Known primarily for Pauline theology and exegesis, Michael J. Gorman recently published a book on Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness, Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2010).
At under 200 pages of regular text, this is an eminently readable book, meant to give direction to the many Christians who are bewildered by the message of John the Seer.
I was so entranced myself when I began this book that I could not put it down – I read 110 pages in one sitting!
Gorman offers, right away, his concern for the dead-end ways that this powerful Biblical text is read – he shows particular frustration with the Left Behind series and those obsessed with that perspective. Put simply, he wrote for “those looking for an alternative to readings of Revelation that promote fear about being left behind at the rapture or narcissistic preparation for the end times.” (p. xvi)
In his primary introductory chapter, he notes that popular interest in Revelation thinks of “the end” or “the antichrist” or “vengeance” when the title of the book is heard. Gorman argues that “witness, throne, and lamb” should be terms that come to mind, as they are central to Revelation.
This first chapter traces the way Revelation has been read, misread, unread, and judged. He promotes a theological reading that tries to “purge and to refurbish the Christian imagination” (this quote is Gorman quoting Bauckham, p. 8)
The second chapter looks at what kind of literature Revelation is in “form” – its hybrid nature as apocalypse, prophecy, and letter (again, in line with Bauckham). In terms of apocalyse, Gorman gives Collins’ famous definition, while also focusing on the purpose of such texts “to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression” (p. 15). So,
Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil (p. 15).
Particularly important to Gorman is a recognition of the power of symbols in the text – he offers an excellent chart exploring the meaning of numbers and colors (pp. 18-19). On the aspect of “prophecy,” Gorman rightly opposes readings that focus on future prediction. Instead, the prophet’s role is “speaking words of comfort and/or challenge, on behalf of God, to the people of God in their concrete situations” (p. 23). In seminary, we called prophets “covenant enforcers” – I think this is close to what Gorman is saying. Above all, when Revelation speaks prophetically, it is in the name of “first-commandment faithfulness” (a phrase Gorman borrows from C. Talbert), “true worship of the one true God” (p. 25).
Chapter 3 covers the “substance of Revelation” – especially engaging in the historical context and social problems that stand behind the text. He paints a picture of a Christian community at the crossroads in the Roman Empire – accommodation or resistance? Accommodation would mean acquiescence to “imperial idolatry (civil religion) and specifically Rome’s imperial idolatry and injustice” (p. 33). The story told in Revelation calls for a Lamb-obedient resistance to civil religion. In this chapter, Gorman makes connections to the potential for Revelation to warn us against civil religion in our own “empires” – particularly in America.
He also brings up obsessions with the “Rapture” – some Christians presume that this is equivalent to the Second Coming and that not believing in the Rapture is unBiblical. Gorman wisely writes: “It is not the second coming of Christ that is absent from Revelation but the alleged rupture of the Church of Christ in a kind of secret prequel to the real second coming” (p. 59).
Chapter 4 gets into the nettle of how to read Revelation – a question Gorman handles quite well. He urges dispensing with preterist and futurist approaches (as Revelation is interested in past, present, and future) and takes a deeper interest in the text as a lens for understanding a deeper message. He combines a theopoetic, theopolitical, and pastoral-prophetic approach as these “go beyond mere correspondence to more timeless concerns about God, evil, empire, civil religion, and the like, responding to new situations” (p. 68).
On pages 71-73, he offers a very incisive criticism of Left-Behind theology. If you know pastors who are concerned with the series but can’t articulate why, have them read these pages! So insightful!
Chapters 5-9, which I won’t discuss in detail, go into a short commentary-like overview of the sections of Revelation
Chapter 10, the last chapter, brings the book back to Gorman’s central argument:
[Revelation] is above all a community-forming document, intended to shape communities of believers in Jesus as the Lamb of God into more faithful and missional communities of uncivil worship and witness. The primary agenda of John the Seer is to increase the covenant faithfulness in the church universal–then and now…to form victorious communities, communities that do conquer and will conquer. And by “conquer,” Revelation means remaining faithful, even to death, in order to experience glorious, everlasting life with God, the Lamb, and all the redeemed in God’s new heaven and earth (p 177).
When I read this book, it was certainly vintage Gorman, but there are a lot of resonances with the work of Richard Bauckham, Eugene Peterson, Richard Hays, and N.T. Wright.
Gorman has not simply spun out a book by just dumping his lecture notes into a Word file. He has clearly done his Revelation homework. He reveals, through footnotes especially, he has researched and explored the long history of interpretation, but, again, the great value of this book is that it is aimed at a more general audience. While the amount of information that he churns and processes can be overwhelming at times, it just proves to me that I will need to revisit this book again and again as I explore and try to understand Revelation.
ORIGINALITY: 4/5 Gorman is not really trying to be original, but he does give some unique perspectives and syntheses of past approaches. The conciseness and simple language of the book, while still offering the best distillation of scholarship, is certainly unique.
CLARITY: 5/5 it is organized very clearly and the organization is explained.
COGENCY: 4.5/5 Gorman has certainly convinced me that a time-oriented approach (preterest versus futurist) is severely limited and that a more theopoetic approach is best.
SATISFACTION: 4.8/5 My overall satisfaction is quite high. If I have one small critique, it is that Gorman has a small tendency to over-quote. Otherwise, I enthusiastically support it!
If you want to find out how you can order this book, see HERE.