Adam Gopnik reviews Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels. In Pagels' view, Revelation was probably written by a refugee mystic named John and isn't prophecy but "a highly colored picture of the present":
It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look.
PBS excerpted the book:
[W]e have seen that the story of this book moves beyond its own pages to include the church leaders who made it the final book in the New Testament canon, which they then declared closed, and scriptural revelation complete. … Orthodox Christians acknowledge that some revelation may occur even now, but since most accept as genuine only what agrees with the traditional consensus, those who speak for minority—or original—views are often excluded. Left out are the visions that lift their hearers beyond apocalyptic polarities to see the human race as a whole—and, for that matter, to see each one of us as a whole, having the capacity for both cruelty and compassion.
Cris Campbell contemplates how the story got so distorted:
For it to become the Religion of (Roman) Empire, early Christianity had to be tamed and institutionalized. Its fate was domestication for purposes of power and consumption.
(Photo by Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images)