Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into New Creation. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.
Michael Gorman desires to take Revelation from the circles of the escapists and put it back into the church where it can guide Christians to “uncivil worship and witness” in this present world. In just 190 pages he takes this letter from the pure allegory or pure prediction to a letter on discipleship. He does this by first working through the history, structure, and themes of this letter, then introduces the lens by which the book ought to be read. After this groundwork he works through the book itself section by section. In each of these section he furthers his proposal that Revelation is not about a rapture out of the earth, or about some historic even around the end of the first century, but about living as followers of Christ in your current era despite the powers and evils of the era.
It was a masterful stroke by Gorman to begin the very first paragraphs of chapter one to bring up “the [p]uzzle, [p]roblem, and [p]romise” (1) in order that he both states common presuppositions of the book, and gives his own views on these ideas. What is amazing is that he points out that two of the main words associated with Revelation “Rapture and antichrist—do not even appear in Revelation” whereas in contrast “witness, throne, and lamb, do not come to mind as quickly” (1). He then uses the rest of this chapter to point to worship and art of history has often interpreted this letter rightly, since they have appealed to the imagination of the Christian, since they implant the hope in their “triumphant choruses” (5). Revelation is handled poorly if it does not engage the reader’s soul to move it towards worship and discipleship.
Once clearing the air on common misconceptions, he moves onto discussion of Revelation’s genre. Being raised inside of dispensational circles that are concerned primarily with the predictive elements of prophecy, this was the chapter that was most intriguing to read. Gorman desires to put away simple literary classifications and instead bring forth how “Revelation is simultaneously an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter” (13). He then works through these three genres in that order, and shows how that building order ought to shape a responsible reading. Revelation, because it is a revelation of God’s cosmic and “transcendent reality” (14) puts forth “apocalyptic theology” (15). Apocalyptic theology is the battle of God’s divine desires versus the compromised satanic worldly ways. “The reality of this cosmic and historical struggle means that every human must choose sides; one is either on the side of good and God or of evil and Satan” (16). As an apocalypse it speaks into every single generation which reads it, and does not have to be seen in predictive manners. Because it is not focused on predictions but on ethics, this letter functions prophetically using the symbols of apocalyptic literature to “speak words of comfort and/or challenge, on behalf of god, to the people of God in their concrete historical situation” (23). Founded upon these realities, modern readers can then look into the contents of this pastorally comforting circular letter.
Chapter three then works upon the foundations of those three genres to start discussing how to read Revelation as “a theopolitcal reaction to a theopolitcal crisis” (31). Revelation pulls a reader to worshiping the Lamb, and to follow this Lamb as Lord, not Nero—or capitalism, fundamentalism, Marxism, or democracy. He puts this letter into the decades of the potential date of authorship, and points to how it was most likely low intensity persecution which the church was facing. Rather, followers of Christ dealt with complacently synchronizing with the evil systems of their present age. His quote of Richard Bauckham’s book (The Theology of the Book of Revelation, pg. 38 states it best.)
It is not simply because Rome persecutes Christians that Christians oppose Rome. Rather it is because Christians must disassociate themselves form the evil of the Roman system that they are likely to suffer persecution. (33)
Those living in Rome were not to be wrapped up into the self-seeking practices of the time, nor were they to let any part of the emperor worship direct their way of life. Their primary allegiance was to the Lamb who is Lord of all. Their worship of this Lamb, not Nero, or whichever emperor was on the throne, was how they publically declared their loyalty. The Roman Empire was “the concrete manifestation of an ideology, a political theology,” (41) which is hauntingly echoing inside of American “God and country” patriotism. The claims of any empire to having sovereignty, bringing peace, having victory, deserving loyalty, or lasting forever are met head on by the Resurrected Lord whose very words are the most powerful and everlasting force in all of existence. Gorman challenges readers to allow the counter-myths of Jesus Christ to be the lens by which we interact with the country in which we live.
Chapters five through nine comprise eighty pages of commentary on Revelation. This is a surprisingly little amount of discussion since Revelation is the longest letter in the New Testament, but Gorman desires more to walk through the literary flow of the letter than to give a verse by verse exposition or exploration. He uses chapter four to give the lenses by which to read it, and to critique alternative lenses, so that readers in the present (64) can be led forth to follow the theological principles in the book. That is the launching pad for the eighty pages of commentary. Chapters five through nine work through the historical contexts of the book, but do so in a way of showing how it is that Revelation can move the reader to the “uncivil worship” mentioned in the subtitle of the book.
As a review of this book, I find the first seventy pages of it to be the most informative and instructive, and this is because they address the hermeneutics one needs to read Revelation responsibly. It was also where he engaged the dispensational hermeneutical claim of being true to the text because it is “literal” whereas other readings are “allegorical.” But he shows how dispensational readings have to also be allegorical because they change the Bible from a liturgical text and into “a puzzle to be pieced together into a script about the future, with various books taken out of [historical] context and linked to current or expected events” (71). Chapters five through nine are just spelling out how his hermeneutics fits into the very text of Revelation itself, and how it does so without being intrusive. It would have been nice to have a larger commentary part inside of this book, but since his main focus was on how to properly engage the book, it is only coherent that his book is about the worship of the Lamb of God, and following him in a corrupt world. His theology in this book is driven first and foremost by the text, and not an outside theology, and that was refreshing. Reading Revelation Responsibly is a worthwhile read for anyone of any theological perspective for that reason alone. Dispenationalist (myself included) may have squabbles on how the disagrees with Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind series, but the Christocentric and not antichrist-centric reading of Revelation is a necessary reminder to all: One needs to be looking for the True and Risen Messiah so that they are not led astray by the false systems and ways of the world.