Thursday, May 20, 2010
apocalypse and allegiance – what revelation is all about
I've often remarked that I became a pacifist against my will by studying the book of Revelation. No doubt, one of the most formative books for me at that stage in my life was Richard Bauckham's fantastic work, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. This short book opened my eyes to John's Apocalypse and its theological and ethical implications. I've been hooked ever since. Learning how to read Revelation was extraordinarily illuminating not just for developing my theology but also in shaping the kind of person I want to be. Unfortunately, I have not been as successful in opening other people's eyes to the vision of God and his countercultural kingdom in Revelation. My marginal success in teaching Revelation with the same profound impact it had on me is due, in part, to my own insufficiency as a teacher. It is also, however, partially a result of the endless stream of interpretive waste that pollutes the minds of those who desire to understand and be transformed by the book of Revelation. As J. Nelson Kraybill insightfully puts it, "Because many Christians in North America live at relative ease in the heart of empire, it may be difficult for us to identify with the countercultural nature of worship in Revelation. We are tempted to the diversion of using Revelation as a horoscope for predicting the future rather than as a handbook for radical Christian living in the present" (190).
In a book that seeks to provide a profoundly practical and political reading of Revelation, J. Nelson Kraybill has given a gift to the church. Like Revelation itself, Kraybill's book is deeply rooted in the historical situation of the writer and intended reader, practically addressing issues ranging from peace in Palestine (51‒52), and persecution in Somalia (96) to healthcare reform in the United States (154‒155) and agricultural ethics in Japan (192‒193). Yet, again like the text of Revelation, this book will have a profound impact for years to come. It offers penetrating analysis of what worship, allegiance and faithfulness to the lamb look like in the real world of attractive empires, dangerous enemies and evil powers vying for the loyalty of humanity.
Kraybill brings academic credentials as well as international experience in teaching Revelation on the ground‒ in churches and Bible studies in Uruguay, Ireland, Korea and the United States (to name just a few). Both academic study and pastoral experience guide his book. Academically, one of the unique benefits of the book is the frequent use of photographs. By frequent, I mean almost one picture every two pages (over 80 pictures in a book under 200 pages). The pictures serve at least two vital functions, one academic and one pastoral. First, academically, the pictures root Revelation in the realia of the first century. So, in describing imperial worship, Kraybill includes a picture of the Roman Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) erected by the Roman senate in honor of Caesar Augustus' military campaigns in the western expansion of the empire (erected in 9 BC; pgs 57‒59). One of the images depicted on the Ara Pacis shows the goddess Roma seated on top of the armor and weaponry of the then recently pacified peoples of Gaul and Spain. This is the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) represented in the often quoted speech of a subdued British chieftain (ca. AD 83‒84), "To plunder butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and call it peace" (Tacitus, Agricola 30; quoted on pg 59). This, according to Kraybill, is what the beast of Revelation 13 looks like. In addition to pictures of temples and archeological sites there is frequent reference to inscriptions and coins. Even in academic work these crucial historical studies taking into account epigraphic evidence are too rare.
Besides rooting Revelation firmly in the first century, the pictures, coins and inscriptions make the apocalypse more tangible to the average reader. This is the second and more pastoral function of the illustrations. Over and again, the illustrative material serves as a keen reminder that Revelation is not a book that has no reference or meaning in the real world. It is not a fantasy book, or a predictive timeline but a meaningful narrative picture of what it means for Christians to follow Christ in a very unchristian world.
Pastorally, this is a fantastic book. There are two features that make it useful in pastoral exegesis. First, each chapter concludes with reflection questions. These questions are not "tacked on" or obvious-easy questions like too many books hastily converted into Bible studies. The questions are actually quite helpful in provoking thought and applying Revelation. For example, after describing the heavy use of symbolism in Revelation in his first chapter, Kraybill suggests, "Make a list of icons, indexes, and symbols that you see today in politics, business, professions, or religion" (a very helpful exercise by the way) then he asks, "Do these have any effect on your attitudes or behavior?" I spent a week writing down icons, indexes and symbols in thinking about this question. I imagine I'll spend a lot longer reflecting on how they affect me. Or as another example, at the conclusion of chapter 5, "The Cosmic Throne Room," after describing the throne room scene of Revelation 4 in contrast with Roman imperial propaganda Kraybill asks, "What message do stamps and coins or other state-sponsored media in your country communicate? What stories of victory does your society retell to shape national identity and pride? Are there national holidays that Christians should refuse to celebrate or should mark with alternative celebrations?" (95). The reflection questions are worth the price of the book.
The second intentionally pastoral feature of Apocalypse and Allegiance is the final section of each chapter entitled, "Living the Vision." In these short, often only a page long, sections Kraybill gives a real life picture of how Christians throughout history have sought to live out the vision of John's Apocalypse in faithful ways. These examples are drawn from throughout history and are international. Kraybill doesn't limit the application of John's Apocalypse to these examples, but allows them to be exemplary of the kind of life John's vision ought to elicit in the faithful reader.
As should be obvious by now, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I heartily recommend it and hope people read, and are challenged by it. Still, I had two disappointments with the book, one historical and one literary. In regard to history, the book lacked reference to the specific historical situation of Christians in Asia Minor. Though Revelation was clearly written to Christians in Asia Minor, most of the historical information Kraybill provides focuses on the Roman Empire as a whole or Jews in Palestine. Not until chapter 10, "Letters to Seven Churches" does Kraybill focus on the historical situation of the seven churches to which John wrote (157‒161). Then, the picture he gives in chapter 10 is broad enough to tell us little about the unique situation of Asia Minor Christians. Though Kraybill does give sufficient attention to the Pliny-Trajan correspondence (75‒79), it would have been helpful to focus on Asia Minor with the same historical acumen he treats the history of Rome and Jews in Palestine.
The praiseworthy attention Kraybill does give to the historical setting of Revelation sadly eclipses the much-needed attention that ought to have been given to the literary features of Revelation. Certainly, Kraybill mentions Revelation as an apocalyptic writing. He describes "apocalyptic" with the familiar metaphor of a political cartoon (42‒43). Also, he gives an apt description of Christian apocalyptic eschatology describing the overlapping of the ages (44‒45). Yet nothing in Apocalypse and Allegiance mentions the structure or big picture of Revelation. I am firmly convinced that a grasp of the literary connections within the book of Revelation are crucial for understanding it. Interpreting Revelation is one of the places where historian and literary critic have to come together and Kraybill's book fails to give full account of the literary repetition and cyclical structure. Only in his discussion of seals, trumpets and bowls does he make mention of the cyclical structure (119). The literary majesty of Revelation merits, in my opinion, more attention than Kraybill has given it.
Despite these two weaknesses, which after skimming back through the book seemed less pronounced than upon initial reading, Apocalypse and Allegiance is a brilliant book. I can only hope that it will open people's eyes to the vision of God and his kingdom found in John's apocalypse. Kraybill's book ought to bring us back to Revelation and experience it anew. Certainly he is correct, "Revelation is total immersion drama, meant more to be experienced than analyzed. It is valuable for us today to read the book aloud and occasionally to do so without stopping. We need to feel the flow, absorb the anguish and jubilation, observe the periods of silence, smell the incense, and bow in worship" (33).