Friday, May 22, 2009

James Resseguie's The Revelation of John

A couple of days ago I came across a fascinating new title from Baker Academic: James L. Resseguie's The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary (2009). An excerpt of the Preface and Introduction (45 pages) is available to be downloaded here. I would encourage you to read it. Resseguie offers a well-documented and fascinating analysis of the literary elements found in the book of Revelation. In doing so, he supplies a helpful primer on narrative analysis.

ISBNs: 080103213X / 9780801032134

Narrative criticism, as I understand, is a relatively new tool used by Biblical commentators. Of course secular literary critics have applied this tool to other forms of literature for years, but within the last 20 years narrative studies and commentaries on Biblical books have begun to appear in theological journals and commentary series. NT scholars first applied narrative criticism to the Gospels and Acts.

My first introduction to this approach was reviewing Bruce Waltke's commentary on Genesis (Zondervan, 2007). Waltke's efforts to pay close attention not only to the theological underpinnings of the book, but also to the literary techniques employed in crafting the book of Genesis make this commentary a valuable resource.

I printed off the excerpt of Resseguie's commentary and read through it with great interest. Most commentaries I have consulted on the book of Revelation are weighed down be presupposed theological paradigms and are often frustrating to use. Many who reject a literalistic reading of this book propose symbolic interpretations that at times seem to be stretched and subjective. Others who follow a strict literal reading of the book are often inconsistant in determining what is to be taken literally and what is clearly symbolic. They too often stretch and offer subjective interpretations of selected passages. On top of that, most commentaries are not written with the expectation that readers will actually sit down and read straight through them. Rather, they are reference tools like encyclopedias and dictionaries used to look up the meaning of selected passages only.

Contrary to this pattern, Resseguie has provided what he intends to be "a readable commentary" (p. 12). Like most academic books, he utilizes footnotes full of bibliographical references, Greek terms and short explanatory notes. However, Resseguie's stated audience is not the academician, but the student, pastor and lay person. Judging by this excerpt, Resseguie has succeeded in maintaining a level appropriate for this audience. This introduction to narrative analysis of the book of Revelation is very well organized, technical terms are defined, and bibliographical citations to documetn his evidence and to support his interpretations are available and current.

I must admit that this has been the most exciting work on the book of Revelation that I have used. Having been using the ESV Literary Study Bible for the past year-and-a-half (see my review) has helped me to be more attentive to literary elements as I read my Bible. This has helped to clarify many passages for me (particularly the Psalms and Prophets). I'm looking forward to seeing how Resseguie applies the principles discussed in this introduction to the details of the text.

A Little Bit About this Commentary -

James L. Resseguie (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is distinguished professor of New Testament at Winebrenner Theological Seminary and the author of several books: Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Baker Academic, 2005), Spiritual Landscape: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke (Hendrickson, 2004), The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John, Biblical Interpretation Series (Brill Academic, 2001), and Revelation Unsealed: A Narrative Critical Approach to John's Apocalypse, Biblical Interpretation Series v. 32 (Brill Academic, 1998).
The Introduction is followed by a "chapter-by-chapter analysis of John's story [avoiding] the verse-by-verse annotations of traditional commentaries" (p. 12). Because I have not yet read the commentary section I can only comment on the Introduction. Resseguie's approach seeks to pay attention "to the how of the narrative--the way the narrative constructs its meaning" (p. 17). This, indeed, is a fresh approach for me to this hotly debated book of the Bible. I am accustomed to prefatory discussions of genre and theological paradigms, but I have not found these discussions here. (Frankly, this is a relief to me.)

A criticism that I am anticipating is that the discussion and assumptions of this volume are built around this text being "John's story" without mention of inspiration. Whereas I am used to assuming that the text is both from God and by the prophet, the emphasis on this being "John's story" deflates the glory of the divine intricacies of Scripture. This is so, because there are so many rich details in the book of Revelation and Resseguie does an excellent job of showing how the various literary elements are used throughout the book.

The introduction discusses the elements of rhetoric (metaphors, similes, two-step progressions, verbal threads, chiasm, inclusio, and numbers and numerical sequences), setting, characters, point of view, plot, narrator, and structure.

It is clear that Resseguie does not follow the literalistic approach of dispensationalists, but rather than concluding with a loosely symbolic interpretation, he builds a strong case from the entire context of the book and from other portions of Scripture to validate his interpretations. And, rather than following the recapitulation theory of the book (which I had assumed he would), he sees a stronger case for a linear development in the plot. I was surprised to find this, but also greatly encouraged since I have not been fully satisfied with the recapitulation theory.
The recapitulation theory is a promising one with a long history, but it is not entirely convincing.... Furthermore, the progressive pattern of the destruction suggests some sort of linear development in the plot. (p. 56)

A linear progression communicates the urgency and necessity of repentance in the strongest possible terms. It heightens the tension and angst of the reader/hearer until the climax is reached and the moment of decision can no longer be postponed. (p. 57)
However, he cautions against going to far with a linear view:
A linear view does not mean that the events of the Apocalypse follow in a neat chronological arrangement, as advocated in some popular approaches. Rather, the progression is a literary progression with one event folding into another until the end is reached and everything and everyone is in their proper place and the messianic repairs of the cosmos are complete. (p. 59)
For what it's worth, this looks like a promising commentary. I encourage you to consider it; at least, read the free excerpt.