A refreshing reading of Revelation

A review of Nelson Kraybill. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010).

Ted Grimsrud—published in The Conrad Grebel Review 29. 3 (Fall 2011), 107-109

Nelson Kraybill, New Testament scholar, former missionary in Europe, former president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and currently pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, has written a fine book that displays abilities honed in each of his roles just mentioned.

Apocalypse and Allegiance combines solid scholarship, an accessible style, theological depth, spiritual encouragement, and social critique. Kraybill packs an impressive amount of content in a relatively small space, addressing both general readers and scholars with a refreshing perspective on the book of Revelation.

Kraybill’s scholarly strength is his understanding of the historical setting for the book of Revelation, with particular expertise in political and economic dynamics. So we get information and visuals that put us back into Revelation’s first century environment.

In particular, Kraybill does an excellent job in presenting Revelation as resistance literature that challenges the imperial ambitions of Rome with a vision of a humane, peaceable alternative politics. And, to the reader’s benefit, Kraybill does not simply describe a fascinating ancient document but also makes perceptive applications to the present day.

Kraybill keeps his two feet solidly in both the New Testament scholarship and the peace church arenas. This latter arena is clearly more central for his concerns, but he pursues his ecclesial agenda without compromising his commitment to solid scholarship.

While not a full-scale commentary, this book does survey the entire book of Revelation. Hence, it will work well in classroom and Bible study contexts that study Revelation. A special appeal of Kraybill’s approach is how he provides the contextual details amid looking at the content of the book, heightening the interest and accessibility of those details.

Kraybill differs from many writers on Revelation who, like him, read it as an anti-imperial polemic by also emphasizing what he calls “devotion.” He sees worship as one the most important emphases of Revelation. So, this biblical book is about politics, but politics of a distinctive sort, politics embodied most of all in the life of worshiping communities.

Of course, another dimension of Kraybill’s book that deserves appreciation, even if it is not a central focus, is how he presents a winsome antidote to the futuristic (and violent) readings of Revelation that have exerted such influence among North American Christians.

Perhaps Kraybill could have said a bit more overtly to contrast the meaning of worship for the faithful communities in Revelation with the meaning of worship for all too many North American Christians who are quite comfortable amidst their empire. However, the implications of the differences are not hard to draw based on the information Kraybill does provide.

I appreciate, as part of Kraybill’s effort to bring the message of Revelation into the present, that at the end of each chapter he includes a short vignette describing present-day efforts to embody the way of the Lamb. But perhaps a bit more thought could have been devoted to using stories with more obvious linkage with the content of the corresponding chapter.

The book of Revelation, while still obscure for many Christians and all too clear (in problematic ways) for many other Christians, has stimulated an encouraging and enlightening literature. Since the publication of George B. Caird’s still highly recommended commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, in 1966, a regular stream of useful books presenting Revelation as peace literature has emerged. Kraybill’s book complements these others, but still makes its unique contribution.

Nonetheless, there are differences of emphases among these writers. A way mine differs from Kraybill’s approach is to focus more on the narrative of the book of Revelation as a whole. Kraybill picks up on important themes throughout Revelation, but does so in kind of a scattered way—jumping from chapter one to chapters twelve and thirteen, and then back to four through eleven, then to fifteen through nineteen, and then back to two and three, and ending with twenty through twenty-two.

This approach, while allowing Kraybill to lift up what he sees as the central themes of Revelation, might also be a bit disorienting and deprive the reader of an important element of John’s thought seen only by reading the book as a self-conscious narrative structured in a particular way.

All in all, Apocalypse and Allegiance is an excellent book, making a most useful contribution to present-day Christian faithfulness to the way of Jesus.

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