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Futures Impossible

Taj Smith
Sun, Jul 26

Texts: Rev. 22:1-6 

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Revelation is weird. It’s really weird. I mean, there are beasts with seven eyes and flaming lakes. A city falls from the sky, and one could get the idea that women would not be well thought of in said city. Christian imagery depicting Jesus on a throne in the sky dressed in white, yeah that’s Revelation. All those ideas about Christians being “saved” through “the blood of the Lamb,” also Revelation. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading or watching the rapturerific Left Behind series, you guessed it… Revelation. It is all kinds of disturbing, and confusing to boot. Yeah, Revelation is weird. So can’t we just let it sit at the back of the New Testament with a rickety old sign over it that reads, “Beyond here be dragons” (though there are dragons). Well, friends, I don’t know why it’s there, but it is—even if we try to ignore it. The question is, what can we take from it? The lesson is buried under layers of metaphor. In order to find it, we as readers must know Hebrew Scriptures well—that is, if we’re willing to read it at all. What’s more, the lesson is found in the book itself; it’s meant to be read from start to finish.

I did just that when I decided to preach this passage today. I paced my room and read the whole of Revelation aloud to see what I could see. To be honest, I’ve done this many times. I love Revelation. It’s my favorite book in the bible. The gospels are cool, and as beautiful of a story as Genesis is, nothing gets me thinking like Revelation. Each time I read it, I pick up on something new, allowing me to engage the world in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to. Sure, other books of the bible can do that, and I’m sure they do for others, but for me, Revelation is the one. It spills passion! It’s action-packed! It teeters the edges of prophetic imagination and madness. Yeah, I love this book. I imagine the author, whom I’ll call John, exiled to the barren, rocky island called Patmos having seen many of his fellow Jesus followers executed in the most brutal ways. I imagine the anger towards Rome and emperor Domitian (or Nero depending on who you talk to) that spurred this vision. That spurred the author to pronounce such harsh judgment on the earth in its last days. I wonder if he had gone mad there. How did this vision come to him? I don’t have an answer. My guess is that it rose up from the depths of his imagination informed by everything he had experienced.

Revelation, or the Apocalypse, is a genre unlike anything in the New Testament. From the Greek apokalypsis meaning “revelation”, an apocalypse is a first-person narrative telling visions about the future or the heavenly world, or both. The only other biblical book that shares this genre is Daniel. In fact, John references Daniel throughout his prophecy, in addition to other prophets. John calls his book prophecy in the verse just after our reading: “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:7). So Revelation is prophecy. John’s vision predicts the future.

Today’s reading comes towards the end of John’s vision. The New Heaven and New Earth have been established by the coming of the New Jerusalem. Death and mourning and pain are no more (21:4). Instead of death, we are to find the river of life flowing swiftly from God’s throne, cutting down the middle of the city with the tree of life lining the riverbanks. All in the city are immortal, as all have access to both the tree and the river, and the separation between night and day is indistinguishable albeit irrelevant because all have come back to the source: God.

God is simultaneously the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, day and night. God as the source of life is bigger than all of these things, for God is broad, long, deep, and high. God encompasses all. All things flow from God, including both the comprehensible and the incomprehensible. God is the singularity, infinite and ever expanding. And the people of God grow in this everlasting life, always trying to stay connected to the source. This is the vision of the future that John shares with us. “These words are trustworthy and true,” he is commanded. Rather, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true” (21:5). So he wrote them down.

I appreciate Revelation a writer. More so as a writer of speculative fiction. I write science fiction and magical realism. My spare time is spent figuring out the science behind time travel, and whether terra-forming—recreating Earth’s living conditions on other planets—is possible. I think about technology and tech companies to envision the human experience of the world both online and offline in 20-200. These days, the bulk of my pleasure reading takes place in other worlds or universes. Traveling to the far-reaches of my imagination is one of my greatest joys in life. Those sealed-off places in my mind marked by signs reading “Beyond here be dragons” have taught me to look for magic wherever I go, be it in life or in story. This is why Revelation so captivates me. So today, we’re going to talk about a few things: Revelation and science fiction, prophecy and worldbuilding.

Science fiction uses a process called worldbuilding to hash out the details of setting. When creating a new world, writers must think about everything down to the smallest pieces of economics to make that world functional. When I write a story set on a planet that’s not Earth, I have to think about how different measures of gravity will affect what my characters wear. How atmospheric differences influence what they eat, which in turn influence how they look. I spend the most time thinking about how these differences make this world different from Earth. Who lives there? How do they communicate? What are their folktales? What do they know to be true about the universe? What is that planet’s relationship to Earth? There is always a relationship to Earth.

That relationship to Earth is what keeps both the reader and writer grounded in reality, as far-fetched as that may seem. Now, I’ve mentioned dragons a few times, and there is a dragon in Revelation. I want to be clear: dragons are usually an indicator of fantasy. Mythical creatures signal something completely outside the bounds of what is and what is possible. This is the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction’s foundational truths are ground in the reality of the writer. Fantasy allows both the writer and the reader to escape to those far-off, imaginary places. It’s escapist. I read fantasy to take myself completely out of the everyday world. Science fiction doesn’t necessarily allow for that separation.

Science fiction follows a trajectory from the present to the future. This distinction is important. Ethical questions hover near the surface of many science fiction novels. Fantasy novels pose ethical questions too, but they are easy to miss when engrossed in the story. The ethical questions posed by fantasy novels are restricted to that realm because they are so far removed from what we know to be reality. Science fiction is a speculative continuation of our reality. It pushes the reader to think in terms of “could be” based on observations of what already is. Let me say that another way. Science fiction reveals more about how both reader and writer see existing scientific innovations interacting with culture. It then posits an idea of where those innovations could—or will—lead. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) examines the question of being human through exploration of artificial intelligence and the consequences of nuclear fallout. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) delves deeply into the future of California’s economy and resource management in the wake of a violent society. Both of these novels take place in the 2020s. Both depict a frightening, amplified version of the writer’s reality. Two very different Californias written at different times, but still terrifying visions because of where the writer saw society at large heading. What’s more important, to the writer, both of these visions could have become true. If you haven’t read Parable of the Sower, I recommend it. I think that one might be coming true as we speak. I’ll get back to you in 2024.

There is a saying: “What was once science fiction becomes science fact.” It’s possible for the stuff of our wildest visions for the world to become real. Usually, wild thoughts about the future are shoved in the closet labeled “idealism.” Idealists are often criticized for thinking of different ways of being in the world. They are encouraged to think “realistically” and to “come back to earth.” My heart breaks over the possibilities that have been stifled because of some societal fear of thinking outside the box. As if breaking from what we know will be the end of the world as we know it, which it might be. Is that bad? How many times has the world as you’ve known it ended before you realized it was over? Maybe our world is ending. Without idealists, how do we envision what comes next?

Prophets were idealists. Sure, the vision John puts forth is far from ideal for our modern (or post-modern) sensibilities, but you can’t deny that it’s radically different from any world that has existed. He thought it possible to realize his vision and implored the seven churches in Asia to live in a way that would bring it about- That would bring a new heaven and a new earth. He engaged in his own worldbuilding by putting forth his vision of the New Jerusalem, and all that it would take to get there. The city falling to earth from heaven is metaphor for the human role in making its vision real. He left it up to the churches to figure that out. They had to decipher everything embedded in his vision and decide whether to take it up as their own.

I’ve emphasized that the reader plays a part in this as much as the writer. The writer puts the words on the page. The writer has a vision and shares it with the reader. It’s up to the reader to understand that vision and decide what to do with it. As hard as writing is, reading is harder. One of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut gave this advice to writers:

Pity the reader—Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

Readers have the hardest job of all: interpretation. They have to take everything that I’ve written in the context of their own lives and choose to see or not see that vision. I don’t see necessarily John’s vision as a reader, but his vision inspires me to see my own, and to build it. That’s the point of prophecy, to inspire the reader to change, to build a new world or, if you will, “worldbuild”. Both prophecy and science fiction make clear the choices that we have in front of us day in and day out. They ask us to examine our ways with the future in mind and to decide whether those ways are what we want our grandchildren and their children and their children’s children to be holding on to, or cleaning up after.

So, friends, here’s a charge: Go out and build a world today. Have a vision that’s beyond the reality that you know. Take the long, hard, scenic, route back to God and write it down. Read it aloud. Is it what you intended? Is it what you thought it would be? Is it what you want for the future? In making a world, you take the first steps of being a prophet, or at least participating in the prophetic mission of the church. So go! Be prophetic. Think wildly, and dream with as much of the broadness, length, depth, and height of God that you can.

Amen.

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