Monday, January 12, 2009

The 5th W: Why?

I had a 3rd grade teacher named Mrs. Violet and a 5th grade teacher named Mrs. Brown. It must have been the Hampton School System's way of teaching colors or something. I wish Mr. Sexton's name had been Roy G. Biv. Anyway, besides their colorful names, these two teachers would often say the same thing- with a straight face: "The 5 W's are Who? What? When? Where? and How?" At this later stage in my life, I suspect they were yanking our alphabetical chain just to get us to remember the 5 W's (or, the 4 W's and an H). But, the 'How?' question might have been a bit more manageable when studying things like rocket fuel and the Continental Congress than answering the 'Why?' question. When you start with the 'Why?' question- as any parent who has ever taken a road trip with a 3 year old knows- the spiral never ends.

The question 'Why?' is tricky, no doubt- especially when we are talking about people or events from history. Even when we ask ourselves the question 'Why?' we can, at best, answer with the most immediate of motivations, but we will probably never be able to name the whole complex of motivations that cause us to act the way we do. However, with all due respect to Mrs. Violet and Mrs. Brown, I believe that the 5th W is really 'Why?' and I believe that this question- as it pertains to the book of Revelation- is where all the controversy lies.

When we begin to speak of 'Why' John wrote the book of Revelation, two primary trajectories seem to emerge as answers. The first is the that John was foreseeing the unfolding events of the world as it goes through history and eventually comes to the final drama of "the last days." This is the trajectory of Tim LaHaye has repopularized with his series of "Left Behind" novels, just as Hal Lindsey popularized it a few decades ago with his book "The Late, Great Planet Earth." While there is lots of diversity among this way of reading the book of Revelation (and the rest of Scripture with it), I will refer to this way of reading generally as 'dispensationalist,' without worrying about the finer distinctions between 'pre-tribulation' or 'post-tribulation' interpretations and so forth. In general, dispensationalists read the book of Revelation as naming specific, divinely ordered periods of time in history during which different events will take place. So, for example, the seven letters to the seven churches- which describe their faith or lack thereof- are read as descriptions of different 'ages' in the church. Typically, in dispensationalist thinking, we are always in the latest stage, which would make us now living among the church of Laodicea, known for its 'lukewarm' faith (Rev. 3:14-22).

The second trajectory is often called the 'Preterist' reading of the book of Revelation. Simply put, this trajectory reads the book of Revelation as something that addresses John's time and place, with words like 'things to come' meaning things that were immediate to John's community and the churches in Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century- not things that were to come 2,000 years later. So, in this reading, the letter to the church of Laodicea actually refers to the church in Laodicea and its spiritual condition, not a 'Laodicean age' in history.

While there is a lot of diversity within the 'dispensationalist' and 'preterist' views of the book of Revelation, one often gets the impression that these are the only two options out there for how to intepret the 5th W, 'Why did John write this book?' The dispensationalist would say that John wrote the book of Revelation in order to show the church what was to come and that no age of the church has more vested interest in that revelation than ours since we are in the final days. The preterist would say that John wrote the book of Revelation in order for his own suffering churches to see how God was working redemptively in their suffering.

There is a lot that could be said for the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges and questions that face each of these positions. Already, since posting my first 2 blogs on my facebook page, I had one response that was from the preterist position and one that was from the dispensationalist position.

Here's where I sit on this issue and how it affects my approach to the 5th W. First of all, I disagree strongly with the dispensationalist position, although that is the way I was taught to read the book of Revelation, apocalyptic writings, prophetic writings, and most of the Bible in general. I have addressed that disagreement over and over throughout this blog- without deluding myself that I have changed any dispensationalist's way of thinking. I'm not out to change anyone's way of thinking, but to express my own view on the topic.

So, here is my take, with which you are welcomed to agree or disagree. With the Preterists, I believe that John was intending to speak the Word of God faithfully for his own time and people. We cannot underestimate the absolute shadow that the Roman Empire cast over Jews and early Christians during the first few centuries of the common era. While Rome was generally 'tolerant' of Judaism- the Roman appointee Herod the Great built up the temple into one of the most impressive structures of the empire- it was a 'toleration' that came at a severe cost of subservience- as the Roman army's destruction of the temple demonstrated. The language of the empire- first and foremost- was violent subjugation, and that is the language that makes the book of Revelation such a fascination. When Augustus Caesar declared himself the "Lord and Savior" of all the peoples within the empire, it is obvious that the simple statement "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior" is no longer simply a statement of religious belief, but a declaration that struck at the very heart of the empire's arrogance.

I believe that the most profitable way of reading the book of Revelation is to read it in light of how the Christian faith was a counter-imperial movement that was born and grew within the heart of the empire itself. Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan, in a fascinating book entitled The Last Week, demonstrate how to read the gospel of Mark as a counter-narrative to Roman imperial ideology and their insights are the kind of readings that I believe are more faithful to the book of Revelation than all of the superstructures of prophecy-fulfillment that dispensationalists offer.

However, there is a degree to which I differ from what I understand to be the typical preterist reading of Revelation. I do believe that John was writing in response to the violence-laden imperialistic arrogance of Rome in his day and time. But, I also believe that there is an intentional timeless quality to the book of Revelation. (I think this is part of the original intention of dispensationalism, but it is an intent that gets lost in the prophecy-fulfillment matrix). What I am saying is that John is writing about how God acts in human history. And, even if the empire of Rome is dead and gone, empires themselves continue to arise, humans continue to arrogate prestige beyond their due, nations continue to imagine that power and violence are the means of attaining security, and God continues to call the oppressor to repentance while offering hope to the oppressed. In short- to borrow phrases from Walter Wink- the book of Revelation continues to have a 'current' voice because the gospel still opposes the 'myth of redemptive violence' with the 'myth of redemptive suffering.' The timelessness of this counter-story is why 'Babylon' is 'Rome' in John's writing. Just as Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and the other empires operated, so does Rome- imperial rule is the way of the anti-Christ.

This blog entry is getting kind of long, so I'll pick it up here later.

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