Thursday, January 15, 2009

Unpacking It a Bit

In my last post, I said several things that, perhaps, ought to be unpacked a bit. Please understand that I am trying to express my way of reading Revelation, and my way of reading Revelation is itself a work in progress. Here are some of the things I said:

- The 2 primary ways of reading Revelation are the Preterist and the Dispensationalist interpretations.
- "Preterist" describes a way of reading Revelation as addressing events in John's own lifetime, the experience of his church under Roman oppression, and the expectation of events on the immediate horizon.
- "Dispensationalist" describes a way of reading Revelation as addressing larger spatial and temporal issues of global and historical events. A 'dispensation' refers to a segment of time in history, of which our time is typically understood to be the 'last days.'
- My own way of reading Revelation is much more in line with the "Preterist" reading, but not entirely. I absolutely do not accept the dispensationalist reading with all of its accompanying dogma and certainty of finding a modern day correspondent with every symbolic representation in the book of Revelation.

I guess that what I am proposing is that how we read Revelation should be more in line with how we read the rest of the Scriptures than not. There was a time in church history where people tended to read everything in the scriptures as 'allegory.' The story of the water turning into wine (John 2), for example, would be read as a story where the water represented the law, the wine represented the gospel, the servants who were told to do whatever Jesus told them to do were the bishops, the large casks of water were the church, the swizzle sticks were offering plates, yada, yada, yada. You can see how ridiculous I made this interpretation. I did so to show something- there was little discipline to this way of reading the Scriptures. Essentially, any scholar, preacher, or teacher who was clever enough could make the text justify just about anything s/he set out to justify.

That is exactly what I think much of dispensationlism does with the book of Revelation. When someone takes an ancient text written in the Meditteranean world and assumes that it is addressing the United States and Russia (during the 70's) or the United States and terrorism (during the 00's) or the United States and Katrina (Hal Lindsey saw Katrina as the beginning of God's judgment on 'the world'), then we have to ask where is the discipline to this reading? Are there any limits to what we can wrench out of the text? Aren't we exploiting the openness of symbolic language to build some kind of justifying myth that rationalizes our way of life?

Even when dispensationalists turn their critique toward our own culture, it tends to be self-serving. I remember when, in rapid succession, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were caught up in scandals. A friend of mine said that God was chastening the church. Well, that was only possibly true if you were willing to let Jim and Jimmy speak on behalf of the church in the first place. It could have just as easily been the old adage, "Be sure your sins will find you out."

So, who gets to say whether the Jim and Jimmy scandals were God's act of church-wide proportions or simply their own egos coming home to roost? Who gets to say whether the water-into-wine was an event/story that the 4th gospel uses to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, or an allegory of how the Christian church in Rome is superior to all of its rivals? Who gets to say whether the 'beast' of the book of Revelation was the tyrant of Rome's day or-- as a book my grandmother gave me while I was in college argued-- Henry Kissinger? Who is to say that we are living in the 'last days' and not another generation?

That is the interpretive question that faces us when we read the book of Revelation. In my next post, I'm going to offer how I think we can proceed with a disciplined and faithful reading of this book. Please notice that I said "a" disciplined and faithful reading, not "the" disciplined and faithful reading. That's important.


  1. Mark, I remember buying an IVP book in college that looked at four views of the millennium. As I read it, I thought, H L Moore wouldn't like this book. As I read it, I realized that the pre-millennial dispensational view was not the ONLY VIEW. That shocked me at the time. Now, I remember that book as one of the watershed moments in my faith journey from the IHPC to the PCUSA. I would say now that I am panmillennial, it will all pan out in the end...


  2. And what if it was all a dream?

    I put the book of Revelations in the same category with Daniel, I guess.

    Your reading is a refreshing exception, but a delusional reaction seems almost to be embedded in the text. Maybe that's the point? Could it be a huge stumbling-block sort of add-on?

  3. Rockabilly, your story answers my question, "Can anything good come out of IVP?" Yes!
    Seriously, it is a interesting phenomenon to sctually see a faithful alternative for the first time and to begin disbelieving things that we once thought were absolute.
    I like the word 'panmeillenial' and its definition.

  4. Virushead (do you know how difficult it is for me to call you that?): I don't put a lot of stock into dreams per se- much to the chagrin of a friend of mine. I think the rhetoric of dreams and interpretation of dreams is a device that was used to separate the dreamer from the dream (maybe a political delicacy). Since we don't control our dreams, we can't be held responsible for making the message up. Then, if a dream includes the command to 'write,' we're only doing what we're told. The problem, IMHO, lies in taking the dream literally. That is almost the opposite of what the rhetorical device calls for.


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