A noted religious studies scholar will discuss the bridges between the intellectual and popular interpretations of the book of Revelation during the 16th annual Lincoln Lecture, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, in Northern Illinois University’s Altgeld Auditorium. The presentation is free and open to the public.
Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness professor of religion and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He serves as editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts and has published 12 books, most recently “Revelation: A Biography,” supported by a Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Other books include “The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), “Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know” (HarperOne, 2009), “Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2008), “Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith” (Beacon, 2005) and “Religion and Its Monsters” (Routledge, 2001). In addition to scholarly articles, Beal has written popular essays on religion, Bible, media and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Christian Century and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Beal has developed a passion for natural language processing and machine learning as they related to the academic humanities. He is collaborating with scholars at Iliff School of Theology, the University of Denver, and his own university on projects involving unsupervised machine learning and text generation (“bots”), neural machine translation (NMT) and Markov chain processes.
The W. Bruce Lincoln Endowed Lecture Series brings to campus distinguished scholars who address topics of interest to both the academic community and the general public. The lectures engage key issues and are often interdisciplinary, in the spirit of Professor Lincoln’s research, writing and teaching.
Q&A with author Timothy Beal, Ph.D.
1) How did you become interested in the book of Revelation? What specifically sparked your curiosity?
Growing up in Alaska in the late 70s and 80s, I was steeped in a conservative evangelical community that had Revelation on heavy rotation. There was a whole Christian apocalyptic industry built around interpretations of its weird, fantastical visions, from bestselling books like “The Late, Great Planet Earth” to rapture rock songs like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” to church basement blockbuster movies like “A Thief in the Night” (which we’ll explore in my lecture).
Like many, I was both fascinated with and terrified by Revelation. Mostly terrified, I’d say. And yet, many years later, when my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a “biography” of the lives and times of Revelation, I was surprised to find that I actually wanted to do it! And so began a new, very different relationship with Revelation.
2) How have the images and interpretations of the controversial book in the Bible changed over the years?
Revelation seems to be especially good at taking on new lives in new cultural contexts. Which is why my “biography” of Revelation is not about its life per se but its many lives. I explore the legion of often wildly contradictory lives of this strangely familiar, sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring collection of biblical visions. It is the story of how Revelation keeps becoming something new, reinventing itself, taking on new forms of life in the hearts and minds and imaginations of those who become its hosts.
It is a life in and of fragments, bits and pieces, traces of traces of traces, often almost entirely detached from their “original” contexts, that keep mutating and replicating, congealing and dissolving into new cultural gene pools. I think Revelation is not so much a literary text, let alone a book, as it is a multimedia constellation of images, stories, and story-shaped images expanding and contracting, parts of it attaching to and detaching from other cultural artifacts within different media ecologies throughout history, becoming parts of different cultural works in often surprising ways.
3) What do people get wrong about the book of Revelation? Is it due to personal bias or someone manipulating the images and message?
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how one could get Revelation right. I’ve spent a few years with it as a biblical scholar, and I’m still largely bewildered by it. Does it have a message? I’m not sure. In my book, I argue that what has allowed it to inspire so many wildly different interpretations and applications over the centuries is what I call its “generative incomprehensibility.” It doesn’t make sense on its own, and as such, invites others to make their own senses with and from it. This has led many, for example, to read its symbolism (most of which is lost to us) as an encrypted message that speaks to “our” current historical situation — whether that is the end of the first millennium, or the Cold War, or the Iraq War, or the Obama presidency, or the Trump presidency. And so on.
4) The book of Revelation is polarizing. Why do you think that is?
The book of Revelation is what I call an “othering machine.” It presents a world that is radically polarized between the forces of absolute diabolical evil and the forces of absolute divine good. And it invites us to see our own world in similar ways — with “us,” of course, on the side of absolute good and our opponents on the side of absolute evil. Revelation does not provide much room for ambiguity, for seeing the “other” in “us” or “us” in the “other.”
In the early centuries of Christianity, Revelation’s status as scripture was often questioned. Some considered it completely senseless, a work of total ignorance. Over a century later, in his German translation of the Bible, the great reformer Martin Luther openly wished Revelation weren’t in the Bible at all. “There are many far better books to keep,” he wrote, and suggested readers spend their time on other biblical books.
But there it is, the last book in the Christian Bible. And I have zero doubt that it will continue to have dangerously polarizing effects, inspiring many to project their opponents (religious, political, social) as diabolically “other” in ways that justify violence against them.
5) What do you hope people take away from your book?
That it’s complicated. That there is no right way to understand Revelation. That it does not provide any kind of divine blueprint or map for understanding our lives or our world. Proceed with caution!
A more in-depth interview with the author is available from the Case Western Reserve University website.