Thoughts on Richard J. Mouw’s Essay, “What the Millennialists Have Right”

I read “What the Millenialists Have Right
(Perspectives, December 2009) by Richard
J. Mouw this morning at breakfast.
It got me thinking, which is the reason I
read such things at breakfast. I appreciated
Mouw’s defense of millenialists. They do
have a point. There needs to be some kind
of incarnate view of Jesus’ kingdom in the
world, rather than just a symbolic portrayal,
as Mouw points out. But in another way
both the millenialists and Mouw misconstrue
Revelation simply by setting it solidly
in the future. Revelation, I think, is only
minimally concerned about the future. Its
main concern is the now and here.

I’m an Episcopalian, and not one of
those pure ones that have left to form a
“more perfect union,” but rather the other
kind, the ones whose liberality is heresy. If
anything, I’m aligned with those for whom
“with deeds of love and mercy, The heav’nly
kingdom comes,” as Mouw puts it. In other
words, I live among those who would prefer
that the Book of Revelation disappear into
the ether, because it is so awkward, embarrassing
and, I suspect, so damning.

However, unlike many liberal Episcopalians,
I take the Book of Revelation seriously,
very seriously. It is a horrifying
and comforting, a visceral and dreamlike
book. I have studied it long, but in
a way that most do not. I have studied it
through art: whether the 1,000-year-old,
almost abstract manuscript illustrations
of Spain with their brilliant reds and yellows;
the gracious, meticulous depictions
in the Cloisters Apocalypse of John looking
through a wooden door into heaven; or
the computer-generated pictures of Duncan
Long where the mark of the beast is
a bar-code. All see the Book of Revelation
as a serious, timely work. For these artists,
especially those of the modern times, the
book is real, very real, and quite patently
not a work of just “literary imagination.” It
is rather a work that is palpable. It exists
just next to reality, just outside the veil. It
is a mirror through which we see darkly, in
all the various meanings of that word.

Because Revelation has its own reality–next to ours–to view it in that millenialists’
literal sense does it an injustice.
To take the 1,000 year reign to mean a
real 1,000 years right here on earth is an
effort to rob it of its power, for it pushes
the reality of that reign into some distant
future of some time, some day. In a word,
it makes it seem like God procrastinates:
“I’ll get around to it.” And, if judgment and
hell and the end of the world are safely in
the future, we can argue all we want about
pre-, post-, and a-millennialism because it
doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect us right now
and right here.

But that is what the Book of Revelation
is all about, the now and here. It is
about the palpability of the coming of God,
as Richard J. Mouw rightly points out. And
he is right to point out that that is what the
millenialists have right. If Jesus doesn’t
have a physical, “we have to see it” reign,
is it at all meaningful? Or to push it a little
further theologically, if Jesus’ reign doesn’t
have a concrete reality, does the incarnation
mean anything? If Revelation is all
“symbolic” or “imaginative,” if what the
Book of Revelation describes is not real in
a visceral, physical sense, then, to paraphrase
Paul on the resurrection, Christianity
isn’t worth its salt. It is meaningless.

Why would a study of the Book of Revelation
through art lead to this conclusion?
After all, the incredible images of Revelation
make great art fodder: the picture of
heaven through the open door; the whore
of Babylon riding the beast; the great battle
of heaven versus hell. All of these fantastic
(in all the senses of that word) images are
just the right starting material for the artistic
imagination. At first, that was what I
thought too.

I started collecting pictures based on
the Book of Revelation as part of a Bible
course I have taught to ordinary adult
Christians. A while back, quite by accident,
I had discovered that if I could show a picture
of the text we were discussing, that it
somehow became more real. As one of my
students said when signing up for a second
round, “I got the pictures, now I need to go
back and get the words.” Art was an “in”
to the liberal religious mind. So, I collected
pictures. As part of my course on the New
Testament, which includes (to the groans
and moans of the liberal Episcopalians of
Massachusetts) the Book of Revelation, I
collected lots of pictures, courtesy of the
web. It is amazing how many museums,
universities, and libraries will give out free
high resolution pictures for study and just
plain delight (e.g.
desktop backgrounds).

As I collected
pictures for
Revelation, I ran
into a problem.
For most books
of the Bible, I organized
the pictures
by chapter
and verse. Matthew
2:11–the
kings arrive at
the manger, easy.
But with the book
of Revelation it
became a little
harder to do. Not
because it’s difficult
to match image
to verse (Revelation
17–whore
of Babylon riding
the beast), but
because the pictures that each artist did
were really a set, that is, a group of images
that needed to be viewed together. Sure, we
could look at sixteen different images of the
four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that
had a value in and of itself. But when illustrating
Revelation, very seldom did an
artist do just one unconnected picture from
one scene of Revelation as they would do
for the Gospels. Almost always they did a
series of pictures, not just one or even two
but almost always a series of five or twelve
or even more.

The importance of the series as such didn’t really hit me until I saw the illustrations
that Basil Wolverton had done.
Illustration by Basil Wolverton from The Wolverton Bible, courtesy Fantagraphics Books (fantagraphics.com). Copyright 2010 The Worldwide Church of God. All rights reserved.

Wolverton was a comic book artist from
the 1950s. His most famous comic book
series was Powerhouse Pepper. He also did
the iconic drawings of the fabulously ugly
girl, Lyena the Hyena, and much more art
for Mad magazine. If you saw his art, you’d
recognize it right off. At one point, though,
Wolverton “got religion,” and began a project
to illustrate the Bible, not in comic book
style as R. Crumb is doing, but just black
and white illustrations.1 He did the entire
Old Testament, but, on the advice of his
fundamentalist pastor, he demurred from
doing the New Testament because picturing
Jesus would be a violation of the second
commandment. He did however do a
short series, fourteen published pictures in
all, of Revelation. It was this series that let
me to see why artists always did Revelation
illustrations in series.

To explain, I’ll just take his pictures
of the four horseman from Revelation
6:

1 Then I saw the Lamb open one of
the seven seals, and I heard one of
the four living creatures call out,
as with a voice of thunder, “Come!”
2 I looked, and there was a white
horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown
was given to him, and he came out
conquering and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second seal,
I heard the second living creature
call out, “Come!” 4 And out came
another horse, bright red; its rider
was permitted to take peace from
the earth, so that people would
slaughter one another; and he was
given a great sword.
5 When he opened the third seal,
I heard the third living creature
call out, “Come!” I looked, and
there was a black horse! Its rider
held a pair of scales in his hand,
6 and I heard what seemed to be
a voice in the midst of the four living
creatures saying, “A quart of
wheat for a day’s pay, and three
quarts of barley for a day’s pay,
but do not damage the olive oil
and the wine!”
7 When he opened the fourth seal,
I heard the voice of the fourth living
creature call out, “Come!” 8 I
looked and there was a pale green
horse! Its rider’s name was Death,
and Hades followed with him; they
were given authority over a fourth
of the earth, to kill with sword,
famine, and pestilence, and by the
wild animals of the earth (6:1-8,
NRSV).

For Wolverton, the conquering white
horse is a fleet of bombers flying over a field
of wreckage and dead bodies. The destroying
red horse is a mushroom cloud emerging
behind falling buildings and panicking
men and women. The black horse of famine
is not pictured, only its effects: starving and
violent men, an emaciated mother holding
her dead baby. He doesn’t illustrate Death,
the pale green horse, specifically, as the
rest of the series, showing the great earthquake (6:12-14) with falling skyscrapers,
the hail (16:2) knocking down power lines,
and the mass burial by bulldozer of those
killed by plague (9:18), make the effects of
this last horseman all too clear. This is an
apocalypse set solidly in modern times.

Compare this to Albrecht Dürer’s series
of seventeen woodcuts2 on Revelation. Dürer
devotes only one woodcut to the four horseman.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Durer, courtesy
of the Connecticut Collegeprint collection.
He pictures them together as real men
on real horses trampling women and men
who fall in front of them. Each rider carries,
or rather brandishes, an object. The white
horseman has a crown and a bow with an
arrow, fully cocked. The man on the red
horse holds high the sword which will take
away peace. The rider of the black horse
swings scales almost as a weapon. The pale
green horse has an emaciated rider with
empty eyes, carrying a pitchfork as if it were
a scythe. These four horseman are a world
and time away from Wolverton’s, as are all
the other woodcuts Dürer did for Revelation.
To mix together Wolverton’s with Dürer’s is
a confusion, besides missing the point.

Each artist sets the events of Revelation
in his own time with its own deadly weapons,
its own modes of transport and nature
of dying. For each, the events of Revelation
are happening then and there, now and
here. Each series is a vision unto its own of
what the Revelation is. Each is, in essence,
a separate Revelation, a dark mirror of its
own time and place, reflecting its own destruction.

And that is the point. Revelation can
be about the end. But both Wolverton and
Dürer portrayed the end as part of his
own era in his era’s own specific sinful ways:
bombs and bombers for Wolverton, swords
and horses for Dürer. Both artists viewed
Revelation as in their own time and place,
their own now and here. Certainly Revelation
is about the end, but it is also about our end,
too. By showing the horsemen as bombs and
jets, Wolverton brings the end to us, as Dürer
brought the end to his age. By using “literary
imagination” these artists make Revelation
more than symbolic, and more immediate
than some vague future millennial reign.
They bring it to us, to our now and here,
which is actually what Revelation is about.
The now and here that we live in.

As modern Christians, we have lost a
great part of the Bible to historicity, literary
criticism of all kinds and interpretations of all
types. It has become an object to be observed
and analyzed as much as any bug or star.
We forget its immediacy and its portents. We
forget that the eternity it describes is our eternity,
right now, right here. Many would like
to banish Revelation to the land of “literary
imagination” or some future millennium,
but Revelation is about us. It is about our
wars and famines and evilness; it is also
about our hope and faith and salvation. It
is the incarnation of our times and places
as seen within God’s eternity. It is not an
incarnation as a timeline for our destruction.
It is the incarnation of how we stand,
now and forever, before Christ, “the Alpha
and the Omega, the first and the last, the
beginning and the end” (21:13 NRSV). As
much as words can incarnate something,
Revelation makes real in an almost visceral
way what our relation with God is: our
world is at Christ’s behest. We do not control
it; He does. In the end, Christ will bring
his angels and seals and bowls of wrath to
evil, and finally create a new heaven and a
new earth. But because that End has been
ordained by Christ and thus already is,
and always has been, artists can take the
images shown in Revelation and show us
ourselves, in our own time and in our own
place, what that end will be, and is. Richard
Mouw’s article on Revelation is a refreshing
breeze in the usual literature that treats the
last book of the Bible. Revelation is not just
a fantasy nor merely a prediction. Revelation
is real and true, so real and true that
“if anyone takes away from the words of the
book of this prophecy, God will take away
that person’s share in the tree of life and
in the holy city, which are described in this
book” (22:19 NRSV).

ENDNOTES


1 Wolverton’s Bible illustrations have recently
been collected in one book by his son, Monty
Wolverton, in The Wolverton Bible, the Old
Testament and Book of Revelation through the
Pen of Basil Wolverton
. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics
Books, 2009. The first volume of
R. Crumb’s project is The Book of Genesis Illustrated
by R. Crumb
. W W Norton & Co Inc,
2009.



2 The entire series of Dürer’s Revelation woodcuts
is available at Connecticut College’s site,
www.conncoll.edu/visual/Durer-prints/index.html, 12/17/09. These are all hi-resolution
images.




Christine Visminas is an
Episcopal priest in Framingham,
Massachusetts, where
she teaches Adult Christian
Education classes at local
parishes.