Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Daniel 7) transports me to an old Shrine Club building converted into a sanctuary for a fledgling group starting a new church, (the beginnings of Reynolds Baptist). I was a pre-teen, not sure how old, but I remember riding up a steep gravel road every Wednesday evening to get to that sacred space, where my Uncle Don would lead us in singing shaped-note gospel songs, and then my Dad would commence teaching his way through the veiled mysteries of apocalyptic literature, primarily Daniel and Revelation. Thinking about how child-centric churches are today, the experience feels so counter-cultural, with the 7 or 8 year-olds sitting there and participating in the adult service, singing old-timey songs and listening to obscure conversations about strange scenarios and faith-filled fantasies that rarely made sense to the adults, much less the youngsters.
When I read this passage in Daniel, though, I can get a glimpse as to how the experience could have been tolerable for a kid with an active imagination. Four great beasts rise up out of the sea – sounds like the start of a good Shock Theater matinee on a Saturday afternoon. First a winged lion eats the heart of a man. Then a bear rises up on its hind legs and has three bloody ribs hanging out of its mouth, followed by a winged leopard with four heads coming on the scene and finally the most terrible of all, a trampling beast with iron teeth and ten horns. I don’t tend to remember my dreams, but I suspect these monsters showed up in my dreamland, and they probably haunted my waking hours as well.
One thing that strikes me about this memory is the very fact that a group of fifteen or twenty working-class people maintained a continuing fascination with such an alien text, far removed from their world in so many ways. Daniel’s apocalypse was a genre formed out of ancient Near Eastern political realities, using symbolism completely foreign to our culture. And yet here were these people gathering together every Wednesday to try and wrap their minds around it one more time. And between Wednesdays, there was Daddy, coming home from work every evening and surrounding himself with three or four Bibles in different translations and a dozen or so commentaries on the apocalyptic books. He would spread them all out and read and riddle and reason through the scholarship and speculation about the passages.
His group of learners were all manual laborers: a lineman for the power company, a farmer, a beautician, a mill worker, a fire fighter. I think about this because I heard a radio interview this week with Mike Rose, who wrote The Mind at Work, a book about the particular kinds of intelligences used by those not considered part of the intelligentsia. The people gathered in the old Shrine Club building were the “voc ed” folk of their time, labeled as people who “think with their hands” as opposed to the “abstract thinkers.” And yet here they were, in the most abstract discussions and analyses you could imagine. Their very fascination with the fantasy world of a slave boy in an ancient Near Eastern empire made more of an impression on me than any particular interpretation or understanding they gleaned from the reading.
Besides an appreciation for the keen minds of the “hand-minded” folk I grew up with, what did I learn from listening in on these Wednesday conversations about beasts and Babylonian brute power? I learned that there is an invisible World that is more real than the world we’re living in, and there is an invisible Administration that has more authority than the administrations we elect. I learned that people who are in tune to this other World have the courage to speak alternative truths and live alternate lifestyles, consequences be damned, because of a defiant hope that Truth will ultimately win out. I learned that all evidence to the contrary, God is constantly at work in the world, weaving a holy and beloved community out of the unholy threads of human history. So don’t fret, don’t worry. Don’t get too roiled up over the craziness of world systems. The scary beasts will meet their match. They will be shocked by the theatrics of faith, hope, and love.
As always, feedback and comments are welcome.