Elaine Pagels Discusses the Book of Revelation at the Annual James Baldwin Lecture
The Center for African American Studies’ James Baldwin Lecture, named after the great cultural critic and essayist, celebrates the scholarship of one Princeton professor engaged in the topic of race or notions of difference.
This year’s 2013 lecture "Art, Music, and Politics in the Book of Revelation" featured renowned scholar and professor of religion, Elaine Pagels. The lecture was held on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. in McCormick Hall, Room 101 on Princeton University's campus.
Pagels, best known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels, spoke about the origins of the Book of Revelation, one of the most unusual and influential books in the New Testament. While the lecture was not directly about the topic of race, Pagels noted that her understanding of the book largely involved “the way we classify people and the way we interpret conflict.”
“I first encountered this Book of Revelation with some power when I was about fourteen years old,” said Pagels. “I joined an evangelical church, much to my parents’ horror, and I loved it.”
“I was deeply part of it for about a year,” she explained. “It was like falling in love when you’re fourteen. A year is a long time.”
But Pagels soon grew disillusioned with the Evangelical church after they claimed her Jewish friend would go to hell, and she left the movement. Yet Pagels was still fascinated by why the Book of Revelation remained something so emotionally powerful for her, the daughter of two scientists. Her recent research, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012) chronicles how this particular Revelation narrative became part of the Christian canon.
The Book of Revelation, written by a follower of Jesus named John, is unlike the gospels or other books. Revelation contains no stories or parables, but is full of wild visions and prophetic dreams.
Many of these visions from Revelation have become ubiquitous in modern popular culture: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Whore of Babylon, the beasts Leviathan and Behemoth, the Number 666, the end-times theories, and Judgement Day—all derived from this disputed book.
Pagels contextualized the Revelation, explaining why John might have written the way he did, and she revealed other non-canonical revelations that do not seem to suggest calamitous end-times prophecies.
“What John did was update the prophecies for his own time,” she explained. “This was war-time literature. These were the writings of someone who had seen the war between the Roman Empire and Judea.”
Pagels explained that the book’s fantastical visions were intended to be veiled political statements by the Jewish and early Christians who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, which is alluded to as Babylon and Egypt in the Revelation.
“He spoke about all those immediate situations in a very graphic, imaginative way,” said Pagels, “and it’s because these symbols are so wide open that people can plug into them almost any conflict.”
Indeed, the images and passages from Revelation have been applied to many situations and people throughout history—from the plague to Martin Luther to Napoleon. Particularly, Pagels notes how 19th century American abolitionists like John Brown read the fiery imagery as the slaves crying out for justice, and believed the Civil war was punishment for the sins of slavery.
Pagels also introduced apocryphal versions of different revelations, including the Secret Revelation of John, which said that everyone had access to the spirit of God and did not divide the human race between the saved and the damned.
Another apocryphal text, The Thunder, inspired Toni Morrison and other female artists for its poetic, feminine voice. Bishops of the church, according to Pagels, struck these texts for suggesting there were ways to experience god without the church.
But why does the Book of Revelation that made it into canon still resonate with so many people of faith today? One audience member noted that Revelation 21 is often read at funerals in African American churches, and Pagels agreed that African American spiritual community often preached of the coming of the kingdom.
“The book has a lot about fear, but it’s also about hope,” said Pagels. “Everything horrifying happens, but at the end it’s not destruction. At the end, suddenly a new world comes. So instead of ending in disaster, it ends in a glorious scene of hope.”
“I think it deeply appeals to all of us in situations of desolation, terror, or death,” she concluded. “At the end, there’s this enormous new vision of God’s light.”
All images by David Dooley/Fotobuddy