Yesterday, while I was waiting to go to my last root canal appointment, I idled away the time by reading Revelations, the last book of the New Testament, and hence the final words of the Bible. Although I was, of course, familiar with many parts of it, I had never actually read Revelations from start to finish in one sitting. Not surprisingly, it was a powerful experience. All the familiar images are there: The pale rider on a pale horse, the grapes of wrath, the Whore of Babylon, the seven seals, Armageddon, the New Jerusalem. What struck me most powerfully was the violence of the metaphors. I do not mean by this that the text is filled with images of violence, although that is of course true. I have in mind rather what a literary critic might have in mind, namely the comparing metaphorically of things that are very unlike. [One sees this sort of thing in Shakespeare all the time -- in the scene in which Lear wanders on the heath in a storm, the violence of the storm is represented not by the rattling of sheets of metal offstage, but by the increasing violence of the metaphors -- the likening of things very unlike.] Thus, the city of Rome, which when the Book of revelations was written was the center of the persecution of followers of Jesus, is figured as the Whore of Babylon who sits upon seven mountains and seduces her inhabitants with her lasciviousness and uncleanness. [In recent centuries, some Protestant interpreters have construed the Whore as the Roman Catholic Church, but that is pretty obviously wrong, for a variety of reasons.]
There are scores of millions of Americans who describe themselves as Fundamentalist Christians or Born Again Christians, and the text of Revelations, more than any other part of the Bible, is their principal source of inspiration. I really do not think one can think one's way into the mindset of these folks, and see the world as they see it, without steeping oneself in Revelations [and other biblical texts]. You have to try to imagine what it would be like not merely to read Revelations, but to read it and re-read it, to hear it quoted and referred to every Sunday, to search in its [pages for words and phrases with which to make sense of the quotidian world.
One of the things that occurred to me is that perhaps here we can find the source and rationale for the manifestly absurd things such people are prone to say about Obama. "Barack Obama is a Muslim" can be construed as a violent metaphor, akin to "Rome is a great whore." "Her streets are filled with all manner of filth" does not mean that the sanitation department of Rome is doing a bad job. Quite to the contrary, Rome was the civic wonder of the ancient world.
Central to the message of Revelations are two ideas: That God will elevate his chosen few [one hundred and forty four thousand, according to the text] and cast all others into a fiery pit for all eternity; and that The time of this final judgment is nigh. Now, try really hard to imagine how the world will look to someone who takes this message with deadly seriousness [I am assuming that there are few if any Born Again Christians among my faithful readers.] The sophistication and worldly learning of the secular rulers of this nation will look like so much filth and whoring, and the simple faith of the true believers, however naive and unlearned they are, will be recognized as a mark of election and salvation.
The next time all of us snicker at Christine O'Donnell's ignorance, it might help to keep all of this in mind.