J. Nelson Kraybill: 'Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation' (Brazos, 2010)

Reviewed by Simon Woodman

Kraybill begins with words from Archbishop Oscar Romero, spoken just before his assassination in San Salvador: ‘God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery’. This paraphrase of the opening stanza of the Lord’s prayer provides the theological backdrop to Kraybill’s fresh and challenging exploration of the book of Revelation. The kingdom of heaven is seen to be breaking in upon the earth, challenging the idolatrous and competing claims to power offered by the kingdoms and empires of the world. Kraybill demonstrates how within its first century context the imagery of Revelation deconstructed the symbols and propaganda of the Roman empire; and he then helpfully challenges his readers to explore how those same images may similarly deconstruct the symbols and propaganda of the twenty first century.

The apocalyptic insight of empire ‘unveiled’ is seen to raise the stark question of allegiance, as the reader of Revelation is challenged as to whether their citizenship rests with Babylon or New Jerusalem. The themes of worship and politics become fused as the worshipful proclamation of Jesus as Lord becomes a simultaneous statement of political resistance against the imperial forces of both the first and twenty-first centuries, and the invitation is given to offer devotion to the Lamb that was slain rather than to the emperor on the throne at the centre of the empire.

Kraybill’s book has twelve chapters, which address central theological themes that arises from a reading of Revelation. After an exploration of the nature of prophecy and the way in which Revelation uses imagery, Kraybill shows how John’s image of two beasts unmasks the satanic empire which seeks to control the bodies, minds and souls of those who live within its borders. This is followed by a reflection on the way in which John’s personification of evil in the world as an imperial satanic dragon, finds its antidote in the church as the living body of Christ.

Kraybill then takes his readers with John on a tour of the heavenly throne room, contrasting the worship of heaven with that in the temples of the imperial cult, and considering the potentially catastrophic implications for those who might refuse to worship the emperor. The frail and vulnerable followers of Christ are seen as those who follow a slain-yet-living lamb; an incongruous image of sacrifice and resurrection, of power expressed through surrender. The non-violent lamb is ultimately seen to conquer over all the forces of violence and terror that the empire can muster, and those who follow the lamb join in the song of victory over evil. Those who have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection are seen to be those whose allegiance has shifted away from the empire, and so they are sealed with the indelible mark of the kingdom of God.

Kraybill shows how the empire of Rome is caricatured as an intoxicated and intoxicating prostitute, who seduces, corrupts and defiles the nations of the world. Her violent demise is presented by John as the end result of human imperial project, and those who follow Christ are challenged to consider their own response to the violence of empire. Does resistance to the empire involve violence or not? What form might active non-violence take? What does economic resistance look like? These are key questions which Kraybill explores. His book concludes on a hopeful note, as the church is invited to consider its place within God’s eternity, faithfully enduring as it prayerfully and worshipfully participates in the coming of God’s kingdom to the earth.

Kraybill’s book is helpfully structured as a guidebook to Revelation. From the ‘reading assignments’ that begin each chapter, to the practical examples of those who have ‘lived the vision’ at the end (and sometimes to the end), Kraybill provides an accessible introduction. It is illustrated in a lively way with numerous diagrams and photographs, and concludes with a helpful glossary and timeline. This book will be particularly useful for those who want to study Revelation as part of a group, and is highly recommended.