Simon & Garfunkel, Daniel & John (from Chapter Five)

I purchased my first record album in junior high school, a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s immensely popular Bridge Over Troubled Water. I did not own a proper stereo; instead, I listened to the record on a chunky box phonograph that made up in volume what it lacked in fidelity. Its two-pound (or so it seemed) tonearm lumbered across the black vinyl like a ten-ton diesel rumbling over asphalt. I listened to the album hundreds of times, finding ever-new ways to apply the lyrics to the circumstances of my life (quite a stretch in the case of Cecilia!). It was as though Paul Simon had written with me specifically in mind.

Many years later, I bought a good stereo with a compact disc player. Of course, one of my first CD purchases was Bridge Over Troubled Water. I was surprised to hear all sorts of things that I had missed previously, such as Art Garfunkel drawing breath. The same was true for CDs of other familiar records. In no time at all, I became an audio deconstructionist, disassembling each song and analyzing its sonic bits and pieces. (Good bass line here, sloppy chord there.) It took me a while to get back to listening to music. In time, I came to appreciate the fact that my stereo’s increased fidelity had ushered me closer to the original performance, whose occasional imperfections were now more audible. At the same time, it made what was good, such as Simon and Garfunkel harmonies, that much better. It also enabled me to understand lyrics that I had been mis-singing for years. (There is a line in Vanity Fare’s Hitchin’ a Ride that I recall with particular mortification.)

The day that I began academic study of the Bible was much like the day that I purchased my first good stereo. Initially, the experience was disorienting and disconcerting. I had already attended countless Bible studies; certainly, I knew the Bible well on one level, much as I seemed to know Bridge Over Troubled Water inside out as a teenager. For a while, biblical scholarship appeared only to dismantle Scripture and to distance me from it. Once again, it took time to hear the music, to learn that God could speak through a text whose limitations had previously been masked. I came to see that careful biblical study can remove layers of distortion, taking us closer to the original performance, allowing us to hear the notes more clearly, helping us to get the lyrics right.

Few books of the Bible are heard more differently with the instrument of modern scholarship than are Daniel and Revelation. Because the disparity in perception is so great, it is easy to understand why many traditional interpreters have viewed mainstream biblical scholarship with suspicion and even animosity. At first encounter, the academic study of these books can seem a wholly negative enterprise, an exercise in demolition and debunking. For many, it follows that these are not only the effects but also the goals of scholarship. I do not deny that there are scholars at war with Christian faith, but they constitute a relatively small but often vocal minority. In fact, scholars may be found all along the spectrum of belief and religious practice. Moreover, it is important to recognize that biblical scholarship uncovers more difficulties than it manages to create. The complications are already there, and a faithful reading of Scripture must take an honest account of them. The problem with many highly conservative readings of the Bible is not that they are so conservative but that they are so often inaccurate.

The question that divides traditional and modern interpreters is this: Are Daniel and Revelation principally books of historical foresight or theological insight?1 The great majority of popular writers assume the former, viewing the biblical apocalypses as End Times road maps that reliably depict the sequence of events leading up to and extending beyond the return of Christ. Invariably, such interpreters recognize in Daniel and Revelation a description of their own historical terrain, meaning that the time of tribulation is at hand, the beast or antichrist is alive in the world, and Armageddon is fast approaching. Needless to say, every such interpretation has been proved wrong historically. Still, one ought never to underestimate the buoyancy of such thinking; it is as unsinkable as Styrofoam. The map itself is perfectly accurate; the fault lies with each and every navigator who has ever used it.