The Magazine of the Unitarian
|For the Healing of
The Book of Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict
by Justo L. Gonzalez
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999. $15, paper.
Reviewed by Catherine Keller
After so much end-of-the-world (or was it end-of-the-millennium) hype, who would have thought one could get excited by yet another book on the Book of Revelation? Snugly ensconced in the year 2000, can't we leave apocalyptic futures behind us? Yet from its opening riff on garlic haters vs. garlic lovers (the olfactory camps in our culture wars), this pungent little volume penetrates one's defenses. Gonzalez eschews the standard approach of commentaries, which presuppose interest in the particular biblical text. If fact, he hardly mentions Revelation author John of Patmos until halfway through the book.
By then we're hooked, by his succinct account of our own postmodern global context, as defined by the resurgence of cultures suppressed during five centuries of modern European colonization. In other words, the European inroads into all continents have been succeeded by a reverse flow, with immigrants from former colonies now streaming into the cities of former colonizers. Former unities have dissolved. Sometimes in their place comes ethnic warfare, arousing deep and often Christian nostalgia for former totalities of universal truth and cultural homogeneity. Yet the warfare usually takes the subtler form of intermingling cultures at once asserting their particularities and hybridizing at their edges. This is the situation in which churches increasingly must do their business. And as Gonzalez deftly shows, this multicultural situation bears a startling resemblance to that of John of Patmos.
I have nowhere read such a persuasive account of the historical parallels. Like our culture today, the hegemonic global culture of the Roman Empire was seeing a breakdown of its universalizing western forms and a "resurgence of Eastern cultures," Gonzalez writes. Both in the form of resistance to Roman rule and of revitalized ancient cultures and religions (such as the sects of Isis, or Attis and Cybele, popular among Roman aristocrats), the empire underwent a multicultural complexification. "The most remarkable case," Gonzalez writes, "is the resurgence of Jewish culture under its new guise of Christianity, which soon moved beyond the confine of people of Jewish descent." There was even, he notes, multicultural conflict among Christians, as between the Hellenistic and the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christian widows of Jerusalem.
And here Gonzalez comes to the indispensable insight: "Rather than shying away from intercultural conflict, Christianity thrived precisely at those edges where conflict was inevitable." Doesn't complexity science today teach us that new orders emerge precisely at "the edge of chaos"? While the empire boasted of its pax romana--as the US vaunts today the pacifying benefits of global trade--it saw at the same time intolerable economic and cultural injustices and constant rebellions. So from the point of view of Asia Minor, "the beast from the sea" who appears in Rev. 13 is none other than Rome, whose governors, armies, and tax collectors all arrived by ship. The mythogram of "the whore who sits on seven hills" has of course always been recognized as code for Rome, and political readings of the Book of Revelation have subsequently fueled resistance to every kind of imperialism. Liberation theology has had a friend in John of Patmos. The distinctive contribution of Gonzalez's work lies in its sizzlingly succinct contextualization of Revelation in the force field between its particular struggles and the present postcolonial moment.
Thus John, clearly a strongly ethnic rather than Hellenist Jew (and Christian) with his awkward Greek, intensive Hebrewisms, and allusions to Jewish scripture, comes to resemble the immigrant among us--not yet the "mestizo" but the "first generation" and hence his harsher views, and also his ability to see the dangers of assimilation as others more hybridized could not. When Gonzalez finally gets around to interpreting specific passages in the text, one thinks of the Battle of Seattle. For instance, he argues persuasively that the four horsemen--with the voice-over saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!"--prove the intentionality of John's economic protest. Those were impossibly high prices for barely enough grain to survive on; and as Gonzalez shows, there were huge protests over the destruction of grain fields for the sake of colonial olive and grape plantations. Now consider how today, while global elites prosper through the trade of luxury goods, World Bank and IMF policies increasingly destroy the agricultural means of local subsistence. As the orgy of profit welcomes the new millennium, the gap between the affluent and the destitute only widens. Now as then.
I will not give away any more of Gonzalez's prophetic parallels--I hope the whiff of garlic will attract readers to this stunning little gem of an apocalypse. Its tone is never sanctimonious and alarmist, always humble, generous, and humanly engaging. Still, I will continue to read John's Apocalypse with a principled ambivalence. Gonzalez's solidaristic approach overlooks the toxic sexism of John's tropes, among other problems. Moreover,Gonzalez lets Revelation off the hook for the false certainties its readers have so often promulgated, never struggling with the inspiration this text gives to the literalizing readings and bitter yearnings. Neither does he question the continuity of the spirit of the warrior with the spirit of Christ.
Yet, making himself accessible to all interested readers, Gonzalez addresses the churches within our postcolonial moment--in all its multicultural struggle and promise--more effectively than a conventional liberal interpretation, full of disdain for apocalypticism, could have done. And thus his book might actually break up the old fundamentalist monopoly on Apocalypse. "Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth," roared John to one of the churches (Rev. 3:15)--a church in which Gonzalez would not be found.
Catherine Keller is professor of constructive theology at Drew University Theological School and author of From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self and Apocalypse Now and Then, both from Beacon Press.
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