What Am I Reading? Wink's Naming the Powers

I've recently reread the provocative and fascinating opening volume of the the "Powers" trilogy by the late Walter Wink. The brevity of this book belies its erudition, its subtlety and its singular contribution -- to my mind, still not fully tapped -- toward a potential retrieval of the phenomenology of power pervading the New Testament.

Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Fortress, 1984).

The book has three sections. The first part casts a wide net, surveying the major terms and concepts of the principalities and powers found throughout the Gospels and Epistles. Part two offers a close exegesis of the most "disputed" passages relating to the powers, almost all of which are found in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline corpus. The final section, which could well stand on its own, outlines a bold, speculative and constructive framework for demythologizing the biblical powers language and reinterpreting it in light of the socio-political, psychological and even physical forces that shape, direct and tragically oppress human beings and the natural world today.

This work as a whole -- a tour de force -- is a compelling apologia for reading the biblical texts wholistically and realistically; Wink eschews what he considers to the be reductionism of many modern interpreters, who, in his view, explain away the core spirituality of the New Testament, paring it down to the stifling categories of modernist materialism -- a rationalist worldview that is no more self evidently true than the credulous supernaturalism it ostensibly surpasses. He convincingly interprets the principalities and powers, thrones and dominions, angels and demons as simultaneously, even interchangeably spiritual, transcendent and cosmic, on the one hand, and socio-political, psychological and terrestrial, on the other hand. The constructive piece, which draws upon process theology and depth psychology, is the section that elicits some of my own reservations about the project. As a thought experiment in integrating the inner and outer dimensions of experience holistically, however, it is fascinating, if not (to me) completely convincing at the end of the day.

Wink -- an ordained United Methodist minister, who taught biblical interpretation for four decades at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City -- was also a seminal political theologian, environmental activist and inveterate champion for nonviolent resistance. In the preface to Naming the Powers, he recounts the personal crisis from which this book emerged. While finishing a related volume on the powers in the early 1980s, Wink took a sabbatical with his wife, June, in several benighted Latin American countries (including such hot spots as Argentina, Peru and Nicaragua), where he experienced first-hand the ravages of U.S.-backed military dictatorships. He writes:

We stayed in barrios and favelas, talking with priests and nuns struggling with the everyday crush of oppression. We interviewed a lawyer who represented the families of people who had "disappeared." We spent an excruciating evening in dialogue with a woman who had been tortured (p. ix)

Wink grew increasingly angry and despondent, succumbing to physically illness. He despaired that his book could make any dent on the blight of such profound systemic injustice and suffering.

The evils we encountered were so monolithic, so massively supported by our own government, in some cases so anchored in a long history of tyranny, that it scarcely seemed that anything could make a difference (ibid.)

Amid this distress, while working through a review of a NT colleague's book on the powers, Wink reached a breakthrough that forced him to re-frame the New Testament material from top to bottom. He groped his way toward answering the question that also motivates my own reading of his work, still as relevant and probative today as was three decades ago:

How could the writers of the New Testament insist that Christ is somehow, even in the midst of evil, sovereign over the Powers? I wrestled with this assertion with all my might. Gradually an answer began to shape itself. What I found may not strike anyone else as amounting to much, but for me it was the thin margin of hope, and I clung to it desperately.

And somewhere in the midst of the writing and the wrestling, I was given the gift of my tears (x).
The Deserter (1916), by Boardman Robinson
(wikimedia commons)

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