I Will Tell You the Mystery (Ronald J. Allen) -- A Review

I WILL TELL YOU THE MYSTERY: A Commentary for Preaching from the Book of Revelation. By Ronald J. Allen. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019. Xxxviii + 229 pages.

The Book of Revelation is a rather mysterious book, but then you would expect that of an apocalyptic text. Like the Book of Daniel, it seems to casts the present in futuristic and symbolic tenses.  It is a favorite of Christians who believe that we live in the last days, that Jesus is returning soon, and that Revelation and Daniel lay out the plan of attack (so to speak). Whether it’s Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye (the popularizers of this view of the world) it has had an important influence on our culture. It is assumed by many Christians that these texts provide the key to understanding the world we live in. Look around at all the wars and rumors of wars? Isn’t this evidence that we’ve reached the end of the line? Back in my youth, I bought into that vision. I even assumed that by 1988, after reading Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus would have returned. Today there are those who argue that we needn’t worry about climate change, because the world will end long before things get that bad. So, let’s use up what we have.

With adherents of Last Days theology hanging on every word of what they believe is the literal truth of Scripture, it's not surprising that more "progressive" Christians choose to steer clear of Revelation and Daniel. Besides, for preachers, Revelation doesn't have a major presence in the lectionary. So, we who preach from the lectionary rarely if ever have to deal with the texts or the people who are fascinated by them. Why not just leave things like this alone? It’s understandable. I’ve been leery about addressing the subject, and yet if we don’t address the text, should we be surprised that others will fill the void? After all, Revelation and Daniel have a certain appeal to many in our day.

While it may take extra thought and planning, if we are preachers who understand the text differently from the apocalypticists of our age, it is probably wise if we address the elephant in the room. It won’t be easy, but it likely will be worth the effort, so that people are equipped to read it more responsibly. Among those scholars who have chosen to address this need is Ronald J. Allen, professor emeritus of Gospels and Letters and Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary. His latest book is a preaching commentary on Revelation that carries the title I Will TellYou the Mystery. Regarding both the author and the book, I should note that he and I are working on a proposal for a book on eschatology for a general audience that will deal with some of the questions that are inherent in this conversation. I share this so that the reader of the review will know that I am friends with the author and am planning on co-authoring a book with him.  

With this caveat about my friendship with the author, I can say that this commentary is written for a particular purpose, and that is to assist preachers in preparing to tackle texts that need to be addressed, but which many of us are hesitant to take up. If you are looking for a commentary that focuses on the intricacies of the scholarly debate, Allen will introduce you to some of them, but he doesn’t pursue them as deeply as some others might. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a worthy resource, it’s just that it has a specific audience. Allen believes that we preachers have a responsibility to address the text with our congregations and he wants to help us with this task.

Allen approaches the text from a particular theological vantage point, about which he is upfront. He makes use of Process Theology as his lens by which to approach the text theologically. One needn’t be of that perspective to make use of his interpretations, but he will make clear when his theology influences the way he reads the text. One way that this influences his take is that he doesn’t believe that there will be a literal return of Christ in judgment or that we are moving toward a catastrophic end which God will induce. Process Theology envisions an open future. We might trigger disaster, but God isn’t going to cause it. Additionally, he doesn’t envision God as being an angry judge inflicting punishment on unbelievers. At the same time, he does see judgment in terms of natural consequences, especially in the context of empire.

The central theme of the book, in his reading of the text, is the relationship of the early Christians with the Roman Empire (Babylon). The text seems to have two prongs. One is to encourage those who are experiencing suffering and other difficulties (though he acknowledges that there is no evidence of empire-wide persecution at the time of Domitian) to keep the faith. While things might not be as bad as many of us have been led to believe, in John’s mind, things could get bad quickly, so its good to be prepared. After all, the Empire is not friendly to the ideals of the Christian community. In progressive circles, there has been much talk about empire, so this makes Revelation a text worth addressing.

The second issue that is addressed in Revelation, and which Ron teases out, is John’s apparent concern about churches who might be overly accommodating to the Empire. There were advantages to cooperation, and so he wrote to the churches letting them know of the true religious foundations of the Empire. It is in this word about accommodation that can give birth to sermons on the relationship between church and state (empire) and the dangers of becoming too cozy with the empire. It is this focus that may have the most impact at this moment in time when accommodation is a great concern. We are seeing first hand the dangers to the faith when we entrust the “protection” of the faith to the state.

Central to the text of Revelation is John’s vision of a new age—the new heavens and the new earth. Revelation tends to describe this transition in catastrophic ways, though in the end there is a vision of peace and wholeness, a time in which all tears will be wiped away. Allen offers a different vision, one that he draws from his colleague Clark Williamson, which suggests that God’s overarching purpose is that of blessing. Allen helps us understand the passage, but helps us argue with it when necessary.

Throughout the commentary, which treats each passage with some thoroughness, Allen continually points out ways of approaching the text sermonically. He often suggests ways of taking up portions of the text in more topical series. Recognizing that many contemporaries find it difficult to understand Revelation, Allen suggests choosing more explanatory approaches, such as the Puritan Plain Style. He also advises preachers who, like himself, are theologically liberal/progressive, to speak of others respectfully. He wisely notes that “moderate and progressive preachers sometimes speak dismissively about popular apocalypticism. However, civility and respect are basic requirements for speech in the Christian house. There is no place for making fun of viewpoints with which one disagrees” (p. xxxvii).  Such an approach is not only disrespectful, but it will be unproductive as well if among those who hear the message are sympathetic to these popular viewpoints. The point here is creating an opportunity for a conversation that might lead to a better understanding of difficult passages that can and are used inappropriately.

Again, this is a preacher’s commentary. It’s deeply rooted in current scholarship, but Allen isn’t focused on revealing radically new ideas. That is a task left to others. However, if you are a preacher or teach the Bible in congregations, and believe that Revelation is a text that needs to be dealt with responsibly, then this is a commentary that will bear much fruit. In our day, that is an important task!


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