Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reflections on the Book of Revelation

I am taking a continuing education course, sort of, at Luther Seminary on the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), taught by Craig Koester. It is a fascinating reminder of – in my case, it is all but an introduction to – the subtle and hope-filled theology in that most troublesome of books in the Bible.

First, some immediate reactions. Craig Koester is a dynamic, informed, engaging, and most competent instructor. It is clear that he has studied this book seriously (he does, after all, teach it to pastors-to-be). But he has a style of presenting the book that is, to say the least, engaging. He is able to communicate relatively sophisticated insights into how the book is structured and how it does not say what it is often portrayed as saying in ways that even the most unsophisticated auditor can grasp. Furthermore, when he takes on bugaboo interpretations of the book, as he does when he highlights the weaknesses of the “Left Behind” series of novels, he does so without any sense of rancor or defensiveness. One has got to love that kind of a presentation, and I do.

Second, Professor Koester has published the accompanying “recommended reading” text: REVELATION AND THE END OF ALL THINGS (Eerdmans, of course, 2001). It is, so far as I can tell, a splendid book. It is chockablock with details and analysis: It provides a very helpful “read” of the book and an interpretation that takes account of misreadings of the book. But, again, it is written on a very popular level: It is not at all difficult to penetrate. And it is vivid and to-the-point.

Third, Professor Koester’s method is not restricted to lecture, illustrated lecture (he’s really into electronic technology to enhance his presentations), discussion, or any combination of the three. He includes singing. Now, I am not a very “participative” class member, but he has gotten me singing “Holy, holy, holy” and other hymns, as well as parts of the liturgy. He does so to illustrate that Revelation may be the single most cited book in the Church’s hymnody and liturgy. What the Church has not been able to teach (and he makes the point that virtually none of the book is included in the Revised Common Lectionary – probably so as not to stir up questions that preachers can’t deal with), it has sung – and in so doing, has communicated the message of the book probably far better than a different theological treatment could have done. (Much of that latest musing is my interpretation, not Professor Koester’s!)

If that is all that could be said of the class, it would be enough to encourage others to take it. And I do so encourage people to do when it is next offered.

But I am developing a sense of the book that leads to a wonderful myriad of theological theses. Let me try out a couple.

First, the book is a wonderfully “Lutheran” celebration of the grace and power of God to good things. There is a remarkable structure to the telling of John’s “visions” that contrasts what John has “heard” and what he “sees.” For example, John writes that he has heard – meaning it has been reported in prophecy and/or been taught – that only 10 percent of the people of the world will be saved once God enters final judgment. And John reports that just as he is about to present a vision. Then John “looks and sees” and finds that what he had “heard” – i.e., the tradition and traditional interpretation of the prophecy – in undone by what he now “sees.” Rather than only 10 percent’s being saved, John sees that 90 percent are saved and only 10 percent lost – and in that latter case because they fought off the salvation.

That all suggests a theological method that does not too literally read the prophecies (however one wishes to define that term) in a way that limits God’s grace and power to be graceful. Rather, be alert to ways in which the grace of God is munificent. God is always abroad to surprise – and his surprise is always on the side of goodness and mercy for the human condition.

Thus, the Book of Revelation contains within its own narrative a hermeneutic and method to fight off the “left behind” and other “millennialism” (pre- and post-) readings that forecast vengeance and wrath and violence and that do not adequately reflect the hope and encouragement contained in the book. For the book is ultimately not a forecast of world events but a diagnosis of the human condition (showing it fraught with challenges to the god-ness of God) and a witness to the ultimate faithfulness and effectiveness of God. Thus, the narrative itself demonstrates that the very bloodthirstiness evident in “apocalyptic” novels and theological treatises is part of what is to be defeated by the faithful God who took on human nature in Messiah Jesus.

Without Professor Koester’s guidance, I doubt I would ever have made that out.

There is in the book, too, a clue to what the nature of Christian life is meant to be. As I read the book and Professor Koester’s book, I am led to see that suffering faithfulness is itself a salvific lifestyle. The people of God are not shown to be the battlers or the ones on whom rests the responsibility to “save the world.” Rather, the “function” of the people of God is simply to exist and persevere in faithfulness in the world – put down, oppressed, not even respected, as the case may be – as a witness to the faithfulness and love of God. The mere existence of the people of the God – which is to say, the Church – is that witness. When the Church maintains its liturgical life with integrity and sings the praise of God (“around the glassy sea”), even though the world would silence her and scatter her and tempt her to the praise of some other power, then that very maintenance becomes the ministry of salvation. The world sees and is won over – at least ultimately.

In chapter 13, for example, the “testimony” of the “saints” becomes the means by which Satan is conquered: “Hold out and hold on,” seems to be the message. Do not (to put it in the context of the first chapters of the book) become too comfortable with the world’s order or too comfortable with one’s “mission” so that one becomes slovenly in one’s practices. Don’t be lukewarm or too accommodating or assimilated. For then, you lose the “testimony.” And even if persecution comes – and it will likely come – then know that you will come out on the other side victorious over Satan and the dragon and on and on.

Of course, significant in all this is not a personal, individual address, but rather an address to the Church – i.e., to congregations (remember that the book begins with addresses to the “seven churches” in Asia Minor – churches in the sense of congregations) and to the entire Church (for the seven are meant to stand for the entire Christian community). The basic unit of consideration is the community. Oh, the book does not ignore individuals – witness the frequent references to the numbers of individuals involved. But the primary focus of the book is on the “gestalt” of the Church. The book is, thus, a wild-and-crazy call for the Church to take up its own cultural identity, in the mode of Willimon and Hauerwas’ book, RESIDENT ALIENS.

Unless the Church hangs together, Christians will hang separately. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist that.) It is as and in community that individual Christians find their place in God’s reign – this is fundamental assumption of John’s preaching. As a community, we find the resources to resist or endure or defeat the onslaughts of dragons, beasts, Satan. Whatever the outcome, God is present in the event. And in the process the very existence of our community becomes witness to the great things that God – that is, the One who was and is and is to come – has done, is doing, and will do.

This is an exciting portrait of evangelism – or more broadly, of ecclesiology. It takes seriously the mandate of Our Lord to “make disciples” – not intellectual converts. It emphasizes the life of faith more than the recitation of the name of “Jesus.” It recognizes the need for Christian “formation” – for unless one is prepared through worship, catechesis, and example to endure the coming tribulation, one will not likely withstand it. In all of this, it urges reform of the all-too-common individualism and moralism of modern Christianity.

This is really exciting stuff.

And all this after only 2 of the 5 classes. Now, I suppose that my perspective can be shown to be nothing but my own projections onto the text (and into the mind of Professor Koester) of my own pet themes. (The best teaching in the world is hard pressed, I think, to dislodge that impetus.) But so far, I love what I am getting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BTW, I liked this post on the insights you're gaining into the book of Revelation. Is this a regular Luther course that you're auditing? Please share more as the class continues. And, assuming nothing, Marva Dawn's book on Revelation, "Joy in our Weakness", might be of interest: