Pagels Describes the Power of Revelation in Art and Politics

Mar 4, 2014

by Cary McMullen | Publications editor
The biblical book of Revelation has been something of a Rorschach test through the centuries when it comes to depictions of good and evil, according to Prof. Elaine Pagels.

“You don’t have to take this book literally to take it seriously. It’s about the conflict between the forces of good and evil. You can read your own conflicts into it,” she said.

Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, gave the Warren W. Willis Lecture in Religion on Feb. 27. Her lecture, “Art, Music, and Politics in the Book of Revelation,” was delivered to an overflow audience in the Hollis Room. Pagels is the well-known author of accessible and thought-provoking studies of early Christianity, including The Gnostic Gospels, an analysis of texts discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egpyt.

In her lively lecture, Pagels began by noting that “rational people” tend not to like Revelation because of its disturbing and fantastic imagery.

“I avoided it till I realized its effect on our politics,” she said.

Pagels characterized Revelation as “wartime literature” because it was written in the wake of a first-century Judean rebellion against the Roman Empire which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

“The whole message of what John writes is that Jesus is coming soon and Rome will be destroyed. He drew on his own people’s cultural resources – mostly the prophets – that saw the forces of evil embodied in the faces and the armies of the people who destroyed them. John updates this to say, ‘Today the monster is Rome,’” she said.

Pagels contrasted Revelation with some of the non-canonical writings of the same period, noting that many of the revelatory texts from Nag Hammadi are not about the end of time but are more personal and suggest an inner revelation rather than an apocalyptic one.

“John’s book is about the saved and the damned. The others are about universal light. They were banned, perhaps because they say we can have access to God in a deep, personal way,” she said.

Pagels drew on personal example to talk about the power of Revelation on the imagination of believers. As a young person, she said, she heard Billy Graham preach about the end times described in the book and joined an evangelical church.

Pagels used examples throughout the evening of works of art that were inspired by Revelation, including a 15th-century illustration that portrayed the bubonic plague ravaging Europe as the “first horseman of the apocalypse”; illustrations from the Civil War and World War II that portrayed Lincoln, Nazis, and others as evil figures using imagery from Revelation; and “Quartet for the End of Time,” written by Olivier Messiaen in a German prison camp in 1940.

Because Revelation portrays a stark division of the world into good and evil, it can be used politically to reinforce those divisions, she said. Pagels referred to the efforts of the American ambassador in Bosnia in the 1990s to stop the war there.

“He went to leaders of the Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Muslims and said, ‘Help me stop the killing.’ They all said, ‘You don’t understand. Those people are devils.’ You can’t negotiate with devils. You can only annihilate them,” she said.