Book Review: Apocalypse and Allegiance by J. Nelson Kraybill, Part 1
Review: J. Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010).
In brief: Apocalypse and Allegiance is an engaging but problematic Mennonite take on Revelation—potentially stimulating for a discerning reader, but potentially misleading to the average Christian.
J. Nelson Kraybill thinks that you can understand the Book of Revelation—not necessarily that it is easy to understand every symbol in the book, but that the average Christian can understand the main points of the book and their application to life. Kraybill's new book, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation, is an attempt to facilitate this understanding.
It is a short book, just under 200 pages, and written at what one might call an intelligent popular level—the kind of book that ends its chapters with group discussion questions and pithy anecdotes but also has a decent number of footnotes and a bibliography at the back. It is a book meant to be accessible to any Christian without being dumbed-down, and it largely succeeds at this.
Kraybill is a Mennonite pastor and former president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary of Indiana, so he is definitely writing from within the Anabaptist tradition. This shows up clearly as one reads, but one does not get the impression that his reading of Revelation was simply controlled by his theological preconceptions. He has clearly spent a great deal of time with the book and studied it in depth, on its own terms. He is, nevertheless, writing from a distinctly different theological perspective than the Reformed perspective, and that is worth keeping in mind. Sometimes the same biblical conclusions that Reformed scholars have made lead him to quite different theological conclusions because of his preexisting notions; see for example pp. 44-45, where he starts with an understanding of the present age that is quite similar to the Reformed view, then takes it in a notably Anabaptist direction.
The interpretive approach of Apocalypse and Allegiance to Revelation is basically preterist, which is to say that he sees the visions in Revelation as describing a historical situation that is already past: the struggles of the Church in the Roman Empire. A happy consequence of his preterism is that the book is very interested in historical context. Not a chapter goes by without a substantial survey of ancient literature and archaeology that clarify the symbols in Revelation. This is not an unbiased survey or a survey of scholarly depth—indeed, I am pretty sure that historians of antiquity would object to some of his practices, such as quoting authors like Josephus and Suetonius uncritically without qualifying their biases—but it is still a very interesting feature of the book and one of its strengths. If nothing else it should get readers interested in exploring the historical context of the biblical books, and this is certainly a good thing.
The book also takes what I would call an “evil empire” interpretation of the text. In this interpretation, the Roman Empire (and the idea of empire more generally) is viewed not merely as a power that can oppose the Church but as a fundamental enemy of the Church, a satanic being that the Church must oppose even when not actively persecuted by the empire. This idea of the fundamental contest between Jesus and Rome is an increasingly common approach to Revelation and to other parts of the New Testament; one sees it, to varying degrees, in the writings of authors such as N. T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, and others. Kraybill distances himself from the more extreme examples of this (like Crossan, who undermines Scriptural authority repeatedly; see p. 133) but still follows this basic approach.
This brings us to the fundamental point of Kraybill's book (which is, to Kraybill's mind, also one of the fundamental points of Revelation): Christians cannot truly have allegiance both to Christ and to imperial powers, but must make their choice. That was true for Christians living under the Roman Empire; it is equally true (he strongly implies without ever saying outright) for Christians living under the modern American Empire. He acknowledges that the Apostle Paul's more positive view of government can apply sometimes (see p. 164), but in general he sees the relation between Christians and earthly rulers as one of fundamental—though nonviolent—conflict.
Kraybill's reasoning, as presented here, centers around worship. He views Revelation as (among other things) a depiction of a contest of worship between the Lamb and the Beast, between Jesus Christ and the Roman Empire with its cult of emperor worship. Indeed, he makes this theme of worship the explicit focus of his book (p. 22). The problem is not, then, merely that imperial powers can be unethical or evil—a claim with which no one would disagree—but that the nature of imperial allegiance demands worship and is thus in direct conflict with Christian commitment. Thus, in Rome, it was not enough that one be a good citizen; one must also participate in the official cult. Similarly, he implies (particularly in the discussion questions, as on p. 69) that modern empires require worship as well, though in less blatantly cultic forms.
For Kraybill, then, a major priority of the Christian life, and especially as Revelation expresses it, is to align oneself religiously, politically, and economically with the Kingdom of God embodied in the Church rather than with the powers of this world. This is the thrust of the book, and the reason that allegiance is mentioned prominently in the title.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.