I’ve been writing my book on the Revelation of John. Among other things, I’ll be insisting that if you refuse to understand how its genre (“apocalypse”) works, you will misunderstand the book. Here is how I begin that particular discussion (this is just a first draft, not rethought or polished)
While in office President Ronald Reagan made weekly radio addresses to the nation. One of the most memorable occurred on August 11, 1984. Before the official text of the address began, Reagan announced: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” You might think that Armageddon was about to begin, but no, Reagan was simply joking with the recording engineers, think the mic was dead. Bad mistake. The comment was not broadcast, but it was recorded by rebroadcasters around the world. Word soon got out and the Soviets took it to show that the Reagan administration’s was completely insincere over efforts to improve relations.
Still, it was a joke and it was known to be a joke, even among the people (in power or otherwise) who did not think it was funny. If Reagan had said the same words not prior to a weekly radio address from his vacation home in California, but from behind his desk in the Oval office in a specially called nationwide television broadcast at primetime, the words would have meant something different. Then indeed it would have been time to look to the skies.
Context is everything. If you change the context within which words are spoken, you completely change what they actually mean. The same is true of written words.
If you read that a highly toxic virus had accidentally leaked from a top-secret governmental lab and infected the entire water supply of New York City – but it was the first chapter of a science fiction novel, you would pretty much know where it was going. But if you read about it on the front page of the New York Times, you might well get going yourself. Literary context is often as important as historical context. Among other things, literary context involves a writing’s genre and how the genre works.
A science fiction novel is not a newspaper article; and an article on the front page is not like an op-ed. A biography is not the same as a novel; and a novel does not work like a limerick poem. Every genre of literature has certain characteristics and features. These are not written in stone and do not amount to legal agreements. They are an unexpressed contract between the author and her readers; both writer and reader know how the genre of the writing works, they know the rules of this particular game. Even if the rules are bent or even twisted out of shape, the reader sees what the author is doing and grants her the freedom to do so. But for the most part, you will not find biographies of Abraham Lincoln talking about his peace negotiations with the Martians and you will not find nineteenth-century novels comprising fourteen lines with a set rhyming scheme.
Genres guide our expectations. If you want to know what a sonnet, or a short story, or an article on the sports page means, you have to accept the silent contractual agreement extended by the author concerning how that genre typically works.
The vast majority of people today who read the book of Revelation ignore the questions of its historical context and genre. That is a fatal mistake. Making the mistake may not be the end of the world, but it can make you think that it is the end of the world.