Konformist Book Club Excerpt:
What Revelation Reveals
It is the Bible's strangest book. Even stranger, it was only one of many now-forgotten 'books of revelation'
March 2, 2012
The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible, and the most controversial. Instead of stories and moral teaching, it offers only visions—dreams and nightmares, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, earthquakes, plagues and war. In the climactic battle scene, Jesus appears as a divine warrior, Satan is thrown into a pit, and all humans who had died faithful to God reign over the earth for 1,000 years.
The author, John of Patmos, was a Jewish prophet and a follower of Jesus who probably began to write around the year 90 after fleeing a war that had ravaged his homeland, Judea. But his Book of Revelation wasn't unique. At the time, countless others—Jews, pagans and Christians—produced a flood of "books of revelation," claiming to reveal divine secrets. Some have been known for centuries; about 20 others were found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.
So what do the other revelations tell us, and how did John's come to trump the others? Unlike the Book of Revelation, the great majority of the others weren't about the end of the world, but about finding the divine in it now. Many offered encouragement to seek direct contact with God—a message that some early Christian leaders ultimately chose to suppress.
The Revelation of Zostrianos, found in 1945, tells how the young author, tormented by questions and overwhelmed by depression, walked alone into the desert. Finding no place "to rest my spirit," Zostrianos says he had resolved to kill himself. But he says that suddenly he became aware of a being radiating light, who "said to me, 'Zostrianos…have you gone mad?' "
This divine presence, Zostrianos says, released him from despair and offered illumination. Then, Zostrianos says, "I realized that the power in me was greater than the darkness, because it contained the whole light."
Another 1945 find, the Revelation of Peter, similarly opens in a desperate moment. Peter says he was standing in the temple with other disciples when "I saw the priests and the people running up to us with stones, as if they would kill us." Terrified, he says, he heard Jesus tell him to "put your hands…over your eyes, and say what you see." Peter sees nothing. Jesus tells him to do it again. Peter says: "And fear came over me, [and] joy, for I saw a new light greater than the light of day. Then it came down upon the Savior, and I told him what I saw."
Although such revelations might not change outward circumstances—tradition tells us that, just as Peter feared, he was caught and crucified—the Revelation of Peter suggests that what Jesus revealed enabled him to face his death with courage and hope.
These other revelations, written several generations after Jesus' death, were often written by anonymous followers of Jesus under the names of disciples—not to deceive their readers but to show that they were writing "in the spirit" of those whose names they borrowed. Many were probably not written by Christians at all. Some of the revelations drew upon sacred traditions of Egypt and Greece and, in some cases, on the Hebrew Bible. Others included practices similar to Buddhist meditation techniques.
The Secret Revelation of John opens, again, in crisis. The disciple John, grieving Jesus' death, is walking toward the temple when he meets a Pharisee who mocks him for having been deceived by a false messiah. These taunts echoed John's own fear and doubt. Devastated, John turns away from the temple and heads toward the desert, where, he says, "I grieved greatly in my heart."
Suddenly, he says, he saw brilliant light as the heavens opened, and the earth shook beneath his feet. Terrified, John says he saw a luminous presence that kept changing form, and then heard Jesus' voice: "John, John, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid?…I am the one who is with you always. I am the Father; I am the Mother; I am the Son."
The Jesus who appears in the Secret Revelation doesn't look as he does in the Book of Revelation. Instead of a divine warrior leading heavenly armies to "strike down the nations," he appears as the apostle Paul says he saw him—in blazing light and a heavenly voice, and then in changing forms: first as a child, then as an old man, then—and here scholars disagree—either as a servant or as a woman. Through a series of visions and imagery, the Secret Revelation suggests that what is revealed to John is potentially available to all people—or, at least, to all who are receptive to what the spirit teaches.
In the fourth century, bishops intent on establishing "orthodoxy" labored to suppress writings like the Secret Revelation. Although they didn't deny that Jesus was human, they tended to place Jesus on the divine side of the equation—not only divine but, in the words of the Nicene Creed, "God from God…essentially the same as God." Orthodox theologians insisted that the rest of humankind were only transitory creatures, lost in sin—a view that would support what would become their dominant teaching about salvation, offered only through Christ, and, in particular, through the church they claimed to represent.
From the second century, Christian leaders, who saw their close groups torn apart as Roman magistrates arrested and executed their most outspoken members, felt that John's Book of Revelation spoke directly to these crises because it prophesied God's victory over Rome. Such Christians championed this book above the rest. Some challenged other books of revelation, with their more universal visions, calling them illegitimate and heretical.
Throughout the ages, Christians have adapted John of Patmos's visions to changing times, reading their own social, political and religious conflicts into the cosmic war he so powerfully evokes. Yet his Book of Revelation appeals not only to fear and desires for vengeance but also to hope. As John tells how the chaotic events of the world are finally set right by divine judgment, those who engage his visions often see them offering moral meaning in times of suffering or apparently random catastrophe. Many poets, artists and preachers have claimed to find in these prophecies the promise, famously repeated by Martin Luther King Jr., that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
The Book of Revelation reads as if John had wrapped up all our worst fears—fears of violence, plague, wild animals, unimaginable horrors from the abyss below the earth, lightning, hail, earthquakes and the atrocities or torture and war—into one gigantic nightmare. Yet this worst of all nightmares ends not in terror but in a glorious new world. Whether one sees in John's visions the destruction of the whole world or the dark tunnel that propels each of us toward our own death, his final vision suggests that even after the worst we can imagine has happened, we may find the astonishing gift of new life. Whether or not one shares that conviction, few readers miss seeing how these visions offer consolation and that most necessary of divine gifts—hope.
— Excerpted from "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation" published by Viking
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A version of this article appeared Mar. 3, 2012, on page C3 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What Revelation Reveals.
Music Video of the week:
Again, by Alice in Chains
Why is Alice in Chains the favorite Seattle band of Robalini? This is why...
The World’s Top 10 Billionaires
1. Carlos Slim Helú
Net Worth: $69 billion
2. Bill Gates
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4. Bernard Arnault
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5. Amancio Ortega
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6. Larry Ellison
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8. Stefan Persson
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YouTube Film of the Month: The Primacy of Consciousness - Peter Russell
Peter Russell explores the problems science has explaining consciousness and proposes that consciousness is not created by the brain, but is inherent in all beings. He shows why mind is more fundamental than matter, and the the key to this shift is the revolution in our understanding of the light.
The excerpted version (10 mins) is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqSxHzqm1pw
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The Original Wrecking Ball: Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”
March 6, 2012
Bruce Springsteen’s seventeenth studio album, “Wrecking Ball,” has landed. It pairs some musical experimentation—tape loops, samples, a bit of rapping (not by the Boss, thankfully, but by the gospel singer Michelle Moore)—with familiar Springsteen lyrical iconography: American flags, steel wheels, shuttered factories, and suitcases packed for a quick escape. Springsteen told Rolling Stone that “the record basically started out as folk music—just me and a guitar singing these songs,” before he began working with producer Ron Aniello on a more eclectic and anthemic sound. In the same interview, Springsteen also said: “This is as direct a record as I ever made. That’s with the possible exception of ‘Nebraska,’ which this record has a lot in common with.”
Let’s see. This January marked the thirtieth anniversary of the recording of “Nebraska,” one of the more mythical events in pop-music history. Over the course of several days at his home in Colts Neck, New Jersey, and armed principally with a guitar, harmonica, and glockenspiel, Springsteen laid down what he thought were demos for a new album that he’d record with the E Street Band. That album never got made; after rehearsals with the full band, Springsteen, his manager, Jon Landau, and others decided that the lyrics—about murder, hard luck, regret, and father-and-son strife—were better served by the low-fi originals. What emerged on “Nebraska” was a hushed, thin, and stark sound, which, because of its provenance, seemed almost divinely inspired. Accordingly, the device that captured the sound, a Tascam Portastudio 144 tape recorder, has become a kind of holy object among fans. The album’s lyrics, meanwhile, seem drawn from a harrowing and unnervingly gorgeous hell right here on earth.
In “Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska,” a new history of the album, published this past December, David Burke connects its themes to the political and economic climate that marked the early Reagan years. Springsteen has said that Reagan’s election startled him into a newfound political consciousness. Burke quotes a Springsteen interview in which the Boss said that “Nebraska” was about the loss of community and “spiritual breakdown,” times and places when people “just get shot off somewhere where nothing seems to matter.” Among the album’s story songs, murder ballads, confessions, and deathbed laments are plenty of sociological markers. Bad prices have killed the family farm. The bank is about to take the house. Vietnam vets have been screwed from all sides. Someone closed the auto plant in Mahwah.
The economy was lousy in 1982, and it’s lousy today, at least for the people who appear in Springsteen songs. “Wrecking Ball” is also filled with criminals, but they aren’t the outcasts and the misfits that populate “Nebraska.” This time, they are members of the one per cent. And, while “Nebraska” tells plaintive, first-person stories, most of the songs on “Wrecking Ball” are thematic rather than narrative—fables about the capital-letter ideas of Politics, the Economy, and the State of the Union. With its proud liberal populism and wide sampling of the national musical melting pot, “Wrecking Ball” is a big-tent vision of America. It may be an imperfect and deeply unfair place, but it’s still a party. And perhaps a hootenany will help sort things out. (It’s fitting that Obama included the album’s first single, “We Take Care of Our Own” on his campaign playlist on Spotify.)
If “Wrecking Ball” is the big top, then “Nebraska” is the freak show. Burke’s book is informative, but it places too much emphasis on the songs as cultural commentary; they are about something deeply sinister. Sissy Spacek’s affectless narration in the Terrence Malick movie “Badlands” inspired the album’s title track, told from the man’s perspective, which opens: “I saw her standin’ on her front lawn, just a-twirlin’ her baton. / Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died.” The prairie edge continues with the screechy yodel that kicks off “Johnny 99.” And the chilling shriek that ends “State Trooper.” Springsteen was reading Flannery O’Connor at the time. The album is shot through with the real possibility of an evil that transcends circumstance, what O’Connor writes about in the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: “Then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
“Nebraska” may be an anomaly in Springsteen’s career rather than a signpost. (Stephen Metcalf, writing at Slate, once called it “the only record you can push on the nonbelievers.”) It doesn’t offer signs of hope, redemption, or community. There’s no “we” anywhere in it. It’s nihilistic in its philosophy, and agnostic in its politics. Perhaps most importantly, the album, in its tightly controlled sound and theme, resists the power of Springsteen’s outsized personality and his immense power to entertain. There has often been a dissonance between Bruce Springsteen’s music and the content of his lyrics. It’s why “Born in the U.S.A.”—a deeply anti-American song—gets played at Tea Party rallies. The big political numbers on “Wrecking Ball” may have started as folk songs, and they look serious on paper, but they’ll be heard beneath the bright lights of stadiums, and most likely this fall at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Nebraska,” meanwhile, is about a different kind of politics, and should be heard in the dark.
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Not-So-Awesome Technology: Pink Slime
AKA Soylent Pink, it's ammonia-treated cow tissues that were added to beef at fast food joints (and even more sinisterly, school lunches) until recently:
Netflix Said to Be Aiming for a Cable Partnership
March 7, 2012
Netflix’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, has often compared his company’s Web streaming service to HBO. That comparison is inching closer to reality.
Over the last several weeks, Mr. Hastings and his top lieutenants have met with major cable operators to discuss a way for Netflix to appear on monthly cable bills, according to people who are familiar with the meetings but are not authorized to discuss negotiations publicly.
A partnership with cable providers, along with an ambitious slate of original series, would put Netflix one step closer to competing with premium cable channels, like HBO, Showtime and Starz, that offer original series and movies for a monthly fee.
“To be able to add Netflix to the bill, that might be very powerful, especially as we do more and more original content,” Mr. Hastings said at a Morgan Stanley media and technology conference in San Francisco last week.
“We are more and more a classic cable network,” Mr. Hastings said, adding that partnering with cable providers would eventually be the “logical path.”
A Netflix spokesman declined to comment on discussions with cable operators, but said Mr. Hastings’s comments in San Francisco were “futuristic.”
The nascent negotiations with cable operators, first reported by Reuters, underscore how Netflix has evolved. Once, on the strength of its popular DVD-by-mail service and emerging streaming offerings, the company was viewed as a rival to cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the kind that could lead to widespread cord-cutting.
Netflix has stumbled, however, in obtaining rights to stream television shows and movies, and as the company has added streaming subscribers, it has lost subscribers to its DVD service.
At the same time, competitors have emerged. Last month, Comcast began an online streaming service called Streampix. The service is now available to Comcast’s 22.3 million Xfinity subscribers, but the company has the reach to one day expand the service beyond its customer base.
Also last month, Verizon said it would partner with Coinstar’s Redbox on a Web streaming service at a monthly rate of $4.99, compared with $7.99 for unlimited streaming on Netflix. The $79-a-year Amazon Prime service, which also offers shipping and Kindle benefits, has licensing deals with major television networks and movie studios. And Time Warner’s HBO Go, a streaming service available only to HBO subscribers, has been cited by Mr. Hastings as Netflix’s biggest competitor.
Partnering with a major cable operator would instantly increase the number of subscribers to Netflix, which currently has about 21.7 million streaming subscribers in the United States, according to the company...