Apocalyptic and the Beauty of God

Isaiah 65. 17–25; Revelation 21.9–27

a sermon at Harvard Memorial Church, October 22 2006

by the William Belden Noble Lecturer, Bishop N. T. Wright

(Bishop of Durham)

 

‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.’ You might well suppose that this would be the reaction of the delighted Englishman, arriving once more in Harvard and gazing at the beauty all around, drinking in the fresh wisdom from lively young minds, thrilled with the energy of a youthful country after the weary cynicism of the tired old world the other side of the Atlantic. And I do indeed sense something of that, as I find myself here again and am delighted and honoured to be invited to occupy this pulpit almost exactly seven years since the last time. There is something perennially appealing about a place that manages to combine historic roots with fresh life, and I thank God for this place and for the privilege of having a tiny share in its life and story. Maybe not exactly a new heaven and new earth, then, but at least a place with newness in its bones and in its air; which fact presents a challenge as well as an opportunity.

I lay before you this morning three puzzles; and I’m going to suggest that the way to solve all three is to put them together and to allow them to solve one another. The first is this: that the notion of apocalyptic, of a great cataclysm through which God’s ultimate purpose will come to fruition, has become in our day the weapon – the metaphor is apt – of a particular and highly influential school of thought not least in this country. The puzzle of apocalyptic, for any serious Christian, any thoughtful reader of the New Testament, is whether, and if so how, ‘apocalyptic’ can be rescued from the ‘Left Behind’ school of thought, whose adherents anticipate the ‘Rapture’ in which they will be snatched up to heaven, leaving this world behind once and for all. Those who take this view have no reason to worry about the condition of the present world, and issues like global warming or acid rain; indeed, they sometimes take pride in their pollution, since the world is not their home, they’re just a-passing through, and if they can hasten its demise so much the better. And this careless attitude to creation goes with an eager desire for war, especially certain types of wars with certain types of enemies, particularly the war that will lead to the great Armageddon. You will know better than I how influential this brand of theology has become in our world, and in your country. Can the whole biblical notion of ‘apocalyptic’ be rescued from those who read it this way? Or must we declare, with the liberal theologians of yesterday and the liberal politicians of today, that the whole thing is outdated nonsense, and that if that’s what the Bible says the less we read it the better?

My second puzzle is very different, and it has to do with the place of the arts within a Christian worldview. I was brought up in a world where the arts constituted, as it were, the pretty border around the edge of reality, rather than a window on reality itself. It was nice to have good music, great art, fine architecture, even perhaps brilliant dancing, in society and the church; but, within the modernism of my youth it didn’t seem to integrate with real life in the world, or with real Christian faith. The arts were for recreation and relaxation for those who liked that kind of thing, but (except for some dangerously subversive characters such as playwrights) we didn’t expect them to impinge on how we organised the world, how we ran the country, how we did our work, or indeed how we understood and expressed our faith. I grew up singing Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion, but I think I and my contemporaries regarded the music as more or less a way of sugaring the pill, of making the Bible listenable-to, not as something to be integrated more tightly within a Christian worldview. And I suspect that many in our world, and our churches, struggle with this question; not least many whose own talents lie within the arts but who find that neither the world at large, nor the church itself, knows what to do with them, what they are (so to speak) there for. In my experience the Christian painter or poet, sculptor or dancer, is regularly regarded as something of a curiosity, to be tolerated, humoured even, maybe even allowed to put on a show once in a while. But the idea that they are, or could be, anything more than that – that they have a vocation to reimagine and re-express the beauty of God, to lift our sights and change our vision of reality – is often not even considered. Maybe there is someone here today who is in exactly that position.

At the same time – a further twist within my second puzzle – the world of postmodernity has made it harder still to see what the arts are there for, or how they could be properly valued within the Christian community. Without going into detail, the eclecticism of postmodernity, starting with architecture but spreading rapidly elsewhere, and the sense that modernist pretensions have to be scorned and mocked, have led to a polarisation within the arts with equal unhappiness at both ends. On the one hand, we have sentimentalism, making it difficult to say something positive or cheerful within the arts without it appearing to collapse into kitsch. On the other hand, the late-modern brutalist movement in architecture has spread into a kind of in-your-face anti-aesthetic, where the uglier, the more violent, the more shocking something is, the more it appears to be ‘real art’, denying the triviality, the mere prettiness, of older visions of beauty and seeking to draw attention to and even to wallow in the horror and apparent meaninglessness of life. How can you be an artist – how can you be a Christian artist – when the culture is polarized in that way? I suspect, again, that some of you here today may have wrestled with exactly that question.

The third puzzle is an exegetical one. You will be familiar with the majestic scene in the sixth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, a passage often read at confirmations and particularly ordinations. The prophet, in the Temple, has a vision of YHWH himself, surrounded by angels, and the house is filled with smoke. The angels are singing a song which is echoed in Jewish and Christian liturgies to this day: Holy, Holy, Holy is YHWH the God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. The whole earth is full of his glory. That’s a remarkable thing to say, and the prophet’s instant reaction is to say, ‘No, it’s not! There’s me for a start: I am undone; I’m a man of unclean lips, living in amongst a people of unclean lips!’ And the scene continues with the terrifying cleansing of Isaiah and his commissioning to speak powerful words of judgment and, ultimately, of mercy.

But the song of the angels in chapter 6 stands in tension with what we find in the same book just a few chapters later. In the vision of the ultimate future in chapter 11, the vision of God’s anointed ruling in wisdom and justice, we find that great promise of creation restored which anticipates the one we heard a few moments ago: ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea.’ The earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH, a prophecy repeated in Habakkuk 2.14, the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of YHWH. (See too Psalms 33.5; 72.19.) And we want to ask Isaiah: well, what are you saying? Is the earth already full of YHWH’s glory? Or is this something we have to wait for, to wait until the ultimate future when everything has been set to rights?

Perhaps you already see how these three puzzles might begin to tie up – the question of apocalyptic, the question of the role of the arts in general and particularly within the church, and this rather sharp-edged exegetical problem. Let me give you my proposal in miniature, and then spell it out in terms of this morning’s majestic biblical readings. My proposal is this, beginning at the middle with the question of art. True art, I suggest, approximates more and more to the vision of the way things are and the way things shall be. We humans know in our bones that we are children of the present creation, which is simultaneously both glorious and shameful, and that we are designed for a fuller creation, a new order, a world flooded with the creator’s glory, full of justice and joy and, yes, beauty. The point of new creation is that it is the redemption and transformation of this present creation, with its shame and horror overcome; that is the way, if I can put it like this, to the reconciliation of Isaiah’s dilemma. And the true point of biblical apocalyptic, as opposed to the distorted and dualistic versions which have been so powerful and prevalent in our day, is that biblical apocalyptic is all about God’s future breaking in to the present, seen in glimpses, known above all in Jesus, and best expressed not in abstract theology or even in preaching but, yes, in genuine and visionary art. Apocalyptic, both in form and in biblical content, is not about the denial of the present creation, but about the overcoming of its sorrows and the realising of its promise. Apocalyptic is the key to understanding, and re-expressing, the beauty of God.

Let me spell this out a little more fully. A fully biblical worldview, which I shall be trying to sketch out further in the lectures over the next three days in terms of three great cultural pressures of our day and the gospel’s answer to them, requires that we hold on tightly to three things in particular. First, the goodness and God-givenness of the present creation: the whole earth is full of YHWH’s glory, and any attempt to suggest that the created order is itself bad or shabby is a denial of that glorious truth. But, second, with Isaiah’s protest, the world is also full of radical evil, of human wickedness and its fruits, and to deny that is to live in a sentimental cloud-cuckoo-land. Sometimes, as in gnosticism, but not in scripture, this second truth is allowed to trump the first, so that the evil in the world blots out the recognition of its goodness, of the presence within it of the creator’s glory. But, thirdly and vitally, biblical writers from Isaiah to Revelation, and not least the great New Testament theologians Paul and John who will feature prominently in the lectures this week, speak of new heavens and a new earth, the renewal and restoration of creation as opposed to its abandonment. And, when they do so, they speak in particular of the new Jerusalem: not, as in some would-be Christian imagination, a purely heavenly city which has left earth behind, but precisely the city which comes down from heaven to earth, in the final fulfilment of Jesus’ own prayer. And part of the point of Jerusalem always was that it was the place where God’s glory would fill the Temple, as it had filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness, not in order that the rest of the world would become irrelevant but rather precisely in anticipation of the eventual promise of God’s glory filling the whole earth. (Exodus 40.34f.; 1 Kings 6.11; 2 Chronicles 5.13f., 7.1f.). This promise about the Temple is repeated even when Jerusalem is under threat of imminent judgment (Ezekiel 10.4), and is then repeated as part of its promise of restoration (Ezekiel 48.35; 2 Maccabees 2.8). The great promises in Isaiah return to this point: YHWH will do a new thing, will remake creation itself so that the desert blossoms like a rose, and then his glory will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together (Isaiah 35.2; 40.5; 60.1). And it is out of this matrix of thought that apocalyptic arises, not in itself the dualistic worldview sometimes imagined (though it can shade off into that where the writers’ grip on the goodness of creation and the promise of new creation is weakened), but rather as a matter of glimpsing the already existing reality of new creation from within the old, so that those living within the old catch a sudden sight of the new, inviting them not to escapism but to hope. Apocalyptic thus resonates with the moment in the desert when Jacob dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth, and declared upon waking that YHWH was in the place, and he hadn’t known it.

And the point of art, I believe, is not least to be able to say something like that, to draw attention – not, indeed, to a shallow or trivial pietistic point, as though to lead the mind away from the world and its problems and into a merely cosy contemplation of God’s presence, but rather – to the multi-layered and many-dimensioned aspects of the present world, to the pains and the terror, yes, but also to the creative tension between the present filling of the world with YHWH’s glory and the promised future filling, as the waters cover the sea. When art tries to speak of the new world, the final world, in terms only of the present world, it collapses into sentimentality; when it speaks of the present world only in terms of its shame and horror, it collapses into brutalism. The vocation of the artist is to speak of the present as beautiful in itself but as pointing beyond itself, to enable us to see both the glory that already fills the earth and the glory that shall flood it to overflowing; to speak, within that, of the shame without ignoring the promise, and to speak of the promise without forgetting the shame. The artist is thus to be like the Israelite spies in the desert, bringing back fruit from the promised land to be tasted in advance; that story, indeed, is one of the moments when (surprisingly within the narrative) YHWH promises that not only the promised land but the whole world will be filled with his glory (Numbers 14.21; cf. 14.10). But, just as not all the spies brought back an encouraging report, so many artists recoil from the challenging vision of the future, and prefer to give the apparently more ‘relevant’ message of despair. Here is the challenge, I believe, for the Christian artist, in whatever sphere: to tell the story of the new world so that people can taste it, and want it, even while acknowledging the reality of the desert in which we presently live.

And so, with our puzzles beginning to discover some resolution by being brought together, we return to the two spectacular readings we heard earlier. Isaiah’s vision of new heavens and new earth, drawing on the earlier vision of chapter 11, highlights the joy of the holy city as a place without crying or distress, a place of covenant blessing and renewal (65.21f. echoing Deuteronomy 28.30ff.), a place above all of new harmony within the whole created order, with the wolf and the lamb lying down together and the lion becoming a vegetarian and eating straw. Part of the difficulty faced by those who have dreamed dreams of new countries, of new lands where all would be well, is that, in order to arrive at this utopia, they always seem to have to do some fairly un-utopia-like things. We as a global society today are caught in exactly that bind, as we proudly announce that we believe in peace and freedom and, to prove the point, drop yet more bombs and keep yet more people enslaved in hopeless debt. As I shall be saying on Tuesday evening, the way we currently ‘do’ global empire is in need of radical, indeed apocalyptic, critique. And perhaps it is not least the artists who, if given the encouragement and support they need, can help us mount that critique, break through the postmodern barrier which stops us glimpsing new truth, and point to a wiser and more fruitful way forward.

Because the great vision at the end of the Book of Revelation is a vision of ultimate beauty. The word ‘beauty’ doesn’t occur much in the Bible, but the celebration of creation all the way from Genesis, through the Psalms and prophets, on into the Gospels and here in Revelation, should alert us to the fact that, though the ancient Jewish people did not theorize about beauty as the Greeks did (that’s another story, and a fascinating one, though not for today), they knew a great deal about it, and poured their rich aesthetic sensibility not only into poetry but also into one building in particular: the Temple in Jerusalem, whose legendary beauty inspired poets, musicians and dancers alike. And it is the Temple where YHWH’s glory is glimpsed, not as a retreat from the world but as a foretaste of what is promised for the whole world. And then, in the great vision of John, the Temple has disappeared, because the whole city has become a Temple; and the point of the city is, again, not that it is a place of retreat from a wicked world but that its new life is poured out into the whole world, to refresh it and heal it.

Sadly, verses 15–21 of Revelation 21 are often omitted in public reading, presumably because those who compose lectionaries suppose it to be boring and repetitive. But it is precisely in passages like this that we see, with the eye of the apocalyptic visionary, the astonishingly powerful beauty of God’s new creation, beauty which should serve as an inspiration to artists and, through their work, to all of us as we seek to bring the life of the new creation to birth within the old. The golden city, perfectly proportioned, equal in length and breadth and even, remarkably, height, has, says John, the glory of God, and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. The wall is built of jasper, while the city itself is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations are adorned with jewels: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, cornelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth and amethyst. The twelve gates are twelve pearls, while the streets of the city are pure gold, transparent as glass. I confess that my knowledge of jewellery is so poor that I can’t at once envisage all of those shining foundations, but I know that whoever wrote this passage delighted in them, and wanted his readers to do the same, relishing them one by one and in their glittering combination. And I know, too, that the idea of city streets paved with gold had nothing to do with the idea of fabulous wealth – pity the poor human race, when dazzling beauty is reduced to purely monetary function! – but rather with the most ravishing and wonderful beauty imaginable. This is the apocalyptic vision of the beauty of God. And it is given to us not so that, in desiring to belong to that city, we can forget the present world and our obligations within it, but precisely so that we can work to bring glimpses of that glory to birth within the present world, in the peacemaking which anticipates the Isaianic vision of the wolf, the lamb and the vegetarian lion, in the doing of justice which anticipates the final rule of the true Messiah, in the work of healing which springs up from the water of life flowing from the city into the world around, and not least in the glorious art which brings genuine beauty to birth within a world full of ugliness, which bridges the gap between Isaiah’s present and future visions, a world full of glory and a world to be filled yet more completely.

As an aid to this reflection, and to the vocations which follow from it, let me close with a truly remarkable example of the sort of thing I mean. In Revelation 22, the river of life flows from the city to irrigate the surrounding countryside, and on its banks there grows the tree of life: not a single tree, as in Genesis, but many trees, now freely available, bearing fruit each month, and with leaves for healing. This image of the tree of life, and of the radical and beautiful healing it promises, has generated an extraordinary work of art, commissioned jointly by the British Museum and Christian Aid, and created by local artists in Mozambique after the end of that country’s long and bitter civil war. The work is a sculpture of the tree of life: it stands nine or ten feet tall, with spreading branches a further nine or ten feet in all directions. In it, and under its shade, are birds and animals. And the whole thing, tree, creatures and all, is made entirely from decommissioned weapons: bits and pieces of old AK47s, bullets and machetes and all the horrible paraphernalia of war, most of them made in peaceful western countries and exported to Mozambique so that the government aid given by the west to that poor country would flow back to our own industries. But the point, of course – and it is a stunningly beautiful object at several levels at once – is that this Tree of Life reflects the Isaianic promise that swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. The Tree stands as a reminder both of the horror of the world, with all its multiple human follies and tragedies, and also of hope, the hope of new creation. It has an immediate and powerful message for the people of Mozambique itself, who had forgotten how to hope, had forgotten that there might be such a thing as peace, as sitting once more under the tree and enjoying its fruit and its healing. But it is also a sign of what genuine art can be, taking a symbol from the world of the original creation, building into it the full recognition of the horrors of the present world which by themselves would lead us to despair, and celebrating the promise of the new world, a world full of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. It offers celebration without naivety, sorrow without cynicism, and hope without sentimentality. Standing before it is like glimpsing an apocalyptic vision, a vision of the beauty of God.

That is the vision which I hold in my mind as we come to the detailed task of the lectures over the next three days. But for the moment I invite you to contemplation, to gratitude, to the vision of God’s new heavens and new earth, and to the multiple vocations – prophetic, artistic, political, theological, whatever – by which God will call you to bring signs of that new world to birth within the old one, where vision is limited and widows still weep.