Saturday, March 10, 2012


This week I came across news of a new book being published that takes a scholarly look at the Book of Revelation. It occurred to me that, for all the time I once spent studying Revelation, I actually know very little about the book's history and context, and even less about the apocalyptic genre that was popular at the time it was written.

Growing up I was quite fascinated by Revelation, which I had been taught was a literal prophecy of the violent end of the world that could begin at any time. I read dozens of articles and books and heard numerous sermons speculating on the meaning of every symbol in its verses and how they might match up with current events and people. Was the Antichrist a current politician? Was the European Common Market the beast with ten horns? Was the United States the great harlot? The conjectures were endless.

By my college years I'd heard enough false predictions about Christ's return ("88 Reason Christ Will Return in '88" was far from the first - or last) to dampen my enthusiasm for the subject. The final nail in the coffin was coming across a book in the university library's annual book sale, written in the late 1930s, that predicted that Mussolini was the Antichrist. By the time the first Left Behind book was published a couple years later, I was already done with the whole sideshow.

At that time in my life I still believed there would be a literal Tribulation (whether the Rapture happened at the beginning or end) and a literal Antichrist; I'd merely come to realize that God didn't mean for us to spend so much time and energy trying to pinpoint when and how it was all going to happen. Funny how so many Biblical literalists over the years have forgotten that Jesus himself said nobody would know when he was returning. Actually, it's more sad than funny.

Over the years since college, I've gradually come to see how a literal interpretation of Revelation has encouraged (or at least highlighted) so many of the worst traits that are commonly associated with American evangelicalism:

-A heavy focus on the next life (which we may be whisked away to at any moment) that leaves us disinclined - and even unable - to truly engage in this one.
-An "us versus them" mentality, in which "them" is everyone fated to take the Mark of the Beast.
-An arrogant attitude toward everyone in the "them" category.
-A view of Jesus as a macho, violent warrior with no qualms about killing anyone who doesn't believe the right things about him.
-An inclination to look for (and find) persecution around every corner.
-A lack of concern for making this world a better place, since we could be saying goodbye to it at any moment.
-A tendency to caricaturize every political opponent as a potential Antichrist.
-An all-absorbing fascination with scouring every world event for signs of the end times.
-A belief that our support for Israel requires absolute and unquestioned support for every action it takes even if it leads to endless preemptive war against the entire Muslim world.
-A mandate to proselytize aggressively in a manipulative, fear-based manner.
-A fixation on sin avoidance.
-A propensity to spend millions of dollars on mediocre books and fourth-rate movies and then praise them for their "message."

Not that Revelation itself (or John of Patmos) is to blame for the many ways in which our misinterpretations of its rich imagery have transformed the faith of many into a tragic parody of the message of Christ found in the Gospels. But in that same vein, perhaps Revelation does us a favor (even before we mine its depths for the riches we have overlooked for so long) by forcing us to confront the folly of interpreting the Bible in an overly literal manner rather than letting it speak to us on its own terms.

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