Jay-Z aint got nothing on me: Revelation’s use of language
Two weeks ago, I said that Revelation was written in an already dominate style of Jewish apocalyptic, which we see in Daniel, and last week I briefly highlighted those distinguishing characteristics. I didn’t mention nationalism, which is true of Daniel, because it’s not true for Revelation, which is concerned with a nation not [‘ek tos’] out of this world. However, despite taking up most of the other aspects of Jewish apocalyptic, Christian apocalyptic literature also adds its own flair: they use language differently; and I’m not talking about Greek versus Hebrew.
Throwing off oppression
If you don’t recall, one of the key elements of apocalyptic literature is that it is from the perspective of the oppressed. In many ways it seeks to throw off oppression. The ones who seem defeated are actually triumphant. Those who are weak now will be lifted up. Those being persecuted will overcome and endure, if they remain faithful. All oppression will be overthrown (and is, in a very real sense, already overthrown). One of the most interesting examples of this is how the book of Revelation uses its language.
It is no secret that the Greek of Revelation is some of the most difficult in the New Testament. What is surprising to many, though, is that many of the words in Revelation don’t show up anywhere else in the bible, many of them don’t even show up in the written record we have other than here or there (and often times only in other Christian apocalyptic literature). This kind of thing happened in the apocalyptic sections of Joel (we are guessing on the different types of locusts), but there, most scholars are pretty sure Joel is drawing on seldom used words. In Revelation, it seems like some of the words are just made up. In the early copies of the book, many of the words are misspelled. It’s not that the copyists and scribes were lazy or careless. They are intentionally misspelled. Not only is the language used symbolically, it is used to quite literally throw off oppression. The dominate language of the Roman Empire, the Empire that, with Nero, had begun to oppress Christians was being “flung off” through its intentional misuse. Even when they use standard language, though, these writers (including John) change what the words mean. Words of derision or things to be despised become badges of honor, or names they use in their community.
It’s like old school rap
A professor in college made this analogy once (Bobby Kelley), I was a bit incredulous, until he made me aware of the music of a group like public enemy (if you want to avoid offensive lyrics, stop the video at 1:30 because it starts the song “fight the power” which does contain some “course” language):
Now if we look at that we see a few things. Sirens blaring, a voice saying “this time the revolution will not be televised.” What revolution? People coming out in military uniforms. In 2008 it may be nostalgia for their older album, in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, (and in some places even today), this was an oppressed group (the African American population) taking back power. Even the next song is politically charged from a group who saw themselves as part of a struggle against those who would beat a man for being black (Rodney King). That’s why they “fight the power.”
In the same way, the members of Public Enemy (despite the behavior of Flavor Flav), are incredibly intelligent. They don’t use language in its nontraditional sense because they don’t know any better, but specifically because they refuse to talk like their white oppressors (this coming from a WASP). It is a power move. Giving power to the powerless. While later groups would take a more explicitly violent turn (the so-called “gangsta rap”) the early pioneers were more about gaining power now through rhetoric and political mobilization. Even the use of different words, like the N-word, a terrible insult in its initial intent, suddenly is adopted by some rappers and becomes “their word.” I can’t use it anymore (not that I ever did) because they’ve taken control of it. Let’s bring this more up to date.
While a lot of modern rappers don’t fit this same mode of giving power to the powerless, I think Jay-Z perhaps does so best (at least some times). Let’s take a few examples.
In his song “Brush your shoulders off,” Jay-Z takes the word “pimp” a derisive term referring to criminal activity and often used to demean the style of clothes some African Americans wore, and redefines it (or builds on earlier redefinitions):
If you’re feelin’ like a pimp,
Go on brush your shoulders off.
Ladies is pimps too.
Go on brush your shoulders off.
This is crazy baby, don’t forget that Jay told ya
Get/ that/ dirt off your shoulders.
In the song, he is telling people to stand tall. To let the insults and problems of the world roll off because they are a “pimp” which has suddenly (or rather, over the years) become a positive term. One more example, but I won’t quote the lyrics.
In “99 problems,” Jay-Z relays a variety of problems he is having, mostly related to being poor, young, or black. The tag line, which is catchy, is in effect that despite these problems he feels bad for those whose “girl problems” are so bad they feel they need to insult and demean the women in their life.
His point is not to say that he has his woman in line (like a dog), or has no girlfriend, but to say that he doesn’t view his relationship as a problem. It’s a wake-up call to say, in effect, “quit complaining about minor things, or insulting each other, we have real genuine problems that need addressing,” though delivered in a much more catchy way than that.
This is how Revelation should be read. As though you are a young black man in the early 80s listening to a rap record for the first time. Revelation was written to and for an oppressed people group (Christians) to show them that they weren’t really oppressed, they needed to stay together, and that they were winning the fight (which is not against flesh and blood). The analogy doesn’t carry all the way, but it does at key points.
Disclaimer: If you look up the lyrics to these songs, be warned they are very crass and use a lot of foul language. I am not saying they are “Christian” musicians, per se, but trying to give a more contemporary example of how a medium was used in order to help give a better picture of what John’s intent was with the book of Revelation.