Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Problem of Violence against the Other in Twentieth-Century Apocalyptic Fiction

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Problem of Violence against the Other in Twentieth-Century Apocalyptic Fiction

Article excerpt

Major twentieth-century fiction writers employ the traditional pattern of a final "holy war" against the other from the book of Revelation but at the same time problematize the use of violence for religious purposes. The central role of the holy war in the final book of the Bible has caused problems for numerous literary and biblical critics since the early centuries. In 1931, D. H. Lawrence (87-88) found the violence in the book of Revelation to be nothing but an expression of the resentment of the weak against the strong, an interpretation promulgated more recently by Harold Bloom: "Lurid and inhumane, [Revelation's] influence has been pernicious yet inescapable ... Resentment and not love is the teaching of the Revelation" (4-5). Various apocalyptic sects in the United States have used the book of Revelation as a sign of divine approval for their violent actions, as we saw in the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, or the Heavens Gate tragedy in California. This article will examine the book of Revelations own use of the holy war symbolism and the efforts of critics to avoid a literal interpretation that might justify violent action against the other. Then it will show how several twentieth-century novelists--Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, Walter Miller, Jr, Walker Percy, and Russell Hoban--have retrieved the holy war from this book in ways that raise questions about the use of such violence.

Most biblical critics acknowledge that Revelation uses holy war imagery to portray the conflict within late first-century Christian communities in Asia Minor between Christianity and the imperial cult of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, with its demands for worship of the emperor and its support of unjust military and economic policies, was personified as the beast, the whore of Babylon, and other irrational symbols in a war against the people of God. In this holy war, God and his general, the Lamb, lead angelic and natural forces in several battles that eventually destroy the dragon and its followers and finally cast them into eternal punishment (Chapter 12-20). Although critics such as Bloom read these battles as literal justifications for the use of violence, no early Christians seemed to have interpreted them in such a literal fashion. Rather, they read the book as a call for patient resistance to the pressures from the Roman Empire against their faith, even to the point of martyrdom, and as a call for fidelity and hope for a final resurrection. Among the patristic critics, some did interpret many of the details of the apocalyptic last judgment in literal terms, but Origen and others began a long tradition of symbolic interpretation by transferring the battles and judgment to an interior spiritual process. Augustine, of course, also rejected a literal interpretation of the millennium and cosmic battle, preferring to read these passages not as particular historical events but as the perennial conflict between the City of God and the City of Man. Thomas Aquinas expanded on Origen's symbolic interpretation of many of the concrete details of the final battle.

More recently, twentieth-century historical-critical exegetes have debated among themselves about how to interpret the symbols of the holy war of Revelation. Some critics, such as Collins, Pippin and Desjardins, find that the mythic pattern of combat in the book provides an "awesomely violent context" (Des)ardins 84) for the final battle that leads to dualistic interpretations. This violent interpretation is bolstered by Revelations many allusions to the holy wars in the Hebrew scriptures, which even critics like Walter Bruggeman have difficulty interpreting as just wars directly sponsored by Yahweh. Thus, as one recent critic admitted, "There is no easy way to harmonize the various teachings of the Bible on violence. For Christians, the teaching, witness, and example of Jesus himself are central in assessing other perspectives" (Lefebure 82). …

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