Katie's Reviews > A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization

A History of the End of the World by Jonathan Kirsch
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Feb 09, 11

it was ok
bookshelves: history, religion
Read in February, 2011, read count: 1

If this book were food, it would be peanut butter crackers. I suggest an alternative title for the next edition: "1001 Things I Hate About the Book of Revelation." From the review I read, I’d been hoping for a balanced, scholarly critique of the Revelation to John, but instead I got a 200-page polemic by a lawyer whose sloppy research wouldn’t get him through a master’s thesis, let alone the lavish praise of someone like Karen Armstrong, who should be embarrassed to be quoted on the front cover.

Kirsch’s theme can be summed up thus: The Book of Revelation is the elaborate, violent fantasy of a man named John who expected the imminent end of the world, whereupon he would see someone vaguely resembling Jesus kick the asses of all the people John didn’t like. The world didn’t end, and since then millions of deluded people have embraced John’s vision and hoped to see the end of the world and Jesus kicking their enemies’ butts too. Along the way, these have included kings, Crusaders, invaders, monastics, the Nazis, televangelists, and presidents.

I love peanut butter crackers, but man lives not by peanut butter crackers alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; and there is something of worth even in this last book of the Bible, even for millions of us Christians who are repelled by its violence and vengefulness. Spiritual writings before John’s were read allegorically, not literally. Readers from Augustine to Martin Luther King who did not take the story literally have found in Revelation reason to work for the perfection of the church, or to care for God’s creation, or to hope for spiritual elevation. Kirsch dismisses all of this. While he argues briefly (and not always effectively) for an allegorical reading of Revelation, he shows little comprehension of the hope that moved its readers: “Augustine prefers to see all the spooky and scary details in the prophecies of Revelation as a series of elaborate metaphors for a divine truth so ineffable that John is compelled to reduce it to concrete words, numbers, and images because the ordinary human mind could not otherwise comprehend them.” Indeed. That is the very problem with the un-world, other-world, dream-world that is God—and the reason Jews do not write God’s name—words cannot comprehend it.

The book isn’t entirely bad. Every fifty pages or so, in the middle of flogging a horse carcass, he tells me something I didn’t already know, such as that the Tenth Legion stationed in Judea had standing orders to execute any Jew claiming to be a descendant of King David, which is one possible answer to why Jesus was executed. He’s also a reasonably good storyteller when he’s not foaming at the mouth. Unfortunately he does that a bit too often. You know how eventually you get sick of peanut butter, but there’s nothing else in the house that doesn’t take a lot of effort? It’s like that.

Kirsch didn’t even bother to work with original sources. “I have taken the liberty of omitting some words and phrases from some quoted material,” he remarks, which presumably excuses the fact that he also omitted to point out in the text exactly where he omitted them. I took the liberty of glancing at the endnotes now and then, and I admit that he does seem to have read several books. But his most interesting citations are “Quoted in” so-and-so’s history or review. After ten or fifteen similar citations of the same author, you wonder why he didn’t just go and read the original. Josephus’ History of the Jewish War, for example, is readily available in translation. Kirsch’s facility with English suggests that he would be capable of reading it. At other times he doesn’t bother to cite anybody at all, such as his long discourse on the early church fathers’ linking the Antichrist to the Jews, leaving the reader wondering where he came up with this—a more interesting question given how often he brings up the topic for the next 100 pages.

Kirsch is good enough to provide the text of Revelation in an appendix. He does not explain why he chose the King James Version, which has fallen out of favor in many circles both for its archaic language and the quality of the translation. Kirsch seems to have his own problems with it, given that he quotes from six other, wildly different translations of the Bible, freely and without justification, sometimes even within the same biblical chapter.

He includes a nice glossary with long definitions of terms like preterism and dispensationalism. It has a nice definition of messiah, much better than the one I’ve typically gotten in the Episcopal Church—“Messiah means Christ.” “Christ means messiah.” Tautology means oh forget it. Still, after reading the rest of the book, I’m inclined to distrust his glossary and go back to the encyclopedia after all.
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Michael T. Barbara Rossing's The Rapture Exposed gives a rather hopeful "spiritual" reading of Revelations. But (as the title indicates) she is just as hard on the "carnal" reading of the Book as Kirsch is. PS, also love Karen Armstrong. Peace.


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