It was no surprise that reactions to Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great” (subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”) were loud and partisan. The celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrung his hands at this attack on religion, arguing that, “Without the Bible, how would we even know what good and evil are?” The Christian evangelist group Stand To Reason called Hitchens “an arrogant, hateful man who isn’t ashamed to demean those, who by his own view, are not as advanced or gifted as he is.” Atheists crowed, lauding the book as their anti-Bible. When Hitchens developed terminal cancer, Hitchens’ long-running polemics about religion (including his book-length debunking of Mother Teresa, which of course he titled “Missionary Position”) led to tedious questions and debates about whether Hitchens’ cancer might lead to a death-bed conversion or even, shamelessly, was a punishment from God.
It’s been five years since “God Is Not Great” was published. Hitchens has died without sacrament, and it’s past time for yet another review of the book. But, for what it’s worth, I thought ”God Is Not Great” was a hoot. I laughed. I cried. I crawled on my belly like a reptile.
Aw, c’mon. Surely, Hitchens was having gleeful, cheeky fun when he wrote the book. Although the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of religion are often dead serious, Hitch could not have believed he was making a serious argument. Instead, he was having a lark with a mischievous and masterful recitation of all of the frauds, conceits, and hypocrisies that have undermined organized religion, weaving them together so tightly that he more or less gave the appearance that they are the sum total of religion.
Hitchens took insupportably absolute arguments – central among them that all religion must be a fraud because it has been so horribly corrupted by humans – and supported them with a dizzying inventory of horror stories, from the oppression of women in the Muslim world to Joseph Smith’s huckster “discovery” of the golden plates (thanks, Angel Moroni!) to the Spanish Inquisition. He took a contrarian’s delight in trotting out the history of how religion has become a surrogate for tribalism, violence, intolerance, and greed. One would think the subtitle of his book should have been “How Everything (that is, humans) Poisons Religion” rather than “How Religion Poisons Everything.” The supposed topic of the book: Whether God (if there is one) is Great, is never addressed (other than perhaps by proxy, through the various tin-horn prophets and messiahs who claim to be divine).
Yet, How Humans Poison Religion is itself an intriguing topic. And, that is what I had in mind as I read Elaine Pagels’ book, “The Book of Revelation: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.”
“Revelation” is a history of the Book of Revelation: Its origins, its meaning, and how it became part of the canonical Bible. And, it is quite the story.
It should be no surprise that the story is entirely earthbound, rather than in any way divine. About a century after Jesus, a fellow named John (no, not the apostle John), wrote Revelation on the island of Patmos off the coast of what is now Turkey. Like self-decreed prophets before and after him, he declared that the writings had been revealed to him in a dazzling display of celestial hoo-hah. And what a reveal! Seven-headed leopard-like sea creatures! Christ on a horse! Lakes of fire! Exploding mountains! The fall of Babylon and the extermination of 2/3 of mankind! And, of course, that odd Beast with the “number of a person,” 666.
The very human (and fascinating) side of the origin story is that Revelation is actually a thinly-veiled political allegory…sort of an “Animal Farm” for the toga set. Babylon, it turns out, is Rome, and the sea creature’s seven heads are Rome’s seven past emperors. “666” translates, in Jewish numerology, to Nero. The great mountain exploding refers to the eruption of Vesuvius, which was still fresh in people’s minds, having occurred in 79 A.D.
So, what was this prehistoric “Animal Farm” meant to convey? Says Pagels, John of Patmos was motivated by yet another tedious tribal conflict. John, what you might call a Jew for Jesus, was warning the Gentiles what would befall them if they horned in on what was then (at least, in Asia Minor) a Jewish sect of followers of Christ. Paul was at the time converting Gentiles to the fold, and they were allowed to join up without having to eat kosher or be circumsized.
At the same time, scores of other desert prophets were creating their own visions of an apocalyptic future…no doubt, to toot their own Shofars for the glory of their own tribes. Heck, it’d been only a few hundred years since King Josiah bowdlerized the Jewish oral traditions, rewriting them so as to prove that his Kingdom of Judah were the chosen people whereas the Kingdom of Israel were rank sinners. (We now call his creation The Old Testament).
So, how did John of Patmos’ outlandish and improbable book of prophecy become part of the Bible? No surprise here. Like Constantine, who adopted Christianity because he thought its god would be the most help to him in warring with other Roman factions; and like John of Patmos, who came up with the Book of Revelation as a diatribe against Gentiles following Jesus, the backer of the Book of Revelation saw a way to use the book for his own political ends.
Bishop (now Saint) Athanasius was a fourth-century bully whose self-righteous crusade was to define the Catholic church narrowly, and to save it from any writing that he considered heresy. He wheedled. He threatened. He coerced. And, after a time, he realized that old Patmos’ scary book could be repurposed. The Book of Revelation, Athanasius insisted, was the story of what would happen to anyone who adopted the writings that Athanasius wanted excluded from the canon.
Hitchens would say that this all-too-human misuse of religion proves that religion is nothing but hokum, false promises, and oppression. To dismiss religion for that reason is tempting, just as it is easy to dismiss religion because so much of it is so obviously created by self-interested hucksters, or to dismiss people because of their human foibles. In fact, religion may deserve to be dismissed; but, to do so for Hitchens’ reasons is too facile, too easy. For now, rock me, Anathasius.