In the book Reversed Thunder “The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination”, Eugene H. Peterson writes a remarkable analysis and interpretation on the biblical text Revelation. Historically, the book of Revelation has been described as difficult to interpret by theologians. Consequently, preachers and teachers of the bible have tended to ignore or avoid this segment of scripture. In stark contrast, those who choose the difficult task of interpreting this text have diverse and drastically different opinions. However, Peterson with powerful vivid illustrations and analysis opens and simplifies the interpretation of Revelation to his readers. This book is a must read for any preacher, teacher and scholar of the Holy Writ. Specifically, I highly recommend this book for any reader of Revelation, who has been bombarded with confusing and confound translations of this remarkable text.
Peterson defines revelation and apocalypse at the outset of his book. “St. John’s word for what he writes is revelation, in Greek, apokalupsis. The word becomes both title to his book and a description of all scripture.” “Apocalypse means the revelation of what took place in the Incarnation hidden in a humble form. The word means literally, “to uncover.”[I] “All scripture is, in one way or another, apocalypse, or revelation.”[II] It is significant to note that the author takes the time to emphasize the difference between revelation and prophecy. “In parallel with the word revelation is the word prophecy. The revelation announced in verse 1 is described as prophecy in verse 3.The two words are parallel, but there is a nuance of difference. The emphasis in revelation is on seeing something, in prophecy on hearing something. God acts among us and we see what he does(revelation).God speaks to us and we hear what he says(prophecy).[III]
Eugene Peterson comprehensively describes essential pericopes of Revelation and reduces them to a common denominator. This common denominator is Jesus Christ. He states about the book of Revelation, that “first of all, it is a proclamation by and about Jesus Christ. Items regarding future and past are introduced insofar as they are useful in providing material that is expositional of Jesus Christ. The Revelation is nothing if not focused on Jesus Christ.”[IV] For me, as a Christian reader, this is an essential ingredient if the writer is to have any validity in his interpretation of Revelation.
Peterson’s word usage and interpretative skills enlightens and empowers the twenty-first century’s reader’s faith and imagination. In Walter Brueggemann like fashion, reminiscent of Brueggemann’s concept of “prophetic imagination”, Peterson weaves a remarkable foundation on which to interpret Revelation. For example, Breuggeman stated in his book The Prophetic Imagination that his “accent on imagination has turned out to be exactly correct, for what is now required is that a relatively powerless prophetic voice must find imaginative ways that are rooted in the text but that freely and daringly move from the text toward concrete circumstance.” This is precisely the methodology that Peterson utilizes to interpret Revelation into a useful “concrete” hermeneutic for the present day reader. Specifically, Peterson frames his analysis under the concept of a “praying imagination”.[V] He states that “Einstein once said that the imagination is more important than intelligence, meaning that there can be no meaningful use of intelligence unless there is imaginative perception.”[VI] I submit that it is the center of our imagination that God’s speaks to the endless possibilities that are present with us. If it wasn’t for the imagination of countless individuals, the world would be still living in the dark ages. The center of the imagination has served to create flying machines reducing the time period for travel, cures for numerous diseases thought un-curable and has unlocked the door of an alternative reality that was trapped in the dreams of our ancestors.
Peterson’s conclusions didn’t occur in a vacuum. Eugene Peterson reflects upon the development of his concept and the impact of the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Charles Williams on his world view and analysis of scripture. He states that “Balthasar, especially in his book Prayer, has taught me to be contemplative before the Revelation, to pray the text. Williams, in his novels, poetry, and criticism showed me the workings of the imagination as a means of grace and convinced me that an exercised imagination is essential to a full-bodied and full-souled life in Christ.”[VII]
Under these parameters, Peterson entitles his book “Reversed Thunder” which is based on a daunting image in the book of Revelation. that in Revelation 8:3-4, it speaks of an angel who stood at the altar with a golden censer, who was given incense to mix with the prayers of the saints. Peterson utilizes this image to explain “reversed thunder”. Peterson writes that “he mixed the prayers of the Christians with incense (which cleansed them from impurities) and combined them with fire (God’s spirit) from the altar. Then he put it all in the censer and threw it over heaven’s ramparts. The censer, plummeting through the air; landed on earth. On impact there were “peals of thunder, voices, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Rev.8:5). The prayers which had ascended, unremarked by the journalists of the day, returned with immense force in George Herbert’s phrase, as “reversed thunder” .Prayer reenters history with incalculable effects. Our earth is shaken daily by it”.[VIII]
In keeping with the eschatological theme found in the book of Revelation, Peterson categorizes his interpretation into chapters beginning with “the last word”. He states that “eschatology is the most pastoral of all the theological perspectives, showing how the ending impinges on the present in such ways that the truth of the gospel is verified in life “in the middle”. It shows us that believers are not set “at the high noon of life, but at the dawn of a new day at the point where night and day, things passing and things to come, grapple with each other.”[IX] This isn’t just empty rhetoric, Peterson includes the last words on a wide gamut of concepts and issues relevant not only to the church and individuals of yesterday, but today. These are inclusive of the last words on Christ, church, scripture, worship, evil, prayers, witness, politics, judgment, salvation and heaven. Due to the guidelines of this essay, I will restrict my responses to those I find most essential to our present and future reality.
Eugene Peterson’s commences his analysis appropriately regarding the “last word on scripture”. The author points to the ultimate goal of scripture or God’s written word... Peterson writes that “Words link spirits. Reduced to writing, and left there. Words no longer do what they are designed to do –create and maintain personal relationships of intelligence and love.”[X] The scripture allows the reader to form a closer relationship to God. This is the primary purpose of scripture to open up the reader’s imagination, so that their faith will be fortified and strengthened through Jesus Christ. Also, the scripture empowers and enables the reader through this relationship with God to be able to foresee an “alternative vision.” Also, he writes that “our capacity for language is the most distinctive thing about us as humans. Words are that by which we articulate we are.”[XI] However, Peterson deftly illustrates how Revelations significance lies not only in its words, but beyond the written word, that taking the reader to a form of art and visualization. “Anything can make us look, says poet Archibald MacLeish, “only art makes us see,” The Revelation makes us see”.” I turned to see the voice (Rev. 1:12).”[XII] That is an extraordinary observation by the author. It is indeed through the written word of the scripture, that the eyes of the reader are opened to the magnificence of God, beyond our imaginations.
[IV] Reversed Thunder p 26
[V] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination(Minneapolis: Fortress Press),xii
[VIII] Reversed Thunder p 88