Apocalypse and Allegiance
Nelson Kraybill. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.
Ted Grimsrud, Professor, Bible and Religion Department, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
Nelson Kraybill, New Testament scholar, former missionary in Europe, former president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and currently pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, has written a fine book that displays abilities honed in each of his roles just mentioned.
Apocalypse and Allegiance combines solid scholarship, an accessible style, theological depth, spiritual encouragement, and social critique.
Kraybill packs an impressive amount of content in a relatively small space, addressing both general readers and scholars with a refreshing perspective on the book of Revelation. His scholarly strength is his understanding of the historical setting for the book of Revelation and his particular expertise in political and economic dynamics. So we get information and visuals that put us back into Revelation’s first-century environment.
In particular, Kraybill does an excellent job in presenting Revelation as resistance literature that challenges the imperial ambitions of Rome with a vision of a humane, peaceable alternative politics. And, to the reader’s benefit, he does not simply describe a fascinating ancient document but also makes perceptive applications to the present day.
The author keeps his two feet solidly in both the New Testament scholarship and the peace church arenas. This latter arena is clearly more central for his concerns, but he pursues his ecclesial agenda without compromising his commitment to sound scholarship. While not a full-scale commentary, this volume does survey the entire book of Revelation. Hence, it will work well in classroom and Bible study contexts.
A special appeal of Kraybill’s approach is how the author provides contextual details amid looking at the book’s content, heightening the interest and accessibility of those details. Kraybill differs from many writers on Revelation who, like him, read it as an anti-imperial polemic by emphasizing what he calls “devotion.” He sees worship as one the book’s most important emphases. So, this biblical book is about politics, but politics of a distinctive sort, politics embodied most of all in the life of worshiping communities.
Another dimension of Apocalypse and Allegiance that deserves appreciation, even if it is not a central focus, is how Kraybill presents a winsome antidote to the futuristic (and violent) readings of Revelation that have exerted such influence among North American Christians. Perhaps he could have said a bit more overtly to contrast the meaning of worship for the faithful communities in Revelation with the meaning of worship for all too many North American Christians who are quite comfortable amidst their empire. However, the implications of the differences are not hard to draw based on the information he does provide.
I appreciate, as part of the author’s aim to bring the message of Revelation into the present, that the end of each chapter includes a short vignette describing current efforts to embody the way of the Lamb. But perhaps a little more thought could have been devoted to using stories with more obvious links to the content of the corresponding chapter.
The book of Revelation, while still obscure for many Christians and all too clear (in problematic ways) for many other Christians, has stimulated an encouraging and enlightening literature. Since the publication of George B. Caird’s still highly recommended commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, in 1966, a regular stream of useful books presenting Revelation as peace literature has emerged.
Kraybill’s book complements these others, but still makes its unique contribution. Nonetheless, there are differences of emphases among these writers.
A way that my own approach differs from Kraybill’s is to focus more on the narrative of the book of Revelation as a whole. Kraybill picks up on important themes throughout Revelation, but does so in a kind of scattered fashion -- jumping from chapter 1 to chapters 12 and 13, and then back to 4 through 11, then to 15 through 19, and then back to 2 and 3, and ending with 20 through 22.
This approach, while allowing him to lift up what he sees as the book’s central themes, might also be disorienting and deprive the reader of an important element of John’s thought grasped only by reading Revelation as a self-conscious narrative structured in a particular way.
All in all, Apocalypse and Allegiance is an excellent volume, making a most useful contribution to present-day Christian faithfulness to the way of Jesus.