The powers that be (2)

More about the teaching of Walter Wink, as mentioned last week, in his book The powers that be, which was a later summary of earlier work.

Wink teaches that every institution possesses an ‘outer, physical manifestation’ and ‘an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality’ (p24) and combined they correspond to what the New Testament called ‘powers’, which were a tangible part of life back in New Testament times. Materialism has slanted our impression of them, but perhaps they have not gone away.

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 6:12).

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:12).

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

Are these ‘powers’ good or bad? It is customary in my part of the church to think of them (or at least the spiritual components) as ‘bad’, spiritual remnants perhaps of an original fall that led to the fall of some spirits into evil; the same worldview as can be found in the Bible and which John Milton used in Paradise Lost. And it is true that Jesus is never recorded as coming across an evil being that he wished to redeem. He apparently wished to expel all of them from his good creation.

In Wink’s view, however, the powers are:

  • Good
  • Fallen
  • Needing redemption.

He argues that:

These three statements must be held together, for each by itself is not only untrue but downright mischievous. We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses as good unless we recognize at the same time that they are fallen. We cannot face their oppressiveness unless we remember that they are also a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will seem to legitimate these Powers and blast any hope for change unless we assert, at the same time, that these Powers can and must be redeemed. But focus on their redemption will lead to utopian disillusionment unless we recognize that their transformation takes place within the limits of the fall.

Wink, op. cit., p 32

Whether or not the Powers can be redeemed (or merely expelled), the material, earthly institutions certainly are created, fallen, and can be redeemed. At the moment this is within the limits prescribed by our current fallen world; in the future it will be fully so, as part of New Creation.

This is eye-opening stuff:

  1. Institutions have a spiritual character as well as a material form.
  2. Institutions are good, fallen, and capable of a degree of redemption.
  3. They will be fully redeemed at the so-called eschaton, the full arrival of the New Creation.

How can the Powers be opposed? How can institutions be redeemed, or at least cleaned up a bit, capturing more of their divine vocation?

I have to skip over a large and brilliant part of his analysis here but the central understanding is that violent overthrow won’t do it. All violent overthrow does is replace one system of spirit-fueled domination with another. A revolution is rightly named: it’s just the turning of the same wheel. What do ‘work’ (and again I am oversimplifying) are the things Jesus taught so directly. Turn the other cheek. Hand over all your clothes if someone takes your cloak. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Feed and water your enemies. You want to lead? Be a servant. You want to line up with God’s rule? Be a child. Jesus himself entered Jerusalem on a donkey, not a charger. He won the day by going to his death like a lamb to the slaughter.

The aim is not conquest, but relationship: humanizing the oppressor, so that oppressors are themselves liberated from being oppressed by their own oppressive behaviour: ‘today, salvation has come to this house.’ These same acts also restore dignity and agency to the victim.

That’s how we ‘win’. And the winning may not be seen in this life, or certainly only partly seen, but it is putting a foothold in eternity, it is filling up our storerooms in heaven, it is investing in the future.

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.

Convalescence, the lost-ish art

Photo by Isaac Quick on Unsplash

Just finished an illuminating book called ‘Recovery’ by practicising GP Dr Gavin Francis. I am drawn back again to the idea of healing (I was in hospital when I wrote this) and really enjoyed how this book taught me things I’d previously groped towards. Some snippets:


We fall ill in ways that our profoundly influenced by our past experiences and expectations, and the same can be said of our paths to recovery. (p8)

Green and growing

He talks of the difference Florence Nightingale made in the Crimea, how hospitals should have ‘the proper use of fresh air, light, warmth, cleanliness, quiet, and the proper selection and administration of diet’. (p 13, quoting Nightingale’s own 1859 Notes on Nursing). Windows should look out something green and growing. After her arrival in 1854, the rate of soldiers dying from their wounds fell from 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, to 1 in 50


But in changing times and with new drugs something has been lost:

It’s not possible for me now, as a GP, to admit a frail, elderly patient somewhere for nursing care and convalescence alone – the hospital gates don’t open unless there’s a medical diagnosis, and a plan in place that prioritises getting the patient out again as soon as possible (p15).

You might not find ‘convalescence’ or ‘recovery’ as a heading in the medical textbooks but you will find ‘post-viral fatigue’… Long-term symptoms from viral infections will be different for everyone, but can include varying amounts of breathlessness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, mood changes, insomnia, weight-loss, exhaustion, muscle weakness, joint stiffness and flashbacks.

All these are to be considered normal – not evidence that recovery has stalled or is going (p20) into reverse.


He suggests ‘pacing’ as the route forward – not the boom and bust cycle of activity and exhaustion, but steady efforts, frequent rests, small meals, not doing much for an hour after a meal, getting fresh air, sitting down a lot, avoiding exerting. With boom and bust, your world narrows; with careful pacing, it slowly widens.

Work aids recovery

He talks about the world of sick-notes, and that doctors are better coaches than judges. ‘Many of the patients I sign off from the obligation to find a job could undoubtedly work in some capacity, at something, if support were available to help them do it… Work aids recovery in all sorts of ways… If I could sign my patients up to a supportive back-to-work scheme, rather than simply signing them off sick, I would‘ (p27)

A misfortune whose cost should be shared

He notes Aneurin Bevin’s championing of the idea that illness is ‘neither an indulgence for which people have to pay nor an offence for which they should be penalised but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community’ (p 29. Bevan was borrowing his ideas from T H Marshall, a sociologist.)

In praise of great courses

What listening to good lectures is really like. Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

This is an unashamed plug for Audible. After a long time protesting that the only way to get audio books at a good price was to join Amazon’s equivalent of a book-of-the-month club, we finally capitulated few years ago and signed up.

One book a month is more than I would like to buy. There are still such things as libraries that give you books for free. But to sweeten the deal Audible also offers free books that are additional to your subscription, and I think these disappear from your personal library if you ever stop paying your £7.99.

Somewhere along the line, Audible appear to have bought a whole catalogue of courses that used to be marketed separately as ‘The Great Courses’ ; and they added some of these to their free offerings. They are lecture sets, from able and obsessive communicators, and like most lectures I’ve ever been to, I enjoy the feeling of dining at a rich person’s table, even if I don’t belong there, and soon forget most of what 1I took in.

They are so good. I tend to listen to them while I work through a keep-fit programme, which, as anyone who does this kind of thing will testify, is among the most boring activities on earth. Unfortunately it’s also a kind of investment in health that you get compelled to make.

So, the Great Courses, to distract from the zombifying act of personal training. Like I said, they are so good. Here’s what I’ve listened to so far:

London: A short history of the greatest city in Western World by Robert Bulchoz. Wonderful story from a lecturer (I think) at Loyola University in Chicago, who in my listening never put a foot wrong in his knowledge of the city, told me huge amounts I didn’t know, and gave me the little warm glow that happens when someone from the outside praises a thing you love from the inside.

Classics of British Literature by John Sutherland. Another survey of the UK by an American lecturer (if I remember right), starting with Beowulf and ending in somewhere in the 21st century. He has evidently read everything and slotted it into its historic context. Absolutely wonderful. Wish I could remember 90% and forget 10% of this rather than the other way around. His only fault was not talking much about Anthony Trollope.

The world of Biblical Israel by Cynthia R Chapman. So nice to hear Biblical studies from a Biblical scholar who isn’t aggressively trying to undo and unpick the Bible, or indeed aggressively defending it, but rather treating it as a thing that is there and explaining it with respect.

Understanding Complexity by Scott E Page. This was somewhat nearer the maths and physics that I failed to understand as an undergraduate. An introduction to the theory of complex systems, with entertaining divertissimos (if that’s the plural of divertissimo) into how complexity theory should be applied to the life we find all around us. Complexity is why economic predictions are always wrong and why (I think) a drug that did me a lot of good when I took it for a season nearly killed me when I went onto a second course. Drugs and human interactions are not simple, they are complex. Doing the same thing a second time can have the reverse effect to what it did the first time. I wish every politician and civil servant who tries to manage a complex entity like the UK, and every physician who tries to solve human body problems would listen to this.

Augustine: Philosopher and Saint by Philip Carey and Books that Matter: The City of God by Charles Mathewes. Two majestic introductions to the life and thinking of the North African saint and ‘Doctor of the Church’. I’m still working through the lectures on Augustine’s great work ‘The City of God.’ I’m used to physics and so I’m aware how Copernicus changed the whole way we think about the solar system, how Newton did the same for physics, and Einstein did it again for cosmology, and the founders of quantum mechanics did for quantum theory. I didn’t realize that Augustine had done much the same for Western theology and perhaps even historiography. This is well beyond me. But even the bits I do understand are revolutionary.

I believe no-one should ever listen to a lecture or read a book because it’s ‘important’. You should only ever tackle anything if it’s fun, a rollercoaster. These were.

  1. ↩︎

Tom Holland on Marx

I may have mentioned how much I enjoyed Tom Holland’s book Dominion, which explains the Western mindset as something that emerged, like lentils, made edible after a good soaking – in this case a soaking in two milliennia of Christian thought. Here’s his take on Karl Marx.

[Marx claimed] All his evaluations, all his predictions, derived from observable laws, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Here was a slogan with the clarity of a scientific formula.

Except, of course, that was no such thing. Its line of descent was evident to anyone familiar with the Acts of the Apostles. ‘Selling their possessions and goods , they gave to everyone as he had need.’ Repeatedly, throughout Christian history, the communism practised by the earliest Church had served radicals as their inspiration … [ p441]Marx’s interpretion of the world appeared fuelled by certainties that had no obvious source is his model of economics. They rose instead from profounder depths. Again and again, the magma flow of his indignation would force itself through the crust of his scientific-sounding prose. For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil … The very words used by Marx to construct his model of class struggle – ‘exploitation’, ‘enslavement’,’avarice’ – owed less to the chill formulations of economists than to something far older: the claims to divine inspiration of the biblical prophets. If, as he insisted, he offered his followers a liberation from Christianity, then it was one that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it. (pp440-441)

The pre-soaked Western mind

See the world differently

I’ve just finished a remarkable book. I know I spend a lot of time (and have lots of my adventures) within the pages of a good book, but this one was special, making me see the world a different way.

The argument of Tom Holland’s bestseller Dominion is that the Western mind has been so deeply tinted by the Christian faith that we can’t wash it off, and everything we touch carries the stain. Some examples:

  • Atheism is a child of Christendom. The battle against superstition, against gods being everywhere, and gods for everything, goes back to the book of Genesis, was refuelled by the book of Isaiah, was clear in Paul, and emerged again in the Reformation, with the frightening statue-smashing of the reformers. (I visit my nearby Ely Cathedral and still am shocked by the damage, and this rowdy lot are evidently my spiritual ancestors.) What was the French Revolution? Christian-inspired iconoclasm clad in the garments of rationalism. It’s not that ‘pure reason’ had existed forever, bubbling under the surface somewhere, waiting to be let out. What did for the idols, what did for superstition was Christianity, and the revolutionaries just grabbed its clothes.
  • Humanism is a child of Christendom. As Tom Holland points out, ‘The wellspring of humanist values lay not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history’ (p522). And in this case, the history of Christendom. The World Humanist Congress (an almost entirely Western affair) affirming in 2002, ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual’ is itself a statement of pure dogma, proven neither by science nor reason, but grounded in a Christian perspective on the world. The peoples of antiquity didn’t believe it. The idea that the weak are just as valuable as the strong is a Christian idea and ideal.
  • The American Constitution, for those who are interested, is a child of Christendom. Listen to this fun quote: ‘That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths … The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic – no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think – was the book of Genesis’ and ‘The genius of the authors of the United States constitution was to garb in the robes of the Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that as the prime religious inheritance of their fledging nation.’ (p384).

I could go on. In future blogs, I probably will.

Sneaky transcendence

It keeps slipping in

Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

I wrote last week how the great classic science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s was really modernism in the clothes of fiction. (This is a discovery for me. Sorry if it was obvious to you.) It argued, throw enough Reason and Technology at the world, and its problems will be solved. In a way it was a continuation of the 19th century idea of ‘Progress’ where with enough steam and civilisation, all the ‘savages’ would be tamed. ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, representing both 1960s SF, and a Victorian mindset: ‘the final frontier.’

I mentioned Arthur C Clarke, science and science fiction writer, my writing hero when I was younger. I have read everything I can find that he wrote, a compliment I’ve paid to no other writer. I studied at the same college as him, and much the same subject. (He did a joint honours in maths and physics at King’s College London, I did physics only, and not so well.) I’ve read about him, his work with the British Interplanetary Society, his meeting at the Eastgate pub in Oxford with Val Kilner, C S Lewis, and J R R Tolkien, his admission of not being exactly ‘gay’ (though he surely was) but ‘merely mildly cheerful’.

He said religion was mumbo jumbo and implied science was the surer answer. (Lewis and Tolkien, both Christians, were technophobes and I’m not sure they possessed a fridge between them. Clarke, at the same time, was calculating orbital mechanics to get his short stories right. So their pub meeting failed, shall we say, to find consensus.)

Clarke’s worlds, set a century or so from the his 1950s present, were places where reason and technology had continued to fuel the upward march of progress. So Clarke was, in worldview, an old-fashioned 19th century liberal, albeit working into the 21st.

Clarke insisted on ‘absolutely no religious rites of any kind’ for his funeral. And yet. The transcendant kept sneaking in to his work. It’s there in Childhood’s End and it’s powerfully present in the Nine Billion Names of God, where a computer successfully prints out all God’s (apparently) nine billion names, thus fulfilling the purpose for which humans were created. Then the programmers, who are on their way home, look up, and in one of the most striking ends to any short story, ever, they see, ‘overhead, without any fuss, the stars were all going out.’

Transcendence. Hard to stamp out.

Crazy evil and crazy good and the limits of science fiction

AI-generated image of Keziah Mordant, anti-heroine of my three novels, who is both crazy evil and crazy good

I have just now realized that the science fiction I loved as a youngster was all modernist propaganda.

Sourced in the 1950s and 1960s, the work of one of my childhood heroes, Arthur C Clarke, and others (including the original Star Trek), described a near-future world where Reason and Technology had solved most of our problems. And they promoted the assumption therefore that the key to the human problem was Education and Science. This is modernist propaganda, and it has happily been blown apart by later writers of SF and fantasy, both comic and serious.

Crazy evil gets in the way. As has been pointed out, a good education and a fine grounding in science can enable, rather than prevent, crazy evil. You need a good education and a fine grounding in science to create gas chambers (for example). And however we try to solve human problems, some human bias against the good and right, a bias we all have, gets us tangled in our shoelaces. Reasoning beings, we aren’t always ruled by reason; and science increases our capacities, rather than our moral sense. Malnutrition declines; obesity becomes a leading cause of death. Childhood illnesses are cured, thanks to medical advances; but one in four late-teen females in the UK report mental health problems. A society awash in reason and technology is a place of ill-health in new ways.

Our happy ending will never arrive by reason and technology alone. There’s too much crazy evil –in us, in society– for that. Yet the desire for a happy ending is so deep in us. Surely it can only be finally attained by crazy good, by grace, by the unearned. ‘I am creating a new heavens and a new earth’ says the book of Isaiah1. ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come 2.’ It has to come from outside ourselves.

This helpful book got me thinking about this stuff (though I found a cheaper version):

And this wonderful book by Mary Doria Russell, about a Jesuit mission to alpha centauri, brilliantly shows as inadequate the modernist worldview in SF. (Russell won the Arthur C Clarke award with it, a tribute to both writers I think.) A pity the author, having written a classic, moved away to other genres.

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.

The heartbeat that changed the universe

So at the same time as Advent has suddenly and unexpectedly arrived, I have been fascinated by two books, The Powers that Be by Walter Wink and How to Stand up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa. The first I found in the Operation World book-lined office; the second as I took my November trip to a physical bookshop to buy a book and thus cash in on my wife’s enlightened Christmas present from last year, a serendiptious book purchase each month, driven not by algorithm but by human browsing.

These books are fascinating because because they confront the problem that affects so many people, from China and India and Hungary and many countries of West Africa and Nicaragua and the Philippines and on and on: the power of autocrats, who control armies, courts, police, laws and even truth itself and try to turn these powers on people they don’t like.

It is much worse than being mugged in the street, I imagine, because it is the government that is doing it to you. If the laws are oppressive, and the police enforce the law, and the courts apply its punishments, who is there left to save you?

And if, as Walter Wink insists, these forces are not merely human and cultural but also in a sense spiritual or backed by spiritual powers, what recourse do you have?

And yet it’s Advent. Here’s the definitive divine response to the autocracies: a single fertilized cell — for a time Mary’s secret, so vulnerable, so small. That was Almighty God’s most considered and long prepared response to all the brutalizing Powers that harrassed and hounded the human species. The fragment of holy grit that smashed the bauble that is the world.

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