William Sloan Coffin once observed that the problem with Americans and the Bible is that we use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamppost: We lean on it, we don’t use it for illumination. His observation is particularly apt as it applies to the Book of Revelation and its use in our culture.
Thanks to its opaque and outrageous imagery, John’s Apocalypse has become something of a public Rorschach test --- reflecting the anxieties, narcissism and obsession with conspiracy that plagues our public life. We project upon it our fears, both personal and collective. We rehearse the end of world, destroy it in a million different ways and contemplate our darkest nightmares. Then, paradoxically, we comfort ourselves with the notion that because we see it played out in Scripture; somehow it all has to be that way.
That we find ourselves at this juncture at the beginning of the third millennium would be something of a surprise to earlier generations of American Christians. The view that the Book of Revelation should be read as a roadmap to our future has been, for most of church history, a minority view. And objections to this approach were not raised simply by those who were styled as “liberal” in their outlook. J. Gresham Machen, the great defender of fundamentalist causes, described the roadmap (or dispensationalist) approach as marked by error that only could be overlooked in the name of winning the battle against modernism.
Equally surprising is the widespread impression that the roadmap approach to Revelation is both the only way in which the book can be read and the orthodox way in which to read it. National surveys and my own experience with college and university students, as well as church-going folk, suggest that even people who have never read, nor plan to read, John’s Apocalypse believe that it is a roadmap to our future.
This should be troubling to those of us who care about what people believe to be true –
about the Bible and about God.
- Troubling to us because it asks people to believe that a first-century Christian wrote in Greek to people who, in effect, said, “Haven’t a clue what it means, but never mind, there are people living 2,000 years from now in a country no one knows anything about, on a continent no one knows anything about, speaking a language that no one has ever heard of, living under circumstances that couldn’t be imagined --- who will.
- Troubling to us because that improbable scenario obscures the real issues that captured the mind of its author -- the choice between Christ and culture; the momentous character of those choices; the complex alternatives as to how those choices might be made -- and his insistence that the transcendent nature of reality found in his vision should guide us in making those choices.
- Troubling to us because the roadmap approach has fostered a preoccupation with who will be left behind and (in some quarters) a zero-sum spirituality that says, in effect, “I can’t go to heaven unless you go to hell.”
- Troubling to us because it fosters a spirituality all but completely occupied with the future ---- asking little more of us in the present than that we repent and bring others to repentance.
John’s message is decisively and morally very different: John challenged his church to re-examine its own conduct; the roadmap approach fosters a preoccupation with the behavior of others. He wrote about the future only as a means of prompting his churches to re-think their behavior in the present.
How did this approach to John’s Apocalypse achieve such widespread acceptance? In part, its success can be traced to historical circumstances. The specter of nuclear holocaust and the creation of Israel in 1948 did a great deal to set the stage for apocalyptic speculation.
But the roadmap approach owes far more of its influence to the publication of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, first printed in 1970, and now Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels. Both have packaged the Book of Revelation in literalistic terms that are easily understood, immediately relevant and appeal to the popular imagination. Invoking biblical authority and appealing to the ostensibly obvious meaning of the book, both authors marketed their left-behind theology in grocery stores and family bookstores.
The result is predictable. Profoundly mistaken about the meaning of John’s Apocalypse, they have, nonetheless, shaped the thinking of a generation. It is the power and the importance of that grocery-store conversation that has prompted the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars to begin work with Morehouse Publishing on the Conversations with Scripture series.
We are long overdue in giving attention to Scripture and to the way in which it is read by the laity. Too often, the debates within the church have been described as a battle between those who attend to the authority of Scripture and those who do not; those who take literal approach to the text and those who do not care to know what Scripture means; those who are concerned about the devotional application of Scripture and those who do not care about the devotional life.
That, however, does not accurately reflect the nature of the debate. Those of us who differ deeply with the grocery-store authorities of contemporary Christian practice have our own commitments.
We are committed to the authority of Scripture, without construing that authority in narrow ways. We are committed to reading Scripture, but with the aid of the scholarship that can set the text free to speak for itself. We are committed to the devotional application of Scripture, but not without thinking every bit as deeply about the meaning of the text as we feel deeply about our faith.
Beginning with one of the most-abused of those biblical texts is, I believe, a symbolically significant place to begin. It is here that readings of the biblical text are at their most distorted. It is here that counterintuitive readings pass for the text’s obvious reading. It is here that biblical authority is assigned to a theology all but alien to the Old and New Testament.
And yet, as foreign as the text of Revelation may seem to us, its message is remarkably contemporary. Leading a church that struggled with the reality of the Roman Empire, John uses the visionary to ask his readers: If you understand the true nature of time and reality, will you choose the city of Babylon (a.k.a., Rome) or the city of God? It is a question that presents us with an important challenge and a window into the way in which one of the earliest Christian communities navigated that challenge.