Can the Book of Revelation help us engage with culture?

This is the text of my lecture in the ‘Downtown Discourse’ series, based at St George’s Anglican Church, Pikes Peak Avenue:

The Book of Revelation is a divinely inspired prophecy of the end times in which we now live. Although John didn’t understand what he was seeing or describing, events which were far distant from him in time, we now know that he was accurately predicting events that are happening in our lifetime. Because of this, we need to get ready for Jesus’ imminent return.

This is not my view of the book of Revelation, and we could spend a long time exploring some of the problematic assumptions that this statement makes. And you might or might not agree with it! But we need to recognise two things: first, that this view is widespread—probably the most widely held view in the English speaking world, if not globally—and that is has persuasive appeal. 

Part of its persuasive appeal lies in Revelation’s apparent claim to offer secret knowledge to a minority dissenting from the prevalent view of the world, and the apparent creation of such a cognitive minority fits well with contemporary conspiracy theorists and their role in this post-modern moment in which we live. The majority narrative that we read in our papers or see on our screens is fake news; you actually need to be part of the in-group with their secret knowledge really to know what is going on in the world—and the Book of Revelation offers that secret knowledge. 

But the other part (which I want to focus on this evening) is that the data of the Book of Revelation actually appears to offer a very good fit with some of the phenomena that we see in our world. Let me mention a few examples. 

A few years ago there was a rumour that Barack Obama’s healthcare programme would involve all Americans being implanted with a chip. So far, so conspiracy theory. But last year, a Wisconsin company started doing just that.

32M is a Wisconsin company that sells “micro market technology” running over 2,000 kiosks in break rooms and other locations worldwide. The chips that at least 50 company employees will receive on August 1 will allow them to make purchases at 32M’s own break room market, so it sure seems to be an alpha test of a potential product offering as much as it is an unusual perk.

“We see this as another payment and identification option that not only can be used in our markets but our other self-checkout/self-service applications that we are now deploying which include convenience stores and fitness centers,” said 32M COO Patrick McMullan.

This looks like a rather chilling fulfilment of the prophecy in Rev 13.16–18:

It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666. 

There are three things to note here. 

First, the fit does look good—but it always has. I remember the first introduction of EFTPOS, which of course we all take for granted now. And it was widely noted that all barcodes included ‘6-6-6’. But we didn’t find the beast riding on the coat-tails of consumer cashless transactions, so alarm about this has now waned. In fact, every generation has found a perfect ‘fit’ between the Book of Revelation and features of the world they live in, and we will return to why this is in a moment. 

Secondly, although the fit looks good, the beauty of it is largely in the eye of the beholder (or preacher, or end-times prophet seeking to sign you up to his great value products…). Note that the text says that the mark will be forced on all, and put on their right hand or their forehead. There are actually quite a lot of technical and secular objections to chipping technology, and none of them features this detail. Still, the fit feels good. But what is not often acknowledged is the amount of work that has to be done by the reader or preacher in order to reach this sense of good fit. (Cinderella’s sisters and her shoe).

Thirdly, and most germane for us this evening, these kinds of readings are consistently devoid of any ethical reflection or cultural engagement. There are a whole range of cultural and ethical issues raised by this kind of technology. Most narrowly, it brings us into contact with the movement known as ‘transhumanism’, which believes in a ‘year zero’ of human-made eschatology at which point we will transcend our creaturely limitations through technological enhancement of the human body. Computer-controlled prosthetics and chip implantation are but the first step in this process. More broadly, there are issues of centralised control, of the use of big data, of consumerist culture, and of cultural uniformity through globalisation to be addressed. 

But these kinds of readings ignore all those issues, and focus on this one: this manifestation of the ‘mark of the beast’ is inevitable, so the only thing we can do is to wait for Jesus to come and challenge others to do the same. I was quite startled when I first read through Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth to find that the net result of his hundreds of pages of detailed argument could be found on the final two pages, and perhaps in one short paragraph: the only response was to believe in Jesus. 

This is odd because it contrasts with everything else in the NT, in the teaching of Jesus and of Paul and of all the other writers of the NT documents. The decision to believe is just the start; we then need to know what follows. It is no accident that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is the first thing we hear in Mark 1; what then follows is Jesus’ teaching about what that means. In Paul, we typically find his exposition of what God has done followed in some detail by what our response should involve, largely couched in cultural and ethical terms (the indicative followed by the imperative). Is it really the case that Revelation, alone amongst the NT books and letters, fails to do this? (In fact, this reading strategy does treat Revelation as unlike any other NT document.)

If we are going to recover Revelation’s engagement with its culture (so our reading will enable our engagement with our culture), we need to understand something about why Revelation seems to ‘fit’ so well. We need to see how the text engages with its first century context, and we need to reflect on how that engagement might facilitate and shape ours. 

The French literary critic Roland Barthes talked of texts either being ‘writerly’ texts or being ‘readerly’ texts. Writerly texts are ones in which the writer controls the meaning and where the style of writer closes down possible ambiguities. The most extreme example of this will be instruction manuals, where the concern is to be as unambiguous as possible. But descriptive narratives can also be at this end of the spectrum. On the other hand, ‘readerly’ texts are ones in which the reader must take an active role in construing the meaning of the text—as, for example, with poetry. With such texts, meaning might be hard to discern, or the texts might in fact be deliberately written to have multiple possible meanings, and be open-ended.

In the most popular way of interpreting Revelation, the text is claimed to be writerly (John is ‘clearly’ referring to these modern phenomena) but in fact the text is functioning in a highly readerly way. The interpreter has to work very hard in order to make the text refer to the things the interpreter claims—the best example being transforming the army of locusts in chapter 9 into Apache armoured attack helicopters. Without the unique insight of the interpreter, the ordinary reader would never discern that these are the things the text is referring to, which is of course why such interpretations are completely without precedent in the history of Christian reading of Revelation. At one point in his exposition, Hal Lindsey almost confesses to the highly active role he is playing as a reader construing meaning from the text, describing his role as ‘playing biblical hopscotch’ as he selects texts from here and there in order to paint his picture. We must bear with him patiently, not because this method is convincing, but because of the compelling picture that he creates from these pieces of the biblical jigsaw. 

And Revelation is indeed a ‘readerly’ text, by including variety, discontinuity, and contrast in just about every part. The opening chapter switches from one genre of writing to another with bewildering rapidity, as if John is testing his readers in their ability to make sense of what he is writing from the very beginning. (In the main body of the text, three genres predominate: epistolary, apocalyptic; and prophetic. Our popular reading strategy focusses on the prophetic and completely loses site of the epistolary.)

Characters in the drama appear and disappear without explanation—what does happen to the woman clothed with the sun in chapter 12, whom we last hear of abandoned in the desert? And how is she related to the bride of chapter 21? Angels come and go as though John is running a heavenly beings job creation scheme—and in fact the first and last one he mentions never actually appears! And John’s vision and audition report includes elements of careful structuring—which John himself then disrupts. A scheme of four sets of seven elements (scrolls, trumpets, thunders and bowls) could have worked well—but we are never told what the thunders are. And overlaid on the seven trumpets is a sequence of three woes—except that the third woe is never announced (or is it?!). The three sets of seven that we do have are organised in two halves as 4 + 3—and in fact the messages to those in the seven cities is subtly divided into 3 + 4 by the reversal of the final exhortations. Why? And why these seven cities? We might never know, until we can meet with John and ask him for ourselves. 

If Revelation’s readerly nature demands some work from us, then the nature of its imagery rewards it. Revelation is saturated with imagery, and the metaphorical language that it uses take a particular form. Both similes and standard metaphors make clear both their subject and their vehicle:

John eats like a pig

John is a pig when it comes to eating

In both cases the tenor or import of the metaphor still needs interpreting, and the meaning often generated by conventional assumptions (pigs are not particularly greedy, just as babies actually don’t sleep very well). But there are forms of metaphor where the subject is actually hidden:

Here comes that pig again

The pig is coming to dinner

In these instances, the form of the metaphorical saying matches a literal statement; if we were farmers, we might actually be talking about pigs! But, assuming we read these as metaphorical, the shift in form does three things. First, it makes the subject uncertain; we need to know the context in order to infer who the subject is. Secondly, it makes the saying more striking and so rhetorically forceful. Revelation is a text that always provokes a reaction, because of the force of its language. But, thirdly, because the subject is hidden, it can be changed. It might be that John is the pig who comes to dinner—but it might equally be Peter, or Frank, or George…or whoever. 

In Revelation, we are told neither that Roman Imperial Power is like a beast emerging from the sea (as a strange hybridisation of the four imperial beasts of Daniel 7) nor are we told that some ‘end times’ imperial power is like a beast. The subject is hidden, so the text allows either, or any other. All we are told is that ‘a beast emerged from the sea’. 

Every age had read Revelation as though it referred to them, and them alone. So, many in Europe thought the end would come soon after 999 because of the millennium in Rev 20. Joachim of Fiore thought the Age of the Spirit would dawn in the year 1260. And Lukas Cranach depicts papal authority as the Whore of Babylon.

If we want to know to what John is referring (if indeed he is referring to anything at all) we have to look somewhere other than the grammar of the text itself. Here are some places to look:

  1. In the genre of the text. John is writing his apocalyptic, prophetic vision as a letter, so he is explicitly writing to people in a particular time and place. Indeed, he locates himself in a particular time and place, both literally, geographically, eschatologically and spiritually. (If someone had pointed this out to me, it would have helped my reading of this as a teenager. As it was, I assumed the seven cities represented the seven ages of the church; we were in the age of Laodicea, which was clear from looking at the lukewarm Anglicans around us.)
  2. In its historical and cultural context. John is writing in terms which readers in the first century would understand perfectly well. The four horsemen who bring conquest, warfare, disease, famine and death carry with them things with which John’s first readers would very familiar indeed. Our ‘armoured attack helicopters’ in chapter 9 bear a striking resemblance to the chimera of Greco-Roman mythology. And the (to our ears and eyes) bizarre story of a dragon waiting to consume a newborn child in chapter 12 was to them just another fairy story, that of Leto, Python and the birth of Apollo, as familiar to them as Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks is to us.
  3. In the history of its interpretation. John was understood from the beginning to be offering a theological critique of Rome—and for this reason the book became something of an embarrassment to the church after the Constantinian settlement. 

So if Revelation is to speak to us in our culture today, then it does so because it already spoke to the culture of the first century, and not because it failed to. The popular reading of this text displaces any possibility of earlier meaning with a unique meaning for us. But in fact Revelation has had meaning in each previous generation, because it had meaning in the first century world. This is the way that every letter (in fact, every book in Scripture) works as being ‘God breathed, useful for teaching, training, rebuking and correcting’. We don’t predicate our reading of any other scripture today on the basis of its failure to speak to previous generations, but on its power to do so. Revelation is no different. 

These are four of the main themes that Revelation helps us address:

1. Power and greatness

The central image of the narrative is the throne of God, occupied jointly by the indescribable ‘One’ and the lamb. The throne of God is hinted at in the first three chapters, brought centre stage in chapters 4 and 5, and continues its dominance until it becomes the focus of glory in the New Jerusalem in the closing visions of 21 and 22. The thereon of God is not simply described in absolute terms, but in ways that relativise and displace all other human claims to greatness. The vision of worship in chapter 4 and 5 actually reads very strangely in comparison to other biblical visions, since it blends together visual imagery with language, images and practice from Roman imperial worship. The kingdom of God renders all the claims of human empires hollow and deceitful.

But this vision doesn’t just counter the large-scale narratives of human imperial power. It also counters the small-scale narratives of popular devotion. Jesus is depicted in chapter 1 as the ancient of days (with white hair), as the high priest (with a long robe), as an angelic emissary (with a gold belt) and as a pagan goddess with breasts. He draws together and fulfils OT images of God, priest and angel but also pagan images of deity. 

2. Chaos and meaning

There are numerous images of a world in chaos in Revelation, particularly in the series of sevens in chapters 6, 8–9, and 16. But the curious thing about their depiction is that they are described within a carefully structured pattern. It is as is John is telling us that chaos is real, but it is not unlimited and it is not unregulated. God is on his throne, though his dominion is not yet realised on earth as it is in heaven. The four horsemen gallop forth at the opening of the seals by the lamb, and on the command of the living creatures around the throne. Chaos comes not directly by the authority of God but not totally unconnected to his will. The apparently meaninglessness of the world will one day find its meaning. 

This contrasts with the contemporary narrative of (for example) Game of Thrones, where there is no meaning, but also with (for example) some of the comic-book movie adaptations, where violence is inflicted by heroes as a direct means to their ends. It also contrasts with the Coen brothers films, which show people constructing meaning to live by where there is none. 

3. Economic exploitation and materialism

Prior to the final, positive, vision of New Jerusalem, John recounts a negative vision of judgement in stages. The overthrow of the temporal power of the Roman Empire in 17 and 18 precedes the overthrow of the cosmic power of Satan and his minions in 19 and 20. But what is striking is the relative mundane nature of the judgement of Babylon: she was greedy, and exploited others for personal gain. (Note Paul’s comment that ‘greed is idolatry’ in Col 3.5.) The list of 24 cargoes Rev 18.11–13 draws on the list of 40 traded by Tyre in Ezekiel 27, but is adapted both to fit with John’s numerology but also to reflect the actual practices of first century Rome. For ‘carriages’ John uses the technical term for the four-wheeled carriages of the wealthy, and is list includes all the most fashionable accessories in Roman high society, obsessed as it was with pearls and gold and all things exotic. The tawdry bling of Babylon gained through materialism, greed and exploitation is contrasted with the splendid beauty of the New Jerusalem which comes as a gift from God.

4. Environmental destruction

Throughout the text, God is lauded as the source of creation, to whom all creation looks in praise. The destruction of the earth is not his desire; indeed, judgement will involved ‘destroying the destroyers of the earth’ (11.18). The fundamental shape of the narrative is not that we leave earth to dwell in heaven, but that we are already heaven-dwellers here on earth as we follow Jesus. The goal of this world is not destruction in judgement, but renewal and recreation as heaven comes down to earth.

So what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in this present evil age?

The followers of Jesus are those who recognise that all power belongs to God—and if any human authority exercises power, it is only by God’s grace. They will not be duped by empty claims to greatness. The followers of the lamb recognise the chaos and darkness of the world—but will not let that have the last word. They reject the lure of materialism and the empty promise of fulfilment through the acquisition of things, but instead treasure the wealth of the kingdom which is gifted by God. They will oppose both human exploitation and environmental degradation driven by greed and the desire for more.

John locates the particulars of the challenges in his culture within the universal story of God’s dealings with his people and his world. The particular beasts arising in his day are working at the behest of that primeval enemy of God. And as those beasts will face judgement, as will the beasts roaming our world also face judgement. We need to recognise them if we are to heed the call of John and Jesus and persist as faithful witnesses following in their footsteps.

Here is the PowerPoint to go with the lecture: Revelation culture lecture

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9 thoughts on “Can the Book of Revelation help us engage with culture?”

  1. Thankyou Ian – It is always a delight to read someone who has lived and engaged with a text deeply and for so long.

    Slightly off theme but I have been reading 2Thess. Paul appears to offer a chronology here: ch1 the Lord will return, ch2, certain things must take place before Jesus returns, Ch3, how to live here n now in light of the return. Paul seems clear that preceding the return of the King there will be two particular events: ‘anomia’ & ‘apostasia’ (2Thess2:3) – the appearance of the ‘man of lawlessness’ and the great falling away into sin. It is not clear whether the rebellion/apostasy brings forth the man of lawlessness or vice versa.

    My questions: Do you see any parallel to this schematic in Revelation?
    Do you think we are in this period?

  2. Great lecture.

    The claim to impart secret knowledge goes well with a secretive or mysterious means of imparting it, requiring some working-out on the reader’s part. A lot has therefore to be deduced from clues and internal logic rather than being immediately clear from the text. I do think the angels are a systematic set, 7 for each one of the 7 main sequences (and with so many, there is a limit to how much loving care can be put into their characterisation), but their positioning is complicated by one factor: the need to make the scroll angel the central one. Therefore John kills 2 birds with one stone by placing the 4 Euphrates angels slightly earlier, thus attaining not only the required symmetry either side of the scroll angel but also perhaps an historical reference to the legions sent west from the Euphrates area to Judea during the 2nd woe period and their auxiliary Eastern troops (Giet).

    Re Thessalonians, Paul at the time of 1 Thess will naturally have been agog at the recent news of the Jews’ expulsion from Rome, including that of close friends and of course enemies (at a time when he is himself receiving so much grief at Jewish hands), and may be associating it with the eschatological wrath (2.16 wrath that has already come certainly does not seem intrinsically later in the eschatological calendar than 1.10’s ‘wrath that is [now already in the process of] coming’). When he speaks of the rapture/return, he has no category of ‘those who shall have died between me now writing and the rapture’ (only those already dead and those now alive), suggesting he expects, as in 1 Cor., that the thief may come soon, and that the thief image is clearly more to do with unexpectedness than with interrupting the complacency wrought by any long delay.

    By the time of 2Thess the landscape of portents has come to be dominated by the forthcoming accession of Nero, who has just recently (at the purported or actual date of writing) been introduced to the army (things still happen in that sequence in North Korea). His character and age are already known, and the memory of the last young immature emperor, Caligula, is both sore and indelibly associated with the intention of Antiochus-like desecration of the Jerusalem sanctuary. Prophecies that will have flown around at the time of Caligula (Antiochus redivivus? fulfilment of Daniel?) were as yet unfulfilled because at the eleventh hour his plans to imperialise the sanctuary had been thwarted. Accordingly Nero now appears to Jewish/Christian eyes as a likely candidate not only for the fulfilment of those recent prophecies pointing to the present day but also for the eschatological fulfilment par excellence: fulfilment of the main OT prophecy (in Daniel) that involved calculation of years and times. That prophecy, it appears from Josephus, was being avidly checked out in the mid first century.

    Incidentally, if you are interested in the background of 2 Thessalonians, can I recommend Daniel MacDougall, ‘The Authenticity of 2 Thessalonians’ (Paternoster) – it is quite excellent. More is the pity that he does not pay attention to the clincher point (JAT Robinson, Gentry, and earlier writers) that the coincidence between the name ‘Claudius’ (the reigning emperor at actual or purported time of writing, as all agree) and the role of ‘restrainer’ is beyond accident even *before* we consider that ‘restrainer’ is a highly recondite role to mention in any eschatological scenario in any case, unless a pun is involved (as indeed it is. Further, practically all the most secretive passages in the NT are covert references to the emperor: Rev 13, eschatological discourse. And the odd and noncoincidental combination of masculine and neuter for the same subject is actually shared by this passage and Mark 13). Now, when the restrainer is out of the way, his successor will be Nero (above), a prospect that brings dread and eschatological speculation. The hand of God is seen in this, since why would the successor not have been Claudius’s actual son Britannicus as had been assumed?

    The similarity with Mark 13 suggests to some (van Kooten) that 2 Thess is datable to 70 when (Suetonius) there was a rumour that Nero was still alive and was planning to take up his seat in Jerusalem. There are pros and cons to that position: main pro is the clear similarity to Mark, which does look like a document of 70, but main con is the The detailed sequence of the movements of Paul and his circle given in 1 Thess is entirely confirmed by Acts, which also (because of the Gallio stele etc.) makes the traditional dating of 1 Thess very likely to be correct. Douglas Campbell among others runs into trouble in this regard by methodologically disregarding Acts and seeing only the option that 1 Thess is referring to Caligula. This involves a far different date. If van Kooten were incorrect, one would have to consider Goulder’s theory that 1 Thess was essentially sent by Silas (despite the style looking like Paul and unlike the Silas of 1 Peter [and Hebrews]), and Paul disavowed it. More likely in 1 Thess Paul was taken with the expulsion of the Jews as the eschatological sign and shortly afterwards the shocking acclamation of Nero as heir became central to his projected scenario understandably caused him to modify his timetable accordingly.

      • It was actually on ecstatic experience in earliest Christianity, & I began it at the time of the ‘Toronto blessing’. (But I have worked mainly on the gospels, and New Testament dating.)

        • Christopher – I’d love to read that – is it in print?
          I have been much in thought recently about Toronto having spent a day with John Arnott recently – I never went to Toronto or experienced the ‘blessing’ but am intrigued.


          • I think it is only accessible in the lower reaches of the Cambridge University library. However the thesis is just a taxonomy for speaking as precisely as possible about these phenomena, together with an analysis of what types of altered-states-of-consciousness the earliest Christians (from Jesus to the Montanists) may have had.

  3. In final para, ‘main con is the coherence of the timetable arising from viewing the letter as authentically Paul’s (which van Kooten doesn’t, dating it to c69-70), as I sketch here’.

  4. Ian, I appreciate this wasn’t in the lecture but do you find importance in the numbers used in Revelation as having an allegorically significant message – 24 elders; 144,000 virgins; 7 heads, 10 horns, 7 diadems; 12,000 furlongs; etc?
    I am interested that you posit the black horse as famine. I recall Billy Graham saying that on TV in 1966. Hendricksen reckons that the amount of wheat and barley is in fact enough to live on rather than being a starvation diet; and, of course, there is no restriction at all on the availability of oil and wine. He reckons it relates more to the consequences of deliberate persecution of the saints which creates hardship.

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