Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From Heaven Above - A Review of Praying In God's Theater: Meditations on the Book of Revelation by Joel L. Watts.

As a child of the 1970's, I was exposed to Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth.  Few books over the past two generations have done as much damage to the Bible as this bit of dispensationalist silliness.  Along with other things, it was one of the things that chased me away from the church for a time.  The notion that people read Lindsey as authoritative still makes me shake my head.

In Praying in God's Theater: Meditations on the Book of Revelation, Joel Watts does the singular service of wiping the slate clean not only of Lindsey, but of the all-too-frequent responses couched as Biblical commentary.  Instead, Watts asks the one question that should begin any study: Why was this book written?  Rather than look to the correct but insufficient answers all too frequently offered - to help the early church through a time of persecution - he reads the text itself for answers.  His answer, shocking in its beauty, faithfulness, and novelty to modern readers, is that Revelation is nothing more or less than a view of our life as the faithful as seen from that heavenly Temple/Throne Room pictured in Chapter 4.  Rooting his reading firmly within the liturgical and eucharistic practices of the early church, Watts answers his question with the glorious suggestion that we read Revelation as our worship before God as we live it out here and now.

Praying the Scriptures is a venerable tradition, lost in the Protestant Era, in particular since the rise of higher criticism, that Watts uses to great effect.  Each chapter of his book offers first a prayer - some solo, some responsive - rooted in the text under scrutiny, with supporting texts from across the Scriptures (especially the Hebrew Prophets) - with a brief explication following.  The flow of the chapters follows the practices of the early church, with the Introit, the communal confession, the bringing forth of the Gospel, and so on.  The structure demonstrates Watts's contention that the text is rooted in the liturgy of our ancient brothers and sisters.

There is more to this book that form, however.  Watts's reading partners span the centuries and confessions of Christian life, and we are introduced to names that might be unfamiliar to our ears, including Isaac the Syrian and many Eastern saints and Patriarchs.  One conversation partner who appears often is St. John of the Cross.  Bouncing the Biblical text off the Spanish poet's writings on the mystical journey, Watts brings readers to the realization that there is nothing airy or dreamy about the mystic's journey.  Precisely because the text of Revelation concerns itself with the persecution and redemption of the whole church, Watts helps readers understand this drama has many layers, personal and communal and universal.  These many layers are best brought to life by considering the recorded journeys of those who lived their struggles in their lives.

And it is at this point that the centrality of the Eucharistic celebration becomes clear.  For the early church, for the faithful on their interior journeys, and for us today, the place where we lay the burden of our suffering and fear and sin before God is the table God has set before us.  In the offering of body and blood, of bread and wine, the whole story is made alive for us, to us, and finally in us, and we come before the throne, as St. John the Divine did, in a very real way.  In this way, too, Revelation reminds us that the struggles against the powers of this age do end: They end each time God offers us a place at the table set for us and we eat and drink not through our own power or merit, but because of the grace and forgiveness this table not just represents but embodies.

Watts's book is the kind of Biblical meditation I've long sought.  Respecting the text enough to wrestle with the words on the page, it nevertheless offers readers an opportunity to consider that same text as a living, breathing thing.  Watts shows how the text is still alive, how the Spirit breathes through the words on the page, filling us today, offering us that New Life that is the promise of the Christian life.  The prayers would work well in a liturgical study of Revelation.  The text itself would bear much fruit in small-group study, as well, opening readers to the power of worship, to the freedom and grace offered at God's table, and the solace we receive that our struggles - personal, communal, cosmological - are brought up in the life of the Father in the Son through the Spirit.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It is a joy to read something so fresh and new, yet filled with the Spirit of the communion of saints from ages past.

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