The most dangerous bookBy John A. Lapp
On my desk is Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation by J. Nelson Kraybill, published by Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Mich., 2010, 224 pages, $21.99.
Nelson Kraybill, Pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart and former President of AMBS is an enthusiast about the last book included in the New Testament. His excitement and insight permeates every page. While Nelson is an expert, he wears his learning lightly. This book is very readable and understandable for any serious Bible student. The frequent use of stories, the photographs, and questions at the end of each chapter make this an exceptional Bible study resource.
While this is thoughtful exploration, it is much more than a traditional commentary. The introduction titled “Worship is Political” distills the essence of the book into one sentence: “The pressing issue for John’s readers was how Christians, who give their highest loyalty to Jesus, should conduct themselves in a world where economic and political structures assumed that everyone would worship the emperor.”
After the introduction which highlights the use of symbols in building allegiance, Kraybill pursues the theme in twelve colorfully worded chapter titles: “A Prophet in Trouble; Stampeding Empires; Beastly Worship; Accuser of Our Comrades; The Cosmic Throne Room; The Lamb is Lord of History; Seal of the Living God; A Harlot Drunk With Blood; The Economics of Worship; Letters to Seven Churches; All Things New; Long-Term Hope.”
Each chapter is based on a close, intense reading of the text. I learned so much about these texts and how they referenced hundreds of Old Testament references and almost every New Testament book. Kraybill repeatedly observes that this book was written to Jewish Christians and that this alone means serious Christians will be interested in the Jewish tradition and its witness. Also a part of the understanding these scriptures Kraybill uses summary lists of such items as the use of violent imagery, believers’ circumstances in Asia Minor, the landscape of emperor worship and Christian worship.
Each chapter is embedded in the historical context. Many Roman historians are cited as well as numerous classical and early Christian writers. The visuals help readers sense how scripture is not isolated from the full historical experience of the early church. Kraybill freely finds parallels between the context of the Revelation churches and the churches in the contemporary North American context. The chapter titles drawn from Revelation itself describe both then and now.
The book of Revelation has been labeled “the most dangerous book of the Bible.” Such a rubric highlights the situation of the church as a minority people sometimes but not always persecuted. John on Patmos was much aware of those who suffered and died. Revelation is dangerous because it portrays the normal stance of the church as embattled by powerful economic, political, and cultural forces. Jewish Christians had keen memories of their experience with the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek empires. Rome was simply a new chapter in an old pattern.
Revelation is also dangerous because it is controversial. Many interpreters did and do not understand that “biblical prophecy often has more to do with spiritual insight into the writer’s immediate circumstances than with forecasts of the distant future.” Kraybill takes seriously John’s vision which has to do with “what must soon take place.” The great Christian hope is that “in the end evil will face defeat and Christ will reign.”
Throughout the book Kraybill repeatedly emphasizes “The way worship, with its reliance on symbol, expressed and shapes allegiance.” He is very effective in comparing the practices of Roman civil religion and the early Christian struggle to transcend its politics, violence, and pseudo-universalism.
Revelation highlights “exuberant praise in the midst of suffering and chaos.” “For believers, heartfelt worship is vital in order to maintain hope amid adversity, praise builds allegiance to the God who provides salvation.”
This is indeed rich scripture study. It is a model of understanding what these texts meant to the first century church and what they can mean for the twenty-first century church.
In a time of growing consciousness that there is in reality an American empire and more broadly a dominating western culture, reading the book of Revelation through the eyes and insights of Nelson Kraybill is a spiritual tonic.
John A. Lapp, of Akron, Pa., is a former executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee.
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