Chapter 10: Reading Revelation Again

Few in my boomer generation manage to escape the sixties without first being introduced to the likes of Bilbo, Frodo, the Dark Riders and Sam Gamgee. Tolkien’s fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, a few Dungeons and Dragon games, and a whole lot of illicit substances, were the cultural prerequisites for exiting adolescence. It was at the end of this phase of life that I first encountered the book of Revelation and was utterly fascinated. Dragons and deep pits, a white-haired wizard redeemer, a flouncy lady in red dress and a manipulative magus were no strangers to me. While many sophisticated exegetes struggled to understand the book I felt quite at home in its world. I loved metaphor as political critique and symbolic language as a way to mine meaning.

I am not alone in reading Revelation as prophetic fantasy. As I have studied the history of Revelation interpretation I found that many if not most readers have been inspired by the images in the book as portents of their own or soon to be future histories. Early church Montanists, medieval monastics, Reformation Anabaptists, Jehovah Witnesses and Seven Day Adventists, up to contemporary Evangelicals have read Revelation as prophetic allegory for their times. Analogies with their contemporary enemies have taken on the roles of Anti-Christ, Whore of Babylon, Babylon, the False Prophet as well as the Ten-Headed Dragon. Some Anti-Christ candidates have included: Caesar Nero, Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger, right up to Barack Obama. When a reader becomes bored identifying characters they can always play the pick your date game. Dates in the 1000s, 1400s, and especially in the 1900s have come and gone, and been replaced or spiritualized, but the constant calculation of the weeks of Daniel or the remaining days of planet earth go on.

The question I puzzle over is what sort of individuals and communities does all this deciphering and calculating form? Reading the Bible Again for the First Time suggests that one of the Bible’s chief tasks is to guide Christ’s followers into his image and to embody the first fruits of a new humanity which all are invited to join. Along with Marcus Borg I have to ask, does the futurist interpretation accomplish this?

Looking back at the effects of biblical futurism on my life I have to conclude that rather than being humble, wakeful and trusting I drifted more to intellectual pride, sleepy complacency of being one of the elect, and paranoid or cynical about politics. My pride was stoked by the fact that as a very young believer due to my facility with teaching prophecy I was asked to teach an adult Bible class. I basked in the admiration of those who would say how much I understood prophecy and explained it so clearly. I have to laugh when I consider that the first academic Christian theology I ever read was by Dwight J. Pentacost, Things To Come. That is quite a name for a pre-millennialist interpreter.

Sadly, I missed the effect of this way of reading Revelation on those who relied on it. Like those who sold up their goods and ran to the hills in the 19th century one of my friends, disappointed in the delayed return of Christ in the 1970’s, pitched his faith and resorted to the Egyptian Book of the Dead for solace. Instead of becoming aware of the tragedy of war in the Middle East I delighted when events substantiated my theology ignoring the terrible human cost on both sides of the battle. When political events got worse my heart leapt for joy since it indicated the closeness of the coming of God. The futurist millennial hope did not make me a better person or a Kingdom or global citizen. I became self-congratulating, ideologically blinkered and paranoid.

Not all who adapt or inherit this interpretation have these effects but many I encountered then and now did and do. More important than arguing the details of the futurist system I have come to see that Revelation can improve spirituality when interpreted as historically and metaphorically as Marcus Borg recommends. The first step toward such a reinterpretation of Revelation involves understanding what sort of literature it is. Reading Tolkien as a literary prophecy of the Second World War may be the equivalent of reading Revelation as a prediction of literal events two thousand years from its writing.

Revelation is as “apocalyptic” as Lord of the Rings is “fantasy and allegory.” Apocalyptic has been called the literature of the dispossessed. It is for those living in times of deep persecution that are in need of assurance and comfort. That said, this literature can err in taking revenge of the enemy too far and seeking military empowerment to overcome their enemies, which suggests that apocalyptic has a dualistic black and white cast to it. The poor and the oppressed are utterly righteous and the rich and politically strong are utterly evil.

Revelation is however not only apocalyptic but prophetic in another way. It forth-tells or interprets justice like the prophets of old. Revelation is saying clearly that God will resolve domination by leadership and oppression of the poor. The precise manner of God’s shalom-creating is found more accurately in the gospels than in Revelation. Revelation, however, does tell us that the scrolls of history are in the control of the Lamb and that he is worthy of praise. Praise, trust and confidence can be a product of reading Revelation historically and metaphorically.

A second step is to interpret the symbols of revelation within the first-century context looking for clues to their meaning in events, characters and artifacts that those living in the seven churches could understand. Revelation was written to and for them first. Without this emphasis we go much astray in reading the book. It is far more likely that the Antichrist is Caesar (Nero or Domitian) than he is Henry Kissinger. It is more contextual to see the seven hills of the dragon’s lair as Rome than the European Common Market. Babylon is more likely the dominator hierarchy of Rome than America or China. The point is the reader was asked to interpret the book from within their world.

Origin of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo saw in Revelation an allegory for moral and spiritual life. On the basis of the Revelation the people of God acknowledge God’s sovereignty and learn to praise in trustful hope. Marcus Borg agrees with them that the historical metaphorical method leads us to see Revelation as a book of inspiration and hope.

Reading Revelation again as metaphor does however have something in common with my Lord of the Rings approach. The cosmic battle myth that informs the story is deeply connected to our Judaic-Christian mono-myth found in many fantasy tales that assure us that there is strength in humble trust and the dragon is slain. To carry this helpful metaphor in our hearts is to make us people of faith not unlike Fordo, Bilbo and the many real life saints who have suffered and overcome in the power of the Slain One, who is worthy of praise.