I suspect that no great argument was needed to make the Book of Revelation an entry in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. This last book in the biblical canon, with its prophetic voice and phantasmagoric visions, has had a long and often problematic history of reception that invites consideration of its remarkable longevity. Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western University, has earned a reputation for combining learning in biblical texts with an impressive grasp of contemporary cultural trends. Indeed, as the reader here learns, much of Beal’s own youth was immersed in present-day millenarian readings of this classic text (think Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind novels). This background would seem to make him an ideal guide to understanding the impact that Revelation could have. And in some respects, it does; the last hundred pages, for example, contain a mesmerizing account of the peculiar horror culture fostered by apocalyptic cultists.
Beal is also an effective interpreter of the (thoroughly non-apocalyptic) reading of Revelation in Augustine’s City of God, as well as of the medieval appropriations of the book’s imagery by Hildegard of Bingen and Joachim of Fiore. He shows how the book’s polyvalent symbolism can be read in quite distinct ways. Another of the pleasures of Beal’s treatment is his attention to art. In one instance, he shows how Cranach’s depiction of Revelation’s visions trumped Luther’s disapprobation of its text. In another, he recounts how the African-American folk artist James Hampton used bits and pieces of found objects to construct (in his Washington D.C. garage) a complete heavenly sanctuary based on the vision of God’s throne room in Revelation 4–5.
No one can dispute Beal’s evidence for the way Revelation’s imagery was used to demonize other religions or even large swaths of Christianity (for instance, equating the “Whore of Babylon” with the papacy). Such “othering” (to use Beal’s term) was, however unfortunate and ugly, scarcely owed entirely to that book, as the usage of patristic authors concerning Gentile religion makes clear. The tendency to emphasize the negative in the Book of Revelation, I think, is the main deficiency in this otherwise entertaining and informative treatment. This is especially true of the opening exposition, where Beal’s claims for the book’s violent misogyny lead him to some dubious reading of the actual text. He misses the opportunity to help readers understand more broadly the character of apocalyptic literature (a genre to which this writing belongs), and the ways that the Book of Revelation’s call to faithful witness against the powers of idolatry and corruption have strengthened countless believers, especially in times and places of persecution.
The Book of Revelation: A Biography
Princeton University Press
$26.95 | 288 pp.
It is refreshing to read a book that states a modest but well-defined goal and then proceeds to accomplish it through the application of clear thought. Such precision delights the reader particularly when the topic is one that, without the control of consistent logic, could easily grow unwieldy. Christian Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, whose earlier books reveal him to be a philosopher intensely concerned with religion and morality. In this small book consisting of four relatively independent essays, he seeks to challenge what he considers the “overreach” of claims concerning human morality made by certain humanistic atheists (or atheistic humanists) by carefully examining the logical connections—or lack of connections—between the claims they make and the warrants for those claims.
Smith states that he wants neither to defend religion nor attack atheism, but instead seeks to advance the conversation by paying attention to arguments made by atheist authors. His interest, therefore, is not in the obvious facts that many atheists are (sometimes impressively) personally moral, nor in the (pretty convincing) arguments of evolutionary psychologists that a naturalistic explanation of the world provides the basis for a limited altruism that can extend to others in one’s family, tribe, or nation. His interest, rather, is in larger claims being made for a morality based on an atheistic premise.
His first chapter asks, “How good without God are atheists justified in being?” That is, do they have a basis, as some apologists hold, for a high standard of ethics without recourse to God? Smith concludes that intellectually honest atheists, lacking delusions about innate human goodness or the need for social control in the absence of religious conscience, “do not have good reasons justifying their strong, inclusive, universalistic humanism, which requires all people to adhere to high moral norms and to share their resources in an egalitarian fashion for the sake of equal opportunity and the promotion of human rights.” They fail to reckon, he says, with the weight of religious influence that still persists among people, and they have no real answer to the problem of the “sensible knave” who takes advantage of everyone else’s rule-keeping to break rules (as criminals do) for his own benefit.
The second essay is a fascinating variation on the first: What justifies aspirations for universal benevolence, egalitarianism, and equal rights among those who inhabit a “naturalistic” universe—that is, one that consists merely in material causes and effects without design or purpose? If humans are only accidentally and randomly selected, the logic of this view would seem to work in the opposite direction—a social Darwinism characterized by savage competition rather than sweet cooperation. To think otherwise, Smith suggests, is once more to borrow without acknowledgement from the traditions of transcendental warrants provided by religion, or to indulge in sloppy sentimentalism.
Smith’s third essay shifts from ethics to epistemology. “Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail” makes the fairly obvious but often occluded point that the methods of science properly practiced do not (and cannot) be the basis for metaphysical or “atheological” declarations. His quote from Terry Eagleton summarizes nicely: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
The last and most properly sociological of the essays asks whether humans are naturally religious. After a careful run-through of inadequate ways to ask or answer that question, Smith offers a highly qualified “yes,” in the sense that humans have natural capacities for religion that are real and resilient, but that can be either suppressed or encouraged by ideological and cultural influences. As I say, a careful and thoughtful book, with many notes at the end, but in a prose that is for the most part accessible to a non-specialist reader.
Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver
Oxford University Press
$19.95 | 168 pp.