book review of Michael J Gorman's Reading Revelation Responsibly

Book Review will appear in September Issue of Berita STM.
It is also uploaded on Academia.

Book Review of Michael J. Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011).

When Christians think about the Book of Revelation, apocalyptic ideas immediately come to mind such as wars and rumours of wars, devastating earthquakes, the rapture, and the antichrist. People are asked about their position concerning Christ’s second coming whether it is amillennial, pre-millennial or post millennial. Many Christians are conditioned to read Revelation in this way because of popular level literature like Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth or Kirban’s 666 or LaHaye’s Left Behind series. No wonder a sizeable portion of Christians are bewildered and subsequently confused by the message of Revelation leaving them with more fear than hope.

Gorman’s book takes a different stand – he firmly believes that there is a different way to read the Book of Revelation.  It is to read the book in a ‘responsible’ way –‘responsible’ here means to be faithful to what the text actually says instead of importing a foreign biblical timeframe or a narrative script into the book. He takes the position that one ought to read and interpret Revelation in a ‘serious and sacred’ way (pp. xiii-ix). Since there are different ways of reading Revelation, it is obvious that some readings are inferior to others and at worst, unchristian because they are not true to the book’s message.

Gorman’s stand concerning the Book of Revelation is that it is first and foremost a book about the living Christ, not the antichrist; it is about faithful discipleship in the world and not about the rapture. Revelation has often been hijacked by Christians of the millennial persuasion so that readers are made to be overly concerned about the identity of the antichrist or the date of Jesus’ second coming or how the rapture will occur. Gorman correctly notes that Revelation is more concerned with people’s response to Christ and how to have relevant worship and witness to Him. Secondly, Revelation is the ‘antithesis of a religion that idolizes secular power’ (p. xv) which was what the imperial cult was trying to do in the first century AD – coercing people to bend the knee to Caesar. Revelation is a message for Christians to be ‘uncivil’ in our response because we have a different Lord and King and our worship and witness is for Him only.

Gorman’s book is divided into ten chapters. The first four chapters deal with the background of the book of Revelation.  The first chapter is called the 3 P’s – the Puzzle, Problem and Promise of Revelation. The short chapter surveys the different reactions to Revelation and how the book continues to pose a puzzle to current readers. Chapters Two and Three deal with the Form and Substance of Revelation. Form and substance are closely intertwined (p. 10). Firstly, it is important to know what we are reading because failure to do so can cause us to misinterpret the material. If we misunderstand the form or genre of Revelation, we often end up misreading it. Revelation is a unique piece of genre as it is a hybrid genre - epistolary, prophetic and apocalyptic (p. 13).  Secondly, what are the contents of Revelation? What were the circumstances to cause it to be written?  What crisis was the book responding to? Knowing this can give us clues to the message of the book – Gorman calls it ‘a theopoetic reaction to a theopolitical crisis’ (p. 31). The fourth chapter deals with five different reading strategies one can employ on the book. Gorman helpfully critiques the position of the ‘Left Behind’ series and other similar approaches to Revelation (pp. 71-73).

Chapters Five to Nine represent Gorman’s theological engagement with the text of Revelation. The chapters are divided according to the natural divisions in Revelation (chapters 1-3 – seven pastoral –prophetic epistles; chapters 4-5 – the central vision of Christ; chapters 6-20 – visions of the judgement of God; chapters 21-22 – final vision). He adds one helpful chapter on the ‘Conflict and Characters - The Drama of Revelation’ which covers the plot of the book and the chief characters in the plot. Understanding the drama of Revelation helps us to see the ‘big picture’ and not lose sight of the forest. The final chapter is entitled ‘Following the Lamb – The Spirituality of Revelation’. The chapter attempts to synthesize the message of the previous chapters and poses an application question: ‘What kind of church and what kind of Christians is the Spirit who speaks in Revelation aiming to form? (p. 176).

The book ends with a Postlude. Here Gorman provides seven words (three pairs and a final single word) as a way to summarize the total message of Revelation: Look and Listen; Worship and Witness; Come out and Resist; Follow!

Should all Christians read this book? Or should those interested in ‘end times’ read this book? The answer is a wholehearted ‘yes’. It is a must for all serious students of the Bible. It alleviates our fears and worries about how the world will end – Christ will ultimately triumph. It does not provide us with an escapist mentality and attitude – the world is evil and we should have nothing to do with it. All the more, Revelation reminds us to actively engage with the world with uncivil worship and witness! It reminds us what type of Church Christ is looking for in our time. Is it one timid with fear and overawed by imperial colonialist power? Or one marked by ‘courageous nonviolent warfare’ and ‘embodied witness and mission’ (pp. 183-184)?