The book of Revelation, the final one in the New Testament, has been argued about and caused considerable trouble (as well as insight) since it was written in roughly the year 100 C.E. by someone named John of Patmos (a different John from the one who wrote one of the four gospels).
The great reformer John Calvin did not write a commentary about it. Some have speculated -- accurately, I suspect -- that this was because he just didn't get it, thinking it too far-fetched to be part of the canon. If so, he's far from alone.
And the person credited with starting the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, thought Revelation was among several "disputed books" in the Bible, and he, too, failed to honor it with a commentary. As he once wrote, "I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic."
And yet Revelation continues to be read and continues to both baffle and enlighten. For instance, the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, found himself in Revelation and, as a result, the federal government attacked the group's home outside of Waco, Texas, resulting in the death of dozens, including Koresh. (My articles explaining what happened to the Branch Davidians can be found in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.) And over and over, self-appointed prophets dig into Revelation and imagine that they've found a key to predicting the end of the world. At least they've all been consistent -- consistently wrong.
But we now are in an era when -- like the early 1980s, when nuclear annihilation seemed possible, if not probable -- some sort of apocalypse (in this case meaning a dramatic conclusion to life as we know it) also seems not a wildly wrong idea. With that in mind, Catherine Keller, who teaches theology at Drew University, has written a book that in some ways mirrors Revelation in its ability to puzzle even as it offers wisdom and insight.
It's called Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances, and it's not for everyone. In fact, her cryptic writing style and her attraction to such made-up words as "dreamreading" and "S/Word" and "recapocalypse" may limit the readership of this book to other academics who can follow her meaning more easily than the average Christian in the pews of the average congregation. Which is too bad, given that many such people could use a good course on Revelation and what it might mean for today and tomorrow.
But while doing work in her field of theology, Keller says she discovered that "I couldn't simply write off the last book of the Bible -- despite its bitter determinism, its misogynist, good/evil dualism, its forecasts of violent mass death. There was something more to its radical vision." Indeed, she found that every important social or political movement "tapped apocalyptic metaphors of great tribulation and transformation" as each drew from the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition.
So she invites us to return to Revelation to see what patterns we can see that might in some way be instructive about the series of crises -- ecological, racial, economic, political, military and on and on -- we face today.
That invitation, she makes clear, does not mean that we should find Revelation full of predictions of the future. That road leads to trouble and confusion. Rather, she suggests we be mindful of John's situation and imagine how his ways of confronting the murderous beast that was Rome in his time might help us confront our own modern beasts.
Again and again she insists that "prophecy" does not mean "prediction." Indeed, when we speak of people of faith having prophetic voices today we don't mean they can predict the future. Rather, we mean they can and do point out what is breaking God's heart and telling us that whatever that is must also surely break ours.
So she writes that "prophecy true to its tradition anticipates much but remains irreducible to factual prediction."
Keller is no happy optimist about the future of either humankind or the creation itself. At the end of the book she outlines several possible scenarios for the future, including the complete annihilation of humanity. But she opts for a more hopeful vision of a transformation in how humans live so that we don't make planet Earth or the wider cosmos uninhabitable. We'll see. But just waiting to see won't help. We must understand our various crises now and act quickly to prevent even worse.
Now that's a prophetic message.
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A SHAKEN U.S. CHRISTIAN WORLD?
Recently here on the blog I wrote about the shrinkage of membership in congregations that are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the matters causing turmoil in that denomination is the recent decision by Russell Moore, a top leader, to leave the SBC and what he has said on the way out. This Atlantic article explores all of that. As that article notes, "The publication of an extraordinary February 24, 2020, letter by Russell Moore, one of the most influential and respected evangelicals in America (and a friend), has shaken the Christian world." Well, at least the American evangelical, or conservative, branch of that world. There's frankly only limited overlap and contact between the various branches of Christian denominations in America, and even then it's mostly at the level of leadership. So my guess is that the average person in a pew in a United Methodist or a Presbyterian congregation in the U.S. doesn't know anything about Moore and his resignation. And yet, there are lessons to be learned by all, so all would do well to pay attention.