Rock and Revelation

By , 4 April 2008 7:10 pm

I seem to have been involved quite a lot with images this week. My new Dell came with Photoshop Elements on it and I have been playing with that, and briefly we had a glimpse of summer yesterday, which always makes me think of taking photographs. The temperature rose 10º to a magnificent 17º yesterday before plummeting back down to 8º today. Groan!

I have also been busy finishing the last of my PowerPoint sets with accompanying handouts for my courses. So I spent many hours browsing the web for suitable images and importing them, or in some cases, making my own. I have a section on volcanic and earthquake hazards to cover with my geography students and there’s some really good imagery of squashed buildings and buried towns for them to gawp at. A key case study is Montserrat in the Caribbean where the southern half of the island has been an exclusion zone for 10 years due to the risk of pyroclastic flows. For the uninitiated: they are high-temperature aerosols of molten rock droplets travelling at up to 100 miles an hour that kill you with external and (shudder) internal burns. Anyway I couldn’t resist a little bit of Photoshop-ing to brighten things up and keep the children awake.

I am also down to preach this Sunday morning on Revelation chapter 2; the letter to the church in Ephesus. And anyone preaching on Revelation has to come to terms with the imagery. The odd thing about this: it is imagery that you really shouldn’t try and imagine. To paraphrase a wise commentator, it is symbolic rather than descriptive. The illustration they used, which I thought was very helpful, is the symbol of the skull and cross bones, which (unless we are sailing the Caribbean) is normally seen on bottles of weedkiller and disinfectant. It does not signify that there is a skeleton inside and to have a stubborn realism that thought there was one would be utterly silly. Instead, it refers to something more abstract, and in fact, impossible to visualise: the danger of death. The point is that the imagery in Revelation is of a similar sort. The last thing that you ought to try and do is actually think of what is mentioned in pictorial terms; instead you need always to ask ‘what does this signify?’ I suspect this is linked with that specific mention that Revelation is a book to be read aloud and heard: there are blessings promised for the hearers.

But this raises a question. We seem to be shifting from a verbal/oral culture to a one in which the visual seems to reign supreme. Will one result of this be a greater difficulty with the symbolic language? Oddly enough, what reassures me is the genre of rock videos, about which I know almost nothing. The glimpses I have seen though suggest that here, at least, the symbolic is alive and well. Revelation as rock video? Hmm, there’s a thought.

Have a good week.

7 Responses to “Rock and Revelation”

  1. Catherine Brislee says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for a fascinating blog. Volcanic activity and ‘Revelation’: I am wondering if there is a connection between the eruption of Vesuvius (AD 79) and the imagery in Revelation, assuming Revelation was written after that date.

    Everyone in the Mediterranean area must have known about the destruction of Pompeii. Horrible stories of fiery death must have been flying around as fast as a ship could sail. And I’m no scientist but presumably the skies would have looked pretty strange for some time after the eruption. I can imagine John drawing on these memories and stories when he came to write.

    On the other hand, if he was simply relating a prophetic experience, that wouldn’t work – unless he had the experience during the eruption! (which wouldn’t make it any less authentic)

    Good luck with the sermon!


  2. Boaz says:

    When I was taking an English Lit course (British Literature 1800 to present), I ran into an interesting situation. Most of the class, including the teacher, would interpret the text in a metaphorical or allegorical manner first and foremost. I was the head of a very small minority that took the text at face value first and then went to other not-so-evident meanings.

    A question I have is: where did the concept of “evil from the North” come from? You have Satan and his angels massing in the North of Heaven in PL. In Frankenstein, the monster is going to the North. In The Shadow and Night, the ship lands far to the north of any inhabited area (was this a deliberate bow to literary tradition?), and I’m sure I could find many more if I looked. Is it ultimately Biblical in origin (from OT prophets saying tha there would be invasions coming from beyond the lands of Dan which were the farthest North in Israel)? Is it a reference to Nordic invaders being a scourge of Europe?

    As far as symbolic language goes, I think that every culture creates its own based on shared experiences so that things can be referred to either quickly or obliquely–essentially a non-technical jargon. The weirdness of rock videos goes far beyond this into the weirdness of Volapuk, Esparanto, and Lojban.

    As either a sneak preview (or a review if this happens after Sunday), what do you think the stars and lamps are from your text?


  3. Chris says:

    Hi Catherine,
    And thank you for some interesting comments. I don’t know whether anyone has done any serious study on the impact of the Pompeii eruption on contemporary thinking. Most people put Revelation that somewhat later than this but when you read the commentators the data they have is very speculative. I would be fairly certain that Jews would have seen in the destruction of Pompeii something of a divine judgement for the destruction of Jerusalem nine years earlier. If memory serves me well there were a number of major earthquakes in the Turkey area in the first century. Tectonics in the Mediterranean appears to have been quite active at that time; we better hope we don’t get a repetition!

    It’s interesting because you often hear people talking about ‘a catastrophe of biblical proportions’. It may be that actually some of the ‘biblical catastrophes’ are actually reasonably accurate descriptions of natural ones. Sometime I ought to write a geology and the Bible book but I don’t expect it would sell!

    Thank you: I understand the sermon went really as well as I could expect (people were very nice about it) but there was a lot of blood and sweat in it!



  4. Chris says:

    Dear Boaz

    You raise many interesting questions. One of them is something I ought to really discuss in a blog. It is that in our church most of the students who are Christians are from the sciences. At my college, which has quite a high number of Christian staff, again, ‘faith’ appears more common in the sciences. How is this linked to your point? I think the answer is that scientists are accustomed to dealing with brutal, non-negotiable facts and having to respond to them. Faced with the challenge of the gospel they either become atheists or believers. Social scientists and most artists have the option of reinterpreting these issues as ‘your opinion’, ‘metaphorical’ or ‘allegorical’. Postmodernism, for instance, has never caught on in the sciences.

    The threat from the North? Well, it came out of my subconscious. But you are right in English literature, threats are either from the East or from the North. My guess is the older literature saw the threats from the North and this echoes the Vikings and the Norsemen. Significantly since the Christianisation of the north they have been friends and noble allies and we have faced no perils from their. The threat from the East is I think later; after all Moslems nearly took Vienna and we have frequently had the Germans or the French threatening us. But you may be right that there is a biblical component to this. If I may link in Catherine’s reference to the earth sciences, what is interesting in the history of Israel is that although Babylon and Persia were to the east the invaders are always came from the North because of the Fertile Crescent. The direct route took you over desert. I used to work a lot in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and I frequently wondered whether the Assyrian and Babylonian had passed where I was standing.

    I’m still struggling with symbolism. Protestantism sees the gospel as essentially propositional; a series of statements that are accepted or rejected rationally. I’m not entirely convinced this is the case but I don’t know how to agree to a non-rational gospel without opening the door to unconstrained and subjective religious experience. Does that make sense?

    I’m told our sermons may eventually be posted on the Pantygwydr website ( Anyway with regard to your questions. The lampstands I see as the church worldwide: like the Old Testament candelabra but now spread amongst the world. The stars/angels are much more complicated. Many commentators go for the angel as being the ‘spirit of the church.’ I am a bit less enthusiastic as I don’t like the symbols being symbols of symbols if you follow what I mean. However the word angelos can simply mean messenger and is used of John the Baptist. So it seems to me perfectly reasonable that letters are to be sent to the teaching elders or preachers in the church. After all they would be the ones responsible for passing on the message to the congregation. On that basis I was this morning an angel in my church. :-)

    Now must dash: I have someone who wants me to sort out his problems with Young Earth creationism. Oh joy.


  5. Boaz says:


    I would contend that the core of Christianity is propositional: Jesus was born in this manner, lived, preached these words, claimed he would be killed and then rise from the dead, was killed, and then rose from the dead. These historical events are proof that what he preached was true. [This is essentially what the sermons early on in Acts go.] But isn’t any belief system at some level like that? Doesn’t anything come down to, eventually, ‘Based on what I’ve seen, I choose to believe or not believe based on my own reasons (which may or may not make sense)’? [No this isn’t psychology training peeking through, it’s economics. We look at people’s actions, and based on the premise that they derive some sort of happiness from them, figure out their motives and what they value.]

    With Christianity in particular, aren’t the first sermons and the entire foundation of the faith based on the historical event of Jesus’ ressurrection? The reasoning goes something like this:
    Jesus: What I’m saying is true, and you will know it is true because I will die and rise again. This translates into the following syllogism:
    If I rise from the dead, then all of my preaching was and is true.
    I rise from the dead.
    Therefore, all of my preaching was and is true.

    One of the draws to outsiders was the demeanor and actions that Christians would take. They would want to know, ‘What makes these people act this way, and where can I get some?’ Here we’re getting into a mix of objective (Christians acting in such a manner) and subjective (observers being intrigued by this and wanting to know more).

    Further, not just Christianity, but all religions and philosophies that I am aware of claim to represent Truth, and so must have an objective core (i.e. ‘these events or axioms are true, therefore these other things are’). Now outside of that core, things can become subjective, but without an objective reason to think that something is true, all there is is personal preference.

    On the flip side, if you slide fully into subjectivity, all that you can assert is, “This is true to me, and I think it should be true to you as well.” You can’t call any position contrary to your’s false and be logically consistant (and if you aren’t logically consistant in your arguments, I don’t have a reason to listen). With an objective framework, though, you can assert, “This is true whether you believe it or not, but you should believe it becuase it is true.”

    At least that’s what we have now. So the rest of the theology and implications may or may not be propositional, but the validity of Christianity is.

    Boaz, who is wishing that he took more logic and philosphy courses in college

  6. smokey the dog says:

    The Pyroclastics of the Caribbean photo was hilarious!

  7. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    Re: Evil comes from the North. Funny this is in a post about end times.

    Ezekiel 38: 15 & 16
    “And thou shalt come from thy place out of the north parts, thou, and many people with thee, all of them riding upon horses, a great company, and a mighty army:
    And thou shalt come up against my people of Israel, as a cloud to cover the land; it shall be in the latter days, and I will bring thee against my land, that the heathen may know me, when I shall be sanctified in thee, O Gog, before their eyes.”

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