1. That the Book of Revelation was, like all works in the apocalyptic genre, primarily a poetic work rather than a prose work and that that matters when it comes to how you interpret it;
2. That a poetic work cannot be quantified in the way a prose work can and that therefore any attempt to interpret it as if it were prose is doomed from the beginning; and
3. That dispensationalists (like Harold Camping), because of their modernistic tendency to quantify the unquantifiable by treating poetic works as if they are prose, are particularly prone to this, as evidenced by the failed May 21 prediction.
Now I anticipated some misunderstandings of my statements here in part because most of us now are literary eunuchs, having been poetically castrated by a public education establishment that is not only incapable of simply teaching children to read and write, but which has given up on passing on Western culture, a significant aspect of which is its poetry.
We are the first generation that does not read poetry. All ages prior to our own read and understood poetry and were therefore familiar with poetic idiom. And since we don't read it, we don't understand it. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that poetic understanding is essential to a Christian worldview, since large swaths of Scriptural Revelation employ it and if we do not understand how it works, then we cannot understand large swaths of the Revelation.
I have only begun to realize the tragedy of this over the last 10 or 15 years as I have gone back and gotten the education I never got by reading Dante and Milton, and Eliot, as well as Yeats and Berry, and Wilbur.
So, in other words, I am not at all shocked that my comments here are misunderstood.
But let me address one of the comments here. One of my interlocutors, Lee, said the following:
One could read your post, Martin, and come away thinking that you believe poetic content is all that there is in Revelation. But I don't think John was so much a poet as he was the last of the great, fulminating Old Testament prophets. Much of the imagery he employs is in the style of earlier prophets predicting the end of great cities such as Babylon and Ninevah.First of all, this statement assumes that the Old Testament prophets were not themselves using poetic expression. They clearly were. Ezekiel is probably the most obvious example of this.
Second, poetic expression does not limit the message of the author. To say that "poetic content is all there is" is to betray the belief that poetry is somehow more limited in its ability to communicate a thought than prose. As Chesterton has put it, "The aim of good prose words is to mean what they say. The aim of good poetical words is to mean what they do not say." Well, what does that mean? For one thing, it means that poetic expression can communicate a lot more than prose because there are many more things a word does not mean than things that it does mean.
But let me see if I can articulate what poetic expression consists of to make my point clearer.
What I think Chesterton is saying is that poetic expression is analogical in nature, not univocal. That just means that the words it uses invoke a resemblance which many times cannot be completely captured by rational prose words. Poetic expression also has a different purpose: it is meant to appeal to the imagination and not the intellect. If I say
Love is a rose, but you better not pick itThis is not saying that love actually is a physical flower. It is saying that there is a relationship between the flower and the picking of it in the physical world that is similar to the relationship between the beloved and the act of trying to possess her. That "You'll lose your love when you say the word 'mine'." I have compared love to a flower, which, like love, often seems to wilt when we try to possess it. But saying it in this latter way is somehow insufficient. It does not encompass the full import or effect of the poetic expression because some truths are better apprehended by seeing them through the imagination than by understanding them through the intellect.
It only grows when it's on the vine
The "Love is a rose" example is a fairly direct kind of poetic expression. It is almost telling us what it is doing. "Love is a rose" is just one step away from saying "Love is like a rose," which would turn it from poetry to prose--and which would break the enchantment, because it would no longer be seen in soft light of imagination, but under the rude glare of the intellect.
Most poetry is not that obvious. It doesn't bother to telegraph what it is doing. It just leaps directly into the metaphorical:
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.This is about the purest form of poetry you can find. If you try to perform your intellectual surgery on it, you will kill it. It is meant for your imagination and the tool of the imagination is analogy, not analysis. To try to turn it into something univocal is like trying to grasp a bubble: it will disappear the moment you touch it.
This doesn't imply that the passage doesn't mean anything or that it means less than it otherwise would or that it doesn't communicate a truth. It most definitely means something--something more and maybe something less that what a poetically challenged person might want to attribute to it. But the main point is that its meaning will be most fully understood by taking it for what it is: an appeal to the imagination, and its meaning is just as likely to be misunderstood by treating it as an appeal to the intellect.