A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reading Revelation as Wesleyans #4: The Need to Resist Competing Stories

Every one of us has a story. Perhaps it is better to say that every one of us is a story. Many and various narratives give us our identity. Some of our stories are complementary and we find that other stories compete against each other-- they are not complementary; in fact, they are contradictory.

In his book, Reading Scripture as Wesleyans, Joel Green offers his third of six themes from the book of Revelation: " Revelation resists alternative portraits of world events." He refers to the late theologian, James McClendon on the "contest of stories." The thoughts are McClendon's; the words our Joel's:

...growing up in the United States, from an early age, we learn a consensus story that we take as good and right. This story has elements like these: brave pilgrims set out in search of freedom from tyranny; they find the promised land where they must conquer the indigenous population as well as battle for independence; they engage in civil war in order to liberate all persons; they move westward across the continent, to realize their dreams, depending only on themselves; and, blessed by God, they are able to fight for the liberty of those outside their borders as well. McClendon did not want to belittle the American Story, which has underwritten hope for millions of families. Nevertheless, he could not help noticing one of the most common elements: violence is necessary if people are to experience liberty. Contrast this, he says, with a story that pivots upon a savior who comes on a donkey, is acclaimed as the prince of peace, and in whose death peace is won.
I continue this long quote because it is so well expressed:
The pressing question for McClendon is this: "Which story, the cultural or the biblical one, really engages me?" McClendon's contest of stories is like a parable for making sense of Revelation. Here is the power of the devil, on display through the devil's minions, Rome and Rome's religious and propaganda machines-- irresistible and incontestable, an economic powerhouse, bringer of peace and tranquility in all in its borders. Here is the Lamb, standing in the midst of the throne as if it had been slaughtered, declared worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing because it was slaughtered by none other than the almighty hand of Rome itself. Here are two competing stories. Both cannot be true. The story of the lamb seems uninviting, unlikely, and yet this lamb whose sacrificial death spells the undoing of the power of evil. Them result, then, is not only a competing vision of present life but, just as important, the promise of a transformed future.
And yet, the problem with Christians in the West is that it has been almost impossible to read Revelation this way in reference to our cultural context because the story of the lamb and the stories of America, and Europe have been conflated together in such a way as they are not seen as competing stories, but complimentary ones. The story of America is not challenged, but confirmed by the story of the church.  The church's most significant dilemma that it faces at the dawn of the twenty-first century is the same dilemma it has faced since the fourth century: What to do with Constantinianism and what to do with Christendom? In facing this most difficult challenge the very character of the church is at stake, the very character of its mission is in jeopardy. While the vast majority of believers have embraced Constantinianism (the belief that Christians should forge a close alliance with the state in order to influence and, if possible, enact Christian policies) and Christendom (the product of Constantinianism where the culture of a nation reflects Christianity and vestiges of Christian values), I believe that Christians must reject both if they are to be faithful witnesses to the gospel in the world.

Until the church in the West is able to wean its way from its love affair with Christendom and come to understand that the story of the Lamb will not share its truth with another, nor is empire needed to provide salvation in concert with the Lamb, Revelation will not only remain a threat to the Principalities and Powers of the Age, but to a church whose story has been subsumed and undermined not as the story of the Lamb that was slain, but the story of Caesar who has conquered the Lamb making it subservient to the whims of empire.

What this means, finally, is that the church must exorcise the ghost of Constantine from its midst and bury Christendom with the relics of a long and unfortunate past. The church must recover its unique character as an alternative to the world by bearing witness in its collective life to the ways of God. The church must embrace the politics of the kingdom by being itself. Only then can the nations come to understand that it is God and not the nations who rules the world.

Only then will we be able to read Revelation rightly and wisely.
Previous Posts:

Reading Revelation as Wesleyans #1: Introduction

Reading Revelation as Wesleyans #2: Seeing and Responding to the World

Reading Revelation as Wesleyans #3: The Worship of God in All of Life


RevDonnaH said...

Are you sure you're not anabaptist? ;)
Peace, my brother.

Allan R. Bevere said...


When it comes to politics, I am very Anabaptist.