At Religion Dispatches Elaine Pagels discusses the book of Revelation. Of particular interest is her read on the difference between the way the book should be read, and the way it so often is read:
American Christians assume that what prophecy does is predict specific events to happen. And of course that’s the way the Book of Revelation has been read. I got fascinated with the way this book has lived for 2000 years—from the Franciscans, the Catholics, and the Protestants battling over it in Europe, and then during the American Civil War, with people on both sides reading it. And in World War II and the Iraq War as well.
They read it, as you say, as predicting this means this, orthe beast is this. But prophesy, as we know, is a highly interpretative art, and the way this book lives and has lived for two thousand years is by interpretation and reinterpretation. The way this book has lived has to do with the openness of these vivid symbols for John of Patmos—like the headed beast, bright red, or the Whore of Babylon, or 666, or the Battle of Armageddon—about how those have been read and interpreted throughout the centuries.
I haven't read Pagels' book, but I remember well the course I took on Revelation at Andover Newton. One of the best Bible courses I took. But I also remember a comment by Richard Bauckham on the meaning of Revelation from his brief commentary (I'm paraphrasing here): The central question of the book of revelation is who wears the mantle of the beast. In other words, "who is Rome today?" Whoever fulfills the role of Rome, imposing its power across the world, acting as a global hegemon, plays the role of Rome, and wears the mantle of the Beast.
This is an idea that should be deeply disturbing to American Christians.