The Post Traumatic Stress Bible
Fr. Tony’s Letter to the Trinitarians
We now enter into Advent, the liturgical time that Fleming Rutledge has called, “the Apocalyptic Season,” one in whose readings hope for a new world eclipses our despair and trauma at the current one, where there is a great conflict between the forces of light and darkness, and where the story arc inexorably goes through trial and horror into joy and peace.
In times of peace and prosperity, we tend to avert our eyes from what is amiss in the world and in ourselves. In times like the current era—with pandemic plague, economic uncertainty, and failed community in our political and social life—it is easier to hear what apocalyptic literature is saying. The Book of Revelation is a good example of Apocalyptic literature, a style of writing in Judaism (and, later, Christianity) common in the Maccabean and Roman periods. The Greek word apokalypsis means “an uncovering” or a “revealing.” What is uncovered is God’s purposes and the final direction for things, not some preview of coming events à la “Left Behind” or “Late, Great, Planet Earth.” As the Revelation says itself, it is about things that will “come to pass soon” (Rev 1:1). That doesn't mean soon to us, but soon to the writer. Apocalyptic literature is persecution literature. It reflects the trauma and stress of being hounded, tortured, and, yes, killed, for your faith. It seeks to understand present persecution of the righteous and encourage resistance to the persecutors. It takes the rich, symbolic imagery of late prophetic literature (like Ezekiel) and develops it into a code to communicate with its readers. The authors of Apocalyptic write to encourage their readers to not lose faith, and to keep resisting the oppressors who persecute the faithful, whether the persecutors were Romans under the Emperor Domitian—as in Revelation—or the Greek Syrians under Antiochus Epiphanes—as in Daniel. They place it all in rich images and code so that the readers can get the message without the censors and secret police of the oppressing power catching on and then torturing and executing the author and readers. It is thus very much about “current events” as seen by the author. It looks to the future and uses rich symbolic language to argue that no matter how bad things get, in the end God and the righteous will triumph and all the suffering will be vindicated. It is only about the future in the sense of its talking about the ultimate ends of God and the final triumph of Good. It is NOT a key-word coded guidebook to previews of coming events in the distant future. It is important to remember when reading the rich, extreme, and sometimes almost paranoid images of Apocalyptic, that this is first and foremost a literature of trauma. Its authors suffer from post-traumatic stress.
The 666 symbol, for instance, is almost certainly code for Nero and a belief that Domitian was Nero come alive again (“Nero Caesar” in Aramaic at that time has the numerical value 666-- Aramaic and Hebrew, like Latin, gave numerical values to letters of the alphabet.) Because the imagery of this book is so rich and loaded with emotion, over the centuries people have applied its various images to people and events in their age, always with the idea that God’s ultimate triumph would happen soon. Many people today do the same thing, and thus believe these books predict in order specific events of our day. I suspect that they will be shown to be as wrong in their specific prediction of coming events based on this analysis as the people over the ages who have made the same arguments in centuries past. But that doesn’t mean these books aren’t valuable. Whatever the specifics of the final consummation of history that still awaits us, we must remember that these books are about hope and perseverance, and the ultimate triumph of God. In times of trauma like our own, Apocalyptic speaks to us all the more: it tells us do not give up hope. Hang in there. Keep on keeping on. In the end, all will be well.
Grace and peace.