Chapter 5 is a great example. In it, John hears a voice say that “the Lion  of the tribe of Judah” has triumphed and is able — “worthy” — “to to break the seals and open the scroll” John had seen in the hand of God on his throne. Most interpreters of Revelation will focus on what that scroll and its seals represents. Those seals have been the plot of more than one movie. But John mainly wants us to see that Jesus, through his sacrifice, is the proper object of worship — and that’s exactly what the “living creatures” and “elders” around God’s throne do. They compose a “new song” that exalts Jesus. What the seals on the scroll represent becomes clear enough. But worship is the point. 

     Don’t feel bad if you’ve struggled with Revelation, or gotten it wrong. Try reading it, though, with an emphasis on worship and see if it doesn’t become a little easier.

     In the next post, we’ll look at some similar problems with reading prophecy. 

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