I had the great honor of conducting an interview with respected New Testament scholar Michael J. Gorman, concerning the book of Revelation. Dr. Michael J. Gorman is an authority on Pauline literature, and is the author of Reading Revelation Responsibly.
Have you always loved Revelation? If so, why? If not, when did you first start to become drawn to this letter and what attracted you?
Michael: No, I have not always loved Revelation. I never read Revelation, or much of the Bible period, until I came to a personal Christian faith in high school. I was then introduced to Revelation by a couple of well-intentioned but misguided youth leaders, who “taught” us Revelation via The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey—the Tim LaHaye (“Left Behind’ series) of the 1960s and 1970s. I also had negative experiences of Revelation through a college R.A. (resident assistant). So I basically avoided Revelation until seminary at Princeton, when I had an eye-opening class on the book taught by the late, great Dr. Bruce Metzger. I later served as his teaching assistant for the same course, and my love for Revelation came from working with him. What appealed to me was the great imagery, properly understood, in Revelation, as well as its impact on music and other arts—all of which Bruce Metzger emphasized.
What’s your response to Bible-reading Christians who for various reasons avoid Revelation at all costs? What advice do you have for Christians who do not have the slightest clue on how to approach this text?
Michael: I can certainly empathize with Christians who avoid Revelation, as I was once there. My first word to them, however, would be to say that you are missing out on a lot of beautiful imagery, important theology, and profound spirituality. Therefore, I would advise them to read Revelation with the help of a good, responsible book on it. One option would, of course, be my own book: Reading Revelation Responsibly. There are other good books, too. One of my favorites is Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson.
Why do you think many believers are afraid of this book? On the opposite end of the spectrum, why do you think so many seem to obsess over Revelation?
Michael: I think people are afraid of Revelation for three main reasons, all interrelated. One is simply the unfamiliar, even bizarre, images and violent scenes in the book. These are disturbing and seem, at first blush, to be at odds with the teaching and example of Jesus. A second reason is the way that these images and scenes have been used to scare people and to predict, or validate, certain horrible events. These events include the reality or threat of ecological crises, war in the Middle East and around the world, global economic chaos, and so on. We read and hear such “predictions” on TV, on the Internet, and even in church. A third reason is a latent fear or suspicion that maybe some of these “predictions” are accurate, and we really are about to enter a nuclear war that will spell the end of the world as we know it—“Armageddon” or “the apocalypse” in the (misinformed) popular imagination.
As for those who are obsessed with Revelation, I think the reasons are actually similar but are seen as positives rather than negatives: belief in a God whose anger at sin is about to explode in judgment, a desire to understand current events as fulfilled “prophecy,” and a hope that God will end the evil world as we know it and bring in the kingdom of God. The middle item of these three—interest in the fulfillment of biblical “prophecy”—reveals a deep misunderstanding of prophecy in general and Revelation (an apocalyptic prophetic text) in particular that is fueled by the first and third items, which are more like theological convictions. That is, the obsession is grounded in a wrongheaded approach to Scripture that does not understand the biblical genres of prophecy and apocalyptic, a misunderstanding that is exacerbated by certain theological errors.
Why is it that even in scholarship the views on interpreting the bizarre imagery are so widespread? Why is Revelation such a divisive book?
Michael: This is a great question. I think the most basic answer is that poetry and imagery—and Revelation is a highly poetic book, full of images—are open to a wide variety of interpretations. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as such literature touches and stirs the imagination. As Bruce Metzger used to say, however, we need to have and utilize a disciplined imagination in our interpretation, but many interpreters of Revelation have been rather undisciplined, to say the least. In addition, Revelation is full of allusions to biblical and nonbiblical literature, as well as cultural and historical realities from antiquity, but identifying and interpreting such allusions can be elusive, and can lead to various micro- or macro-interpretations.
Do you think that the unreceptiveness of Revelation in the West has something to do with the fact that we live in comfort in comparison to the Majority World?
Michael: This is another great question. I would not say that Revelation has been “unreceived” in the West. However, some have said that only an oppressed or persecuted people can truly understand Revelation, and the church in the recent West has not suffered much. I see Revelation as addressed as much to churches that are trying to avoid suffering by accommodating to the culture, as it is written to persecuted churches. If that is true, then the church in the West really needs to read and heed the book of Revelation.
Thank you for your time and thoughtful responses!
Michael J. Gorman holds the Raymond E. Brown chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland. His many books include Becoming the Gospel, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant, as well as the forthcoming Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John.
Other works of his include Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross as well as the respected Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Holding a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and being an authority on Paul, he also specializes in Revelation, theological and missional interpretation of the Bible, the gospel of John, and early Christian ethics. Besides this, he has a deep interest in the relationship between church and culture.