Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Revelations by Elaine Pagels

Yes, sharp-eyed Gentle Readers, the title of this book is Revelations not Revelation. In this short book, Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels  explores the question of why John of Patmos' book was included in the Biblical canon and explains why Revelation retains a powerful hold on the Christian imagination today despite the controversy that surrounded it historically.

Revelations is a secular, academic analysis of the historical interpretations of the book of Revelation. Those looking for faith-based study of the book will be disappointed. With that caveat, here's my review.

I'm a self-confessed Revelation fan. As a young teenager I remember browsing through it when bored by the sermons in church. I recognized the many phrases and passages that appeared in the hymns we sang but never heard any explanation of this book from the pulpit in our Presbyterian church. In 2000, I led a study of Revelation in an adult class at church, using Bruce Metzger's book, Breaking the Code. So I was interested in reading Pagels' book on the subject, especially since I have read a couple of her other books.

Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word for "unveiling" or "revelation". It focuses on prophesies relating to God's plan for the end of this world. Although the book of Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is wholly apocalyptic, there are apocalyptic passages found in the four gospels as well, notably the "little Apocalypse" of Matthew. The Old Testament book of Daniel is full of apocalyptic style prophesies as are many of the books of the prophets. The first chapter of Revelations contains an excellent summary of the content of the book of Revelation for those who are not familiar with it.

The apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible are difficult enough, but the apocalypses found at Nag Hammadi written in the first few centuries after Christ are almost impenetrable (and I've tried to read a few of them).   Pagels has a gift for making these arcane and obscure writings understandable to the interested reader and deftly brings excerpts from several of them into her text.

An important distinction between the Biblical canon and the Nag Hammadi texts is their differing view of the relationship between God and self. As the author observes:
Orthodox adherents of monotheistic traditions draw clear boundaries between themselves and God...Yet...many of the sources found at Nag Hammadi do encourage spiritual seekers to seek union with God, or to identify with Christ in ways that fourth century "orthodox" Christians would censor".
In other words, you can become one with God through your own spiritual knowledge. Although Pagels notes that this viewpoint would eliminate the need for clergy and thus was rejected by the early Church fathers, for those of us coming from a traditional Christian theological perspective, it also eliminates the need for Christ as the intermediary, intercessor and redeemer of mankind.

Pagels is writing from an academic and historical point of view, not a theological one. The book covers an interpretive history of Revelation over the first few centuries of the church and finds parallels between the time of Roman persecution of Christians when the enemies of the church were identified as Rome to the time when Christianity became accepted by Constantine after which the enemies of the church depicted in Revelation were more identified with those holding heretical, non-orthodox theological views. It also discusses the controversy surrounding its adoption into the Biblical canon.

I agree with the author that Revelation has an enduring appeal because its metaphors and symbolism are powerfully  relevant to everyone in every age on both a metaphorical and personal levels.  It "appeals not only to fear but to hope" as Pagels rightly concludes, because it contains the promise of justice.

There's another reason for its appeal that Pagels doesn't discuss but that I picked up from Metzger. Revelation is a uniquely visual book. It was written to be read aloud (and it wouldn't take as long as you might imagine) in worship in the house churches of the day as encouragement and admonition to the faithful. Its imagery and metaphors are vivid and linger in the imagination. That's one reason why, next to the Psalms, more hymns are written using texts from Revelation than any other book of the Bible.

I personally believe that Revelation became part of scripture because of the Providence and plan of God and not merely because of the result of the success of those holding to "orthodox" Christian theology. But again, readers should remember that this viewpoint is outside the perspective of Pagels' book. I recommend Revelations to anyone with some knowledge and interest in early Christian history and the Bible.