Unveiling Revelation: ‘Empires continue to ravage’

To supplement our ongoing tour through the World’s Worst Books, I’m taking some time on Fridays to remember what the book of Revelation, and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible, is really all about.

This week’s reminder comes from J. Nelson Kraybill, from the introduction to his book, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation.

John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, provides a constellation of images and narratives that help us understand how ideologies shape the world. Revelation makes abundant use of symbols, and John understands how these forge political and spiritual identity. In particular, Revelation highlights the way worship, with its reliance on symbol, expresses and shapes allegiance. The last book of the Bible is not a catalog of predictions about events that would take place 2,000 years later. Rather, it is a projector that casts archetypal images of good and evil onto a cosmic screen. These images first of all speak to realities of the author’s era. But Revelation also serves as a primer on how good and evil interact in every generation.

The central political reality in the author’s day — the late first century — was the indomitable Roman Empire and its “divine” emperors. The pressing issue for John’s readers was how Christians, who gave their highest loyalty to Jesus, should conduct themselves in a world where economic and political structures assumed that everyone would worship the emperor. While no Western nation has outright rule worship today, we do have political, military, and economic powers to which millions give unquestioned allegiance.

John championed the same hope for Christ’s return that animates the church today, but his vision does not predict specific political, cultural, or natural events of the 21st century. He received his vision in the first-century Mediterranean context, and symbols in his work relate primarily to realities of that era. But the world he inhabited — the Roman Empire — and the symbolic universe his vision created have uncanny parallels to our circumstances today. Sin and death still work havoc, empires continue to rampage, and with John we await the liberation of all creation, which will obtain when Christ returns.

  • GeniusLemur

    That might dissuade some of the PMDers if they read it. But Revelation itself might dissuade them if they actually read it.

  • flat

    Well it is always interesting to read how empires felt.
    So where is the popcorn?

  • Amtep

    Yeah but this time it’s different because now we have a GOOD empire that champions freedom and democracy.

  • reynard61

    I might have agreed with you at one time, but these days — especially in light of how the Tea Party ideology seems to be seeping into the “Christian” message — I can’t help but think that they couldn’t be happier than to see TurboJesus come down from On High and shoot Hellfire from his mouth as they watch the world (and us filthy Heathen-folk) burn while cheering and jeering from their Heavenly bleachers.

  • heckblazer

    “Unveiling Revelation”: I see what you did there…

  • Anon

    This preterist/idealist interpretation of Revelation is revealed as absurd when you look at the Prophets.
    Has the author of this book ever read Ezekiel 37-39, Habakkuk 3, or Isaiah 63:1-6? Guess all that’s just a vague symbol from the ancient past as well. But then, no prophet ever predicted anything in the future or wrote to future generations. Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, all that meant nothing than something the writer was thinking of the other day, Daniel was just a Maccabean screed (despite the textual evidence pointing clearly to a 6th-century dating) and so on.
    Liberal scholarship gets so absurd at times, it really frustrates me. Perhaps they ought to meditate on 2 Peter 3.
    I’m sorry if I my ideas are offensive or seem idiotic to you, I hate many Evangelical ideas (the homophobia and misogynist sentiments particularly) as well their bizarre ideas of total inerrancy, but to toss out the whole corpus of prophecy pointing clearly to a literal future battle of Jesus against an evil, tyrannous anti-Christian dictatorship because you don’t like the idea of God or Jesus being angry at evil people (didn’t you read about the Temple Cleansing?)

  • Anon

    is foolish indeed. I’m not paranoid about the End Times but if you say that all the Biblical prophets ever talked about was the present and past I will most definitely not believe you.

  • P J Evans

    They weren’t handing out prophecies for us, even when they were supposedly prophesying. Most of those were for the immediate time and place, trying to tell people to change their bad habits (or bad rulers) without saying it in politically unfortunate terms.

  • Anon

    See – “immediate time and place”. No prophet in the Bible ever wrote anything about events in the distant future, that’s why Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 don’t exist right?

  • Nick Gotts

    But the world he inhabited — the Roman Empire — and the symbolic
    universe his vision created have uncanny parallels to our circumstances
    today. Sin and death still work havoc, empires continue to rampage, and
    with John we await the liberation of all creation, which will obtain
    when Christ returns.

    Uncanny? What’s uncanny about people behaving much as they’ve done for thousands of years – including waiting for a magical happy-ever-after?


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