The Powers that Be (1)

In his striking and unusual book, the late theologian Walter Wink writes this:

This book is unashamedly about things spiritual. It assumes that spiritual reality is at the heart of everything, from photons to supernovas, from a Little League baseball team to Boeing Aircraft. It sees spirit– the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God –at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship … [It] celebrates a divine reality that pervades every part of our existence.

Walter Wink, The powers that be, 1998, Galilee Doubleday, p 13

Wink points out that ‘Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers” — which occur naturally in New Testament writing — ‘not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures and systems … Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an innner, spiritual reality’ (p24).

This is striking and unusual stuff. As Wink goes on to point out, when it comes to ‘Powers and principalities’, ‘fundamentalists treat the Powers as actual beings in the air … and secularists deny that this spiritual dimension even exists’ (p26).

The elegance of this outlook is that it roots the New Testament worldview into everyday structures of injustice and unrighteousness (or indeed structures of justice and righteouness). So by doing battle against, say, injustice, you are actually resisting spiritual powers, for which the gospel offers weapons and tools.

For example, Ephesians 6 says:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:10-12 NIVUK

This scripture makes a lot of sense in contexts where spiritual forces are rife and obvious, where local industry manufactures charms and amulets, and where you can buy services like spells, curses, protection from the evil eye and love potions. I have worked with many missionaries who have spent time in those contexts and found New Testament-type solutions beneficial and fruitful.

It’s a lot harder though, in secular and materialist contexts, to know quite what to do with all these scriptures.

Wink offers a further insight. These powers, he claims, become fallen and demonic when they pursue ‘a vocation other than the one for which God created’ them (p29). So, calling an institution to be just and and upright and to fulfill the purpose God intends for it, is not just a matter of (for example) campaigning but is also a spiritual conflict requiring the kind of spiritual weaponry that the gospel offers. This is because the institution involved has a spiritual face as well as a material one.

This makes a lot of sense.

  • Ir explains why in the book of Revelation, letters are written to ‘the angel’ of each of the seven Asia Minor churches — not to the pastor, or the leadership team, or the congregation, but to the spiritual reality, the culture, that they together contribute to and embody.
  • It explains why in the same book, earthly realities are described withthe imaginative imagery of dragons, beasts and whores, a spiritual view of human institutions.
  • It helps make sense of the Beatitudes, which sees human attitudes and behaviours as having potency as spiritual weapons: Are you spiritually bankrupt? You’re blessed: yours is the reign of heaven (Matthew 5:3, my paraphrase).

Here’s his summary:

Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequences of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestation can the total structure be transformed.

Wink, op.cit., p 31

There’s more to come.

We don’t know if we’re going, but we’re going

In which we try to understand History

Is there anything beyond the next banana? Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Are we going anywhere? Are we nearly there yet? The fun thing about blogging is that you can attempt subjects in which you are completely and entirely out of your depth.

This has all happened because I was listening to a set of lectures on St Augustine’s City of God, as I have written elsewhere.

The question is easy enough to pose: are we (as a species, or even as an entire created order) going anywhere?

  1. First let’s congratulate ourselves. No other beasts or plants are asking this question. Even our brother apes appear not to worry much about the tides of history; they are happy knowing where the next banana might come from.
  2. One possibility is that history isn’t going anywhere: it’s just random, pointless noise.
  3. A second, more popular I think, is that it is in some sense cyclic: the rivers pour into the sea, but the sea is never full; what comes around, goes around; no-one can ever say, ‘this is new’; that kind of thing.
  4. A third, beloved of Christians, Muslims, rationalists, communists and many cosmologists among others is that history has a direction, it’s going somewhere. Some science fiction too: ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, ‘The final frontier’: the universe is a giant unploughed prairie, just awaiting the covered waggons, and that is our story and destiny. The idea of ‘Progress’ and ‘Progressive policies’ still resonate, and when we see the decline of poverty and the advance of medicine worldwide, we can sort-of believe it.
  5. It’s possible to argue that this idea of history having a direction, a start and an end, originated somewhere in the Judeo-Christian scheme.

Augustine saw history this way. For him, history had a direction and the big clue was the incarnation of Christ, when the beyond-time God hitched himself to the time-bounded creation. There was a time before this happened; there is a time afterward; there is a direction for the future.

It must be very bad form among proper historians, I imagine, to believe this. But I think it is Christian orthodoxy. History is about conception, resurrection, consummation, all around Christ, all about the timeless God involving himself with his creation and eventually filling it out with love and making it whole.

Surely this idea can be criticised all over the place. But it does give a point to each of our individual lives. The point: everything we are and do now that anticipates, outlines, foreshadows or even hastens that consummation has point and value. Everything that doesn’t, doesn’t. Not only does history have meaning and direction, our each individual moments have too–and they revolve around love.

Populist bingo

After another heavy day on the Select Committee. Ashish Upadhyay on Unsplash.

And so Boris is gone, sulking, in a spray of adjectives and grievances.

In the USA, justice is chasing down President Trump, suspected of hiding documents in his toilet.

The populist First Minister of Scotland has fallen, with the cops sniffing around her house and looking for (among other things) a motorhome and a wheelbarrow. The suspicion (still unproven and hotly denied) is that the Caledonian Cabal made off with party funds to buy a wheelbarrow. This is a misuse of the misuse of funds. If you’re going to misuse funds, I mean, don’t do it at B & Q.

Over in Russia, let us hope, the authority of the president is pouring away like the water from a (former) Ukrainian dam.

Let us play populist bingo. Cross off the words when your favourite populist departs:

Witch-hunt

Kangaroo court

I did not lie

Not a shred of evidence

I am innocent

I was saying what I believed sincerely to be true

I take my responsibilities seriously

They have wilfully chosen to ignore the truth

I am now being forced out of Parliament by a tiny handful of people

A political hit job

I am bewildered and appalled that I can be forced out

Anti-democratically

Egregious bias

A phrase book for your convenience

I’m also providing a phrase book since language means a different thing on whatever planet the populists’ heads reside:

‘Tiny handful of people’ = A majority of the House of Commons, of the consituency, and of the whole country.

‘Egregrious bias’ = fact-based

‘Anti democratically’ = democratically

‘I am bewildered and appalled that I can be forced out’ = I am bewildered and appalled that I have to obey the rules

‘They have wilfully chosen to ignore the truth’ = They have wilfully chosen to follow the evidence

‘Not a shred of evidence’ = pants round ankles, hand in the cookie jar

And this should not be

This post doesn’t need a commentary really. I have an interest in youth justice and this landed in my in-box. 1 On April 26 2023, just a few weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote this about His Majesty’s Youth Offender Institution at Cookham Wood:

An inspection of a HMYOI Cookham Wood in April 2023 found that a quarter of the boys were being held in solitary confinement for extended periods, including two for more than 100 days, as a means of managing conflict between children. Records showed that it was not unusual for these boys to not come out of their cells for days on end, with no meaningful human interaction, education or other intervention. At the time of the inspection, 90% of children were subjected to ‘keep aparts’ meaning they were not allowed to mix with some of their peers, and staff were managing 583 individual conflicts in a population of 77 children.

Children told inspectors they felt unsafe, and were increasingly resorting to carrying weapons, many of which were made from metal which boys had scavenged from equipment in their cells, including kettles, in a bid to protect themselves. More than 200 weapons had been recovered in the six months preceding the inspection, despite inadequate searching procedures.

Cookham Wood was in a poor overall condition, with dirty living units and broken equipment. Prison staff were exhausted, with significant shortfalls on wings, and, while many clearly cared about the children, they felt unsupported by senior managers and had given up hope that improvement was possible. Four-hundred-and-fifty staff were employed at Cookham Wood, including 44 directly employed managers, of whom 24 were senior leaders. The fact that such rich resources were delivering this unacceptable service for just 77 children indicated that much of it was currently wasted, underused or in need of reorganisation to improve outcomes at the site.

The findings of this inspection represented the culmination of a steady decline in standards documented in inspections since 2016 that cannot be allowed to continue.

I’m glad we have a Chief Inspector of Prisons, that their work is public, that (on government directions) they require immediate action from the government, and that we ordinary people can write about this stuff without people turning up in vans accusing me of ‘insubordination’ or ‘spreading instability’ as might happen in many countries. I’m glad there are caring people at Cookham Wood and others who will campaign and fight. I’m glad we don’t incarcerate that many children (fewer than 1000 in the whole country). But the good news stops somewhere there.

The gift of curiosity

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I have realized that I hide from people who have too much certainty.

This is largely confined to people with a Christian faith, probably because I hang around with them a lot of the time.

But I have learned to dread them. Like Russian battle tanks, they approach, waving their whatsit, ready to turn their turret on anything that departs from the Doctrines of Grace, ‘the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints’. They’re good at it too, and I feel myself shrivel as they gun for my theological loose thinking.

I think I’ve always felt this dread, so it is unlikely to be a virtue. When I was a young Christian I remember the pastor of my then-church say during a sermon, ‘I was reading C S Lewis recently and I’ve found the error in him.’ Given that their relative intellectual attainments were as different from each other as a sideboard is from a lunch-box, I did not feel this was an especially wise thing to say.

Where is the curiosity? Where is the head-in-shower joy in discovering that you are completely wrong? Where is the zest for learning, and growth, and change? Where — we might add– is the humility, the poverty of spirit? It is not that there isn’t certainty in the Christian faith — there is — it is that people can get carried away and have too much of it, in too many areas, and it isn’t pleasant to see; gracelessly and proudly defending grace.

While all the while, shafts of truth can flash from completely outside the Christian space, or from theologically-dubious people within it, and do us the world of good.

I think of Isaac Newton’s famous quote:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

That was Isaac Newton. Meanwhile Russian tanks are proving a bit vulnerable, much better parading around the place than seeing real action.

The perils of music

Especially if you’re trying to avoid invisible beings

It can bite. Photo by Raúl Cacho Oses on Unsplash

I had to write an article recently about what happens to people who leave God and God-stuff alone 1.

I wrote about my suspicion that God doesn’t leave them alone.

One culprit was music:

Perhaps this is a stretch for some of us. But theology teaches us that music is a shared feature of heaven and earth. Both realms ring with song, heaven more so than earth, and for a reason. Think of an orchestral or choral performance: unity, diversity, individual gifts, some performers with a great range and others just bashing triangles at appropriate moments, all blended into a completeness that is not static or boring, but fluid and dynamic; at its best, an ever-flowing perfection of fulfilled performers harmonizing together. Isn’t it, can’t it be, a heavy hint of what God and his people are destined finally to be? When you hear or perform music, are you distantly echoing what the divine is and does? Are your expressing a desire for something greater than what you have now? Are you reaching for transcendence? If I may say so, I think you may be. Even some of the most hard-boiled atheists I know seek transcendence in music.  

Food for thought.

In praise of squishiness

Nuff said. Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash

Much better than the rigid

Squishiness is little regarded as a value. This is wrong. Consider a stiff, rigid society. Usually it will be poisonous for women. So, one slip, girl, one wrong path, for you, or, forsooth, for your sister, hah, and you are ‘ruined’. Jane Austen’s novels would themselves be ruined in a squishy world; so would Thomas Hardy’s. Nor are things overly squishy in the north-western tribal parts of Pakistan, nor rural Iraq, for example. I’ve heard it said that the old Northern Ireland was similarly lacking in flex, squishiness enrigidised by too much ‘community’ nosing into everything and policing everyone.

We are a society who equates ‘squishiness’ with progress and I think that is good.

Think about it. Crime and punishment should be squishy: don’t execute people, you might just find you’ve electrocuted the wrong person, or for the wrong reason. Education should be squishy: eventually, O difficult child, perhaps the penny will drop in your life. Public life should be squishy, with latitude for lapses because we all lapse.

And yet non-squishiness keeps rearing its foul head. Social media is 21st century censoriousness re-introduced. Liberal thinkers seem to step on other liberal thinkers (who think differently liberal thoughts) with what seems to me something like a jackboot. Vigilante climate protesters hold out no prospect of forgiveness for those who emit too much methane after a fine curry.

Squishiness, on the other hand, gives space for us to make lots of wrong choices, lots of verbal slips, lots of frankly entirely wrong and harmful thinking, and yet crash through the woodlands and find the path home relatively unscathed. Oh for a squishy society! Oh for squishiness everywhere, where it is understood, ‘blessed are the merciful, because they will receive mercy.’

My books of the year

Yet again it’s been an utterly absorbing and fascinating year for reading books. So enjoyable to climb into people’s heads and the book – long, processed, considered, skippable, re-readable, sumarizable and quotable – is still the best format I know for deep and prolonged happiness. So here’s a few of the most enjoyable.

BTW – I never read books because they are ‘important’ or ‘significant’ but only because they give joy. Most of them were found by wandering randomly in our branch of Waterstones, still the best way to find a book that no algorithm would send you. I read plenty of other books too, but these stick out.

They aren’t in any order.

Powers and thrones – a new history of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones, rollicking, thousand-year European centred history.

Just my type, a book about fonts by Simon Garfield. Geekish, obsessive and very enjoyable book about fonts and font choices. A book I’ve wanted to give to the literary obsessives in my life, and a book that makes you look at every street sign, shopfront, advert, book and newspaper differently. Now I know, for example, why hospital corridors are such unsettling places: they are font chaos.

When the dust settles: stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster, by Lucy Easthope. The story of people who prepare for, and mop up after, disasters. A very moving account of how people do, don’t, can, and can’t help when catastrophe strikes, and how much better things would be if we prepared for them (as we could’ve) rather than paring away the budgets of the planners. An unusual paeon to local councils who often have to clear up the messes. A really fine read that tugs suprisingly hard at the heart.

Are we having fun yet by Lucy Mangan, a book about family life, her husband, child-rearing, friendship, haircuts, pink-on-pink warfare and playdate power struggles by a person who is these days the most consistently, riotously funny and joyful columnist on the Guardian newspaper. Also the second book by someone called ‘Lucy’ that I have read this year. Perhaps I should devote a whole year to reading books written by people called Lucy; the two I landed on this year were in different ways, objects of wonder.

If these stones could talk: the history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through twenty buildings by Peter Stanford. Does what it says on the tin, but is beautifully but unobtrusively researched and written. Lovely, gorgeous, thoughtful book.

I’ve also, courtesy of my subscription to Audible, been listening to lecture courses from the Great Courses series which those all-engulfing types at Amazon have brought into the Audible list. Here are three that had me gripped while I did my cardio physio.

Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. A mind-expanding summary of the long history of great books and poems written by British authors, starting way back with Beowolf and ending in the 21st century, and nicely meshed with summaries of the cultural history that surrounded them and gave them birth. Failed to mention Anthony Trollope except perhaps in passing, but nobody’s perfect.

Augustine: Philosopher and saint by Philip Cary, an introduction to the thought of St Augustine, who is this great unavoidable massif in the Western theological tradition, standing, alone, between us and the apostles and prophets. Sufficiently simple for me to understand and enjoy.

London: A short history of the greatest city in the Western World by Robert Buchloz. 24 or so lectures from someone based, I think, at Loyola university in Chicago, but which in my listening did not skip a beat in its accuracy, presentation or overall fascination.

That surprising Mr Warnock

Just read a fascinating article about Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s freshly elected Democratic Senator.1

Mr Warnock is still a pastor, of Martin Luther King’s old church in Atlanta. He has, it seems, a fresh take on the tired left/right, liberal/conservative tropes that like leaden wordclouds, rain down on our politics both in the UK and the US. There’s just a sniff of Advent hope about him. Here are a few quotes:

‘Democracy is the political enactment ofa spiritual idea, the sacred worth of all human beings.’

‘A vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire.’

Martin Luther King, he says, ‘Used his faith not as a weapon to crush other people, but as a bridge to bring us together.’ Now there’s an idea.

He is a kinder sort than is typical among democrats, seeing the Jan 6th sackers of the Capitol as people who had suffered the ‘violence’ of poverty, ‘a kind of violence that crushes all the humanity of poor people,’ but who retaliated badly and mistakenly. I’m not myself a massive fan of stretching the word ‘violence’ to mean ‘any bad stuff that happens to people’, but still, this reaching out in sympathy to the illiberal is notable if only because it doesn’t represent a default setting for Democrats in my observation. It’s something a little new, loving his enemies. He reiterates:

‘There’s a kind of violence of poverty, a failure to recognise that there is enough in God’s world for all God’s children. There’s no poverty of possibility. There is a poverty of moral imagination.’

Interesting.

The end of the Jubilee centre

As a Cambridge icon closes, Nick Spencer of the ever-interesting Theos think-tank, muses on what it gave us – the idea that good relationships are what mark a good society. I enjoyed this article and thought you might too.

https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2022/09/22/conservative-radical-christian-political