PRAYING IN GOD'S THEATER: Meditations on the Book of Revelation. By Joel L. Watts. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 226 pages.
The Book of Revelations has many fans and many critics. Some folks look to it for a blueprint for the last days – a prophetic preview. Often turning the apocalyptic metaphors into literal modern things – from jet planes to tanks – they look forward to Armageddon. On the other hand there are many who eschew the apocalyptic ramblings of John the Revealer and would just as soon that this possibly dangerous text disappear from the canon. But are these the only ways of reading it?
I recently reviewed Greg Stevenson’s excellent commentary on Revelation entitled A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, (ACU Press, 2013), which offers that needed alternative voice. Joel Watts adds his own alternative interpretation. While Greg’s book takes the form of a commentary, Joel offers us liturgical meditations on Revelation. He takes what seems to many an obscure and obtuse text and offers a liturgical reading, weaving together the text of Revelation with other biblical texts, ancient liturgies, and his own formulations, together with commentary, to provide us with a new vision of this book. While I have long known that the Orthodox Church looks to Revelation as inspiration for its Eucharistic liturgy, Joel suggests that it can also be an inspiration for those living in the western church.
The author of this liturgical reading of Revelation is Joel Watts, a self-described active United Methodist whose heart and soul lies within the Roman Catholic Church. He is an active blogger -- Unsettled Christianity – and student of the Bible – he is the author of a book on Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, (Wipf and Stock, 2013), and current doctoral student at the University of the Free Sate in Bloemfontein, South Africa. This book brings together Joel’s interest in the bible and early Christian history with his spiritual inclinations lying within the Catholic tradition.
The book comprises nineteen chapters that move through the Book of Revelation, laying it out in a call and response form (alternating plain and bold text). The readings taken from Revelation are often paired with a response from elsewhere in the biblical corpus or ancient liturgies. Whenever he makes use of texts outside Revelation he makes note of that reality. He takes liberties at points to make the text flow and speak to the contemporary worshipper, but seems – to me – to remain faithful to the intent of the sources he draws from. He moves us from the introit through the dismissal. Along the way we are invited to theologically engage the readings. In the way he handles the text he seeks to remain faithful to the original intents (as much as can be determined) while bringing it into conversation with the present.
In his introduction he speaks to the question as to the theological foundations of the book (his book) and the way in which he sees the book being used by the reader. Joel approaches Revelation from this hybrid United Methodist/Roman Catholic platform. He views John as writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, at a time that early Christianity and emergent rabbinical Judaism are separating from each other. He suggests that while “the rabbis preserved the practices of the Temple in Jewish literature while building a theological argument for Temple-less Judaism,” John was doing the same thing with Jesus standing at the center of his new vision of worship of God.
He takes pre-existing liturgical language of the Jesus followers to construct a liturgical story within a theological argument, although we should not think they are completely separate, of the Church as the new Temple. Again we repeat les orandi, lex credenda. John reveals how Jesus wins the victory over the Romans and the enemies of the community by examining (his) world events from the viewpoints of heaven. Just as the Gospels reveal Jesus on earth, John reveals Jesus in heaven (pp. 6-7).
If taken as the foundations of worship, then this reading of Revelation would draw us into the heavenly realm.
As to the way the book is to be used, Joel sees it as primarily a book of devotions for the individual Christian. He doesn’t seem to expect that the texts be used in worship today, but by engaging Revelation in this way our worship of God can and will be enhanced. Some of the readings could be used in worship – just not the whole book in one service.
Praying in God’s Theater can appeal to a number of audiences. For one, I think that his reading of Revelation, while not unique, provides us with a different way into the text. It will appeal – or could appeal – to persons with strong interests in liturgy – especially Eucharistic liturgy. The book will help flesh out what in most Protestant contexts is rather spare of meaning and practice. Revelation allows us to conceive of Jesus in transcendent categories, while also affirming his unique presence. For those who might be too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good, Joel invites us to open our eyes to the mysteries of God. For those seeking an aid to spiritual practices, again the book can be of help.
This is not an easy read – any book that attempts to responsibly engage Revelation likely won’t be an easy read. The book’s apocalyptic language is complex and foreign to our ears. You won’t find any signs of the end of the age here – but solid theological work can be found. There is one flaw in the book, and that is largely due to the apparent lack of close copy-editing. The Wipf & Stock imprint carries the least amount of editorial attention among the Wipf and Stock imprints, and that shows in numerous spots. Usually we’re left with a similarly spelt word, but with a different meaning. To give n example I came across a sentence where the word preyed was used rather than prayed. They sound alike, but the choice of vowels makes a major difference in meaning. Fortunately – unless you tend to be overly distracted by typos, these editorial lapses shouldn’t detract from the overall value of the book.
So, if you’ve been wondering what to make of Revelation – perhaps having read The Late Great Planet Earth -- this book will be a helpful tonic.