The book of Revelation has a reputation for the fear and confusion it has led people to embrace. For Michael Gorman, the book of Revelation is far from the cheap Kirk Cameron screenplay reading it has received. In his book Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb into a New Creation Gorman’s approach for reading Revelation seeks to rescue the book from the vast amount of hermeneutical injustice wrongly received.
The first four chapters of the book answer the “what are we reading?” and “how to we read it?” questions regarding interpretation, literary style, and the historical/political context of Revelation. Chapters 5-9 are Gorman’s commentary-like walkthrough of Revelation where he utilizes the principles explained in the first four chapters. The brevity in these chapters hardly constitutes the length of a typical commentary the writing, both rich and thorough, puts to practice the insightful interpretation strategies chronologically. Chapter ten is a concluding summary with Gorman’s connection to the spirituality of Revelation. For this review, I will not summarize to accurately summarize chapters 5-9 considering there isn’t much regarding his method explained in these chapters. Instead, I will instead keep the summary limited to chapters 1-4 and 10, where his argument is best explained. I will then summarize his critique of the dispensational approach, and recap on his proposed alternate method of reading.
Chapter 1 titled The Puzzle, Problem, and Promise of Revelation, is an overview of the negative responses to Revelation. Introducing the body of the book, Gorman summarizes the preoccupation of those reading Revelation, along with the vast influence the book has had on music, art, and culture (which is incredibly ironic). This chapter addresses the problems with Revelation’s interpretation, and is Gorman’s overview of what he offers in the following chapters as an alternative approach for interpretation.
Chapter 2 is Gorman’s first response to the “What are we Reading?” question. This chapter tackles the form of Revelation. The form (or genre) has been characterized by words/phrases which have led its readers to assume it. Terms such as 666, the rapture, the end, the antichrist, judgment, etc. have encapsulated the book’s message, and dismissed what Gorman sees as central to the book such as throne, lamb, or witness (p. 1). These presuppositions come not just from the book’s cultural norm, but also from historical figures of high influence to the Christian faith today such as Calvin and Luther. With this in mind, Gorman argues the form of Revelation being a Hybrid Genre, rather than exclusively prophetic, apocalyptic, or a circulatory letter. Quoting Frank Matera he writes,
“As an apocalypse, it reveals what “must soon take place” (1:1). As a prophecy, it testifies to the Word of God and Jesus Christ (1:2). As a letter, it addresses seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (1:4).”
Gorman concludes this chapter with identifying John as the writer of the letter according to the letter itself (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). Gorman’s purpose for this, however, is not limited to the name, but rather understanding him as a witness, poet, theologian, and pastor fully driven, intoxicated, intellectual in God.
This brings us to Chapter 3 addressing substance, which is the second response to the “What are we Reading?” question. Gorman’s focus on substance is carefully considered with two aspects of Revelation: liturgical and theopolitical. It is liturgical because it has to do with worship as a public service of a people (p. 34). It is theopolitical because it “parodies and criticizes both the oppressive nature of imperial power and the blasphemous claims made about it (p. 40)”, and in this the book acts as a manifesto and summons to “Uncivil” Religion (p. 55). Gorman points out that the two are synonymous, because if one reads Revelation liturgically, they will inevitably read it theopolitically. His conclusion is that, much like its form, it is not mutually exclusive to one or the other; summarizing his interpretation to a theopoetic, theopolitical, pastoral-prophetic text (p. 59).
Chapter 4 addresses the hermeneutical question of “How do We Read It?” Starting the chapter off, Gorman discusses historical factors regarding Revelation’s canonicity and interpretation, he then segues into five approaches to the book’s interpretation: predictive, preterist, poetic (theopoetic), political (theopolitical), and pastoral-prophetic. As one could see from the preceding chapters, he sides with the latter three modes of interpretation. Gorman then lists six common interpretive mistakes most people make when reading Revelation, along with their corollary antidotes; the antidotes are listed as helpful tools to ensure Revelation’s textual integrity with responsible study. These common mistakes are correlated with the predictive approach to revelation, and, after informing the reader of this approach being favored by dispensational readers, segues into his critique of such.
Gorman begins his summary of a dispensational reading by addressing their hermeneutic as primarily eschatological. This mode of reading is a means to define the symbols with figures and events in the future. It divides history into various ages (dispensations), and connects the rapture with the tribulation period (Rev. 6-19), which in their approach is the 70th week from Daniel 9:25-27. In an unapologetic fashion, Gorman reverts from the technical terms dispensational and predictive, referring to them instead as the “Left Behind” approach because of the series created by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Gorman’s critique is divided in three categories: Hermeneutical, Theological/Spiritual, and Political (p. 71-73).
Hermeneutically, this approach views Biblical prophecy as “history written in advance” as is noted in the book (Left Behind p. 214). According to Gorman, this is a form of “biblical hopscotch” because it jumps around scripture taking a verse here and there to connect them to the end times; they are taken out of context, and in turn, make the book’s purpose eschatologically exclusive. This misunderstands the nature and function of both prophetic and apocalyptic literature which, as he sees it, is a gross misuse of the Biblical texts utilized as proof and only further disproves their claim of being literal. Most importantly, their temporal (eschatological) emphasis dismisses theological significance; an absence theologically inevitably results in a spiritual problem as well.
The theological and spiritual problems with the dispensational reading reduce the gospel to “God and Jesus and the Rapture and the Glorious Appearing,” according to Gorman (p. 72). This reduction leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with the details and events surrounding Christ’s second coming; along with this reduction the main reason for one’s conversion shifts to being rooted in fear. This view also eliminates any ethic or discipleship between the rapture and second coming to continue, exposing it to be inherently militaristic (p. 72). The inevitable militaristic downfall dismisses any loving or peaceful action, bringing global disunity, and forcing Christians to participate in violent warfare alongside Jesus. Politically, Gorman reveals, this is very pro-American. There would be no international relations without suspicion war with the Middle East would not only be considered good, but also as part of God’s plan.
Gorman’s critique of the “Left Behind” approach shows error in God’s stamp of approval being on a patriotic, hostile, survivalist with a crusader mentality waging war on all who disprove the dissention predicted from the Bible out of context. Though he mentions he could’ve gone into more detail, Gorman limits it to those points as sufficient. Afterwards, he concludes with seven theological themes in Revelation, and a fivefold strategy for interpretation. This strategy is given to aid with his alternate approach he defines to a cruciform interpretation (p.78-79):
- Recognize that the central and centering image of Revelation is the Lamb that was slaughtered
- Remember that Revelation was first of all written by a first-century Christian for first-century Christians using first-century literary devices and images
- Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book as if it were history written in advance, and use a strategy of analogy rather than correlation.
- Focus on the book’s call to public worship and discipleship
- Place the images of death and destruction in Revelation within the larger framework of hope.
Gorman’s conclusion is that Revelation, though highly important in its spirituality, cannot stand by itself. Instead, it is intended to be a “conversation partner with the rest of the canon” (p. 186). The book of Revelation is uncivil worship and witness: following the Lamb out of fallen Babylon into the new creation (p.77). For Gorman, this cruciform interpretation holds to the Hybrid genre in every way, and thus provides a means for us to Read Revelation Responsibly. Overall, I would rate this book as excellent. The only critique I have is the association he makes amongst all who approach Revelation with a predictive hermeneutic. His distaste for this view is aggressively laid out, and doesn’t seem to give leeway to any who aren’t in the “left behind” camp. Basically, if someone uses the predictive method of interpretation, they automatically are on the same extreme level as Kirk Cameron, praying for the day where they will be taken up to heaven, naked and without a single memory of the growing pains he experienced (pun intended). Other than that, I felt that this was an excellently written book that addressed a very important issue regarding Revelation’s interpretation which, in turn, brings the reader back to thrust of Gorman’s argument: The book of Revelation is for the church today as it is a call to public worship and discipleship. If this is something you’d be interested in buying I’ve included the amazon link here