Foreword to The Chaining of the Dragon
The Book of Revelation is one of the most remarkable and upsetting books in the collection of writings revered for nearly two millennia in the Christian West as the Holy Scripture. Brief as it is—no more than twenty pages in most editions of the Bible—Revelation has given rise over the centuries to the most passionate and diverse responses. It has inspired great art, from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel to the poetry and sketches of William Blake. On the other hand, it has, especially in our modern world so influenced by scientific rationality, excited the disgust and rejection of many. The great twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead proposed that Revelation, with its depiction of eruptions of powerful irrational forces from the beyond, be deleted from the Bible in favor of a more “civilized” text from classical Greece. Those church fathers who finally decided on the scriptural canon certainly succeeded in concluding it with a bang: few individuals who consider themselves spiritual or religious remain indifferent to the extremes of the Book of Revelation.
“Revelation” is itself, as a translation of the Greek title, a civilized watering down of the original meaning. The literal translation is “Apocalypse.” In the Greek, this word refers to the unveiling, through John, a disciple of Jesus, of that which has been concealed, the final and sudden clarifying of the mystery of human existence. The book purports to uncover the true meaning of human history by depicting the events of the “end of the world” and the arrival of a “new heaven and a new earth.” It does so in a series of visions, symbols, hymns, and brief, dense narratives which leave the reader quite breathless and overwhelmed if he or she attempts to go through them all at one or even several sittings. Through the centuries, thousands of commentaries purporting to help readers decipher what the book “really” means have been composed and published. Ralph Schreiber’s work is a fascinating and moving contribution to this body of literature.
Many of the images of Revelation are of sublime beauty. But many others display terrifying, bloody, and cataclysmic violence. It is the latter which have caused many devout people of a more peaceable temperament to turn away from John‘s writing. Because shalom, or full peace with true justiceand well-being for all, is frequently described in the Bible as the goal of God’s creation and work, people concerned for the destiny of humankind have frequently been reluctant to face the message of its concluding book, which seems to convey that the final peace will not come without horrendous conflicts and mass destruction. A look at Christian history also reveals, however, that a number of radical social movements have availed themselves of the visions of Revelation to legitimate their programs for change—and sometimes their violent methods in bringing about such change. It is perhaps a measure of the darkness of our human condition that the understandings even of different groups within the Christian Church have clashed so forcefully over the Book of Revelation.
It is, then, no small thing when an adherent of an altogether different religious faith and tradition regards the Book of Revelation as important enough to merit detailed and lengthy interpretation. Ralph Schreiber comes to Revelation as a Bahá’í. The Bahá’í Faith is a new world religion by the measure of the centuries. Unlike many in the modern Christian Church, he neither turns away from Revelation because of its highly violent themes and images, nor is he content with the idea that this document describes what will happen all at once at some future time, indeed at the “end of the world.” Instead, Schreiber contends that Revelation describes, in symbolic terms, which can be clearly interpreted, the actual course of human history, as we know it. In this, the author is expressing the distinctive Bahá’í point of view, which is that history is a series of progressive acts by God through which He brings humankind to ever-higher levels of unity, wholeness, and fulfillment. This book is a beautiful example of the Bahá’í vision of God’s preparation of humanity for Himself, his Glory, and his Law. The preparation occurs precisely through the various great religious traditions as God causes them to come to birth, one after another, in the course of history. Perhaps no other religion on our planet has been so consistent and insistent in assigning a positive role in the divine plan to all the other faiths, as has Bahá’í in the short 150 years of its existence.
And yet the author understands very well that progressive revelation does not and cannot mean that the great spiritual testimonies of the past can be left behind and forgotten. On the contrary, each one contains important clues to the meaning of history, because each of them comes from God. Thus the Book of Revelation, with its panorama of warring angels, plagues, dragons, the deepest corruption and the highest transformation, helps us understand what came later in the very historical stream in which we are all immersed. For instance, the rise of Islam, a faith which until recently was virtually ignored by the Christian Church but can be so no longer! This book, as documented by Bahá’í Writings, claims to find the emergence and significance of Islam delineated in a book of the Christian Bible as something positive and meaningful for Christians and all human beings.
Another example is the coming of the Bábí revelation and of Bahá’u’lláh. Schreiber to Bahá’u’lláh applies the images in Revelation, which Christians interpret in terms of Christ’s heavenly transfigured existence and His expected return at the end of all history. Christ’s return does not mean, on this understanding, the end of history and the beginning of eternity, but rather the end of an era followed by a new and higher stage of human historical existence illuminated by this latest of God’s great prophets, Bahá’u’lláh. Schreiber interprets, correctly in my view, the cosmic reach of Revelation’s images as referring to the increasing globalization in a spiritual sense which the peoples of our planet are experiencing in these days.
Schreiber’s work has opened my eyes to a lack in the Christian understanding of history. We have not been diligent in finding biblical and theological meaning in what has happened since Jesus was among us on earth. We have not seen the hand of God or His heavenly host in the day-to-day, year-to-year, century-to-century events of our existence, but instead have consigned these to some profane realm apart from the divine leading and acting. Even though his expression of theology is at variance with current Christian formulations, Schreiber’s work enables us to grasp again the pro-found significance of the Book of Revelation, to regain the sense that the book is of the most immediate relevance to our religious, cultural, economic, and political lives. Reading Schreiber stirred again in me the deep excitement and sense of hope I once felt about the direction of events on earth. He helps us see again that even the deepest darkness, the deepest woe is for the sake of growth toward a full union of all humanity with one another in God.
May this book be but one of many in which the great Faiths carry humanity further into our glorious future by seeking out and finding new treasures of truth and meaning in one another. --Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Utter
Comments by the author
The Book of Revelation, which is the last book of the Bible, is about the road to the promised millennium. Although only chapter 20, out of twenty-two chapters, refers to the millennium, and then only indirectly without use of the identifying name, it is demonstrated that the Book of Revelation is about this expected event. Past views on the millennium have not been decisive as to whether the phenomenon will occur on earth, in heaven, or in both places, and much discussion has been made over when it should occur. These unresolved issues have been clarified because of the Bahá’í writings, which offer essential information on this subject.
As an aid to understanding, some explanation of this faith is offered: The Bábí faith like Christianity which had been raised from out of the Jewish faith, was born on May 22, 1844, AD from out of the Islamic faith. This momentous event occurred 2 hours and 11 minutes after sunset in Shíráz, Persia, when the Báb announced his mission to Mullá Husayn, his first believer and champion of his purpose. The Báb, prophet-herald of the Bahá’í faith, proclaimed that he was the “mouthpiece of God himself promised by the prophets of bygone ages,” which message and its implications were not kindly received by the combined religious and secular powers of his native country. Six years later he suffered martyrdom at the hands of a regiment of 750 riflemen. Today he is honored by the Shrine of the Báb on the slopes of Mount Carmel located within the grounds of the Bahá’í World Center. During the course of his ministry he thoroughly forecast the coming of one greater than he to whom all Bábís should turn. Although he, as with John the Baptist, held the precursor function, his station and rank was in fact prophet of God; His revelation and actions uniquely close the “Prophetic Cycle ” and open the “Cycle of Fulfillment.”
Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb’s successor, became aware of his station as prophet of God, nine years following the declaration of the Báb, in 1853. His given name was Mírzá Husayn ’Alí-i-Núrí. Born of nobility and material well being, he refused privileges of class that with complete detachment he might actively participate in the Bábí faith. One of his early outstanding achievements as a follower of the Báb took place in the hamlet of Badasht. Eighty-one disciples of the Báb were guests of Bahá’u’lláh for a twenty-two day period, an event that has become known as the Conference of Badasht. The conference occurred in the year 1848 during the early days of the Báb’s imprisonment in the prison of Chíhríq, a time when he had won over the hearts of his immediate audience whose attendance over filled the courtyard of the prison. “‘So great was the confluence of the people,’ is the testimony of a European eyewitness, writing in his memoirs of the Báb, ‘that the courtyard, not being large enough to contain his hearers, the majority remained in the street and listened with rapt attention to the verses of the new Qur'an.’”
“The primary purpose of the Conference of Badasht was ‘to implement the revelation of the Bayan by a sudden, a complete and dramatic break with the past—with its order, its ecclesiasticism, its traditions, and ceremonials.’” This endeavor was successfully accomplished and perhaps to emphasize the enormity of the occasion, Bahá’u’lláh presented each guest with a new name and, without revealing its source, chanted a tablet each day for the assembled believers. It was at this conference that Bahá’u’lláh assumed the name Bahá, which he later changed to Bahá’u’lláh.
About two years following the martyrdom of the Báb, four years after the Conference of Badasht, the Bábí’s had been thrown into a reign of terror because of the unlawful action of one young Bábí and his equally young accomplice. Distraught over the loss of the martyred prophet, they attempted to take the life of the shah who they believed was responsible for the death of the Báb. A reign of terror with unbelievable inhumanity against the Bábí’s followed. “An Austrian officer, Captain Von Goumoens, in the employ of the shah at that time, was, it is reliably stated, so horrified at the cruelties he was compelled to witness that he tendered his resignation.” He stated in a letter, “‘When I read over again what I have written, I am overcome by the thought that those who are with you in our dearly beloved Austria may doubt the full truth of the picture, and accuse me of exaggeration. Would to God that I had not lived to see it!’”
Though Bahá’u’lláh was cleared of any involvement in the attempted assassination, he was, then again, known for his positive accomplishments within the Bábí movement and eventual became caught in the swirl of persecution. “During those somber and agonizing days when the Báb was no more, when the luminaries that had shone in the firmament of his faith had been successively extinguished, … Bahá’u’lláh, by reason of the acts he had performed, appeared in the eyes of a vigilant enemy as its most redoubtable adversary and as the sole hope of an as yet unextirpated heresy. His seizure and death had now become imperative.” “Delivered into the hands of his enemies, this much-feared, bitterly arraigned and illustrious exponent of a perpetually hounded faith was now made to taste of the cup which he who had been its recognized leader had drained to the dregs. From Niyavaran he was conducted “‘on foot and in chains, with bared head and bare feet,’ exposed to the fierce rays of the midsummer sun, to the Síyáh-Chál of Tihran.”
Following other immediate persecution, he was incarcerated in that dungeon, which was known as the Black Pit. He was chained three flights underground in darkness and forced to share a common chance with thieves and assassins. In this loathsome atmosphere he received the first foreshadowing of his role as God’s promised prophet or manifestation for this age. Following release from the dungeon he was banished from his native country of Persia to Baghdad where he remained for ten years. Shortly before leaving Baghdad, following orders for further banishment, he sojourned with a select number of followers on an island in the Tigris River designated by him as the Garden of Ridván. In this setting, he informed his immediate companions of his true station; this event is now celebrated by Bahá’ís each year as the Festival of Ridván. Bahá’u’lláh was later banished to Constantinople (Istanbul), Adrianople, and on to the ancient fortified City of Acca situated across the bay from present day Haifa, Israel. His total ministry lasted for some forty years.
He appointed his eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, by will and testament, center of the covenant to whom all must turn. In this capacity, He was successor and authorized interpreter of the Bahá’í faith and given to demonstrate the qualities of a perfect exemplar for all occasions. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has elucidated on many Christian principles much of which originated from talks He presented in Haifa, Israel, as in Some Answered Questions, and from numerous talks he presented at the time of his tour across the American continent in 1912. These talks are presented in the Promulgation of Universal Peace. Although he had accompanied his father throughout the years of banishment, His ministry as sole leader of the faith was from the time of his father’s death in 1892 until his own passing in 1921. He allowed by will and testament the mantle of continuation to fall on his grandson Shoghi Effendi.
Shoghi Effendi’s position is known as guardian of the faith. He guided the progress of the faith, during its period of expansion throughout the world, and its concurrent formulation of administrative procedures. His various books are mostly assigned to history of the faith, guidance for Bahá’ís and their communities, and on advice as regards problems and procedures of Bahá’í administration. He was also engaged in developing the Bahá’í World Center in regard to its immediate and future needs. The Bahá’í Gardens on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel, that evolved under his guiding hand, are known throughout the world.
Following these early figures as noted above, and to some extent concurrent with them, guidance and protection of the faith was vested with appointed individuals. Known as hands of the cause, they had an indispensable role in maintaining the unity of the worldwide Bahá’í community, especially from the time of the passing of the guardian in 1957 until the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963. Several of them at that time were elected as a group to collaborate in making arrangements for the first election of this institutional body. It constitutes the supreme executive and spiritual body of the Bahá’í faith residing at its world center in Haifa, Israel.
The Book of Revelation provides a perspective on the process of religious history that has led to that period generally referenced through numerous speculations as being the millennium. Briefly alluding to Christianity, the Book of Revelation goes on to announce the arrival of the faith of Islam, which it uses to develop symbolic themes of religious experience and concerns leading to initiation of the Bahá’í Era. The central proposition of the Bahá’í faith, from its own writings, is the claim that it will inspire a world civilization developed by a maturing humanity and founded on the recognition of the oneness of humanity. Bahá’u’lláh explained that a global civilization is the highest stage of spiritual development open to mankind in this plane of existence. Thus it is that the Book of Revelation sketches an historical sequence of events and conditions leading to the millennium and, through clarification of this same book from within sources of Bahá’í commentary, explains the nature of this long sought after spiritual and social condition; the story of the Book of Revelation is developed by reference to various aspects of “God’s cause.”
The term “God’s cause” includes all the divinely revealed religions of the world, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of them is a complementary part of God’s unfolding plan for humanity, and each prophet -founder of these religions holds the same station. Thus each major religion represents the phenomenon of religious renewal allowing for the continued spiritual development of humanity. One should note that the message of the prophet in any given era, cycle or dispensation, is commensurate with the contemporary level of spiritual development of its audience. This process of renewal is known by Bahá’ís as progressive revelation. Human development in this present age is destined, under God’s guidance, to culminate in the establishment of world unity.
Humanity is inspired by the appearance of the prophet and by the word of God that he brings. Few people acknowledge his presence initially, but in time others participate and make for a creative process of spiritual renewal. Progress continues until the mid-day sun of acknowledgement when civilization is at its brightest for that dispensation. Beyond this apex of spiritual brilliance and with passing centuries, the light of civilization dims: loss of its past constructive spirit, coupled with the falling away from its institutions and their decline, brings atrophy even to the point of apostasy. By then the “last days ” of a religious cycle have arrived, and the social condition becomes one of scriptural “woe.”
Woe, at the end of a religious cycle, occurs at a period of time known by such terms as “the last days,” “the time of the end,” and the “end of the world.” The concept has been obscured probably because a leaning toward literalism prevents understanding of the true meaning of this terminology. The period is known as woe because the light of good will has turned to a spirit of darkness and disunity of purpose and many social hardships exist within the environment; emphasis is placed on tradition because the true spirit of God’s word is lost. Woe is a time when mankind has turned away from God’s teachings, and appropriately, the condition calls for the return of the prophet so that civilization can once more be renewed.
During the dark time of woe the next prophet appears. Most people, to the point of persecuting the prophet and sometimes to his martyrdom, reject him. Persecution occurs because of the influence of vested powers and also because the prophet never appears in a manner consistent with the generally accepted form of theological belief. Nevertheless, the prophet removes the “veils ” and “concealment” of the covered or hidden word. His function is to clarify and expose reality that has been presented in metaphor, which seems the only way of explaining new or misinterpreted concepts. That is why he comes in or on the clouds of religious doubt. Interestingly, this need for uncovering reality was apparently known to the ancient Greeks. About the Greek word “aletheia” it has been said: “It is surprising that so important a concept as truth has a metaphorical name in the Greek language … the function of aletheia, the function of truth, is very close to that of metaphor, because metaphor has the role of underlining certain aspects of reality, of making them shine.”
The religious process accounts for the stories of major figures of the Bible. Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all proponents of God’s cause. The Buddha, Krishna, and Muhammad brought the spiritual message of God to other regions and cultures, and it must be acknowledged that numerous other religions exist.
Bahá’í writings contain various commentaries applicable to unlocking the formerly hidden meaning of the Book of Revelation. Foremost of these passages, and the master key for partial understanding, is the commentary in my book provided by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in chapters 10 through 13 of Some Answered Questions. These chapters include his commentary on portions of the Book of Revelation; verses 5:7, 11:1-19, 12:1-6, and 21:1-3 are used in this work as verbatim presentations. The reader, looking for immediate evidence of interpretive accuracy and the direction of present remarks, is advised to begin by reading the commentary on the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation as expressed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Additional aids to forming an overview can be had by reading the summary, and from review of the appendix, which presents prophetic time-span relationships.
Many other Bahá’í verses are quoted, and these help to fill out the story of the Book of Revelation. The quotations serve as strong foundations to the bridge of religious history, but finally, for full flow or continuity of each span, it becomes necessary to insert other material; this additional material is necessarily unconfirmed and contingent upon this author’s understanding.
Various chapters of the Book of Revelation are grouped together in my commentary under the titles of nine individual headers, which I believe represent the major supporting themes of the Book of Revelation. The totality of these themes seem appropriate to the flow of the message of the Book of Revelation, divulge the path of religion from the time of Christianity to the time of the return of Jesus Christ, and explain the vehicles used for proclaiming the reality of the new heaven and new earth as promised in the Book of Revelation. The headers in my book and their assigned chapters are as follows: The Principals and Promises, chapters 1-5; The Problem and the Solution, chapter 6; Preparation, Chapter 7; Trumpets of History, Chapters 8-9; Little Book, chapter 10; Islam, chapters 11-13; Proclaiming the Word, chapters 14-16; Old Social Order, chapters 17-18; and New Social Order, chapters 19-22.
I feel, as can be observed from the above headings, the predominant arrangement of the Book of Revelation is patterned after the concept of progressive revelation. Much repetition on this theme occurs within the chapters because they place emphasis, approached from different viewpoints, on normal characteristics of religious cycles and some of their history; religious cycles are the essential elements of progressive revelation. Some important subject matter within the pattern of progressive revelation that I observed includes: the voice of God, his prophets and religions, promised rewards for followers of seven religions who overcome, seven spirits of God as seven prophets identified as the lamb, the need for religious renewal, prophecy of religious renewal, some history of religion, new scriptures as an element of spiritual renewal, the Islamic experience on the need for religious renewal, the Bahá’í experience toward religious renewal, plight of the old order, spiritual renewal being the law of God married to the word of God, comparison of the millennium to a religious cycle, the new heaven and new earth as the renewed law of God, and the association of God and his prophets. Commentary presented by unsubstantiated material, where supporting scriptures is unknown or unavailable, attempts support to the flow of these subjects.
I gained much understanding from reading The Apocalypse Unsealed, by Robert F. Riggs and New Keys to The Book of Revelation, by Ruth J. Moffett. Both books are now out of print; each of their commentaries was written from the standpoint of a Bahá’í reference frame. Robert F. Riggs has made a revision of his earlier works available on the Internet. To find, search for Bahá’í Prophecy Fulfilled, and under Christian Topics find “Apocalypse: An Exegesis of the Book of Revelation” by Robert Riggs. His work contains a profound amount of detail.
My work places emphasis on what might be called the theology of renewal as noted above. It omits discussion of diverse esoteric symbolism of the Riggs’ book, which is not essential for an explanation of the Book of Revelation as regards the path to the millennium and to the understanding of its nature. In regard to both of the above books, my book lacks inclusion of personalized explanations available only to those who had early opportunity to visit the Bahá’í World Center. My attempt is to present what appears to be the orderly construction and message of the Book of Revelation. Its essential and exciting story discloses the approach to and significance of the new heaven and new earth. Understanding of this story in relation to events of history becomes, in itself, partial evidence for the interpretation, and I hope such understanding encourages increased participation in the path to the future. --Ralph Schreiber
About the author
Ralph Schreiber, a native of Minnesota, attended the University of Minnesota on the basis of full scholarship earned in competition sponsored by the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild. He received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1940 after which he moved to Southern California and worked for four decades in the aviation/aerospace industry.
In 1963 he joined the Bahá’í faith, a religion which, for the first time in history presents a truly global world view. The Bahá’í faith acknowledges that all the great world religions speak for one God; that religion, renewed from time to time, brings a message appropriate for time and place and is always presented for the betterment of humanity; and that the goal of this age is for world unity and peace.
Since retirement, Schreiber has written numerous articles for the Sacramento Valley Mirror while working on the idea of writing a commentary on the Book of Revelation. The Bahá’í faith refers to the biblical work—to calm the waters of understanding— it also teaches that religion and science must have harmony of thought. The commentary and Schreiber's belief in the compatibility of religion and science, his two fields of interest, have influenced his writing of The Chaining of the Dragon: A Commentary on the Book of Revelation.
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