The 2013 Cole Lectures were delivered on October 3-4 by renowned scholar Elaine Pagels, author of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation. In her first lecture titled “Art, Music and Politics in the Book of Revelation,” Pagels addressed the imagery, music, and questions about the author of Revelation before she examined the conditions under which the text was written and the ways Christians have read these Scriptures. Her second lecture, “New Reflections on Gospel Traditions: The Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas,” explored the relationship of the Gospel of Thomas to the New Testament Gospel of John and reasons why the Book of Thomas is not included in the canon.
Pagels challenged the audience to engage with these texts in a way that acknowledges the hermeneutics not only of the authors and generations of interpreters but also of those who had the power to construct the ways Biblical stories were (and were not) revealed. Following both lectures, she participated in a question and answer session with students who offered insights and questions regarding how marginalized persons reconcile their own hermeneutics with the hermeneutics of those in power.
I offer my reflection of how I interpret the whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation as a Black woman of the twenty-first century.
The Book of Revelation is composed of allegorical narratives. The story of the whore of Babylon depicts an evil adulterous woman near the end of time and who sits upon a seven-headed beast. Her abominable ways have contaminated the world, and ‘inhabitants of the earth’ have committed repulsive sins.
Biblical descriptions of the harlot and the beast produce images and provoke questions regarding symbolism. For centuries, interpreters have attempted to find the meaning behind the imagery. As Pagels states, there are several interpretations of this Biblical story. Some interpreters suggest the whore symbolizes the Roman Empire. Others contend that she represents the (Roman Catholic) Church. Interpreters also have concluded she is an exemplification of a Counter Catholic Church, a political power, a false imperial religion, and a false spiritual queen.
While both the study of eschatology and symbolism are essential to the Christian tradition, it is important that we analyze also the implications of having this character portrayed as a woman. No matter the interpretation, the whore is depicted as a harlot who deserves her downfall. This leads me to question the effects of having a promiscuous woman as a representation of a fallen world. Could interpretations of this metaphor in the twenty-first century potentially harm women and their sexuality?
In contemporary Black Entertainment, Black women in music videos are portrayed as hyper-sexualized demonic figures, much like the whore of Babylon. The interpretations of ‘Art, Music, and the Politics’ of Black Entertainment in both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have led many to demean Black women and deem them as less sacred because of the way they use their flesh. Both “the mother of the prostitutes and abominations of the earth” (the whore of Babylon) and “video honeys” are depicted as women who are less worthy—both in the Church and the broader (Christian) community. This is because the woman’s flesh is depicted as sinful and antichrist-like; therefore, when she uses her flesh—outside of being subjected institutionally to a man—she is represented Biblically as the embodiment of sin.
Such metaphors have allowed “sacred” communities to support patriarchal notions and to re-interpret and perpetuate disfigured images as opposed to valid, holistic depictions of Black women. As a Christian community, we must confront patriarchy’s role in the Bible and challenge the representations which suggest that (Black) women embody sin in and through their flesh and that these images are acceptable, unilateral representations of Black women who deserve to be damned. The work of the Church is to rescue people from downfall, and this cannot happen if we deem (Black) women as unworthy of deliverance. We must, therefore, work to re-interpret this story, through a different set of lens, and pay attention both to the ways we may be associating Biblical metaphors with daily lives and the ways we have negated, and are currently negating, holistic interpretations of Black women.
by Shakiya Lavonne Canty MDiv1