Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

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.