Saturday, May 02, 2009

Warren Carter on Revelation

I was surprised by this discussion of Revelation (admittedly, in the context of a book on John, in a chapter on the synagogue in first-century Asia Minor, a province of the Roman Empire). Carter says:
Recent scholarship on Revelation argues, from an examination of life in imperial Asia and of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3, that this text addressed not situations of persecution as previously thought, but situations of what the author regards as overaccommodation and compromise with Roman imperial society. The author challenges the overaccommodated lifestyle of the majority in the churches, urging them to discern the (demonic!) nature of the empire and to distance themselves from societal participation. In the words of 18:4, they are to "come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues" (NRSV). Revelation reveals that Rome, a "dwelling place of demons" (18:2), is already under God's judgment (Rev 6), asserts the devilish nature of Rome's empire and imperial worship (Rev 12–13), exposes its political power and economic greed (Rev 18), envisions God's supreme rule even now and in the future (Rev 4–5; 22), and anticipates Rome's imminent and final demise in the establishment of God's purposes by Jesus, the Lamb slaughtered by Rome but raised by God's power (Rev 18–22). In the meantime, the author urges the seven churches to distance themselves from imperial society. (John and Empire, 39)

Earlier this year I read through a Greek text of Revelation and began thinking I'd like to spend some time doing research at the back of the canon. As of now I haven't, so this strangest, perhaps, of NT books is well beyond my area of expertise.

Even so, I think when we read Revelation as a text about "the end of the world," this book loses the ability to say anything about our lives in the world, here and now, except indirectly and by implication. Maybe this isn't an inevitable consequence, but I think all the futuristic, apocalyptic (in the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye sense) perspectives have obscured the ways that Revelation is relevant to the twenty-first century church more broadly. I have been known to say that the main thrust of Revelation was that, in the end, Jesus wins, and you really want to be on his team. But does Revelation have more—maybe even significantly more—to say to us now?

Until Carter I had only ever heard people talk about Revelation as a text written to churches in the context of rather extreme persecution (John is, after all, exiled on Patmos!). But the idea that the church has identified itself too closely with the empire, rather than is experiencing persecution at her hands, turns at least some of that thinking on its head. Perhaps much of the apocalyptic imagery driving John's visions isn't directed at a violent empire whose machinations have hurt and endangered a growing and yet increasingly marginal Jewish movement. Perhaps that imagery, instead, is directed at a pagan empire with whom the early followers of Jesus had learned to negotiate and co-exist. Certainly I would think being able to get along is a good thing, but at what cost? Had the church then—and has the church now—given up or simply forgotten its core identity for the sake of getting along?

It's too early for me to say I'm convinced. But the possibility is intriguing. Consider this: In an age when the church has become very comfortable with the centers of power—whether hosting presidential debates and praying at presidential inaugurations, or sustaining massive consumer industries and spending billions in marketing, or identifying with the burgeoning environmentalist market that looks to be the next source of global wealth redistribution, or whatever—perhaps Revelation can reorient us to being faithful participants and prophetic voices in the marketplaces (commercial, political, and otherwise). Perhaps Revelation can show us again how not to legitimate this world's power structures but rather to demonstrate their pallor in the light of God's glorious power.

2 comments:

Nathan Shedd said...

"Recent scholarship on Revelation argues, from an examination of life in imperial Asia and of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3, that this text addressed not situations of persecution as previously thought, but situations of what the author regards as overaccommodation and compromise with Roman imperial society."

I agree with your assessment that this is intriguing but not yet fully convincing. However, I am wondering: What evidence from "imperial Asia," as well as Rev. 2 & 3, has led Carter and others to argue this?

Rafael said...

Good question. Really, you'll have to read the book. But Carter draws on a broad range of interdisciplinary work, from postcolonial studies to research into ancient synagogues. He also depends heavily on other texts relevant to first-century Asia Minor (hence his interest in Revelation when the book is about John's gospel; see also my next post, on 1 Peter), including epigraphic evidence surviving from ancient Ephesus. Finally, he simply reads Revelation itself to see if overaccommodation, instead of persecution, can make better sense of the text.

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