Saturday, January 7, 2017

Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman

[Revelation] is above all a community-forming document, intended to shape communities of believers in Jesus as the Lamb of God into more faithful and missional communities of uncivil worship and witness. The primary agenda of John the Seer is to increase the covenant faithfulness in the church universal–then and now…to form victorious communities, communities that do conquer and will conquer. And by “conquer,” Revelation means remaining faithful, even to death, in order to experience glorious, everlasting life with God, the Lamb, and all the redeemed in God’s new heaven and earth.

I was unsure whether I wanted to review this book. In general, I feel a little uncomfortable reviewing explicitly religious books on here, for some reason, but a book on Revelation (not Revelations) is something else entirely. In the entirety of the canon, there is perhaps no book that has been used to justify importing so much insanity into the Christian religion. Some of it is the book's apocalyptic nature, some of it the difficulty of interpreting it outside of its original context, and some of it, I believe, is tied to a certain strain of Americanized fatalism. If you grew up in a conservative church, as I did, you've no doubt hear terrifying sermons about being left behind, beasts from the pit (who have their own infernal number--666), a seven year tribulation, having your body parts chopped off and dipped in boiling oil, the antichrist... it would be hard for me to make up anything more outlandish than things I've heard presented with a straight face, and that's without even getting into the cottage industry of the end times--Left Behind books, movies, bumper stickers (In event of rapture, this car will be unmanned). The list goes on and on.

Since I won't be going into a lot of specific detail about this particular book' interpretation of Revelation, I want to drop a quick spoiler: I don't believe any of that stuff. Outside of Christ's second coming at some undisclosed point, in some largely undisclosed way, I take all of the rapture/antichrist/tribulation stuff to be nothing more than an embarrassing form of Christian mythology, meant to play into the way that Christians, especially American Christians, like to imagine the end of the world coming about. For the past decade, I've considered Revelation not to be a prophetic book, but rather a symbolic retelling of the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, with a Christian overlay meant to encourage the faithful at that time.

However, this book has forced me to reconsider the ideas that I had formed about Revelation as it pertains to a specific event. Rather, Gorman posits that Revelation does not, in fact, refer to any one specific event, although much of the symbolism appears to be derived from Jewish writings about Rome, but functions rather as a template Christians can look to serve as both an encouragement pointing to the eventual triumph of God over all earthly powers and, in the more bracing portion of the book, as a guide for how Christians should resist Empire, or civil religion.

The thesis is somewhat complicated but Gorman lays out a few fairly straightforward interpretive keys then proceeds to run through the book applying them, and it's the most reasonable explanation I've ever heard. I can't go into it here because it's quite involved, but the gist is that Christians are not supposed to simply go with the flow--they are supposed to be emissaries of Christ's love, acting in love and mercy to their fellow men and women without respect to their country's current positions, whether they be for or against Christianity. In all honesty, parts of the book made me uncomfortable because of the way they criticized things I've always taken as good--church services observing military holidays, prayers at civil events, the ideas of how God has particularly blessed and "chosen" America, the veneration of military might, putting the good of the nation above "the least of these". None of this easy to avoid. It leaves open the question of exactly what relationship Christians should actually have with their country, and to what degree a Christian can be a patriot without sliding into syncretism. Much like Revelation itself, there are no easy answers, but at a time when 80% of Christians seem willing to put their Christian ethics on a shelf to Make America Great Again, I can't help but think that Gorman is more right than not.

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