Lessons Of Revelation’s Seven Churches
Greetings from the Istanbul airport, where I'm waiting to catch a flight back to Budapest. I've been traveling around southwest Turkey this past week, on a tour of the Seven Churches of Revelation -- that is, the ruins of the ancient cities of Smyrna, Ephesus, Pergamom, Philadelphia, Thyatira, Laodicea, and Sardis. (The image above is of a snail I met in the ruins of Laodicea.) The Book of Revelation begins with a message from Jesus Christ to the churches in these Asia Minor cities:
I've been writing about the exclusively spiritual aspects of this journey on my Substack newsletter, but I'm going to modify some of that subscriber-only content and move it over here later today. It has been a profoundly interesting and moving trip. I cannot urge Christian readers strongly enough to come to Turkey and visit these key sites of the early Church. However much you may know about it, there is nothing like walking the same paved roads that St. Paul walked. I'll say more about details in subsequent posts, but here let me just say that if you've been thinking about making a trip like this, absolutely do it! You'll never forget it. (But hire a guide -- you could do it on your own, but it's much, much easier, and more rewarding, with a trained guide. More on this later.)
At night back in the hotels, I've looked at Twitter and scanned news sites to see what's happening back home in America. I've also been reading N.T. Wright's helpful little book Revelation For Everyone, a kind of "Apocalypse For Dummies" guide that makes the basic message of Revelation comprehensible to amateurs like me, without condescending. Wright emphasizes strongly that St. John wrote that letter to the Asia Minor churches, detailing his apocalyptic vision, because he wanted them to understand that they were intimately involved in a spiritual war going on all around them. ("Apocalypse" means "unveiling".) The vivid symbolism and imagery of Revelation (also called Apocalypse in some Bibles) is difficult to decipher, though Wright gamely tries. He keeps coming back to the fundamental message, though: You are in an intense war. What happens on earth is mirrored by what's happening in heaven -- that is, the spiritual realm. You are going to suffer terrible persecution, so get ready for it, and don't give in. Jesus has already won the battle. Though hard times are coming, God's justice will prevail. Do not be discouraged by the grim things you will live through, for "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed" (Rev. 5:5).
Reading the headlines from back home, while also reading Wright as my companion through the ruins of the ancient cities, gave me a certain angle on the times we're in now. No, I'm not going to claim that we are in the Last Days, in a specific sense -- that is, like TV evangelists say. We might be, but it's easy to get lost down that rabbit hole. What I did take away from this trip is a stronger sense of the spiritual meaning of the collapse of Western civilization. Again, I'll say more about this in subsequent posts, but I want to get those preliminaries out of the way before I say the following.
In the past few days, I saw news stories about the Nazi-like euthanasia program in Canada, in which the disabled and the infirm are being encouraged to accept state help in killing themselves. "Nazi-like"? In Canada? Yes. The Canadian state, and the great and the good in that pathologically nice country, have decided that there are some lives unworthy of life, and want to ease the transitus of those lives into death. Now they're talking about "psychiatric euthanasia" -- that is, state-assisted self-murder for depressives. There was a headline this week -- I can't find the article now, and I need to get this posted before I go to the airport -- praising the MAID (assisted suicide) program for all the money in health care costs it will save if the very sick are persuaded to kill themselves before the cost themselves and the state too much money.
This is happening in an advanced Western country. And Canada, of course, is not the only one.
One of the pleasant parts of this trip has been being able to talk to Turkish people along the way. A few days ago, after lunch in a crowded restaurant, a Turkish gentleman asked me politely to explain gender ideology to him. He was convinced that somebody must be paying people a lot of money to endorse transgenderism, including chemical and surgical interventions for minors. I realized in our conversation that he literally could not fathom how any sane society would do this to itself. For him, it could only be explained by bribery. As I listened to him and tried to explain that this is what happens when a morally and intellectually corrupt elite gain control of the key institutions of society, I realized that this Turk had more common sense than many Americans. Moreover, he still had a sense of moral horror at what the United States and Western Europe are doing; far too many of us Americans have lost our sense of horror. (On the other hand, a Turkish man with whom I recalled this conversation mentioned that in some places in Turkey, on intake forms, people are invited to declare their genders outside the male-female binary, "and our government does nothing," he said, conveying that even a supposedly Islamist government doesn't care). And as the first Muslim man talked about how the West treated Qatar during the World Cup over LGBT issues, I once again was faced with the total hypocrisy of Western liberals, regarding "diversity" and "inclusivity."
Along those lines, did you see this?
This is an evil woman. A racist woman. If she were white and saying such things, she would be fired in a flash -- and should be. But our society and culture are ruled by people who praise anti-white racism, and reward it. Rutgers, her employer, is proud of her. It must be, because she has been gassing on like that for years, and nobody who runs Rutgers cares. The kind of rhetoric we hear from her is fairly common now, certainly among elites. The Regime is fine with anti-white hate. The man who just won the US Senate runoff in Georgia, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, once gave a sermon in which he condemned "whiteness" -- with the media and academic elites rushing to say that he was not talking about white people per se. Oh. Now, allow a prominent pastor or politician to condemn "blackness," and associate that with the worst things about the culture of black people, and see how long that figure lasts in public life. It's a sham. The people who run this country -- Democrats, Big Business, academia, the media, et alia -- are anti-white racists. They just are.
You know where I stand on white supremacy (e.g., last week, I laid into the ex-headmaster of my kids' former school for his anti-black, anti-Jewish rhetoric spouted under an online pseudonym, and wrote that we on the Right cannot tolerate racism in our ranks, even if the Left tolerates it in theirs.) Nevertheless, we are now living through a revolution in American culture in which people can have their careers ruined on spurious allegations of "racism". This just broke yesterday; a prominent figure in the world of psychology has been ruined because he simply asked, in his capacity as editor of a psychology journal, for others within the field to offer criticism of the work of a black psychologist. Not the man himself, but his work. The black psychologist alleged that this was a racist act! In other words, simply to criticize a black man is racist, in the eyes of these people. Over 1,000 psychologists signed a petition demanding the editor's firing. Click here to read the whole story:
It must be great to have the kind of privilege that allows you to call any criticism of your work "racist," and to cost a colleague his job and his good name. But his is the Left's idea of justice. This is the ruling class's idea of justice. I cannot for the life of me understand why so many of my fellow conservative Christians don't see what's happening, and fight it. Cud-chewers, the lot.
If you have any sense of history, you can't help but worry that those in power are preparing the American people for something ugly. The Holocaust did not happen overnight. It came after a couple decades of anti-Jewish rhetoric in German public life, steadily getting worse. Now, I do not think a Holocaust is going to happen here. Jews were a defenseless minority in Nazi Germany. My point is simply that you can't have rhetoric that systematically demeans and demonizes a group of people solely on the basis of their race, without inviting nasty demons to manifest.
My TAC podcast partner Kale Zelden texted me the other day:
from one of our listeners: "Just a note to you about your most recent podcast w/ Rod and the conjuring up of white supremacy: I’ve noticed that my younger male co-workers are like, straight-up racist anti-Semitic white supremacists. Like, for real. They just came out of college and have been steeped in the anti-white stuff in school their whole lives. I left school in 2007, I was raised in the 90s, I got the MLK thing too, but that shifted right after I left, I think. I don’t agree with them, obviously, but like, I get it. If you’ve been hit over the head with anti-white racism under the guise of DEI for 15 years, like, yeah, obviously, a lot of people are going to be like, ok, well, if this is the game, I’m going to play the game. Ugly stuff."
It's happening, and the Left has played a big role in the radicalization of these white males. You think that conservative Christians like me have any authority with these young people? No. None. They see us as useless idiots. I said it the other day, and I'll say it again: Ross Douthat's warning to the Left -- that if they didn't like the Religious Right, wait until they see the Post-Religious Right -- is coming true before our eyes. Thomas Achord, the Christian school headmaster whose secret online life as a far-right race radical came to light last week, might be persuaded to repent from that evil, because he acknowledges a greater authority than himself. These young men who have no religion, or no binding religious commitment, have nothing to pull them back. Absent a higher moral commitment, and with the belief that this world is all there is, why shouldn't they play by the same rules that the postliberal Left grants itself?
We are in an extraordinarily dangerous situation, and relatively few people seem to know it. Mary Harrington has a characteristically smart column today in which she analyzes the Elon Musk contretemps with the liberal establishment in terms of broader postliberal politics. Excerpt:
Is it okay to be authoritarian, as long as it’s in the name of the right moral values? Some “post-liberal’ conservatives would say so. America might have been founded on the liberal separation of church and state, the argument goes, but that’s running out of road. Instead, to save the American polity and way of life, church and state should once again draw together.
But if there’s one lesson we should take from the ongoing spectacle surrounding the Hunter Biden laptop, it’s not the avalanche of claims and counter-claims about censorship or bias, or the sulphurous accusation of stolen elections. It’s that polite proposals about a bit more Christianity in the public square are hopelessly behind the times. All of politics is already post-liberal, and mainstream power has already explicitly embraced a faith-based moral order.
Her column is about how the digital world is bringing about the end of liberalism, and the rise of open elite autocratic rule. She says she's not happy about it, but this is where digital technology has brought us. Harrington says that Elon Musk's actions with Twitter are not only revealing how illiberal and anti-democratic the progressives who ran pre-Musk Twitter were, but are also revealing that somebody is going to have to be making the rules. You might say that the myth of liberal neutrality is at long last exposed; as Shadi Hamid has said, "Liberalism looks neutral only to people who are already liberals."
Now, take a look at N.S. Lyons's remarks, following on Niccolo Soldo's insights (the links are in Lyons's piece), about the relative strength of the American regime. Lyons writes that despite the appearance of elite decadence, the ruling class and its woke ideology are very strong. Excerpt:
We are more likely living through a great centralization of power than its collapse. So yes, we’re in something like a peak imperial (and post-republic) phase, not the crumbling end of empire, yet. And in this context perhaps the ideological upheaval now plaguing the West is simply a function of the ruling imperial elite sensing the time has come where they can finally abandon any restraint in using state power to force their favored cult religio-ideological beliefs on the rest of the world, including on their own wayward provincials.
So Niccolo’s Roman analogy would maybe better be adapted to say that we’re simultaneously at some post-Constantinian point, where the Imperial Center has already converted and all the old temples are being systematically strangled, emptied out, and torn down to make way for the new faith. (Niccolo has a great series of posts reviewing Edward Watts marvelous The Final Pagan Generation, so he knows what’s up).
Why strong? Well, have you seen how weak conservatives are? The woke control all the gates -- that is, access to the desirable professions. They control the credentialing bodies. They control the dream factories. They control the narrative-making institutions. And as our society becomes more dependent on digital technology to buy and sell, they are going to control access to the marketplace, such that you will not be able to buy and sell if you don't accept their ideology. If you want to succeed in this present and emerging society, you had better conform to the new religion (Wokeness). America is still a somewhat Christian country, so where are the Christians? Keeping their heads down, trying hard to be winsome enough not to be hated by those in power.
(On that front, if it's not paywalled, take a look at Tish Harrison Warren's reasonable, irenic NYT column trying to balance religious liberty and gay rights. Tish, an Anglican priest whom I know, like, and respect, is the very embodiment of compassion and winsomeness, but if you read the comments, you'll see that hundreds of Times readers denounced her as a raging bigot because she refused to give LGBT hardliners what they demand. This is what we face. Not every liberal feels this way, but illiberal leftism -- wokeness -- has all the energy and power now. They are not going to give us any quarter.)
N.S. Lyons recommends Soldo's series on The Final Pagan Generation -- and as a Fisted By Foucault subscriber, so do I. I've written off and on for years about that great book. Christians today are like the final pagan generation: sleepwalking into oblivion, thinking that things will always be basically okay for us, because they always have been. And so, this is the mindset I took into my visit to the Seven Churches of Revelation -- that is, to the remains of the settlements where the early Church settled in the Asia Minor part of the Roman Empire, and where they lived as dissident outsiders, hated and persecuted because they would not acknowledge Caesar as a god.
The only way Rome could rule its wildly diverse empire was through emperor-worship. It was happy to let local people worship their own deities, as long as they included emperor-worship in their pantheon. The Christians could not do this, and would not do this. Had they been content, as Jews were, to keep their "atheism" (from a pagan perspective) to themselves, strictly within their own ethnic community, they might have been tolerated. But they wouldn't. They evangelized. They believed that their religion was universally true, and exclusive. They wanted others to believe in it, and find the true God there. The Romans quite rightly saw Christianity as a threat to imperial values, and persecuted them mercilessly. The Book of Revelation was meant for them specifically, and for the Church in general, to strengthen it in the face of persecution.
Again, I'm not going to speculate on whether we are presently in the End Times prophesied in the Bible. We may or may not be in THE End, but we are most definitely in AN end in the West. Our civilization is undergoing a rapid revolution as consequential as the fourth-century turn from paganism to Christianity. We are rapidly repaganizing, moving back to Greco-Roman ideas of the meaning of human life, and of sexuality. This is not going to be a kindly paganism -- nor will the right-wing paganism that arises to fight it.
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And this is why I tell you that in this past week, I have learned what the Seven Churches of Revelation have to say to Christians -- and to Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and others who consider themselves to be strongly counter to the majority culture -- in our time. Stay tuned.
Note: after hours of trying to post this, I gave up, and will just post it when I get home to Budapest. The Istanbul airport has many virtues, but reliable wifi ain't one of them.