I was asked to contribute a chapter to a new book called “Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels.” The volume, an edited compilation put together by Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant, takes on many of the weird texts in scripture that we either gloss over or completely ignore because they’re just too…well, weird.
Of course there are plenty of spiritual oddballs to choose from, but as soon as I got the invite, I knew I wanted to write about the book of Revelation (note that there is not “S” at the end; there is no such book as Revelationsssssssss in the Bible). Suffice it to say that my relationship with the last book in the bible is a little bit complicated. In fact, it ruined my potential career as a lifetime Baptist. A number of you may have heard bits or pieces of the story about how I got kicked out of church as a teenager, but may not know all the details.
Well kids, you can blame it all on one freaky Bible book, one intransigent teenager and a floppy-Bible-wielding youth minister. But although the experience pushed me out of church for a solid decade, it didn’t forever ruin my search for the divine. But this particular story isn’t about that. It’s about how I got one particular youth minister so red-faced and flustered that he cussed me out and almost hit me square in the noggin with the Good Book.
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The book of Revelation and I have a complicated relationship. We flirted a little bit, back in high school, at least until it got me kicked out of church. I suppose I had a little something to do with it, given that I was an uppity teenager, full of questions and doubts in — of all places — a Baptist church in Texas. But mostly, it was Revelation’s fault. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Ironically, my youth leaders at the time had invited us to pick our next Bible study topic, and I was the one who requested revelation. At the time, I was into heavy metal and horror movies, and it seemed like Revelation was the closest thing to a visual complement to the soundtrack of my life. I mean, what’s not to like? Fire, destruction, dragons… all the good stuff without any of those rules about being kind or giving all your stuff away. So I was in.
The problem was, it didn’t take long before we got into the long and growing list of all the folks in my life who were headed south for a permanent vacation, if you know what I mean. The list included all of my Jewish friends from school, who were among the most faithful and kind people I’d ever met. They invited me in to take part in their Passover Seders, their Bar Mitzvahs and their Hanukkah celebrations. They seemed to live the way their faith directed them to live, and many of them believed that Jesus was a great prophet. Heck, maybe even with a little divinity sprinkled on top.
The thing is, they hadn’t been baptized or made a (translated: the one and only) public confession of faith, so they were screwed. The whole lot of them. And then we moved on to my dad, who wasn’t a church-going kind of guy. But to me, he was my dad, my hero. So to have someone so easily write off his immortal soul was more than a little bit of a shock. When I asked what they suggested I do about it, they told me to go home and tell him to invite Jesus into his heart.
Then there was the matter of biblical interpretation. I had always taken the fantastical stories in Revelation — among many others in the Bible — to be just that: stories. I figured they had some truth or greater wisdom to offer, but I didn’t every really think they were meant to be taken literally. Of course, I hadn’t shared this little secret with my youth leaders, but this particular day, my sense of discretion was fairly clouded by my distress about the fate of most of the earth’s population, including most of my friends and loved ones. So, I figured, what did I have to lose.
“Seriously, guys,” I finally said, “you’re telling me that actual dragons are going to fly down from the sky…”
“And rivers will literally be turned to blood, complete with plasma and corpuscles and stuff?”
“How does it keep from clotting?”
“These rivers of blood. I mean they’re exposed to air, right? So how do they keep them from scabbing over?”
This went on for a good 15 or 20 minutes, by which time we had laid out on the table a number of revelations of my own, including that:
- I didn’t believe the earth was 5,000 years old;
- I didn’t buy the conspiracy theory that scientists secretly manufactured the fossil record to accommodate their nefarious anti-God agenda;
- I thought their God was a real jerk, and I wasn’t particularly interested in spending eternity with a brazen sadist;
- Nonetheless, I thought they were wrong, and that God’s love was likely big enough to offer grace to (gasp) Jews and (what?!?!) maybe even atheists, and;
- Any God who would set his son up to be slaughtered to satisfy some contract with the same people who killed him was a pretty crappy dad, by all accounts.
You could have heard a gnat fart by the time I was done. But damn, it sure felt good to get it all out, all the stuff I’d been sitting on for years. I’d go to this school five days a week where they challenged me to think critically and ask questions, and then I’d come to church, where I was expected to absorb and assimilate without question. For the first time, I recognized the ideological line in the proverbial sand, and not unlike Adam and Eve in the metaphorical garden, I realized I was over here, and the rest of my church folks were somewhere waaaaay over there.
“If you can’t believe every word in this book, exactly the way it’s written,” said my youth leader, his face turning six shades of crimson as he wielded his floppy King James Bible over his head, “then it doesn’t mean shit!”
And then he threw it at me. Yes, he threw the Bible and nearly hit me in the head with it. Soon thereafter, we both agreed it was probably best if I found another place to frequent on Sundays, as it was clear the whole “Christian” thing just wasn’t taking.
Thanks a lot, Revelation.