Book Review: Apocalypse and Allegiance by J. Nelson Kraybill, Part 2
Continued from part 1, posted yesterday.
The book has several strengths. The first is simply that it is well-written. Kraybill is clear without being simplistic, accessible without being shallow, and generally engaging to read. The book communicates its message clearly and intelligently.
A second strength is the data that Kraybill collects, both from historical and archaeological sources and from the Bible itself, in making his cases. One need not agree with all his conclusions—and I do not—to find his historical and biblical observations intriguing and worth thinking about. While his larger conclusions have some problems, his interpretations of individual passages can nevertheless be insightful.
Third, he does a good job of picking up on themes that really are in the Book of Revelation and making use of them. Though, again, his conclusions have problems, they are at least built for the most part on material that is actually there in Revelation and not on strange, imported ideas. This means that there is much more worthwhile material present for the reader to take from Kraybill's interpretation than from some idiosyncratic interpretations.
Fourth, the way he emphasizes themes from Revelation could provide a beneficial correction to some contemporary evangelical views. For example, while he overemphasizes the conflict between the Church and the political and economic authorities portrayed in Revelation, he nevertheless makes a convincing case along the way that such conflict really is present in the book. Such evidence ought to provoke thought in contemporary Christians who are out to claim political resources for Christ.
Fifth, many of the questions he asks of contemporary Christians really are worth asking, whether one comes to the same conclusions as he does or not. How much of contemporary political and economic culture is tainted by aspects of inappropriate worship or unavoidable sins? Such questions are worthy of serious reflection, and this book may provoke readers to ask them.
Apocalypse and Allegiance has, nevertheless, significant problems, principally in the conclusions Kraybill draws.
For the most part he is not guilty of blatant misinterpretations of Revelation, though there are a few instances of this. The worst is in Chapter 11, where he builds a whole extended argument on the fact that Revelation portrays the new Jerusalem as “coming down” from heaven—with “coming down” being a present active participle in the Greek. He infers from this that “the arrival of the new Jerusalem—at least in some preliminary way—is a present reality” (p. 169, emphasis in original). All that the Greek grammar signifies, however, is that the city was presently coming down in John's vision. That does not necessarily mean that it is presently coming down in history right now. The mechanics of a vision and its correspondence to reality are not simply equivalent. It is a basic interpretive error, a kind of rookie mistake, and he builds a whole chapter on the idea. Still, this kind of error is not very common in the book.
The broader problem is that he takes real data from the book but misses or distorts things in coming to his conclusions. So he points out, rightly, that Rome is portrayed in Revelation in bestial terms as an enemy of the Church; but that is not all that Revelation is about, and in portraying the whole book as just about the conflict of Rome and Jesus (and the practical implications for modern-day empires and Christians) he distorts the focus of the book. The Church has many enemies in Revelation, and if political and economic worship is a prominent one, it is hardly the only one.
He also does not take enough pains to read Revelation in context of the rest of the New Testament. He does this to some degree, but there are other New Testament texts which should inform his reading of Revelation but do not. Excellent examples of this are Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, where Paul and Peter both counsel Christians to honor governmental authority as from God. Kraybill treats the Romans 13 passage briefly (p. 163-64), essentially saying that things were not as bad when Paul wrote it, so the government could be honored then. The passage in 1 Peter 2 he never even mentions. Certainly these texts should not be used to eliminate the conflict between Church and state on display in Revelation; but given that Peter and Paul both died at Roman hands, yet still wrote Spirit-inspired texts encouraging submission to the political authorities, I believe that Kraybill's easy dismissal of such texts is inadequate and leads to an interpretation of Revelation that is taken out of context.
His Mennonite theological background also leads him in places to distort certain biblical teachings—not, usually, by denying them outright, but by minimizing their importance. His minimizing of doctrines like the substitutionary atonement (p. 101) and justification by faith (p. 161-62, 165-66), though not a central part of the book, is nevertheless troubling.
Finally, in terms of the big-picture themes of Kraybill's interpretation of Revelation, one notices a real irony: in the process of opposing Rome and empire as strongly as he does, he unwittingly gives empire more credit than it deserves. He insists that God's sovereignty prevails over empire—but then he interprets the Four Horsemen, not as sovereign acts of judgment by Christ, but as illustrations of the evil power of empire (p. 102-03). He insists that worship of the Lamb is triumphant over the imperial cult, yet worship in Revelation comes to seem like just a reappropriation of imperial worship symbols and practices—reactionary rather than superior (p. 113-14, for instance). He holds the Church to be the alternative to all the political and economic powers of this world, but then he makes the Church's mission and identity sufficiently political (p. 187-191 for one example) that he comes close to reducing the Church to just another political option: perhaps the best one, but not something that transcends the political contests of this world. These are all accidental, but they show a real problem with the degree to which Kraybill emphasizes the conflict of Christ and Rome. Political and economic questions are important, but he undermines his goal of exalting God over empire by giving empire more importance than it actually has.
In conclusion, Apocalypse and Allegiance is a stimulating book, but not a good starting point for understanding Revelation. If you have a fairly developed understanding of Revelation already, and you want to expose yourself to different and thought-provoking interpretations of the book, you could do much worse than this compact and engaging volume. If you are interested in Anabaptist exegesis, this could also be an interesting case study. If, however, you are confused by Revelation, unfamiliar with its interpretation, and looking to have a better grasp of the book, there are much better places to start. Pick up something like Dennis Johnson's Triumph of the Lamb and start there to work toward a mature and balanced view of Revelation. Unless you have a good grasp of what Revelation means and how it should be interpreted, Apocalypse and Allegiance it is as likely to distort your understanding as it is to clear things up.