January 2010: Books Read

1. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing. I picked this book up at the library as background reading for the Sunday School class on Revelation that I’m teaching this month. Rossing, a professor and ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, apparently wrote this book to counteract the dispensationalist theology that is found in the Left Behind novels and the writings of Hal Lindsey, among others. I found it a quick read, and Rossing certainly has some talent as a writer. The main message of the book can be found on page 86:

The Left Behind novels follow the pattern of other apocalypses as they take readers on a vivid journey and wake them up to a sense of urgency about God. That is the novels’ strength. Their failing is the dangerous conclusions about God and our life in the world that grow out of the Left Behind version of the apocalyptic journey… Left Behind’s characters spend more time in airplanes and helicopters, or in underground bunkers, than they do walking the earth – illustrating the dispensationalist view of the world as a place from which to escape. Their high-tech gear, satellite phones, custom Range Rovers and stadium-size rallies cannot be reconciled with the heart of Revelation, because more than any other biblical book Revelation speaks to marginalized and powerless people.

A later criticism, elaborating on the difference between her interpretation of Revelation and that of dispensationalists, I thought was particularly insightful as well:

The heart of our difference is this: dispensationalists do not seem to believe the Lamb has truly “conquered” or won the victory when he was slaughtered. They preach the saving power of the blood of the Lamb in Jesus’ crucifixion, but it is not quite enough saving power for them. They need Christ to come back with some real power, not as a Lamb but as a roaring lion. Jesus has to return so he can finish the job of conquering. (137)

I thought she was spot-on in her critique of dispensationalist readings of Revelation, but nevertheless I could not recommend this book. One reason is her uncharitable characterization of dispensationalists as “using it [dispensationalism] to further their particular social and political agenda” (41). Another reason is that her interpretation of the New Jerusalem that comes to earth at the end of the book didn’t have enough tangibility in it. It wasn’t even entirely about a future victory over evil. She writes,

The mystical journey into the ‘Aha’ presence of God’s New Jerusalem and its river of life can happen in many ways for you: through nature, when you behold a mountain or stream so beautiful that it transports you to God’s riverside; through music that connects you mystically to heavenly chorus; or through other powerful experiences of community or presence that take you outside of yourself (160).

I agree that we can experience the presence of God in the stuff of this earth, but I’m not convinced that this is what the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 is all about. The final chapters of this book, once Rossing is finished criticizing dispensationalists, turn into insipid, over-realized eschatology.

2. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark. Over the past few years, I’ve grown in my appreciation for the writing of Stark, the sociologist of religion who teaches at Baylor University. He’s an entertaining and engaging writer, and over the past 15 years he has delighted in turning conventional wisdom about the history of Christianity on its head. In this book, he takes on historians who argue that the Crusades were fought by greedy and opportunistic knights, that they were unprovoked, and that Muslim culture was superior to medieval European Christianity. The final paragraph of the book sums up his conclusions:

The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions. (248)

Note, finally, that this is not a biblical defense of the Crusades. Stark is not trying to prove that crusaders were following the commands of Jesus when they went to Palestine, though he does argue that this is what they thought they were doing. This is a historical argument for a popular audience, and a very informative and entertaining book.

3. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination by Eugene Peterson. I’ve enjoyed Peterson’s writing for some time, and this book was no exception. It is a short, popular commentary on the book of Revelation for the poetically inclined. Since it is short (just shy of 200 pages), Peterson does not go into as much depth as a technical commentary would. However, it is a welcome break from other popular treatments of the book, which tend to major on sensational interpretations of John’s visions and minor on Jesus.

You might not find out what the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 means, but you will be encouraged by this book to find that Revelation is only and always about Jesus.

4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This was a fascinating book. What was most fascinating was how Robinson could so believably write a first-person novel narrated by an elderly pastor from the 1950s. The premise was that this pastor, John Ames, has heart trouble, has been informed that he will die soon, and is writing to his seven-year-old son to tell him all he wants him to know when he grows up. Set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, an important part of the narrative is the return of the son of a good friend. This son, who was named after Ames, has been in every way a prodigal. His return is occasion for much reflection on the part of Ames and many awkward conversations between the two, culminating in a final resolution.

It is by no means a page-turner; I wasn’t flipping the pages wildly, trying to find out what happens next. Instead, it is a book that encourages the reader to meditate and reflect on the page at hand. It is a book that quiets the soul.

5. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation by Bruce M. Metzger. This is another short (just over 100 pages) commentary on Revelation for the popular reader, much like Reversed Thunder above. Like Peterson, Metzger was a well-respected evangelical and author of many books (he died in 2007). He taught New Testament for many years at Princeton Theological Seminary.

There isn’t much to say about this book that I haven’t already said about Reversed Thunder. It has the main advantage (it’s accessible for the lay reader) and disadvantage (it is so short that Metzger doesn’t always have space to explain how he came to some of his interpretive conclusions) that come with the territory of a short commentary. One thing it has that Peterson’s book doesn’t is a set of discussion questions in the back. I found them helpful for preparing my own class on Revelation that I taught this January.