Be careful what you ask for.
After a recent Bible Cabaret I'd performed in Los Angeles (an evening of monologues exploring the comedy of the Bible, much like what I'm doing in this blog), I casually asked a group of attendees who are very theologically progressive and, hence, quite reticent to embrace much of the biblical text, to give me a suggestion of some piece of scripture they'd like to see explored as comedy. I'm always especially interested in what the "skeptically faithful" are thinking.
Without missing a beat one woman said, "Do the Book of Revelation."
Yikes! Clearly she was throwing down the gauntlet.
The Bible's final book is filled with endless war, violence, world-ending destruction, and intentionally off-putting weirdness. It's the bizarre "grand climax" of scripture that even Martin Luther, Mr. Embrace-the-Bible-Above-All-Else, found of questionable value for much of his career.
Could there be anything fun or funny in this scary, gloomy book? Even as I continue to assert that the Bible as a whole is a comic document, how can that possibly include the Apocalypse of John?
As always, I suggest we start by looking at what our pal Aristotle, in his book The Poetics says about what constitutes "comedy" (as opposed to “tragedy”) and then see how it applies to the biblical text at hand. You can view the whole Poetics list in my earlier post, Grinding Aristotle.
Let's start with Characteristic #1: Comedy is peopled by characters of comparatively “low” status. Comic characters are “low” in the eyes of society (ie, they’re poor; they have lowly occupations; they’re not firstborn; they’re not men) or they’re morally “low” (ie they’re fools, buffoons, scallywags, criminals…men…no just kidding! My lowly feminine status is bringing out my snarky).
When we look at the Book of Revelation we will certainly note it is peopled by a hundred gadjillion WEIRD characters, that's for sure! Starting with the Son of Man looking more like Jason Robards' portrayal of Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard than the Brad Pitt-cute guy in the Son of Man to God looking like jasper and carnelian to creatures both good and evil with any number of eyes, wings, claws, stingers or faces to a dragon, a beast, a vice-beast and a fully-secreting Whore of Babylon on a scarlet beast to name a few. You could argue that all of these characters are "low" because they are not normal, intended to shock us more than anything else - a "low" purpose for any character to have.
What I find especially fascinating is that Revelation's central character, the one deemed worthy in Chapter 5 to open the scroll and get the mighty apocalypse rolling, is most curiously described: it's“the Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (first mentioned at 5:6).
On the one hand this description makes no sense. If a lamb has been slaughtered, or even looks like it’s been slaughtered, how can it still be standing? On the other hand, perhaps it’s as NT Professor William Herzog once suggested: what we see here (and Herzog says the wording in the original Greek supports this) is the split-second moment just before the slaughtered lamb collapses. We’re witnessing the creature at its absolutely most vulnerable and powerless. At it's craziest lowest. That seems to be the thing that qualifies the lamb for the job of unleashing the most indomitable and impervious of activities. There's "upside down" spiritual truth here, as well as humor.
It all reminds me of this section of the Looney Toon called “Crockett-Doodle-Do” where teeny tiny Egghead Jr. effortlessly inaugurates the complete undoing of the bombastic bully Foghorn Leghorn.
What makes things additionally interesting, ironic, and potentially funny (and this is suggested by Dr. Craig Koester in his book, Revelation and the End of All Things), is the way this most-pathetic of lambs is announced at verse 5:5, the verse just before we get to actually see him: “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that we can open the scroll and its seven seals”
A “lion” is certainly the kind of creature we’d expect to be worthy and able to open the scroll. John of Patmos tricks, surprises, maybe even amuses us. He reminds us that Jesus (who it’s clear is the uber-meek lamb being alluded to as well as the lion we anticipate) was always about the absolute power and victory that comes from being low, choosing gentleness and relinquishment of everything except God. John is teasing us, letting us laugh at our off-base assumptions that we need to see and be lions. He then returns our gaze to the hapless helpless lamb who is the real conduit to the creation of a whole new world.
One starts to wonder, as we consider all the violence that comes from the poor lamb's scroll-opening -- it is so much we might even say it's over-the-top ridiculous violence (another comedy characteristic and subject for another blog) -- might we have in Revelation is a satire about apocalypses, world-ending war, and our tendency, for any number of reasons, to get on the wrong, militaristic bandwagon?
As we move into another anniversary of 9-11 and the inauguration of a new war against terrible ISIS, it's interesting, challenging, comforting and maybe even rather ironically droll to read the Book of Revelation. As we encounter that lowly lamb over and over again, we can ask ourselves with a knowing, maybe uncomfortable smile, What, today, would Jesus do?
Be careful what you ask for.