The Book of Revelation

A Biography

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Timothy Beal
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $26.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691145839.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Timothy Beal’s The Book of Revelation: A Biography takes a unique and accessible approach to Revelation, the last book of the Bible. As biographies generally chronicle the lives of people, not books, this volume within the “Lives of Great Religious Books Series” rests on an interesting premise. The purpose of this book is to describe Revelation’s origin and reception over time. While it shares similarities with the survey and reference works students of the New Testament are familiar with, it stands in its own category. Beal’s offering is a selective, chronological account of Revelation’s impact on the world. He reserves the right to curate his own exhibition of fragments from history that have seemingly taken on independent lives of their own. Again, and again, he reveals ways men and women have creatively depicted Revelation and how society has interpreted those depictions. Beal's credentials to write such a biography include his position as Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, along with books to his name on religion in America, the history of the Bible, and biblical literacy. But, perhaps more significantly, the confessed former “conservative evangelical in the late 1970s and early 1980s” experienced the impact of Revelation’s fragments in his own life (174). He contends that what is true of his own experience is true for nearly everyone else: whether someone has ever read Revelation or not, it has probably somehow affected them. 

The story of Revelation does not end with the final chapter and verse; so is the premise of this volume. After summarizing the contents of those chapters and verses, attention shifts to a colorful assortment of historical figures, each bearing a unique relationship to the book of Revelation. Augustine’s trendsetting interpretation of the millennial reign of Christ and the resurrection comes as no surprise, but medieval “picture thinkers” Hildegard of Blingen and Joachim of Fiore likely will (73). Hildegard’s record of potentially migraine-induced visions, along with the hermeneutics and astounding text-graphic fusion of her contemporary, Joachim, are depicted as forerunners of dispensational theology. Cranach the Elder is another figure who produced work again showcasing Revelation’s “multimedia dimensions” (92). He created a striking series of woodcuts for Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible during the Reformation that, like Hildegard and Joachim, attest to how the book’s “literary descriptions both compel and defy visual depiction “(125). Approaching the modern day, Revelation strongly affected the unassuming James Hampton, creator of the enigmatic 180-piece display of Revelation-inspired artwork, discovered after Hampton’s death, along with a still-encrypted book, St. James: The Book of the 7 Dispensations. Beal's apocalyptic tour ends in more familiar territory with a sketch of Revelation’s mark on evangelical culture, particularly with well-known movies such as A Thief in the Night and Left Behind. Revelation’s graphic impact has reached a crest, and the final chapter is a musing on that impact in the form of an “apocalypse script” and complementary “dominion script” being acted out by various factions and ideologies. Connecting the first and last books of the Bible into a single arc, Beal believes people have become frustrated in their attempts to fill and subdue the earth as God commanded in Genesis. This frustration is, then, the trigger that has caused the Revelation-induced apocalyptic outlook he believes we're experiencing today.

There are two major thrusts to this book. First, interpreters throughout history have pulled the virtually indescribable graphic depictions found in Revelation from their context and reimagined them. Second, interpreters have used these fragments to characterize, or mischaracterize their theological, political, and social enemies (e.g., the Pope, President Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and yoga practitioners). Beal presents many examples to support his first thrust, although there are times when he seems to discover a fragment of Revelation under every rock (the story of St. George and Beowulf are believable, but examples from medieval travel narratives and the writings of Lucy Evangeline Guinness are less convincing). Still, the greatest strength of this book is its stock of examples of how Revelation’s life has played out over the course of history. Cleverly appropriate chapter and section titles, such as “Pale Rider,” “Apocalypse Not Now,” and “Red Dragon,” evince just how ingrained Revelation remains in our culture today (32, 49, 101). This solid demonstration of Revelation’s cultural impact alone makes this book useful. As someone teaching Revelation, many of these fragments will no doubt make their way into my material. 

Weaknesses appear when Beal ventures into the more traditional biblical and theological matters one would find in a typical survey or introductory work. His treatments of theological issues often dismiss or ignore accepted evangelical positions on Johannine authorship, canonicity, inspiration, and eschatology. One-sided arguments could have been further developed to at least acknowledge the existence of conflicting views. For example, contrasting John's theology with Paul's could generate a fruitful discussion, but Beale offers a single position as if it is the overwhelming consensus. Similarly, the evangelical notion of the rapture is made out to be void of biblical support. Accusations of misogyny in the text may also leave readers searching for support. These weaknesses should not present an obstacle for the informed reader who explores other sources. 

In short, this book is intended for the curious. While it is not an exhaustive treatment of Revelation’s influence on culture, nor a scholarly tool for exegesis or theology, it can teach something new and whet one’s appetite to learn more. If you have never grappled with Revelation, read this to see if you are interested in pursuing further study. The included recommended reading at the end is a great place to get started. The creation of Frankenstein’s monster is used to illustrate the life of Revelation and it is, ironically, an illustration that applies to this book equally well. Beal has stitched together a biography of a book that will undoubtedly pique the interest of some to pursue further study on the fascinating manifestations of Revelation since its composition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent Niedergall is Advising Professor for Tyndale Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor at Catawba Springs Christian Church.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. His many books include The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book and Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know. He lives in Denver.

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