When Elaine Pagels writes, I listen.
She writes very well, with brevity and grace and to good ends. Her efforts over the years to unwind the myths around there being a whole corpus of beliefs that constitute the "faith once delivered" have been fruitful indeed. At the core there may indeed be faith delivered to the saints that is clear and compelling, but it is not a clarity that is dogmatic or propositional, but personal and intentional. So her work to show that the "other writings" beyond those in the New Testament canon point us to the wide range of understandings that grew out of the primary experience of the One who in increasingly articulated ways called us into community with Him.
I've been, let us say, a bit preoccupied in the past several months, but have taken time to savor page by page her new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. I was excited to hear that she had written this for several reasons: (a) The Revelation to John the Divine is a favorite, not because I understand it all, but because when I read it, it understands itself...it is among the most powerful of poems, the rantiest of rants, the dream of dreams. I have read it at one fell swoop and it washes over me like a tidal flood; (b) Damn near every crazy preacher in the world is made crazy by this text, and both the preacher and the text cannot be controlled. The visionary aspect of the BoR is just too strong to be kept in the pocket of this or that doctrinal system. It is in such preaching, however, that we get the best and the worst of vision. The BoR is a ticket to ride; (c) Even when I was in Seminary (now a looooong time ago) everyone knew that the BoR was in the New Testament canon under suspicion. Having at one time or another been under suspicion myself I felt a kinship to the writer and always hoped to have a more detailed explanation of just how the BoR got in the NT canon.
Now this is very different from the standard line, that the BoR is mostly about the triumph of the Church over the oppressive power of Rome and any other empire. The BoR viewed from that perspective is immensely valuable to anyone confronting the powers and principalities of the word - both in church and state. What goes for Rome goes for Washington and Moscow and Damascus and what all.
Pagels doesn't contend that the writer of the BoR might not have had that precisely in mind, but rather that those who included it in the canon of the sacred writings of the New Witness or Testament had something else in mind, namely heretics - those bent away from the orthodox truth.
All of which is of some value in these fallen days in Anglican land, where the pure-and-undefiled crowd is pretty sure that The Episcopal Church is selling itself for sex and culture. Rest assured they will use the BoR against the nasty ol' Episcopal Church.
What goes round comes round. If we include the BoR to weed out heresy, at least in visionary terms, then it might one day be used against us.
Pagels is a good read. It opens up many questions and answers some. I recommend it.
At the same time I must say I am glad that the BoR is in the canon and that its thundering visions sometimes make it into the lectionary and into the music of the church. I take heart in one or another comment in it. In particular I like this one:
22:10-11 Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.
- Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong;
- let the vile person continue to be vile;
- let the one who does right continue to do right;
- and let the holy person continue to be holy.”
Now who indeed makes any sense of this? As a moral guide, it is a mess, for it seems to suggest that we don't have to do anything at all to correct or perfect human behavior, we just live out our "path." And, as to the day coming soon when the judgment by God will settle up accounts, well, even allowing for a day being as a thousand years, many of us get a bit impatient with the notion that justice is coming soon...just not yet.
But just as Pagels is a good read, but not as good as the Book of Revelation itself, so reasoned reflection on bits of the text suffer by comparison to the actual words. The words sing, they sing in our hearts and it rattles our cages and maybe gives us early warning of even greater and perhaps more terrible visions to come.
If I didn't love the BoR, Pagels wouldn't help me love it. But loving it, Pagels helps me know it better.
I suppose the same could be said in Anglican land about many things. We are, in our better moments, guided by a great sense of love and poetic sensibility. If we do not have that love, nothing can get us there. If we do have it we can have many teachers, some who are supporters and others critics, and they can help us know that love better.