Saturday, January 17, 2009

Healing Leaves and the Year of the Rat

This past week I have been hopping in the car of some good friends and making the trip from Fairfax to neighboring Alexandria, to take a class about the Book of Revelation at Virginia Theological Seminary. Jane Patterson and John Lewis, really excellent teachers, proceeded to unpack the text not as a "road map" of the end times (an approach that can yield eery results, such as the video that was circulated this past summer portraying Obama as the Antichrist) but as an encouragement to the churches not conform to the surrounding culture of oppression and violence but maintain their witness to the God of healing and justice that was first witnessed by Jesus.

(Interestingly, the Greek word for witness is martyrion, such that it took a while for some people in the class to grasp that 1) to be a martyr in the present does not necessarily mean that one should get oneself killed, but that one bears witness both in actions and words, and 2) that the 2nd century saying that the church was built on the blood of the martyrs implies something important about Christian faith.)

While Days 1 through 4 were great explorations of the text and effectively made me less frightened of the text's wacked out complex imagery, Day 5 was my favorite as far as the material covered. It's the happy ending, with God reigning over a new heaven and a new earth, and all who want can drink from the water of life. There's a lot of good stuff in there (like Chapter 21 verses 1-6, which brings tears to my eyes when read aloud)
, and one particular passage made me think of the music video for the Badly Drawn Boy song "Year of the Rat." I thought I would share both here.

First, the passage, which is Revelation 22:1-3b:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And nothing accursed will exist there any longer.
The scene opens up in the middle of John of Patmos (the name given to the narrator) describing the New Jerusalem, the meshing of God's realm and the human realm. The picture that John paints with his words about the brilliance, joy, and abundant life of the city is a counter-image to the oppressive, exploitative, and nihilistic Babylon (i.e. Rome and any other such system). The words that brought the music video to mine were the last few phrases about the healing of the nations and the absence of anything accursed. The Book of Revelation is a condemnation of the forces of empire and exploitation that have taken over the world, but it is also contains traces of lament for those who are caught up in those systems and those who are crushed by them. Like many religious texts, Revelation contains contradictory images that reveal both the complexity of reality and an ancient unconcern for systematic theology. While in other places John doesn't show "the nations" much concern as Babylon is destroyed, in this passage and the one immediately preceding it he describes a universal gathering of worship in the new city, one which can be healed from the abuses of empire and evil by the leaves of the tree of life.

"Year of the Rat" was passed along to me by my friend Big Sam Thompson, who will forget more about indie music and bands than I will ever know. I'll let the video speak for itself, and one will probably be able to tell why the leaves of healing brought it to mind.

This video brings up so much for me, but most of all: This is what I want to be when I grow up. It's part of the central message of Revelation, what it means to be witnesses to God and Jesus, the frightening element as well as the promise of healing. If I mentally substitute "God" for "the rat," the chorus echoes the encouragement that John gave to the churches: "Everybody needs to know it's the year of the rat. Every day we need to hold on, 'cause if we hold on we can find some new energy." Hold on, folks, because now is the time for the transformation of the world.

1 comment:

  1. I was born in the year of the rat.

    I've always thought it was interesting that BDB seems to have this common theme of helping people in his videos. You were half way zombie-fied when we watched the videos but he comforts the depressed woman in Spitting In the Wind, gives the teenagers a ride to the ER in Once Around the Block, and gives people "taxi" rides in Disillusion. If you've never seen the movie, About A Boy you should; he did the music for that and it's full of warm fuzzies and carries the message that people need each other. There's a delightfully awkward moment in the movie that I think you would particularly appreciate.

    Also: you need to read The Power Of One. There are a lot of really powerful messages in it particularly about racism. I need someone to discuss it with now that I've finished!