Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review: 666 and all that

As a young Christian, I often struggled with reading the Bible. (It’s still a struggle, although I’ll like to think I’ve made progress!). One of the books that caught my imagination however was the book of Revelation. I mean wow! Dragons! Beasts! Angels! Who needs the X-Files? The Internet only served to stoke the fire, as I pored over reports of how the latest actions of Libya fulfilled verse 14 of chapter 17 and prophecies darkly warning of the rise of the Illuminati corresponding with an apostate church with ever-widening eyes that would rival any anime heroine. And of course, it was fun guessing who the AntiChrist was: the Pope, Bill Clinton, Maitreya. It was inevitable that I would eventually suffer prophecy burnout. Plus, I grew up. It became easier to recognise that many prophecies were simply conspiracy theories all dolled up in Christianese.

As a slightly older Christian, I got excited once more as I discovered the Bible storyline of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. No longer obsessed with cracking the Bible code, I was sobered by the reality of coming judgement and the justice of God. I understood a little more of the already/not yet nature of God’s kingdom. I saw how living in light of eternity shaped the present. In many ways it was simply a result of learning to read the Bible better. Being pretty much an organic process, I sometimes found myself unable to capture all these newfound insights and put them all together. I think this is true of many Christians too: people find it hard to discern if the latest prophecy from some Christian celebrity is bunk, or are too easily caught up in a wave of triumphalism or alarmism because they have a misshapen view of the future.

Which is where 666 and All That has proved to be a great help. This book is the latest from the pens of John Dickson and Greg Clarke, both associated with The Centre for Public Christianity. I had been very impressed with some of the other books of Dickson, a musician and evangelist who holds a PhD in Ancient History, as he is very good in writing simply but not simplistically. This also holds true here – I never felt for a moment that this book was flimsy despite its breezy style. Such inklings are confirmed when we refer to the endnotes, the majority of which are devoted to showing their exegetical homework of the various verses discussed in the main text rather than citations of other books.

The authors first lay the groundwork with some autobiographical jottings, Dickson having gone through the same apocalyptic zeal as I have. They note that hope has often been the poor cousin of the Christian triad of love-faith-hope and then show the central place hope should play in the Christian’s life. Two chapters are spent discussing how to read prophetic and apocalyptic literature, using concrete examples such as the rapture. The rest of the book is then devoted to various topics on the future, such as death, hell, the second coming, the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, and heaven/the new creation.

In many ways, this book is very similar to a much higher profile book, Tom Wright’s Surprised By Hope, which I managed to read halfway in a Waterstones. Indeed, the authors even borrow one of Wright’s phrases, "life after life-after-death" for the title of one of their chapters. (For those interested, Wright’s book has been reviewed to death online – just google it). Where I think Dickson & Clarke’s book distinguishes itself from Wright’s is in its conception of its audience. Wright is a very lucid writer and his book appears to be a valuable contribution, but I think his primary appeal is to those of a more intellectual bent. I really enjoyed his anecdote about Wittgenstein and Popper, but I can also see many of my less bookish friends reading that and either feeling intimidated or put off. In any case, those who are most likely to read Wright are also less likely to be those who would fall prey to Rapturemania in the first place.

On the other hand, with Dickson and Clarke’s book, I feel more confident about putting it into the hands of an earnest but confused Christian, who has imbibed unhelpful teaching on the apocalypse et al. from the likes of Rick Joyner and his ilk. As a guide to eschatology (to use the technical term), a correction to popular misconceptions, and a reflection on how the future should shape our lives, this book is probably easier to navigate than Wright’s without losing any of Wright’s perceived strengths, eg. exposing Platonic myths or reminding us of the cosmic implications of the gospel. Yet even those further on in their Christian walk would benefit from this book as well as their discussion of various biblical passages is often insightful. To give one example, in addressing the question of "anonymous Christians", they give a creative reading of the story of Cornelius in Acts which was new to me and certainly compelling on first reading! This will also surely serve as a reference point for me whenever I feel myself needing to gather my thoughts on eschatological issues.

Sadly, this book, published by a small Australian press, would probably not be easy to obtain if you’re not in Aussieland. It is available from The Good Book Co. and St Andrew's Bookshop in the UK. If you’re looking for a primer on what the Bible says about the future, there are few better places to start.

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