TIMEOUT: The Songs and the Silence

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March 28, 2019

The other day I asked my wife, “If we were to set the last two chapters of Revelation to music, which composition would it be?” “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” she answered. She had in mind the Fourth Movement, the part where a choir joins in, the long final movement that has words.

I asked for a reason. When we get to the end of Revelation, there should be music. There should be loud exclamations, too, with audience participation and interaction. Heaven shouts to earth in this book, and earth shouts back to heaven. The connection is in jeopardy in our time. Revelation’s ending enacted in communities can help bring it back. 

My wife grew up with classical music. I did not — not at all. My childhood was culturally austere and likely more typical for families in my faith community than my wife’s. I have a hunch that she might belong to the privileged One Percent in this regard and I to the deprived Ninety-nine Percent. We sang in our home, and our mother had a beautiful voice, but our repertoire was limited. Things changed in college, at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon. I was required to take a course called Music Appreciation. My teacher assigned some classical pieces for us to listen to. I listened, and I liked it. But my conversion was partial.

For my last year of college, I was at Andrews University in Michigan. When Van Cliburn came to campus for a concert, I wrote a critical piece in The Student Movement. I thought the music was elitist, a secular intrusion into our all-religious world. And yet my defenses were weakening. On a speaking engagement to Moscow some years ago, it was a high point when my hosts took me to a classical concert in the Tchaikovsky Hall in the city center. Imagine! The boy who grew up with manure on his hands sitting in the Tchaikovsky Hall!

Herbert Blomstedt, one of the greatest conductors of our time and a Seventh-day Adventist, generously invited us to his 90th birthday celebration in Sweden two years ago. I gave a short “theological” speech, saying that most of us will need to be re-trained in the life to come. Who needs physicians in the hereafter? Who will need theologians when Scripture predicts that theologians will be obsolete (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12)? Musicians and conductors will not need to be retrained. I said in my short talk that I hope to be there — that I would like to learn an instrument well enough to play in an orchestra conducted by Maestro Blomstedt.

I say this because the music and the poetics of Revelation are missing in my tradition. The book is taught, not performed. In fact, it is preferably taught at a Revelation Seminar, a format quite unfriendly to the poetry, music, participation, and exclamations that characterize this book. Polychrome bleaches into monochrome and polyphone fades into monotone in the seminar format. A man (usually) lectures and explains in hard-nosed prose from a text written in musical scores and exquisite poetry. The book is made to serve a doctrinal errand, not to fill an existential need. This approach requires experts in order to decipher and decode the symbols, pressing them for predictions, dates, villains, and events. Someone said uncharitably that the apologist Origen in the third century “plods through the Bible, blind to its merits, deaf to its music, like a scientist trying to distil chemical formulae from Shakespeare.” This could well be the verdict on our approach to Revelation. While this book entices the sensationalist, it intimidates and alienates the person in need. Those who have pressing existential needs, must look elsewhere.

In the New Testament, Revelation is the most poetic and musical book by orders of magnitude. Again and again, music breaks in to finesse the thought and facilitate comprehension (Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:9-13; 7:10-12; 11:15-18; 15:2-4; 16:5-7; 19:1-8). The book is interactive and participatory for the characters inside the story. But it is also composed to elicit participation by those who sit outside the text. This is implicit as we move through the book, in the form of roles models and embodiment. At the end, participation becomes explicit, heaven and earth talking to each other in real time. Readers in the twenty-first century get to talk back to heaven as though we are all inside the text, and they get to be heaven’s voice on earth (22:17-20).   

My wife’s choice of Beethoven’s Ninth has a point. It is not weakened by the fact that the symphony was performed at the Family Camp at Auschwitz. Otto Dov Kulka, a Jewish historian, was ten years old when he was an inmate in the Family Camp. He let many decades go by before he shared his memory in one of the most searing Holocaust reminiscences in print, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (2014). Somehow, in that illusory island of normalcy, the inmates went to school, played instruments, and performed plays. They did Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, too, right next to the gas chambers and the smoke from the crematoria. The association does not destroy the Ninth Symphony if we say that Revelation and its music tolerate the worst atrocities known in history; it does not buckle when the sense of being abandoned is most acute; it works for the most devastating existential need.

Serena’s choice does not amount to a veto against other options that could restore Revelation’s musical tenor. My range is limited, but perhaps Bach’s concerto for four pianos could make the short list. Or Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no.2. Or Franz Liszt’s “Ständchen.” I will even include Chopin’s “Funeral March.” The Funeral March, ostensibly composed when Chopin’s sister died, does not work for the last two chapters of Revelation, but it works for the first ten verses in chapter 20. Think about it this way: most interpreters believe that Isaiah’s poem about the fall of the Shining One is a parody of a grief poem (Isaiah 14:12-20). Likewise, they believe that Ezekiel’s poem of the Covering Cherub is satire (Ezekiel 28:12-19). The poems feign grief; they do not express genuine sorrow. When we read these exquisite poems, we are expected to adopt a tone of voice that drips with disdain and irony.

I believe this to be incorrect. The poems give us a window to God’s grief. The tendency to treat Satan as the “Man in Black” overlooks that it was not always that way. He was the Shining One, the Morning Star, and a very good person (Isaiah 14:12). He was the Covering Cherub, the standard by which perfection is measured (Ezekiel 28:12-15). Might not grief be appropriate over this being’s fall and demise? Was it not hard for God to see him go? Was it not devastating that this person devoted his exceptional gifts to the task of misrepresenting God — that he became “a liar and the father of the lie” (John 8:44)? If we grant any of this, we can play Chopin’s Funeral March for the self-destruction of the Shining One in Revelation 20.

I have digressed — we must return to the last two chapters of Revelation. What would you (who read this) recommend as the best music for the ending of the last book in the Bible? Please share it with fellow Spectrum readers — then think of a way to implement it in your community. You should not feel limited to classical music. Hymns and other kinds of music are legitimate, too. (We once attended a Mikis Theodorakis concert in Oslo. It was so rousing that I hoped it would never end. That feeling will be the right one for the musical score in Revelation.)

Thought and Beauty

Now that we have affirmed the poetic, musical, beauty-part of Revelation, will the message be at risk? In our tradition, the poetic and musical elements in Revelation have all but vanished. If we succeed in restoring the beauty and majesty of this book, will we lose it as a source of critical information? Will Revelation’s prophetic horizon disappear?

I think it will be exactly the opposite. Nothing will be lost, and much will be gained. First, we have diminished the potential of this book by forcing it into a straitjacket of prose and tenuous historical predictions. It is well to remember that when the prophets of the Old Testament say something of real importance, their idiom is poetry. Poetics surpasses the cognitive limitations of prose, and it deepens the impact. Poetry and music are not inferior to prose — we shall be more prophet-like if we reclaim the poetry.

Second, there is a risk of loss only if we think that poetry belongs to the domain of beauty and not to the domain of thought. This risk is real, but it is not intrinsic to the Bible or to poetry otherwise. Let me illustrate. In the Book of Job, the main character seeks to understand why he suffers. His theology and world-view collapse under the weight of his experience. He asks for an answer that is intellectually and morally meaningful. And yes, he expresses his protest in the form of sublime poetry.

Job’s friends respond to him in poetry that is more sterile than Job’s. In fact, their responses represent doctrine and dogma posing as poetry. (They could be role models for the way we use Revelation’s poetry in order to teach doctrine.) At last God speaks. Robert Alter says that God’s poetry transmits at a higher level than the other speakers in the book — it is more majestic, innovative, and beautiful. This is a great insight that requires mastery of Hebrew to appreciate. Despite his exceptional mastery, Alter opts for a view of God’s speeches that compromises the book. It runs like this: Job expresses an existential, moral, and intellectual predicament. He cries out for an answer that is intellectually meaningful. When God speaks, the poetry is masterful. But God’s answer relates to Job’s question like two ships passing each other in the night. Some readers say that God shuts down Job by a show of shock-and-awe. Robert Alter says that God gives Job an esthetic answer to a moral question. Like this, simplified:

Job: I want to understand why I am suffering.

God: The world is beautiful.

Job: My question is simple — please explain my suffering.

God: My answer is complex — and complexity is my answer, Job.

Alter deserves high marks for his view of Job’s but not for his understanding of God’s answer. As I try to show in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense (chapter 14), God’s second speech answers Job’s question in a way that is intellectually meaningful. God does not shut down the domain of thought with an answer from the domain of beauty. My point is this: God’s poetic answer is rationally and intellectually meaningful. (Those who did not get a free copy of the book last week may want to try the special offer at godofsense.com if you wish a fuller explanation.)            

This is also the case in Revelation. Like Job in the Old Testament, Revelation in the New Testament belongs to the genre of wisdom literature; there is a crisis in the heavenly council (Revelation 5:1-4). Like Job, it revels in poetry. But the poetry is not inimical to sense

Third, the most musical and poetic parts prove this point (Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:9-13; 7:10-12; 11:15-18; 15:2-4; 16:5-7; 19:1-8). The songs do not burst forth in a vacuum. Some interpreters hear only proclamation and acclamation in the songs. They miss the third voice — the voice of accusation (12:10). And yet it is through the voice of accusation we get to know the problem and why there is a crisis in the heavenly council. When proclamation and acclamations rise to a crescendo, it means that the accusing voice has met its match. These songs are not generic tributes to God. They are full of content, and their emotional tenor reflects insights that exceed expectations.  

Fourth, just as there is a question-and-answer texture to the songs in Revelation, the book interacts with an audience that is inside and outside the text. There are different ways to describe this. One writer speaks of Crisis and Catharsis, another of Apocalypse and Allegiance, yet another of Vision and Insight. All reflect meaningful readings of the book. In a broad sense, someone does something, and there is a reaction to what was done. The songs belong to the response. Ian Boxall’s Vision and Insight has an excellent title for Revelation’s pedagogy. There is vision at the point of origin and insight at the point of reception; there is revelation and response; there is apocalypse and understanding. This view of what happens when the mail is delivered takes thought seriously. The crisis in the heavenly council is not a crisis over nothing (5:1-4). The sealed scroll describes reality (6:1-17). Things are laid open and revealed. Perplexing things are explained. This view focuses not so much on new information but on understanding. It is not new that there is war in the world (6:3-4) or that there is famine (6:5-6). What is new, is to see war and famine taken in hand by the only one who can take the scroll and break its seals (5:1-6).

Fifth, faith in Revelation is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The crisis in the heavenly council is not resolved by a command but by a disclosure. Who will not be impressed by the recurrences of open in this book: open heaven (4:1; 19:11), open book (6:1-8:1), open mini-book (10:8), open temple (11:19; 15:5)? There is access all the way to the top. To read a book like this makes Revelation a meaning-making resource for the most vexing questions in life. Seventh-day Adventists ought to be especially stirred by the book and its relevance. There is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), born in the hallowed year 1844 and at his most strident in the year 1888, another landmark. In 1888, Nietzsche wrote The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo.

Christian apologists are offended by his outbursts, but they should instead react in humility. Is it true, as Nietzsche believed, that Christianity is a religion of resentment? “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small enough — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.” Why was he so offended — except for the fact that the Christian tradition teaches a future of eternal torture and that the most illustrious theologians applaud it? The wise response is not to get angry with Nietzsche but to get as angry as he was at the distortion. Another wise response is to provide a better interpretation of Revelation, the go-to book for the distortion.

And then there is Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Joseph K. in The Trial is Job-like for being condemned without knowing why, and he is worse off than Job because there is no access to whoever condemned him. But there is access — in the Book of Job — and there is access in Revelation, access all the way to the top. Revelation deserves a place at the table where the most vexing questions in our time are pondered and discussed.

The Songs and the Silence

Within such a conception of the relationship between beauty and thought, I wish to say one last thing about what to me is the most enigmatic text in Revelation. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1). We have had responses in song up to this point in the book (4:8, 11; 5:9-13). Here, the response is silence. Which of the two is greater, the response in song or the silence? Which of the two suggests the greatest surprise?

I say that the silence expressed the magnitude of the surprise best. This fits a pedagogy of apocalypse and understanding. As noted in an earlier submission, the Old Testament background text is in Isaiah.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him — so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals — so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate (Isaiah 52:14-15).      

This is silence in response to revelation — and it is the silence of understanding. The “understanding” is so contrary to expectations that it takes a while before the recipients know what to say. I believe this to be the true end of Revelation, not “end” with respect to a timeline or the narrative but “end” as purpose. Revelation yearns for this response.

From this response, when the faculty of speech returns and songs rise again from the silence, the believing community on earth speaks the language of heaven. It happens in ever wider circles of influence and impact.

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” And the thirsty — let him come. And the one who would like to have it — let her take the water of life as a gift (22:17, translation mine).

This ends my reflection — with a word of thanks to Bonnie Dwyer and Alisa Williams at Spectrum and to all who have read and responded this quarter.

 

Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019

Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019

Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019

Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019

Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019

Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019

God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019

Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” March 8, 2019

Armageddon Retrospect, March 12, 2019

Timeout: Armageddon Prospect, March 15, 2019

The Beast that Is an Eighth, March 20, 2019

Timeout: After the Thousand Years, March 23, 2019

Rest at Journey’s End, March 27, 2019

 

Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Keith Wako from Pexels

 

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