Introducing the New Testament

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Cover Art

Discussion Prompts

  1. What do you first think of when I say the word “apocalypse”? This question airs all of the popular notions of the four horsemen, Armageddon, the rapture, etc. Follow this question with a discussion of what “apocalypse” meant in the first century (it is the Greek work for “revelation”) and how biblical prophecy functions (as a social and political critique of the prophet’s day, not a prediction of some future events beyond the prophet’s lifespan).
  2. As a class, brainstorm and identify all of the symbolic imagery in Revelation. Once students begin to name the symbols and ask what these mean, they see that Revelation belongs to a genre that is in a way more akin to science fiction (an imaginary world through which one can critique the hidden problems of one’s own society).

Pedagogical Suggestions

The Five Senses

The book of Revelation offers a full sensory experience. To help students enter into this “kaleidoscope” of sensory imagery, focus on the visual sense and have them draw what they “see” in different passages.

Option 1: Have students all draw the same scene (5–15 minutes—bring crayons and blank paper). Revelation 1:12–16 is a good place to start (try also 12:1–6 or 20:7–10). Although drawing the same passage, each student will inevitably choose to emphasize and focus on different details from their neighbor. Ask them why? What drew them to that aspect of the imagery? What tone were they trying to convey? What do they see in other students’ depictions that they did not notice in the passage?

Option 2: Have students choose the scene they liked the best—or that confused them the most—and draw, color, or sketch that scene. What is difficult about rendering the words into single images?

Rationale

This is one of the most popular in-class assignments with students in my Revelation class. Through coloring and working directly with the imagery depicted in the book of Revelation, students are able to engage a very difficult and complex writing in a simple, tactile way. Visually rendering individual images drives home the point that Revelation is not a literal text. Nor is it a genre with which we are familiar. Drawing pictures of the description helps students to understand how the images are portraying themes, concepts, symbols, and other representative forms of narrative.

Blake’s Apocalypse

2. Using slides of William Blake’s illustrations of the apocalypse (you can find these online or in art books), ask students to identify the passages in Revelation that Blake is “citing.” What does Blake’s visual art add to their understanding of the passage? How has Blake imagined the scene differently than they might have? Does Blake convey the prophetic revelation in visual art as well as John does orally?

Rationale

Again, Revelation is meant to be heard and imagined. Looking at Blake’s interpretive art also gives students another avenue into understanding this book and aids their own interpretive reading by providing a visual text to accompany the written one by John.

The Empire Is Struck Back

3. Key to an understanding of the book of Revelation is the notion of “Empire.” John uses symbolic and metaphorical biblical language to portray his experience of the Roman Empire. For example, “Babylon,” understood through the experience of captive Jews in the sixth century BCE, becomes the paradigm for Roman hegemony and power. The beast from the land represents Imperial armies and the beast of the sea represents Imperial control of Mediterranean trade routes. Idolatry is represented, in prophetic biblical fashion, as adultery and sexual license. Numbers, too, are drawn from the numerical iconography of Jewish tradition and scriptures.

Have the class read chapters 17–18 aloud together. Of what kinds of oppression does John accuse Babylon/Rome? What is the extent of Rome’s rule and power (the whore on the beast)? Highlight the economic references (the waters of trade; the kings bowing to Roman taxation and commerce; the wealth of merchants; getting drunk on the “blood,” sweat, and tears of the poor laborers). What political, economic, or social power today represents a similar hegemonic power and financial influence?

Many today would look at the banking system as an out of control “beast.” In the past, others have seen the United States as a powerful empire. The World Bank and European Union have also been viewed as the beast, as have the British Empire, the Dutch Colonialists, the Third Reich of Germany, and others. How can Revelation be used to analyze socioeconomic and political injustices today?

Rationale

Revelation does not tell a chronological unfolding of events in history—although this is what most people have learned about the book, whether from church or pop culture or the movies. Actually, Revelation “unveils” the hidden economic and political powers that exploit a majority of the earth’s peoples. When students begin to read the writing this way, they too can use the book as a tool, not to predict the future but to analyze the dynamics of power in an interdependent global society.

Apocalyptic Choices

4. To better understand what an “apocalypse” (the unveiling of another, more real, reality) is, show a clip from the movie The Matrix. When Neo enters the checkered room to sit with Morpheus and Morpheus offers Neo a choice between the red or the blue pills—the apocalypse begins. In other words, Neo (like the prophet John) is swept up into a completely physical experience of wrenching away from one reality (everything that he has known as real up to that point in time) into another. From the checkered room with a mirror and smart looking people in black leather coats, Neo wakes up submerged in fluid, connected to a pod where his brain waves are used as battery-power to sustain machines. A snake-like machine disconnects Neo. He is flushed into “birth waters” and lifted by a crane into a ship that operates “outside” the matrix. The alternative “real” reality has been unveiled.

The instructor can use this film clip to help students understand the fundamental concepts in the apocalyptic genre. First, this clip from The Matrix nicely illustrates the prophetic experience of being swept into heaven and viewing strange events and fantastic creatures for which the reader of the apocalypse, let alone the author, has no basis for comprehension. The language, imagery, and symbolic nature of Revelation re-creates this disconcerting, mind-bending experience of the prophet for the reader/hearer.

Second, “Apocalypse” is not the end of the world. (Although one could say that the world as Neo knew it was over!) Apocalypse is the unveiling of “real” reality. What Neo sees before he meets Morpheus is all illusion. What Neo sees after he takes Morpheus’s proffered pill is the unveiled, unadulterated reality. It is the same in Revelation. Once John’s audience has heard the book of Revelation they become accountable to God’s (real) reality: victory and absolute alliance against the Roman Empire’s claims to divine power.

Continue drawing out the parallels between the clip from The Matrix and the book of Revelation. What is Morpheus’s role (angel and mediator)? Who is Neo (John the Seer, John’s audience)? What is the matrix (Roman Empire)? Describe the prophet’s experience. What is the effect and literary role of the fantastic creatures and beasts (machines of The Matrix)?

Rationale

The concept that “apocalypse” means “unveiling” or “revelation” is almost impossible to convey simply because the term has accumulated other powerful meanings in our society (religious and secular) today. The clip from The Matrix (whether students have seen the entire film or not) shows conceptually what the instructor may find difficult to convey and the students may find difficult to grasp. The parallels between the fantasy genre in movies and the apocalyptic genre in biblical writings are numerable and easy to see. For more on Revelation and The Matrix, please see Elizabeth K. Rosen, “Apocalypse Reloaded: The Matrix Trilogy,” in Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008). See also Tina Pippin’s work on Apocalyptic and fantasy literature, “The Heroine and the Whore: The Apocalypse of John in Feminist Perspective,” in From Every People and Nation, ed. David Rhoads (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).