Double Vision Check
by Sean Johnson
Recently, some comments from Peter Leithart got me thinking about the ways different folks interpret Revelation, which in turn got me thinking about the ways they interpret current events. It seemed, in my armchair musings, that our interpretations of the news have a lot to do with our eschatology, and I’m not just talking about the 666-handbasket-of-the-whore-of-Babylon-Five folks, either. Having a linear view of history, the Church strives to understand the world and its workings in light of the point on the end of that—the culmination of history in the Lord’s final appearing. In as much as attempts are made to see the world in this way, folks generally separate pretty clearly into two groups. There are the dispensational, premillennial types who, believing the end times to be imminent, more often than not treat the interpretation of current events like a kind of code breaking exercise. How does this disaster or that war or those new technologies line up with this verse or that symbol to tell us when Jesus is coming back? And then there are the postmillennial types who, believing that the second coming is a long way off and that the ‘codex’—John’s Apocalypse—was largely dealing with something that happened in 70 AD, aren’t looking for much in the way of biblical signs at all. And there’s a danger there.
Instead, some in that latter group tend to want to see only the shadow meaning. By ‘shadow meaning’ I mean the evil machinations of men, the orchestrations and the cover-ups, etc. We all know that guy; a lot of us probably are that guy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with clear eyes; Christians are called, after all, to be shrewd like the serpent. However, if and when we find ourselves tending to look first for the shadow meaning, we might do well to take some instruction from the late, great Flannery O’Connor in the form of remarks from her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Though she speaks to and about writers, the heart of good writing (as she herself mentions, near the end of the passage) is in how we see the world.
The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called the anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation. The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called anagogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have a chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature. It seems to be a paradox that the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction. (Mystery and Manners 72)
Since we strive for that large and complex view of life that includes “most possibilities,” there is room for the shadowy possibilities, justification for finding the shadow meanings in the events that unfold around us—we rightly acknowledge that wicked men exist, and that they do wicked things (often in secret). But preoccupation with reading those meanings as the chief significance of a given event tells a Manichean lie about the nature of the world. We ought to cultivate, first, the anagogical vision that allows us to see all levels in a given image or situation. When the curtain is pulled back you don’t see evil men and the devils behind them, their reality is thin, their wickedness and their plots only go one level deep. When the curtain is pulled back, what we see is the work of the sovereign Lord and his angels. This is the more important vision, and the one that should be ever before our eyes.
As it is, journalism and blog-fodder concerned with shadow meanings proliferates. I am thankful for the Kuyperian Commentary contributors who, I believe, already succeed often and winsomely in this area, and I look forward to more outlets that will multiply visions of current events based in and upon “the Divine life and our participation in it.”
Sean Johnson is a husband, father, and literary scholar who would like to congratulate himself for making it to the end of this article without using the term “conspiracy theory.”