Three American stories of hope

In The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, literary critic Andrew Delbanco writes:

Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, desire, pleasure, fear—into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope. And if such a sustaining narrative establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture. Without some such symbolic structure by which hope is expressed, one would be, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has put it, “a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions.” We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the “dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world.” 

When I teach American literature, I owe a debt to Delbanco’s perspicacious schema of American history into three sequential stories of hope:

images.jpegA fundamental question of our literature has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim; and every writer drawn to the theme has concluded, with the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, that hope depends on finding some “end to be pursued more extensive than a merely instant desire”

In the first phase of our civilization, hope was chiefly expressed through a Christian story that gave meaning to suffering and pleasure alike and promised deliverance from death. This story held the imagination largely without challenge for nearly two hundred years. In the second phase, as Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality, the promise of self-realization was transformed into the idea of citizenship in a sacred union. This process, which began before the Revolution and did not run its course until the 1960s, has been efficiently described by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who makes clear that it was by no means unique to the United States: “The Enlightenment removes a personal God . . . delegitimizes kingship, by desacralizing it,” and substitutes “the people—a particular people in a particular land . . . the idea of a deified nation.” Finally, in the third phase—our own—the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology. It continues to be pursued through New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the “multicultural” search for ancestral roots; but our most conspicuous symbols (to use a word considerably degraded since it appeared at the opening of the Gospel according to John) are the logos of corporate advertising—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh. Though vivid and ubiquitous, such symbols will never deliver the indispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self.

This is our contemporary dilemma: we live with undiminished need, but without adequate means, for attaining what William James called the feeling of “elation and freedom” that comes only “when the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.”    

Purging fantasies about God

christ_pantokrator_cathedral_of_cefalu_sicily

Christ Pantokrator mosaic in Byzantine style from the Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily

Here is an astute observation by Anglican theologian Joseph L. Mangina in his commentary on Revelation:

Revelation is disconcertingly unsentimental in its portrayal of God and evil. Indeed, much of the therapeutic force of the Apocalypse may well be to purge us of some of our fantasies concerning God. Rowan Williams writes that if one such fantasy is that of God as the classic Freudian father, “an authority figure who could sort out all our problems, who is always there on hand to help us out of situations where we would otherwise have to take responsibility,” the opposite danger might be that of “projecting on to God the characteristics of an idealized mother, always accepting and soothing.” On the one hand, God the ultimate daddy, endowed with magical power to make everything right; on the other hand, God the great mommy, accepting us “just the way we are.” It should be evident that both fantasies are grounded in a mixture of fear, self-love, and the seemingly infinite human capacity for self-deception. 

The genius of Revelation, we might say, is that it helps to purge us of those and other such fantasies concerning God. God is not whatever we would like him to be. God is God. He is the Creator and Pantokrator glimpsed in the heavenly worship – power indeed, but not power at human disposal and control – and he is also the Lamb, the slaughtered victim-as-victor. If the image of the all-powerful Creator frees us of our sentimentalism concerning God, the image of the Lamb of God should free us of our fear. If there is a hermeneutic for interpreting the violent passages in Revelation it can be only the cross. “How could it be said more clearly,” writes Jacques Ellul with penetrating insight, “that all that is read afterward [i.e., in the judgments of the seals, trumpets, and bowls], all these abominable things, are under the cover, under the signification, under the embrace of the love of the Lamb. And nowhere else. That all is situated in the cross of Jesus Christ, that these texts must not be read in themselves but only by relation to that love which sacrifices itself for those who hate it.” 

Affectional knowledge of the good

In his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734), American theologian and minister Jonathan Edwards makes a vital distinction between speculative knowledge of the good and affectional knowledge of the good; only the saint possesses the latter kind of knowledge “for God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in [his] heart, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Edwards argues:

There is a twofold understanding or knowledge of good, that God has made the mind of man capable of. The first, that which is merely speculative or notional: as when a person only speculatively judges, that anything is, which by the agreement of mankind, is called good or excellent, viz. that which is most to general advantage, and between which and a reward there is a suitableness; and the like. And the other is that which consists in the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it. In the former is exercised merely the speculative faculty, or the understanding strictly so called, or as spoken of in distinction from the will or disposition of the soul. In the latter the will, or inclination, or heart, are mainly concern’d.

Thus there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtain’d by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concern’d in it; but the heart is concern’d in the latter. When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. It is implied in a person’s being heartily sensible of the loveliness of a thing, that the idea of it is sweet and pleasant to his soul; which is a far different thing from having a rational opinion that it is excellent.

The Lamb rules the cosmos

Adoration of the Lamb.jpg

Jan van Eyck, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (1432)

In the throne room of heaven, John weeps because “no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (Revelation 5:4). Theologian Joseph L. Mangina writes: “John’s tears hold out the profoundly Jewish hope for a Messiah who will right wrongs, execute justice for the oppressed, and overcome the slaughterhouse that is human history.” These tears are answered with the most stupendous and paradoxical image for the Messiah, “who is both victorious Lion and self-offering Lamb.”

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. (Rev. 5:5-7)

Here are excerpts from Magina’s commentary on the above verses:

What John hears is a Lion, what he sees is a Lamb. What he hears is strength, what he sees is weakness. What he hears is a conqueror, what he sees is the quintessential victim—the Lamb. This Lamb is not just destined for sacrifice, moreover, but has actually been slaughtered (the participle esphagmenon is in the perfect tense, suggesting an act completed in the past). If what John hears is life, what he sees is death. And yet not so, because the Lamb is standing, so that the slaughter is the mark of his victory; he has passed through death and now stands somehow beyond it. 

* * *

The scene is a kind of diptych, in which each of the two panels interprets the other, but where the priority belongs to the second panel. Christ really is and never ceases to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is indeed a figure of power, but his power is realized precisely in the self-giving love he displays on the cross. In favor of this view is the Apocalypse’s consistent description of Christ as victor while at the same using “lamb” as the dominant christological image; the word arnion appears twenty-nine times in Revelation, twenty-eight times in reference to Jesus Christ (at 13:11 it refers to the beast who mimics Christ’s appearance). . .

It is well stated by Vernard Eller: “The Lamb’s very defenselessness is his lion-like strength; his suffering death is his victory; his modus operandi . . . always is that of the Lamb, but the consequences, the results, always are a victory that belongs to the character of the Lion.” The Lamb embodies the triumph of life; he is slaughtered, but stands and lives: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:18). 

 * * *

So if we now ask “who rules the cosmos?” the correct answer can only be “the Lamb rules the cosmos,” that is, “the crucified rules it.” This spells the end of any rationalist or materialist conception in which creation is a closed system tending toward death, in which flesh corrupts and decays, and in which history consists in a never-ending struggle for dominance and power. In the world as we know it, it is empirically the case that lions win and lambs lose—and given these alternatives, who would not rather be a lion? But what the Apocalypse “apocalypses” to us is that the world is not so constituted by loss. As the Creator gives himself to his creatures out of overflowing fullness, so the Lamb gives himself to his people out of his victorious life, death, and resurrection—and these two movements of grace are one. It is the same God who pours himself out for the life of the world in creation, redemption, and consummation. In the contest between life and death, life—or rather the living one—wins.  

If the scroll remains locked

Once John has been transported to the throne room of heaven and witnesses its cosmic liturgy, he writes:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it (Revelation 5:1-4, ESV)

Theologian Joseph L. Mangina offers perceptive commentary on these verses:

papyrus-sealed-with-seven-seals_1246685_inl.jpgIf the scroll remains locked under its seven seals, there is finally no redemption, no relief for history’s victims, no salvation for the Jews, no hope for the Gentiles. The modern project since the Enlightenment has been driven by the conviction that human beings hold the scroll of destiny in their own hands and the redemption of history’s victims lies in the future perfection of humankind — a perfection that the victims themselves, alas, will never have the chance to enjoy. In the postmodern world we now inhabit, the departure from the Christian narrative has proceeded a decisive step further. It is not that the scroll remains unopened, a view we might perhaps associate with the tragic sense of life, or that we ourselves can open it, as in the Enlightenment project. There is no scroll, no grand metanarrative tying everything together and holding out the hope that the angel of death will be stayed by the hand of a just, merciful God. In such a world all that would remain is a kind of practical muddling through in the face of death, or resisting of death by invoking the power of love — “We must love one another or die,” as W. H. Auden put it in his great poem “September 1, 1939.”* Yet in the absence of the God of Daniel and of Revelation it is deeply questionable whether our love can save us.  

* In later years, the Christian Auden would repudiate the line for its liberal sentimentalism. In later editions of his poetry, Auden emended it to read “We must love one another and die” (emphasis added), a rather more cynical-sounding assertion.

Seven things Revelation is

In conjunction with his commentary on the Book of Revelation, systematic theologian Joseph L. Mangina wrote this illuminating post on Brazos Blog.

RevelationSeven Things Revelation Is

1. A terrible book. Terrible, in the old-fashioned sense of terror-inducing. It makes for hard reading. In the course of writing my commentary, I inevitably arrived at chapter 9, where I encountered the following:

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Rev. 9:1–6 ESV)

Immediately I understood why some Christians avoid this book of the Bible, and why others are perversely attracted to it. If nothing else, Revelation is an exercise in “reality therapy.” The world it describes is not the world as we would like it to be. It shows the world as it is—beset by sin and ugliness and destruction. As a middle-class Christian, I know that my great temptation is to want the world to be “nice”; Revelation does not afford me that luxury. It is a revelation (precisely) of things as they really are and as they will one day be. And it is a revelation that even the world of horrors is really God’s world. If there is any comfort in the passage I’ve just cited, it consists in the little word “given”—the locusts “were given power….”

Given by whom? We need hardly ask. The Apocalypse often uses the passive voice like that to denote divine action. It is God alone who is in charge of history, God alone who judges evil, just as it is God alone who makes things right. Even in the terrors of history we can be confident that God is at work, albeit by what Luther called his “left” or hidden hand.

2. A beautiful book. The flip side of the terrors of the Apocalypse are its glories. It is a gorgeous book, filled with images that have fed the Christian imagination across the centuries: the heavenly worship around the rainbow-encircled throne of God (chaps. 4–5); the white-robed army of martyrs who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14); the woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet, an image at once of Israel, the church, and the Virgin Mary (chap. 12); and not least, the new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2 ESV). Nor should we forget the music of the Apocalypse, the hymns and songs that invite the hearer to participate in the praise of God. All this is a double tribute: to the Creator God who is Beauty itself and to the beauties of the world he has made.

3. A prophetic book. Richard Bauckham wrote a study of Revelation titled The Climax of Prophecy (T&T Clark, 1993). This gets it just about right. Even if John did not refer to his book as a prophecy (which he does several times; cf. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18–19), his visions clearly stand in the line of Israel’s prophets. Like the prophets of the old covenant, John is sent to speak the word of God to his people Israel at a particular juncture of their history—in this case, the messianic age that concludes Israel’s and the world’s history. Some episodes in the work are virtual replays of events in the earlier prophets, e.g., Daniel’s vision of four terrible beasts or Ezekiel’s eating the scroll and measuring the temple.

4. An apocalyptic book. This may seem perfectly redundant; after all, we get our word apocalypse from the Greek name of Revelation. But it is still worth underscoring. An apocalypse, we might say, is a particular form of prophecy in which the visionary element predominates. All prophets are assigned the task of speaking the Lord’s word. A specifically apocalyptic prophet receives the word in the form of visions: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11 ESV, emphasis added). For this reason Revelation bears a special kinship to “late” Israelite prophecy (Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel), as well as to extracanonical Jewish works like 2 Esdras. Here I will make a suggestion: that the more purely eschatological a prophetic work is, the more purely visionary will be its form.

5. A book for the church. Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia—Anatolia, the western edge of today’s Turkey. Already the church fathers read this as symbolic: the seven churches represent the whole church, seven being the number of fullness. That fullness, however, encompasses time as well as space; our churches are part of the same community that John—but then also God, Christ, and the Spirit—addresses in this work. The Apocalypse was written for the whole community of God’s people, and it is to be read that way, not as a private coded message for a spiritual elite (see the first point in my previous post on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”).

Revelation being a book for the church, it is something of a scandal that so little of it appears in our Christian lectionaries. The irony is especially acute with regard to the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2–3. If we never hear these texts in the context of worship, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to hear of our own apostasies, be chastened but then also comforted by the word of Christ, be encouraged in the face of evil, and hear the eschatological promises given to “the one who conquers.” Recovering an ecclesial hermeneutic for the Apocalypse is an ongoing task of scriptural interpretation in our time.

6. A liturgical book—and therefore a political book. This seems incongruous to us moderns, who are used to thinking of religion as essentially a private act. In our society there is no formal difference between deciding to go to church and deciding to go bowling. But for the ancients, matters of cult were tied to matters of political organization—and with good reason. “Whom or what shall we worship?” and “how shall the city, or state, or empire be organized?”—these are but forms of a single question. In the historical setting of the Apocalypse, the great question was the church’s relation to Roman politics and economic order, powerfully symbolized by the cult of the emperor. By lighting a pinch of incense before the emperor’s image, one confessed him (and implicitly the order of which he was at the center) to be divine. Many Christians—certainly not all—refused to do this. Much of the Apocalypse makes sense as the embodiment of this refusal. A key to the book’s politics is the blood of the martyrs.

The flip side of rejecting idolatry, however, is the positive expression of devotion to Israel’s Lord as the one true God. This is what makes the Apocalypse a powerfully liturgical work. It is shot through with images of worship. It is filled with hymns, songs, prayers, incense, movement. Chapters 4 and 5, in particular, present a kaleidoscope of liturgy. All this is, once again, a kind of politics though not of the utilitarian sort. Worship isn’t ordered to some extrinsic end but expresses the truth about God, ourselves, and the world. Worship is simply what is good for us, because God himself is all goodness. I think we can safely say that if today’s church had more ballsy forms of worship, the world might notice that we Christians actually have something quite interesting to say.

7. A book about Jesus. A common failing of novice journalists is “burying the lede,” i.e., waiting too long to tell your reader what the story is about. John does not have this problem. It is ironic that people search for the coded meaning of Revelation, when the book’s theme is announced in the opening line: “The revelation [apocalypse] of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen soon” (1:1 NIV).

In Greek as in English, that “of” is ambiguous. The Apocalypse is both the revealing of Jesus and Jesus’s own act of revealing. Of course it is also the revelation of God, received in the imaginative power of the Spirit; Revelation is a trinitarian as well as a christocentric work. But Christ is the key to the work, the key who opens the “door” to all the visions (cf. 4:1).

You can read my commentary to see how this works out in detail. Let me conclude, though, by briefly recapitulating the previous six points, to suggest how Christ is the key to these as well:

(1) While there is much in John’s visions to terrify us, we can trust that God is not ultimately against humanity: at the absolute center of John’s world is “the one who loves us,” the Lamb who suffers violence at our hands.

(2) The work of Christ in Revelation is not narrowly individualistic but rather aimed at the redemption precisely of God’s creation and of all that is good, true, and beautiful within it; see the heavenly city in chapters 21–22.

(3) As a prophet, John is given to speak the word of God. But Christ is that Word (cf. 19:11). Note the convergence here with the Fourth Gospel.

(4) As already mentioned, what is “apocalypsed” in Revelation is Christ himself—his divine identity, his death as triumph over the forces of evil, his coming again to redeem his own. Here, I’d like to enter a small but important correction to my Brazos commentary. For reasons that now elude me, I don’t emphasize nearly as much as I should have the way the worship scene in chapter 5 affirms the divinity of Christ: God and the Lamb are honored in a single act of devotion. Worshiping Jesus—what an extraordinary thing for a group of first-century Jews to be doing. Very good on this theme is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation. I suppose I didn’t feel it necessary to restate what Bauckham had already said so well, but clearly, this was falling down on my job as a commentator!

(5) It is Jesus Christ who, through John’s visions, addresses the church—not just in the late first century but today. Both the promises and the warnings of the Apocalypse are directed to the Christian community. It is not a prediction about the future directed to the world at large.

(6) As Christ is at the center of Revelation’s worship, so he is at the center of its politics. The book may be read as posing the following question: what would it look like if a community worshiped not the powers of the present age but the power that God self-revealed in his Son Jesus? What sort of politics would honor blood spilled not in military conquest but in martyrdom? What would it mean for a people to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4)?

I hope these musings have whetted the reader’s appetite for the Apocalypse. As John devoured the scroll, which tasted sweet as honey though it made his stomach bitter (10:9), may you know the sweetness of the book he wrote. Take, eat, delight. I’d be gratified if my Brazos commentary aided your appreciation of John’s act of witness.

Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.

Seven things Revelation is not

In conjunction with his commentary on the Book of Revelation, systematic theologian Joseph L. Mangina wrote this illuminating post on Brazos Blog:

RevelationThe book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse) is a constant source of both fascination and fear among Christians. In North America, the book is likely to be identified with the dispensationalism of Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind series. It is therefore often treated as being off-limits in mainline churches.

This is unfortunate. To the extent that we distance ourselves from Revelation, we hand it over to eccentric uses; even worse, we miss out on its real glories. In the next two posts I will make some comments aimed at helping us overcome our aversion to the Apocalypse.

Today I will discuss “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”; next time I will turn to “Seven Things Revelation Is.” The division is a bit artificial, so don’t be surprised to find some affirmations in the midst of the negations and vice versa. I hope to whet the reader’s appetite for exploring Revelation on his or her own, perhaps in company with my Brazos commentary (Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos 2010).

Seven Things Revelation Is Not

1. A code, cipher, or secret message. The tendency to read Revelation as an esoteric book—the ultimate insiders’ text—has a very long history. The book is filled with mysterious images and symbols. It is natural to want to know what these symbols “stand for.” With this approach to Revelation, interpretation will be a matter of wresting a discrete, consistent, and controllable meaning from each image. There is just enough of this reading strategy in the book itself to encourage us in this view; see for example 17:9-10.

I cannot stress too strongly, however, that as an overall reading strategy this form of interpretation misfires and will cause us to miss almost everything that is important about the book. The Apocalypse is visionary literature. Its symbols are polyvalent, pointing in many different directions at once. To take the most famous example, it is tempting to believe that when John wrote 666—the infamous “number of the beast”—he intended the emperor Nero. Historically speaking that is extremely likely. But as any postmodern literary critic will tell you, texts are simply not that stable—much less so a text of which God or the Spirit is the author! Revelation is less interested in information than in transformation. Rather than looking for a meaning “behind” the text, we should let it draw us into its powerful vision of a world created, judged, and redeemed by God.

2. A book exclusively about the future. This point follows from the previous one. While Revelation does, indeed, offer a glimpse of God’s final consummation of all things, it would not have us speculating about the future. John wants us to “remember the End”—Travis Kroeker’s evocative term for apocalyptic vision in the works of Dostoevsky—precisely so that the church may live more faithfully and courageously in the present. This is true whether that “present” is in AD 113 or 2013.

3. Chiefly a response to persecution. We know that there has been at least one martyr in the churches John is addressing (Rev. 2:13), and he clearly expects that there will be more (2:10; 7:14). It is therefore easy to assume that the purpose of the book is to offer comfort and reassurance to communities subject to Roman persecution. This fits a common view of apocalyptic writing as a literature of the dispossessed.

My advice to the reader is to take all this with a large grain of salt. On the one hand, notice that John writes to seven churches marked by notable differences: if Smyrna is under pressure, Laodicea is all too pleased with itself (“you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered,’” Rev. 3:17 NRSV). Like churches today, John’s communities inhabit a wide range of social locations and strategies of resistance/negotiation/accommodation to their host culture.

But even more crucial is the question of agency. While the “kings of the earth” (a recurrent image in the Apocalypse) exercise real and terrible forms of power, there is never any question that Godis the ultimate Power with whom humans have to reckon. This is what John wants his readers to grasp. It is God—the LORD of Israel—who determines history, not the Romans.

4. A simple temporal sequence. Already in the early history of the church, attentive readers of Revelation noticed an odd thing: the book repeats itself. The seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls are less a linear sequence of events than a dizzying spiral, a vision of the (singular) End narrated from a variety of perspectives. The technical name for this is “recapitulation.”

This is not to say there is no drama, no “story,” in the Apocalypse. But the drama must be taken on its own terms. It is must not be assimilated to earthly, empirical history. Again recall that John’s intention—or the Spirit’s intention through John—is less to inform than to transform.

5. A warrant for violence. It is well to be honest: many of the events described in Revelation are terrifying. Many readers struggle to reconcile the awful imagery of death, mayhem, and destruction with the God of love. I will have more to say about this in my next post.

Nevertheless, while terrible things happen in Revelation, the author never says, “Go out and do terrible things.” The question of agency again looms large. It is God’s love, God’s judgment, God’s vindication that stand at the center of attention. If there is a consistent command given to the church, it is simply to practice “patient endurance,” a kind of creative waiting and suffering in trust that God will set things right (cf. Rev. 1:9; 2:2; 13:10; 14:12). To read the book as a warrant for any human exacting of vengeance on enemies is simply false.

6. An outlier in the canon of Scripture. We are prone to draw a distinction between the teaching of Jesus, say, or Pauline soteriology (theological comfort food for Protestants), and the “weird apocalyptic stuff” in writings like Daniel and Revelation. But there is far more slippage than we like to think. Mark’s Jesus is a clearly apocalyptic figure, while Paul writes of cosmic transformation and speaks of Christ as the “man from heaven” (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 15). Nor are these convergences accidental: Mark, Paul, and John the Seer are all rooted in the apocalyptic soil of Israel’s faith. It is for this reason that the great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer called Revelation “a rebirth of images,” referring to the way in which John takes up themes and symbols from the Old Testament. What he sees is new but at the same time very old.

7. A book with a clear, easily summarized message. This goes back to what I said earlier about reading Revelation as a coded text. If the book is a cipher, we can figure it out, determine its “meaning” once for all, and be done with it. In this approach the text itself ironically becomes dispensable. Fortunately Revelation doesn’t work like that. It is an act of testimony, an act of witness by one who claims to speak the very Word of God—in short, a prophet.

Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.