I have long held that not resting an hour after binging on the Revelation buffet before diving into the world-pool gives the Body of Christ a cramp. I have never preached on the Book of Revelation and for the past eight years of my sermon-giving life, I’ve maintained that I never will. Said declaration can now join “I’ll never be a pastor,” “I’ll never work with youth,” “I’ll never take a pulpit in my hometown,” and “I’m not going to earn a D.Min. from United Theological Seminary” in the Oh, really now? section of God’s file on me.
First, let’s discuss why I have been so resistant to the Book of Revelation,* hereby referred to as Revelation. I have reasons three.
- Almost invariably, Revelation is ripped from its historical context, interpreted literally, and applied to situations that have literally–meant in the true sense of the word–nothing to do with a text written 2,000 years ago. The most painful part of this is the literal interpretation. As we’ll discuss in the next entry of the series, apocalyptic literature is a genre of which there can be some degree of divergence, but by definition utilizes simile, metaphor, cognitive dissonance, appositives, and wordplay lost in English translations. I had someone call me on 9/11 to say that the events were prophesied in Revelation. No, they were not. The writings might help us understand acts of violence and destruction, but we don’t often remember that God’s consistent word has been, “Bad s*** happens when you don’t take care of people around you.”
- Revelation has been used inordinately by those wishing to control, persecute, torture, vilify, imprison, and judge others. Once the text has been ripped from its historical context, it most often is used as a cudgel and sword to strike into submission those seen as sinners. We joke about bible thumpers, but those blows turn into beatings. Revelation has been used to frighten people with the specter of a brutal judgment followed by eternal banishment to Hell’s brimstone bowels. I’ve never heard Revelation used in love by a Christian to a non-Christian. Just look at Westboro Baptist Church.
- Revelation lends itself too easily to hucksterism. Because the text is enigmatic–as we’ll discuss, even early Christians were like WTF?–but filled with fantastical images that strike the fancy of pathos, much of Christendom has been witness to charlatans promising entry into heaven or protection from demons for the low, low price of just enough to keep you hungry and dependant upon the Church. To wit, Revelation is oft-quoted by pastors looking to get themselves a bigger jet.
A stalwart member of the congregation has told me that one of the reasons she has felt so comfortable at the church is because I pledged to not preach from Revelation. So making this decision is not something I take lightly. I often say that our community is the last stop for some people before they give up on God or church entirely. I try to be acutely aware of problematic texts, hymns, liturgical language, etc., and to preside over a safe, inviting, affirming spiritual space. Revelation rightly makes many people want to head toward the door.
So why the change of heart?
- One frequent criticism of Progressive Christians is that we “pick and choose” what to follow in Scripture. First, let’s admit that Progressive Christianity (PC) is a catch-all term for an incredibly diverse array of thoughts and hermeneutics. There is no single theology or interpretative lens through which we can look at PC. Second, let’s admit that everybody picks and chooses. Do you follow all 613 commandments in the Torah? No, you don’t, because many of them apply to the Temple and are unfulfillable. Wanna argue that Jesus has canceled the debt and the Law is no longer relevant? Then you can’t quote from Leviticus or Numbers to justify the prejudice de jour. But to the crux of the criticism: we must confront everything in our tradition honestly and with a heart that can accept the errors contained therein.
- I have feared that I am not intelligent enough, not educated sufficiently in the nuances of apocalyptic literature, or, more to the point, will be unable to situate the text appropriately and still hear an affirming word from God. I listed above many of the things I have said “never” about, only to end up doing them and learning a tremendous amount. I am not meant to be a youth pastor, but children’s sermons at First Presby are beloved by kids and parents alike. My tenure at the church has been rocky at times, but also one of the most significant and inspiring spiritual experiences of my life. It is where God has led me and I never want to serve anywhere else. And being in the original cohort for the MLK Beloved Community Scholars is a true honor. When I face my fears, God works mightily.
- I feel a responsibility to the congregation and to those who read my writing to lay bare my concerns, be honest about the challenges, and then walk publicly through a four-week series. I’ve mentioned before that writing is a compulsion for me. I process through the written word, so this will not just be a sermon series. It will be a journey together through a text that has lots of landmines, but we pray for God to show us that which might empower our walk with Christ.
- Finally, I feel a responsibility to non-Christians to help craft understandings of the text that can, at least for a moment or two, trip up those who wish to use the Scripture as a shillelagh. If Christians who are tired of being misrepresented want to affect change, we can’t hide from that which is difficult.
My hope is that you will join me on this odyssey; it’ll be a lot shorter than Homer’s version, but not nearly as good.
*Please note the singular. Let’s promote biblical literacy; there is no plural, only Zuul.