Apocalypse and Allegiance

The last book in the biblical canon has evoked a multitude of divergent interpretations, and many Christians consider it bewildering, mysterious, and even terrifying. Kraybill, who served for twelve years as the president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, wrote a doctoral dissertation at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia that has been published as Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). In Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation, his aim is to serve as a tour guide through the Book of Revelation. He explains, “In addition to studying Revelation on a scholarly level, I aspire to teach John’s vision in ways that are accessible to a general audience. This book grew out of such efforts. It includes photos and graphics throughout, a minimum of footnotes or rehearsal of scholarly debates, and some contemporary application” (11).

This user-friendly volume achieves that goal. It reads easily and is amply illustrated by drawings and pictures, many of which the author himself photographed. The book concludes with a timeline that features events, people, and empires that are relevant for interpreting Revelation, a helpful glossary of important terms, and a brief chart explaining the value of Roman coins from the first century. There is also an up-to-date bibliography, a map comparing the New Jerusalem with the Roman Empire, a Scripture index, and a subject index, which includes authors. Kraybill notes that reading the biblical text aloud and studying it in the context of a group are important (24). Thus, he includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter that can be used by the individual reader, but also provide a stimulus for group discussion. In addition to the questions, his passion for applying the principles of Revelation to contemporary life today is evidenced in a brief section at the end of most chapters entitled “Living the Vision.” These contain descriptive examples from multiple cultures and geographical places of people who embody the ideas of Revelation; many of these stories come from interviews conducted by the author.

Kraybill does not proceed sequentially through the chapters of Revelation, but introduces them to his readers in the order that he feels best accommodates a reader encountering the book for the first time. Each chapter begins with an assigned section of reading from Revelation that Kraybill encourages his readers to study in their own Bibles, although he includes the text of numerous biblical passages within Apocalypse and Allegiance. After introducing the prophet John from Rev 1, Kraybill moves over to Rev 13 to discuss the beasts that symbolize the Roman Empire and the local religious authorities who encouraged imperial worship. Then he examines the characters from Rev 12 who play major roles in the drama of Revelation, before zooming in on chapters 4 and 5 to discuss the worship scenes from God’s throne room and the slaughtered Lamb.

Revelation 7:1–11:19 is the topic of the seventh chapter, and the next two chapters look at Rev 15–19 and the fall of Babylon that John sees. Chapter 10 discusses the letters to the seven churches in Rev 2–3 since “after exploring how John deals with large themes of empire and allegiance,” explains Kraybill, “we now have a broad context for understanding local issues facing the seven churches” (156). Here he also includes a section on the final judgment and the millennium in Rev 20. Lastly, chapter 11 considers John’s vision of the two witnesses in Rev 11 and the New Jerusalem in Rev 21–22. A final chapter concludes the book and examines how the hope found in the worship of Revelation can apply to Christians today. Throughout this entire volume, the focus is “on the theme of worship-worship of the emperor, worship of the Lamb, and worship in our world today” (22).

Kraybill has provided a helpful aid to the study of Revelation that students and pastors will find profitable; biblical scholars will appreciate his interaction with recent scholarly resources. He is particularly knowledgeable in the area of numismatics and demonstrates with numerous images how the coins used in Roman currency served as propaganda for the imperial interests. He also provides an accessible introduction to the theory of signs and shows how icons, indexes, and symbols functioned in the worship of the first century and in our worship today (see esp. 34–37). The many discussions of cultural, religious, and historical backgrounds give his readers a good grasp of the social situation that Revelation addresses (cf. 157–61).

In a way that is fittingly reminiscent of Revelation itself, Kraybill’s writing is designed to provoke thoughtful personal and corporate self-examination and to unsettle some of the assumptions and comfortable conclusions of twenty-first century North Americans. For instance, he asserts, “The challenge for Christians who live at the heart of empire today is to recognize the good in society around us without being so enamored of it that we fail to see when our own country acts like a beast” (144).

However, it is precisely in this aspect of prophetic critique that some readers will find the biggest areas of disagreement. This is especially true for those who do not share the background and presuppositions of Kraybill’s Anabaptist tradition. “Jesus’ way of nonviolence” (121) is commended throughout the volume, although the integration of this motif with Rev 19:11–21 seems a bit strained, despite Kraybill’s stress on the symbolic nature of this passage (152–53). Additionally, some may question if exemplary models for Christian conduct are displayed when the book approvingly discusses the Texas pastor who was arrested for civil disobedience by praying in one of the White House’s restricted areas (40) or the Christians who “broke into military draft board offices and destroyed files at Catonsville, Maryland” during the Vietnam War (pp. 188-89). In the end, whether or not one agrees completely with Kraybill’s applications of the principles from Revelation, all can benefit from his familiarity with its symbolic world and his stimulating and provocative attempt to apply John’s visions to our world today.

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