Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Postcards from the wall #26

Review of "The Book of Revelation"

When John Henson produced 'Good as New', his 'radical retelling of the scriptures' (get your copy here) he controversially omitted the Book of Revelation, suggesting that it "is contrary to the mind of Jesus" (p.18). So it was with some trepidation that I started to read his review of my commentary on the Apocalypse. I was delighted to discover a review which engages in depth and with care. Thank you John.

Review - 'The Book of Revelation' Simon Woodman. 

I come to the 'Book of Revelation' as very much a non-fan. Revelation is, and will always be, I fear, the happy hunting ground for religious weirdos of the 'we are the only ones' type. Like Luther I find it difficult to reconcile the Jesus of Revelation with the Jesus of the gospels. I squirm at its shameless triumphalism which alas characterizes much Christian spirituality today. Simon's commentary is intended for second and third year theology students. In my view it is also suitable for all mature and thinking Christians. It needs a Simon Woodman to make sure that our future leaders have a proper understanding of 'The Book of Revelation'. Simon has done an excellent job. I expect his commentary to become the standard work for some time to come.

Unlike previous academic commentaries, Simon does not dismiss the Nostradamuses with a wave of the hand. Painstakingly and sympathetically he devotes a whole chapter to them. He examines the conflicting schemes that emerge from the literalistic approach that seeks to match the imagery with events in past, current or future history. Simon explains why this is a misguided and misleading method of interpretation. Simon's own approach is not a dogmatic one. He provides us throughout with alternatives.

Simon goes some way to answering the reservations of people like me. I particularly like the way he brings out the Visionary's way of contrasting what is heard and what is seen. We hear about the exclusive 144 thousand; we see the multitude which no one can number. We hear about the warrior on the horse; we see the still wounded lamb. The Wedding Banquet is to be understood as a beginning rather than an end. Offspring are assumed. The Church rules with rod of iron; Jesus rules with the staff of a shepherd. The lake of fire and brimstone symbolizes not vindictive punishment, but purification and healing. Revelation cannot be used as a handbook for exclusivism and predestinarianism. Those who think so do not look closely enough. "Whosoever will may come."

Good stuff. I don't think I will ever be convinced though. I appreciate Revelation's subversive descriptions of worldly power and authority, corrupt religion, and the capitalist system, highly relevant today. But it is not sufficient to say that the language of weapons, armies, battles and conquest should be understood as spiritual rather than literal war. The militartarist mindset itself is not Jesus. The militarist language of Revelation has encouraged the Church to adopt agressive attitudes and practices in its methods of promotion. You do not only have to think of the Crusades and the 'Christian' conquest by the sword of Central and South America. The mindset is still expressed in triumphalist worship songs about dominion and power and authority. I also doubt that apocalyptic will ever be an ace way of communicating, especially not in these days of realism in the arts. It was only a minority interest in Jesus' day. Jesus used its material sparingly. Revelation was intended for those being persecuted, as comfort and perseverance, carrot and stick. But Jesus and Paul's answer to enemies was to love them rather than triumph over them. So next time Christians enter a period of severe persecution I hope it will be the Gospels that inspire them rather than the Apocalypse.

John Henson.