February 4, 2017
I really don’t think “the end is near.” But….one never knows for sure. Since January 20, 2017, we have certainly entered a new era in the United States and abroad: domestic and international seismic shifts. The Doomsday Clock, created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to sound the alarm about the catastrophic nature of nuclear weapons, has now been set ahead 30 seconds, to two and a half minutes to midnight. This is the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953.
With current events in the back of my head, and some of my friends talking about a new apocalypse, I decided to revisit the last book of the New Testament: “Revelation” also know as “Apocalypse,” from the Greek word apokálypsis which means “uncovering” or “revelation.” One of my spiritual exercises in the next few days is a careful and reflective re-reading of Revelation; and I am thinking about using it for a Bible study group later in the year.
The Book of Revelation is packed with powerful images — a mystic journey to heaven, a beast with seven heads, four horsemen, a scroll with seven seals, a whore of Babylon, etc. The book is highly symbolic and imaginative. Parts of it are like contemporary political cartoons. They point to deeper realities and invite deeper thinking and challenging dialogue. Revelation is, nonetheless, divine revelation: in a variety of literary styles and symbolic images, it narrates the challenges and confrontations that Christians face in contemporary life and culture. In many ways, we twenty-first century believers can resonate with the Christian experiences of first-century believers.
Anyone doing biblical study these days — even old historical theologians — needs of course a trustworthy and up- to-date study guide. One can always be misled by “alternative facts.” One of my old professors at the university of Louvain used to say that the Bible has a wax nose which interpreters can twist and shape according to their own biases….Sometimes I get the impression that there is a lot of biblical nose-twisting going on these days.
For my Revelation guide, I have picked a small book by Steve Mueller Reassuring Visions: Reading John’s Book of Revelation (Faith Alive Books). Mueller’s book is well-grounded in contemporary biblical theology and is excellent for personal or group study. I plan to use it for my own Bible study group. It is not a ponderous annotated scholarly commentary on Revelation but a trustworthy pastoral guide for Christians struggling to live as authentic followers of Christ today.
The text. The contemporary scholarly consensus suggests that Revelation was composed sometime during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (CE 81 – 96). His was an authoritarian, totalitarian government built and sustained around a narcissistic cult of his own personality. He viewed himself as a divine monarch: “Son of God.” His admirers addressed him as Dominus et Deus: “Lord and God.” It made him feel very, very great. He had no use for the senate’s powers. He relied on his close group of sycophant advisors. Loyalty to him was the essential political value. He was annoyed when people joked about him. He hated actors who satirized him or his government. People who wrote against him were punished by exile or death. He was also very sensitive about his hair. As he got older, he was getting bald; and had a great assortment of wigs.
The writer. The author of Revelation called himself “John.” At one time the presumption was that he was the “John” of the Fourth Gospel. Contemporary scholarship takes a different view, calling him simply “John,” a Christian prophet from the island of Patmos in the Aegean. A prophet of course is one who courageously speaks out in support of authentic Christian teaching and behavior. A prophet also sounds the alarm about false prophets.
Focus. In Revelation John shares the distress of the Christian communities near him: the seven churches. They were being oppressed by socio-political powers greater than themselves. In his letters to the seven churches, John stresses his concerns about truth and the dangers of deception. The Roman world view, propagated and imposed by Domitian, was fundamentally based on a false view of reality, unethical values, and a deceptive and demeaning use of power.
John encourages his audience to adopt the Christian vision of reality. That of course will demand a revision of both their values and their behavior. Will they choose evil, personified in the divinity-seeking Roman emperor Domitian and his subordinates, or will they choose Christ? In Revelation, the Christian view of reality affirms that God in Christ, and in the Christian community, is initiating the transformation of our world into a new creation characterized by justice, love, no persecution, and no sting of death. God’s new creation will bring about peace for both the cosmos and for all humanity. Not the end of the world but a new start. Revelation is not about doom and gloom.
Politics. John contrasts the political strategy of Domitian and the strategy of Christ. The Roman imperial program used religion to promote and justify war and condone the killing of imperial enemies. This led to victory and a tightly controlled state of “peace.” The dangerous trouble-makers and dissident people were simply eliminated. The counter-program of the other “Son of God” uses religion to inspire and motivate people to seek nonviolence, justice, and peace.
Peace. These were and still are the two great strategies for global peace: a controlled peace through violent war and victorious over-powering or a calming peace of human solidarity through nonviolent justice.
Proverbs 29 warns: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” One could add that where there is a wrong vision, people will perish even faster.
Mixing politics and religion can be a toxic and dangerous mix. The traditional American separation of church and state safeguards both church and state. In enables the church to exercise its mission in the world: being a free counter-cultural voice and influence: questioning and challenging political leaders and socio-cultural values and behavior.
Final Thought. Three days ago in Commonweal, the independent Catholic journal of religion, politics, and culture, journalist John Gehring summarized for me the message of the prophet John of Patmos:
“Prayer, theology, and Christian discipleship,” Gehring wrote, “should be counter-cultural because the Gospel is subversive. The Lord’s Prayer is radical and revolutionary. When we pray that God’s kingdom will be made real here on earth, we’re praying for a kingdom where the poor, the refugee, the sick, and the broken have the best seat at the banquet. Building that kingdom requires prayer, activism, solidarity, and moral resistance that are politically engaged but which ultimately transcend the politics of the day.”
That indeed is the message of John’s Apocalypse……
That indeed is our contemporary Christian challenge…..
Dr. J. A. Dick
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