Thoughts on Evil: Part 1, “Demonic Powers & Pop-Evil”

Last year, I read Walter Wink’s classic “Powers Trilogy” that has become a staple in Seminaries and Divinity programs. For me, Wink is the only scholar who can make sense of the biblical language of “principalities and powers” and the demonic. Christians have for so long now, either avoided the language of power and the demonic for fear of the unknown, or because we have moved into the age of enlightenment where we know such things are merely folklore, or we have dismissed the language to the realm of the “unseen” stripping the biblical usage of such language of its capacity to effect us in the “real world.” However, for Wink, the language of power is bound up with everything (indeed “all things”). Consider this Pauline passage:

“Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:7-10; NRSV)

Wink points out in the introduction to his book “Naming the Powers” that the language of power is not exclusively “other-worldly” as we might have assumed. Rather, “Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form – be it a church, a nation, or an economy – and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together.” (pg. 5)

This view affirms the assumption of Paul in the above text to the Ephesians. It is possible for the physical manifestation of the church to bear witness to the “invisible pole” of the “principalities and powers” or “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” as an act of mission.

Wink’s “thesis” is this: “When a particular Power becomes idolatrous, placing itself above God’s purposes for the good of the whole, then that Power becomes demonic. The church’s task is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purposes in the world – ‘so that the Sovereignties and Powers should learn only now, through the church, how comprehensive God’s wisdom really is.’ (Eph. 3;10; JB)”

I find all of this incredibly compelling. If Wink is right, and I think he is, then the “invisible powers of evil” are not ugly creatures waiting to possess some helpless mortal, as Dante would have us believe. Rather, they are the invisible forces that “animate, legitimate and regulate” their physical counter-part. But this is not the popular view that most American Christians have adopted as the face of the “power of evil” and the “demonic.” Rather than to seek a biblical rendering of the meaning of evil and demonic, we accept a kind of pop-culture rendering of evil and demonic that we adopt through film, art and literature. “Thank you Dante, for telling us what evil and demonic are. Now we don’t have to read the bible…”, quipped a friend of mine recently. We can call this popular and assumed rendering of evil and demonic “pop-evil.”

Three years ago, we saw the re-birth of the demon-possession movie in the Paranormal Activity franchise. This month marks the release of a potentially horrifying movie “The Devil Inside.” All of these, of course, riding on the coat-tails of the original demon movie “The Exorcist.” This has become the face of evil. This is what it means to “have a demon.”

But I have a scarier thought. What if evil and the demonic were much more subtle and more difficult to notice than the extreme renderings of pop-evil? The wonderfully insightful social/experimental pyschologist and theologian Richard Beck gives insight to this in his blog post from May 2010 “Politics as Demon Possession”, where he wondered if the idolatrous and hateful nature of political discourse among Christians could be considered “demonic” or “evil.” He says:

Politics is demonic because it is the belief that we can save ourselves, that its up to us to get it right and, if we don’t, the Apocalypse is upon us. This, as best I can tell, is the only reason that can explain why politics is so hot, hateful, unthinking, and fractious. There is a demon/idol/false Messiah turning us against each other, driving the deepest wedge I know of between the People of God.

If Wink is to be believed, it is the task of the church to confront both the “invisible pole” and the “physical pole” of evil and demonic power. We do this, according to Paul in Eph. 3:7-10, by simply being the church. The “invisible pole” of the church is the Holy Spirit, which works in and through us to bear the “physical and outward poles” of fruit in the world: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The church is a living counter to evil in both its invisible and visible manifestations by simply “being the church.”

It is convenient for us to make the demonic and evil congruent with the pop-culture renderings of it. There it is. We can see it. It is ugly. It is grotesque. It is obvious. We don’t necessarily want to be troubled with the difficult task of discerning where the forces of evil and the demonic have crept into our own lives through the variety of avenues it might access our souls. Politics is simply one example among many.

But if I may, I might offer a word of encouragement. There is a simple measuring stick for discerning such things. While we may not possess the spiritual insight to see the “invisible forces” of evil and the demonic at work among us, we can always keep a keen eye toward the fruit.

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these… but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:19-23; NRSV)

Evil and the demonic rarely take the forms rendered to us in pop-evil. A much more frightening concept, perhaps we abide with evil and the demonic a bit more intimately than we wish. Perhaps we should pray for discernment and humility as we strive toward the kingdom of God in all its fullness.

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