April 21st, 2009
Filled with abstract and often retributive iconography, the book of Revelation is one of the most difficult in scripture for the average Christian to understand. Reading it through without grounding in its content or possible meanings for the figures appearing in the apostle John’s vision leaves many reeling in chaotic sensory overload. Just imagine how John must have felt.
Like many others, my name can be counted amongst those for whom biblical prophecy is a terrible, wild, and confusing no-man’s land. The main thrust of materials developed to delve into the prophecies concerning the commonly termed “end-times” tends towards forecasts, timelines, drawing parallels (imagined or real) between current events and scripture; What In the World Is Going On? is a best-selling example of this approach. Fictional interpretations speculating on how Revelation might be played out in the future such as the Left Behind series have also been met with a torrent of consumer response. In the midst of all such projections I find myself wondering… if Jesus Himself stipulated that He neither knew the day or hour when He would return, how can we hope to do better?
It was with some caution that my family sat down to view Painting Revelation: A Visual Exploration of the Last Book of the Bible from artist and teacher Debby Topliff. Upon seeing the disc’s brightly painted cover my husband declared that our six-year-old could do as well, my young children protested in anticipation of a boring documentary-style film, and I braced myself for the potential onslaught of anti-Christ/Middle East/oil crisis/terrorism imagery. Forty-five minutes later we emerged from a beautifully captivating, gentle, face-value presentation of the book of Revelation, our initial impressions having been proven utterly groundless and inaccurate.
The film’s creatrix, Debby Toppliff, experienced the same confusion when confronted with the book of Revelation as a young Christian receiving her Masters degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. Many years later she engaged in an intensive Precepts-based course of study and through charting, notes, and most importantly a pictorial timeline she drew that ordered the visual descriptions John shares from his vision, she began to make Revelation her own. It was this timeline that planted the first inkling of a large painting encompassing the visual imagery of Revelation on a single canvas. Encouraged by a friend and undaunted by her lack of professional training as an artist, she completed the task in a spirit of lighthearted love regardless of whether the final result resembled that of a seven-year-old. It is this painting – bright, bold, and yes, beautiful – that she uses to guide us through the confusing, tumultuous landscape so many of us find in the Bible’s last book.
Topliff presents the book of Revelation in five interrelated segments of 7 – 12 minutes each: “An Open Door”, “Opening the Scroll”, “Behind the Scenes”, “The Open Book of Life”, and “Open Gates.” Topliff begins each section with a personal reflection and sharing from her life; the meaning of certain passages to her personally and insight into her own Christian walk. Aided by her large 5’ x 7’ painting she gently guides viewers through the events of Revelation as they occur within the Bible itself, providing little commentary and without seeking to tie the narrative to current events. The letters to the seven churches are not pictorially represented nor addressed on the DVD; the focus remains upon the powerful images and symbolic events described by John.
It is difficult to express the beauty of what Topliff has created. When viewed on the whole her painting is stunning, though simple in execution. It is as though the spirit of God has anointed her work, and the glory shines through the painting, rather than drawing its aesthetic appeal through technical merit. Her verbal tour through her work is certain but never strident, both authentically honest and loving. While the reality of eternal punishment is never hidden, Topliff draws viewers into the recognition of the safety, joy, and eternal love that is found within the promise of Revelation for those who follow Jesus.
The message of Painting Revelation is one that reaches viewers no matter their age. In one chair our three-year-old was as equally captivated as her 43-year-old father. Topliff’s delivery is always calm and reassuring so that even the most graphic events described in Revelation, when illustrated by simple figures with little detail, never created a sense of fear or alarm in our young ones. As easily as small viewers receive this orientation to Revelation, older individuals can dig in deep with the extensive study resources provided on the DVD-ROM for use on personal computers. These same resources are also available for download at the Painting Revelation website. With instructions for planning a study, discussion guides, worksheets, leaders guide, a visual key to the painting, and a JPEG of the entire work, adults can dig deep individually or in a small group setting. Repeated viewings will add further depth and understanding as well.
Oh, what a blessing Topliff’s work will prove to be for so many. I was deeply moved by her simple, heartfelt, spirit-filled approach to the end of the story that God has written for our world. Painting Revelation will hold a treasured position in our family’s home library for years to come.
Do visit the the Painting Revelation website to view a brief video trailer, see the entire painting, find additional ideas for using the DVD and more.