So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
Here we are. A woman is pursued by a beast yet has wings to fly above. What do I tell you about with this vision? The woman is a victim? Many victims are skilled in ‘flying out’ of abuse (detachment) in order to manage it? That a woman is often the Other, no matter how many crowns or how much power she has? Do I tell you what it is like to be the writer of revelatory tales and to have powerful visions? I know about visions as surely as I know the woman as victim, but there is more here.
What else? I affirm that the book of Revelation is not literal. No one knows who wrote it, yet there is much in it to which we somehow hang on. We have a tendency to hang on to the mysterious and to hang on to what is considered ‘scripture’ when we may want to use the words for our own ends. Revelations in these pages preserved for our reading are human visions of fascinating fictional dramas, unfolding a passionate belief in God, a passionate belief that God connects with humanity and a passionate belief that the earth itself is an agent of action – here the earth opened its mouth to save the woman from certain death (though her children may die).
Where is good news here? Scraping aside much, I am awestruck by the passion of the visionary, though saddened by the stereotypes which, when having been seen as Scriptural truth, pursue us through centuries. Good News is that we have the power to name these readings as astonishing faith community fictions, we can name that humans have astounding visionary capacity; we also have permission to release them from having too much power in our own faith journeys.
God, gorgeous and eternal truth, Give us conviction to stand back from what we read and hear so that we may test our understanding with other knowledge, with other people and with your Spirit living inside us. Empower us to always seek your Good News. Give us grace to welcome fresh insight and to use it for gracious love and just action. In the name of Jesus and the presence of Holy Spirit, Amen
The Revd Elizabeth Gray-King, URC Education & Learning Programme Officer, member St Columba’s URC Oxford