Why all the imagery in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation?
This is one of the questions I try to answer in my forthcoming book.
My answer is three-fold:
- the imaginative literature in Scripture helps us value the gift of imagination God has given us;
- the imaginative literature in Scripture sparks our growth in godliness; and
- the imaginative literature in Scripture introduces us to a theology of our world.
In my book I tackle 1 and 2 and explain why I think Christians should read fictional books to cultivate our God-given imagination. And I explain how developing skills to read fiction literature has in turn helped me read the imagery in Revelation. But due to space in my book, and in hopes of keeping the book as simple as possible, I was unable to deal with 3 and I want to more fully explain this point, with help from a few paragraphs out of Richard Baukham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University, 1993). In that book Bauckham explains that the Apostle John does not write in the imaginative form to dazzle us with his literary skill, but he writes in imaginative form to exercise theological motives.
The power, the profusion and the consistency of the symbols have a literary-theological purpose. They create a symbolic world which readers can enter so fully that it affects them and changes their perception of the world.
Most ‘readers’ were originally, of course, hearers. Revelation was designed for oral enactment in Christian worship services. Its effect would therefore be somewhat comparable to a dramatic performance, in which the audience enter the world of the drama for its duration and can have their perception of the world outside the drama powerfully shifted by their experience of the world of the drama. Many of the apocalypses could have something of this effect. But Revelation’s peculiarly visual character and peculiar symbolic unity give it a particular potential for communicating in this way. It is an aspect of the book to which we shall return. (10)
He returns to this “symbolic world” point just a few pages later.
We have already noticed the unusual profusion of visual imagery in Revelation and its capacity to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they lived transformed.
To appreciate the importance of this we should remember that Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered ‘miracles’ (cf. Rev. 13:13–14) in the temples—all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendor of pagan religion.
In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven…The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be. (17)
So what’s the point? What is Revelation teaching us today? In the conclusion to his book, Bauckham wraps these points together.
We have suggested that one of the functions of Revelation was to purge and to refurbish the Christian imagination. It tackles people’s imaginative response to the world, which is at least as deep and influential as their intellectual convictions. It recognizes the way a dominant culture, with its images and ideals, constructs the world for us, so that we perceive and respond to the world in its terms.
Moreover, it unmasks this dominant construction of the world as an ideology of the powerful which serves to maintain their power. In its place, Revelation offers a different way of perceiving the world which leads people to resist and to challenge the effects of the dominant ideology. (159–160)
In the previous paragraphs Bauckham helps us answer these important questions: What is the purpose of our God-given imaginations? And what is the function of Revelation’s images?
The book of Revelation engages our imaginations until we see the world in new and radical images. These images help us see past the dominant ideologies of our loud culture, the everyday ideologies that we simply assume and ingest daily like thoughtless breaths of air. The images in Revelation expose us to the world again, but in new and shocking ways, breaking into our imaginations and offering us a new alien way of looking at the world.
God has given us the gift of imagination. The book of Revelation comes alongside us to purge and refurbish that imagination, providing us with a profoundly fresh theological angle on the world that we have grown familiar with.