Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: Revelation

Don't worry, I'm not doing book reviews on books of the Bible now - as if I would turn around and say that such and such a book or letter or gospel wasn't good enough! Rather, I'm thinking about the fourth episode in the Shardlake series by CJ Sansom, which goes by the name Revelation.

Shardlake, the lawyer during the reign of King Henry VIII, is drawn in to investigating a bizarre series of murders, seemingly based upon the tribulations found in the book Revelation. Keeping in step with Sansom's penchant for gruesome murders, these are pretty horrible ways to die, although their intensity may be increased with the seeming religious zeal motivating the attacks.

Shardlake is back in London, and caught up in a case involving a boy in Bedlam, while these murders are going on. Certainly, the portrayal of the lack of care and respect for those who need the most care and respect is moving, and once again life in Tudor times is graphic and extremely difficult. As you could say, we don't know we're living.

However, I want to focus in on the assumptions and authorial portrayal of the book Revelation and the radicals caught up with the visions of the Apocalypse. Such portents and signs of the end of the world, especially in those days of reforming zeal, led many to, in one of the character's words, 'salvation panic.'

While Sansom may be seeking to reflect the mindset and assumptions of the period, it seems that Revelation is his main target today, with some particularly vitriolic attacks on this portion of God's word:

'But the ancient scholars who decided which were the authentic Christian texts inspired directly by God, rejected all the Apocalypses save the one we have, mainly because they believed the author was St John. But Luther and Erasmus cast doubt on that.' (p. 193) I think this is probably an unfair description of the recognising of the canon (as opposed to some committee accepting some and rejecting others), and I doubt that there were many apocalypses, as they are described here.

'What an evil book it is, for it says that humanity is nothing, is worth nothing.' (p. 413). I don't think this is fair, as that's certainly not what Revelation says - as it opens with the Lord Jesus, the one who shed his blood to save his people!

'It is not a story in sequence but a series of violent narratives giving alternative ways in which the world will finish.' (p. 418). He's right that it's not one long story, that it's parallel accounts, but these aren't alternatives - rather they are different facets of the same overall message.

'Christianity would be better without that book. It preaches nothing but cruelty and destruction. It teaches that the destruction of human beings does not matter, is even to be rejoiced over. It is evil. No wonder it is the book the killer chose.' (p. 470). As I say, while this is the opinion of one of the characters in the work of fiction, it's hard not to hear the modern author speaking a little too loudly through his fiction.

Coming back to what Revelation is - a divinely inspired series of visions which encourage the Christians facing persecution to stand firm and show the reality behind reality, the peek behind the scenes, and the forward glimpse that God's enemies will be judged - to be concerned for God's glory means that there will be rejoicing over the defeat of his enemies - but that's not uniquely found only in Revelation - the ending of Isaiah shows the same picture, and the Lord Jesus speaks most often about hell and judgement. So to be wiser than God and reject Revelation is actually to make God less than God, and lessen his character and name.

All in all, it's a good story - I always enjoy reading the Shardlake books for their murder mystery suspense, their historical details, but not so much for their theological reasoning. If you haven't started on the series, then you really must, just don't believe all that is written or asserted on the religious front!


  1. What cannot be gainsaid, however, is that Revelation has been and continues to be misappropriated by sociopaths in pseudo-spiritual clothing who, whether through ignorance, or deliberate obfuscation use the words of divine warning/encouragement to God's people under trial, to frighten people into being part of their particular grouping. Like yourself I don't agree with Shardlake/Sansom's assessment of Revelation, (tho Luther's wasn't too far removed from that) but I would consign some modern spins on it and the other apocalyptic material in scripture, both on the internet and in print (eg Tim La Haye etc) to the deepest pits of the fire reserved for the Devil and his angels! And by the way, so far as I can see there are 13 known extra-canonical apocalypses. I do love the Shardlake books tho the plot in this read a little like a Tudor "Messiah" but then the plots aren't actually the best bit for me... but rather the historical colour and characterisation... and the theological framework is part of that... including misunderstandings of Revelation at this time of apocalyptic tension. His latest one is great...

  2. Fair points, David - thanks for taking the time to respond, in a more balanced way than my posting! I haven't got the newest book yet as there are plenty in my to-read list as it is...

    Totally agree on the modern spins, and wish that Left Behind was indeed left behind and not published!