Revelation is a dance
As I write this piece, I’m listening to “Revelation” by the Afro Bop Alliance Big Band. The music is layered and rhythmically complex. Listening to this music is a feast. As I discover new things each time I listen, I get drawn into the music’s narrative. As the piece develops and the musicians sweat it out, the album is a celebration of embodied human existence. But it is also more than that. In the novel melodies, the rapidly changing rhythms, and the uncommon harmonies, the familiar and the strange blend into an invitation to see and experience life in a new way. Looked at this way, music is an apt metaphor for revelation. Chances are that this is why the album bears the title “Revelation.”
Traditionally, within Christianity (but in similar ways also in Judaism and Islam) revelation is understood to be information. God, who dwells in an unapproachable abode, communicates with us some things we don’t know by ourselves. Pretty darn important things, it appears. In Christianity, this knowledge pertains to our wretched state as sinners and how we can be delivered from an eternal fate in hell by believing in Jesus Christ. Over the years, I’ve come to reject this concept of revelation as information, in which our salvation depends on having the right knowledge. Unwittingly, Christianity has fallen prey to the temptation of Gnosticism, in which secret and sacred knowledge provides the key to the afterlife.
Revelation is not info. There is no information from an otherworldly realm communicated to us through a special holy book. A plain reading of the Bible shows that clearly. One moment, we are told that God wants the Amalekites killed, including women and children (divinely sanctioned genocide), the next moment, Jesus teaches us we need to forgive our enemies. Did God change his mind? Did God come to his senses? Did he realize, mass-killing people is a bit over the top? No, people thought they knew what God wanted and placed the words in his mouth, and thus they became the very words of God. God’s Word is the result of a lack of self-differentiation and a self-serving jumping to conclusions by human beings.
The Bible God’s Revealed Word?
We have gradually come to debunk the Bible’s status as containing (or rather being) God’s revealed Word. We did this by questioning the historical reliability of the text, by analyzing the text from a literary perspective, etc. But we also did this by realizing that, even if there is such a thing called revelation, the manifold interpretations of the written Word that lead to infighting, religious factions, religious wars, and widespread trauma basically give the lie to the concept of revelation as info. Even if there would be divine info, there seems to be no consensus as to what exactly it is or means. It would have been better for God not to speak, as that would have caused less suffering.
While the whole Western world was moving away from an all to literalist understanding of the Bible as divine oracle, conservative factions within Christianity deemed it necessary to double down on the claim that the Bible is really the literal Word of God. Pragmatically speaking, maintaining such a concept of revelation into modernity has done Christianity no good, however. Besides the resulting disagreements on the meaning of the divine info received, the conservative position also requires us to take a quite literal approach to all kinds of fantastical things, such as angels, demons, heaven, and hell. Its supernatural worldview stifles its relevance. The acceptance of its message depends on the assumption of many mythical, invisible things. Insistence on the Bible as the literal inerrant Word of God rendered it more and more irrelevant.
The Two Words
And then there is the pernicious theological problem that Jesus is called the Word of God incarnate. It is rather odd that after Jesus’s departure, Christianity proclaimed the writings concerning him (the so-called New Testament) to be the Word of God again as if Jesus as the incarnated Word was merely an interlude; as if paper and ink once again needed to replace the embodied Christ. When you think about it, questions emerge. Is the Word split in two: a meaty and a paper version? Was Jesus not enough? Is there, given the strange adulation the paper version seems to get, a “Quadruplinity” instead of a Trinity: Does God consists of Father, Son, Spirit, and Word? Sadly, Jesus as the Word of God has become dependent on human interpretations of a text about Jesus they call the Word of God. Just about everybody seems to ignore the deeply theological problem here.
Historically, the strong emphasis on the Bible as the infallible Word of God resulted from the authority vacuum that came into existence after Luther debunked the notion of papal and ecclesial authority. Luther had a rather free approach to the idea of the Bible as God’s Word (he didn’t like The Epistle of James, for instance). Under Calvin, however, the text became the central authority on all matters of faith, which included life, culture, economics, politics, and conscience. We basically had a straightforward return to scholasticism with its typical hierarchical power structure, even though the source of authority and the distribution of power were altered compared to the medieval situation.
No wonder that there has been a powerful reaction during the Enlightenment and later against the idea of divine revelation. Divine revelation led people to commit atrocities, start wars, exploit the poor, seek power and wealth, etc. A literal approach to the Biblical text led to claims and theories that were easily debunked by science. The more Christianity emphasized revelation, the more it found itself on the wrong side of history.
So, is revelation passé? Is the idea of disclosure of something that is radically different from us outdated with the relegation of religions to the domain of pre-scientific and premodern thinking? I don’t think so.
The concept of revelation is not only useful, but crucially important for a world that is turned inward and bent on self-destruction. We need a voice from the outside our structures, our systems, our set ways, our cultural outlook. A vision of another way of being human in this world. Yes, revelation as information is a debunked concept. But what if we would locate revelation in, let’s say, the event of a music piece played by a big band? What if we would apply the idea of revelation to existence as such? What if revelation, detached from traditional religious notions of God and messengers, pops up in the materiality of our mundane late modern existence?
We could conceptualize revelation as the novelty that appears on the horizon of being, i.e., earthly existence. Something manifests in our purview that is at once familiar and strange. Familiar in being embodied like we are, but strange because it exemplifies a new kind of being. We receive a vision of another form of existence that was hidden or simply non-existent up till now. This new being reveals, i.e. discloses, something about our lives on the plane of existence that we could not see before but has now become possible because of its presence among us and the invitation it gives. Revelation is then a paradigm shift initiated by an outside influence.
New Being, Same Sky
Revelation is the invitation to a new form of being under the same sky. Confined by the here and now, the dreadfulness of our mortal existence, revelation exemplifies novelty to such a degree that it feels as if the skies are opening up and a future that was impossible (or was simply never imagined) breaks open as the new destiny of a new pilgrimage. “Heaven” or “paradise” may even seem the proper nomenclature for the vistas disclosed by such a new way of seeing the world and ourselves in it. We see the old in a new light and see our lives transformed into a new existence that makes new things possible.
This is how I think Jesus Christ is revelation. Precisely by detaching the Bible as God’s infallible literal Word from the identity of Jesus and reintroducing Jesus as the incarnated Word (John 1) of God, we get an idea of what such a new idea of revelation looks like. As the Word of God (and I leave an interpretation of what that means open), Jesus is not “read” but witnessed as embodied flesh. He is not info, but a living being. The being he manifests is radically different, unheard of, novel, invitational, dangerous for the powers that be.
His appearance on the stage of human history revealed a new way of being in the world that he invites us into. The apostle Paul talks about how we through faith become a new being in Christ. Christ is himself that new being, that embodiment of a new form of existence that had not been witnessed before and had never been possible. No wonder that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus radicalizes the law, both suspending and fulfilling it with and in his own life. “You’ve heard it said…. But I tell you…” And Jesus not only tells; he lives and gives his life.
Engaging Jesus Beyond Religion
Today, to understand, appreciate, and apply the teachings of Jesus properly, we need to make a step that takes us beyond religion and beyond religion’s understanding of revelation as divine info. I am convinced that the religious garment of Jesus’s context and message are superfluous to what Jesus offers by inviting us to a new way of life.
It is easy and tempting to continue to see Jesus as the founder of a religion called Christianity, or the founder of the Christian Church. He was neither. The Christian faith is largely a post-Christ elaboration and construction of ideas that take their cues from both Judaism and Jesus’s teachings. Jesus’s own teachings in the gospels, insofar they are original, frequently stand in marked contrast to what Christianity teaches.
I intend not to debunk or reject Christianity, but it is important to note that Christianity, in its varied interpretations, is an elaboration of and constructive dialogue with Christ’s teachings, Judaism’s traditions, and Western thought. We live in an era (in the West) that has done away with institutionalized, organized, and dogmatic religions. Because of this, it’s a tantalizing suggestion that Jesus’s teachings and ideas can be detached from Christianity as a religion.
Jesus As Revelation Beyond Religion
So, when I suggest Jesus is revelation, I don’t mean that he is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity (though, who knows, that might actually be the case - if there’s such a thing as a trinity). No, Jesus has meaning beyond religion. He addresses us from a particular form of existence the likes of which we have never seen before.
Where people in previous times grafted Jesus into a reworked version of Second Temple Judaism called Christianity, nothing compels us to make the same move. Jesus simply lived a life that was extraordinary, a life that baffled people, a life that engendered a response and inspired emulation.
And so, we may reinterpret Jesus for our religionless era. His call to repent is a call to turn away from self-inverted self-destruction. In Jesus, we see the meaninglessness of life under the sun transformed into self-giving love for the neighbor. If you will, in fulfilling love for the other, the love for God is fulfilled, even if there’s no god.
In short, I propose an interpretation of Jesus that, in going beyond religion, is remarkably more faithful to his actual teachings.
Revelation As Dance
In closing, let me return to where I started: the Afro Bop Alliance Big Band with its Latin grooves. Breath breathes through brass, hands beat the drum, fingers open and close holes and valves. Reeds vibrate. Snares are plucked and hammered. The material fabric and texture of life give way to a new narrative, a new interpretation, and, finally, a new vision. As bodies produce new music and rhythmically move with its flow, a new story is being embodied. People get up and start singing and dancing. Even those who do not play instruments become the music, the invitation, the vision.
This is what Jesus is: the embodied experience and invitation to a new way of being that we take part in as if it were a dance.
This is how revelation becomes us, and we become, in turn, revelation.
Josh de Keijzer is a theologian and author. After having worked as a graphic designer and artdirector he left The Netherlands in 2009 to study theology and philosophy of religion in the United States. After his studies her returned to his home country in 2017. He is the author of “Bonhoeffer’s Theology of the Cross” (Mohr Siebeck, 2019) that explores the Lutheran roots of the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Josh is currently a freelance copywriter. He is interested in radical theology at the intersection of the search for meaning, the function of the religious in a post-christian society, and the quest for a more just society. He blogs at aftergodsend.com and you can follow him on Instagram @aftergodsend