Huber challenges use of Revelation as oppressive text in Distinguished Scholar Award lecture

Lynn Huber, Maude Sharpe Powell Professor, professor of religious studies and director of the Honors Program, was recognized with the Distinguished Scholar Award in August 2020 and delivered her lecture online on Thursday, March 18.

As a graduate student, Lynn Huber was drawn to study the Book of Revelation by its vivid imagery, and grew interested in exploring its persuasive power as a text initially written for first-century followers of Jesus Christ in modern-day Turkey.

Lynn Huber, Maude Sharpe Powell Professor, professor of religious studies, and director of the Honors Program

That exploration led her to examine how Revelation had been used as an oppressive text, and through her scholarship, Huber has focused on how the images in this book of the Bible establish frameworks regulating gender and sexuality. On Thursday night in her delivery of this year’s Distinguished Scholar Award lecture, Huber walked the audience through the historical background for many of the images in Revelation related to masculinity and femininity while explaining how the text can be interpreted to make the reader question these frameworks rather than view the text as reinforcement.

“I hope by uncovering how the text participates in these frameworks, I am also always contributing to the work of deconstructing them in ways that challenge sexism, heterosexism, racism and other oppressions,” said Huber, Maude Sharpe Powell Professor, professor of religious studies and director of the Honors Program.

Thursday night’s lecture comes after Huber was honored with the Distinguished Scholar Award in August 2020 for her impressive portfolio of books, articles, book reviews and other work in the discipline. Her work is highly influential among her peers, and she continues to break new ground in her field of study, which is the New Testament and more specifically, the Book of Revelation. She is the 21st recipient of the award.

In his introduction of Huber, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Geoffrey Claussen called Huber’s work “groundbreaking and influential” and known for its clarity and relevance. “Dr. Huber has been a mentor, a role model, an inspiration, a teacher and a friend to so many of us in this space,” Claussen said. “Just as she had been a generous mentor to so many students and so many colleagues at Elon, she has been a generous mentor to so many scholars in our field and beyond.”

Huber started at Elon in 2004 as a visiting professor of religious studies, and in her time at the university, has served as program director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, founding director of the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society and chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Since 2018, Huber has served as director of the Honors Program.

She is the author of two books, 2007’s “’Like a Bride Adorned’: Reading Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse,” and 2013’s “Thinking and Seeing with Women in Revelation,” with a new book, “Revelation” in the Wisdom Commentary Series, now in the works with Gail R. O’Day. She has edited and co-edited multiple special issues and is the author of numerous articles, essays and book chapters.

Huber said Thursday that she was introduced to the Book of Revelation at a young age, and often looked to the Biblical text for answers about current events. Through her scholarship, she has used a rhetorical-critical approach that analyzes how the author uses metaphor, simile and other forms to try to persuade the audience.

“Even though John presents this text as the recounting of his visionary experience, he has intentionally crafted the narrative to convince the audience to embrace his theological vision and to reject pro-Roman propaganda,” Huber said. “John shapes Revelation to persuade his audience that they need to adopt a different perspective on the reality unfolding around them, and that they need to adopt a new orientation as Christ followers.”

In the book, John outlines a vision of the ideal Christ follower “as simultaneously victors and virgins, roles associated with masculinity and femininity, respectively,” Huber said.

Revelation was initially directed at Christ followers in seven cities in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, and the cultural backdrop of those societies is important to understand, Huber noted. That included the prominence within those societies of athletics and athleticism, most commonly rooted within gymnasiums within those cities. John used physical language — “work hard,” “endure,” not “grow weary” — in his descriptions of what those followers were facing and must do. Each message concludes with the promise of a prize to be awarded to the victor, Huber noted.

“I argue that the seven messages engaged some of the popular discourses about ideal manhood situated in first-century Asia Minor,” Huber said. “In the messages, especially if you’re thinking about them from the perspective of someone shaped by the vast gymnasium culture, the Son of Man sounds very much like a gymnasiarch.”

However, John’s narrative offers the image of the slaughtered lamb as the victor, and idea that challenges the view of the ideal man as impenetrable and physically perfect. That underscores John’s belief that Christ is not simply masculine or feminine, Huber said. “This paradox that being victorious equals being slaughtered is Revelation’s big reveal,” Huber said.

Similarly, John offers guidance to followers of Christ that they should be like virgins, a term that at the time was mostly applied to young women, not men, Huber said. “Here John applies a term explicitly describing a young, unmarried girl to Christ followers,” Huber said. “Characterizing followers of the lamb this way, like this virgin, clearly challenges the image of the ideal Roman man perpetuated by the gymnasium culture of Asia Minor. The one who actively endures as victor is redefined in Revelation as one who will passively endure as a new wife.”

The Book of Revelation has been deployed in many ways by modern Christians as a tool of oppression, Huber said. However, this more complex interpretation of the images used by John and what they say about gender and sexuality can challenge the use of Revelation in those ways.

“Revelation has been deployed in ways that are oppressive and violent,” Huber said. “I hope my readings which highlight the complexity of Revelation’s vision of gender and sexuality destabilizes attempts to use the text to oppress those of us who stand outside the cisgender white male norm, and that they provide LGBTQ+ and feminist Christians resources for rethinking their tradition in generative ways.”