Revelation is Remix (Revelation 21-22)

Remix and Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait
Remix and Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait

The ‘Self-Portrait’ as Remix

A couple weeks back I showed you this image [Bob Dylan’s album titled Self-Portrait]. The cover image is one that Dylan himself painted. I couldn’t find any mention of who the cover was supposed to be, but it has a certain resemblance to Pablo Picasso’s own painting also titled “Self-Portrait.” When you line these two images side by side you can see that there is a borrowing or adaptation from the one painting to the other.

There is a second way that Dylan adapts and builds upon the works of others to make up this “self-portrait” album: It’s mostly a collection of other people’s songs slide*.

Of the 23 songs on the album I count seven that were ones that Dylan wrote himself. Another 5 of the songs are traditional folk songs, and the rest are cover songs put into his own folk-rock style from artists like Gordon Lightfoot, Cecil A. Null, Paul Simon, Quinn the Eskimo and others.**

So you have this “self-portrait” that is actually a composite of other singers and songs and styles that have presumably influenced or have some emotional attachment to Dylan’s own masterful career redone in his own style. Which for one is really just being honest, right?

I really like this idea of various threads from history that are brought together in a way that creates something new.

And this doesn’t only happen in Dylan’s music, it happens in every kind of music, literature, the visual arts, television,  movies, you name. Artists constantly draw on ideas, images, sounds and styles from other well-known art to make a point.

[Slide] Today we call this Remix. Remix means “to combine or edit existing material in a way that creates something new” Cf. Remix is everything.

Now you may have heard the word Remix from Hip-Hop, which is where the word originates. Today it has taken on a more popular usage to describe videos on YouTube, music of all kinds, novels, etc. and it even describes a culture where people take music, video, books, and builds on well-known beats, lyrics or stories to create something new.

A few examples:

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith).
  • Romeo and Juliet by Baz Burhmann.
  • The television show Grimm draws ideas from the old Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales to make a 21st century crime fiction that takes place in Portland, Oregon.
  • Fashion is always being remix – In the 1990s, when I was in high School a lot of us were going to the thrift shop and buying up all the old polyester shirts and valor suites, I had bell-bottoms I wore regularly, but then I’d add my own style in other ways.

Remix happens all over the place because remix is about building on what is already there, whether it is people, stories, texts, art, music, images, clothing – and then builds something new out of that. This is in contrast to say a “cover band” that uses other material and tries to keep it totally unchanged, or throw it all out and try to come up with something new from scratch (subsequently, we see both of these responses in the church as well).

Someone who makes a good remix is a person who is able to enter into the story that is already there but then finds ways to make it his or her own. It is about starting out with the pre-existing material but then being willing to adapt it in appropriate ways to keep it fresh and relevant.  When we talk about “authentic faith” we are talking about a person who is able to remix well – they are not simply a cover band, nor are they unhooked from history, tradition and community.

[Van Gogh Slide] In fact, Remix is in the bible. We see something like remix all throughout Jesus’s life. Jesus constantly tells parables that draw on well-known imagery, people and places: Samaritans, a well-travelled road into Jericho, the life of shepherds with sheep, goats and wolves, and farming imagery with seeds, but then he tells the story in a way where there is a hidden shock within it.

People were used to hearing stories one way, Jesus uses the medium of story but then changes the pattern so they’d end in a completely different way – as we see in the Samaritan being the hero. Most people were used to hearing stories about how the powerful win, or God will smite you if you’re a wrong doer, Jesus flips these patterns on their head, he remixes them, to create a new story – where the heroes of the story are the least expected, the losers, the powerless, etc. God is not about smiting, but about forgiveness and reconciliation.

When Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” that’s “remix.”

Can you guess where I’m building too – Revelation is all remix [slide]. Just  like Bob Dylan’s self-portrait album made up of all kinds of little threads, histories, stories, images that flow together into a new picture, so also is Revelation a building upon pre-existing material, images, and stories to give us a new picture of who God is and who we are to be.

Revelation is Remix

Consider our passage for this morning, Revelation 21-22:5. This passage is bursting with biblical remix:

  • Then I saw a new heave and a new earth…“ // For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;”(Isaiah 65:17)
  • And the sea was no more (represents in ancient times a turbulent force and unrest) // “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.”
    (Psalms 29:3)
  • And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem… // Whole OT.
  • He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away ever tear from this eyes… // “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Ezekiel 37:26–27) // “Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:8) // “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”(Isaiah 35:10)

And we could continue on. There is the tree of life. We are told that God is alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. There is a river of life. There is this image of the lamb that is constantly mentioned both in Revelation and throughout OT, but then the image of the lamb is changed to a symbol of a “lamb that was slain” a image to guide the church’s own understanding of its role in the world as nonviolent, peaceful and reconciliatory. The image of Jesus from chapter as one with a sword hanging out of his mouth, feet of bronze, etc. complete remix (based largely on texts referenced from 1 Enoch).

[Slide] Here’s a list that Wes Howard-Brook compiled from Chapter 18 of the threads that are woven together to give us the critique of the economics of empire we learned about last week. [Slide]

From Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther "Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now."
From Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther “Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now.”

So why does this matter? Why is John weaving together all these threads, all these images, drawing on his tradition and his past like this?

For a first century Christian like John, history and tradition were essential to his identity, he drew on it in order to pay homage to it, in order to respect it.

This is almost completely foreign to those of us alive in the West today. We believe that the past, history, tradition, are bad words. We believe that we have no history, or we do what we can to escape it. It’s as the saying goes,

“We spend the first half of our lives running away from home, and the second half running towards it.”

If we start to talk about the injustices that happen in the history of this country, one of the first responses is “what does this have to do with me?” In such a mobile society as ours we detach from our families, from our history, from the earth at the drop of a hat. And if we don’t like this or that idea within a particular community, it is very easy to simply pack up and go somewhere else.

We are constantly trying to reinvent ourselves, start fresh, or have a clean slate but remix reminds us, just like the picture of Dylan’s album, that we do have histories, we are made up of many threads woven together into who we are AND God is making all of this new out of pre-existing material.

[Slide] So John doesn’t just simply  make Revelation a “covers” album, he doesn’t simply quote it and leave the old tradition the way it was, like a cover band would, he weaves these old threads into a new song, a new “Revelation” about God and God’s people who were living in a time of crushing empire.

John was so well steeped in his tradition, so deeply influenced by that particular way that he was able to create something new that revealed how God was working in their midst.

And what is this new thing he created? John tells his people (here in 21) living under the Roman empire in the first century that God’s holy city is coming down right in the middle of that Roman city. God is dwelling with you in the midst of all of that pain, suffering, and oppression. You are called to be faithful even when it seems like they are being crushed. Be that holy city and the light to the nations. Come out of empire. Reject the practices of the imperial religion leads into adultery. Be people who have no illusions in their eyes, don’t be duped by the emperor’s “sorcery.” Be that alternative community that rejects the beastly economics of the the empire and follow that little lamb that was slain. He will lead them to life and victory. This is happening right now, right here. You don’t have to wait. God is with you now. Now is the time of victory so live as though that reality is here.

In the End, the Beginning

I want to end this series on Revelation where I started it; just as Revelation itself ends at the beginning, with a tree of life in a garden and God dwelling with God’s people.

We began reflecting on this book out of a sense of being puzzled by Revelation. I was challenged to lean into the things that baffle me rather than simply rely on what it is I already know. I have to say that this study for me has been very very challenging but very life giving.

I wonder what has been important for you in this process of learning?

I actually think if we can get some of the misuses of this book out of the way, and realize that this was a book that was written to specific people in a specific time and place and it meant something to them, we can actually learn a whole lot from this book.

There are many questions from Revelation that still baffle me:

What does it mean for us to live as a community that is a counter-story to empire? How can we live non-violent lives that “acts in every situation in ways that honor our own as well as others’ souls?” How do we live out our own worshipful practices in ways that create something new in the world? How might we live in ways that reject the economics of empire, as we work to bring an end to oppression and poverty everywhere?

But as we close this morning, I want to ask something different [Slide]:

How might we enter into our Christian and Quaker story in deeper ways so that we might continue to create, or begin creating, our own remix that reveals and unmask in our time the things that John was concerned about in his time?

How might we live into the reality that God is already dwelling among us, that our imaginations are no longer marked by death or fear, that Jesus has overcome both death and fear, and that we have all we need right here before us to be the kind of church we are called to be?

Revelation is a Dylanesque “Self-portrait” of the early church wrestling with its texts and stories, with its many threads of diverse peoples, trying to make new meaning out of the world and understand what it means to be the people of God in their time.

What is our “self-portrait” today? God has woven many threads together into this portrait we call Camas Friends Church. And God is not yet done. We are once again invited to enter the story and to make it our own, not simply to cover the songs, or to throw them all away, but to create new beautiful music for those around us to hear. This invitation is always open. The door Jesus stands at never closes.

“Come. And let everyone who hears say, Come. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 22:17).

For the rest of the sermons in this series:

  1. Revelation 1: From Bafflement to Wonder
  2. Revelation 2-3: Darkness, Lampstands and Light
  3. Revelation 5: The Lamb that Was Slain
  4. Revelation 7: Finding Our New Song
  5. Revelation 12: Liturgy as Formation – What Are We Creating?
  6. Revelation 13, 18: Economics, Poverty and Crashing the Beast’s Party


*For one example compare the DooWop song “Let It Be Me” originally sung by Jill Corey with Dylan’s version of the same song.
**Slides can be found here.