By Steven Norris
Despite its name, many readers of the book of Revelation find it to be shrouded in mystery. Too often, it is viewed as a coded predictor of the future (End Times). Many interpreters suggest that merely decoding the message would give us a clear timeline of the church’s future.
The book of Revelation, however, is much more nuanced than this. In his vision, John integrates liturgical and political material into a compelling vision that challenges the “civil religion” of his day (as well as ours).
Theologian, Michael Gorman defines civil religion as the practice of “sacralizing (making sacred) political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices and the corollary demand for allegiance.” But what would comprise such a “civil religion” as this?
To begin, it would likely include sacred symbols and practices used to unite the people. These could be national flags or banners displayed in public locations. They could include shrines, temples, or memorials that focus attention on inspiring the populace and uniting them. For example, in Rome, the “divus Julius” referred to the temple of Caesar, where the national leader was worshipped with almost god-like devotion.
Civil religion would include sacred rituals such as national feast days and holidays celebrating significant events in the history of the people or nation. Roman culture included prescribed times of national prayer, the giving of offerings, national sporting events, and special blessings for those serving the empire.
Civil religion often took the form of sacred language such as going to war as a “mission” or serving the nation as a “sacred duty/honor.” It could be seen in sacred music like nationalistic hymns that utilized sacred language to refer to the leaders of the empire. Battle hymns filled with militaristic imagery were often sung by the people with evangelistic zeal.
Civil religion appealed to sacred texts used to further unite the people and referred to them as the “founding documents” of a society. Likewise, civil religion thrived in the stories, myths, and legends that developed around the community’s founders and those who led courageously in times of crisis.
Revelation offers a compelling alternative to this vision of the world. Centered on the throne and the Lamb that was slain (Jesus), Revelation offers a different hub of allegiance, power, and worship. It offers a counter-cultural narrative that served to redirect the common life of people of faith.
However, the function of Revelation is not to pull back the curtain on the fate of the empire — its demise was already quite certain. Instead, Revelation wrestles with the fate of those living amidst such civil religion. Will they (especially the people of God) choose to participate in the idolatry of the civil worship around them or maintain their primary allegiance to God?
Revelation asks of the first-century Christians: will you dare to be a community of “uncivil” worship and witness? Will you seek to embody the ways of peace, justice, reconciliation, evangelism, and earth care depicted in the vision of the new heaven and new earth? Will you dare to pledge sole allegiance to the Lamb, no matter where that allegiance may lead?