Powerful Wink

Those of us who became academically aware (in the biblical field) in the 1980s knew the name of Walter Wink.  Now, if you’ve ever become academically aware, you know that we all know some names vaguely, as if seen in a glass darkly, and some more intimately.  Wink fell into the former category for me.  He specialized in “the other testament,” and although I read Greek quite well, my academic track led me through Hebrew to Ugaritic and beyond, in the opposite direction.  I taught New Testament in my academic career, but never found the time to go back to Wink.  I knew he’d written about “the powers,” and the idea was interesting, but I had other research I was doing and I never got around to him.  Now I’ve finally finished the first volume of his famed trilogy on the powers (Naming the Powers).

“Powers” was a circumlocution for many things in antiquity.  It is a high abstraction.  Why do you do what you’re told?  The powers.  They can be human, such as bullies or governments (which are increasingly difficult to distinguish), or they can be supernatural.  Much of Wink’s book is technical—this isn’t easy going, even if it’s theology.  He looks closely at the terminology of power and exegetes it minutely.   The book comes alive, however, in part 3.  There were quite a few worthy insights here, but the one that struck me the hardest is how institutions generate a power that no one individual can control or contain, let alone comprehend.  As Wink points out, a school isn’t a building.  What goes on inside such a building takes on a power that reaches beyond any of the individuals involved in teaching or learning.  Think of Harvard.  What is it?  Who is it?  It bears power simply by the citation of its name.  No scientist can quantify it, but none will dispute it either.

Thinking about “the powers that be” in this way is transformative.  Wink draws this into the ancient perception that what is happening “down here” is merely a reflection of what is taking place on high.  Not unique to Christianity, or even monotheism, the idea that our lives reflect the reality of some higher power is pervasive in human thought.  And institutions.  Harvard, as most prestigious universities, essentially began as a place to train clergy.  Even at this stage it began to exert a power.  Today Harvard (and many other schools) still hosts a seminary and training ground for clergy.  They face a largely unbelieving society when they’re done.  And if they’re at all like me, it might take them decades to realize something may be missing.

To Be Continued

I’m about in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.  I’ve also just about finished Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers.  At the same time I’m revising the draft of Nightmares with the Bible, which will become my fourth published book.  While doing all of this at the same time (and working about nine hours a day), it occurred to me that to really “get” an author you should theoretically read her or his oeuvre from start to finish.  Ideally, to trace the arc of thought, you shouldn’t leave anything out.  The reason that this is as important as it is futile is one of the nagging problems that came to me while working on my doctorate: how do you know what a source you’re citing is really saying?

Pardon my nihilism, but this is an important matter when it comes to academic practice.  Academics cite many sources, and often miscite them.  I’ve seen it regarding my own work.  One scholar argued the exact opposite of what I published in an article and even made the point that he was building on what I’d stated.  Clearly he was digging where I’d been building or vice versa.  We were going in opposite directions and what I’d written was to undermine what he was arguing.  The thought came to me now because both Stephenson and Wink are the writers of many volumes.  I need to cite my sources, but it’s clear that the books are merely slices of lifetimes of thought.  Academia wants you to show your work, but its dated even before you press the “send” button.

I’m not knocking scholarly process.  It’s the best system we’ve come up with for getting near to the truth.  Since no one person has the entire truth, however, we get closer still if we follow a writer from start to finish.  Those of use who use pseudonyms in order to keep our day jobs only complicate things.  Our works (which we hope will outlast us) are only fragments of a larger world of thought that goes on behind the writing of books.  And what about weblogs, or “blogs”?  The million-plus words on this one are a stream of consciousness that weave within, behind, and outside of the books, articles, and stories I write.  Some writers make bold as to attempt biographies of other writers.  Some try to read everything said writers wrote.  Even so they’re only getting part of the picture.  To understand where a writer’s coming from requires more commitment than we’re likely willing to spare.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to finish.