I am incredibly excited that Alan Jacobs is now taking on the project of marrying Walter Wink’s examination of “The Powers” with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods:

Wink demonstrates, compellingly I think, that the Powers were made by God and granted stewardly authority by him and are therefore, like the rest of Creation, in need of redemption. In Colossians 1:16 we are told that in the Son “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him”; and in Ephesians 3 that Paul’s appointed task is “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 [again, the archai kai exousiai] in the heavenly places.”

So the “powers and principalities” of Scripture represent, in many ways, the spiritual power behind human realities. For example, the “throne” of Caesar is just as much a symbol for the political power that Caesar wields as it is for the spiritual power his decisions have to harm (or help) the souls and lives of the people under his dominion. In contemporary terms, we might refer to “the Oval Office” in the same way that the Bible might have referred to a “throne” — and Wink’s point is not only that God created these Powers and granted them authority, but also that they always have spiritual and physical manifestations (see below).

Jacobs goes on to describe several scenes from American Gods, a story in which the protagonist encounters many “Old Gods” like Odin and Anansi whose powers are waning as fewer and fewer people worship them. These Old Gods are now in conflict with “New Gods” (such as the Technical Kid and Media):

These New Gods are the archai kai exousiai, the rulers of this world and this age.  […] The Powers have shifted their ground, and we can’t understand that unless and until we follow Walter Rathenau’s advice and “look into the technology of these matters.” If we follow Wink’s intuition that such “Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural,” we will understand precisely why Pynchon’s Rathenau can commend technological inquiry and simultaneously declare that “secular history is a diversionary tactic.”

I read both Naming the Powers and American Gods in the past year, so I have been very curious about how these perspectives might fit together. American Gods is obviously fictional, but I’m fascinated by the idea that the gods of any age have power in proportion to the degree that people worship them and that said power spiritually influences the worshiper (and non-worshipers living in the same sphere!)

This raises two interesting questions, because many “powers” in the Bible that act in our world seem to have personalities and for the most part tend to be either “good” angels or “bad demons”. (There do seem to be some ambiguous cases, like the lying spirit). The “powers” that Wink describes — at least those like Media or Technology — don’t seem to be personal and work just as effectively for good as for evil. Yet there is also the example of the Prince of Persia who seems to a very personal manifestation of a region’s spiritual darkness. So:

  1. Are there different classes of powers (at the very least, personal and non-personal as well as good/bad/ambivalent), or do all of the powers exist in on a spectrum of personality and moral ambivalence?
  2. In what ways are the powers redeemed? Furthermore, if there are personal powers who are morally ambivalent, how are they redeemed? That is, will the Prince of Persia one day kneel before Jesus Christ in gladness when his people repent?

Anyway, I’m looking forward to more of what Alan has to say!

Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

3 Comments

  1. Matthew, I wish I knew the answers to your questions — as of now, I don’t. What I am working on right now is a kind of thought experiment: I want to try not to think of the Powers as personal beings that direct or control systems and structures. I think Wink’s portrayal of them and with Barfield’s warnings about the precipitation of wholes into distinct parts encourage at least the attempt. It may be that the Powers have no existence independent of the structures they shape; at least, I want to see what happens if I try to imagine such phenomena.

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  2. I read Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch, which seems to be the opposite of Alan Jacob’s project. Trying to envision more personality behind the powers for a liberal Protestant Christianity that has removed the personality from Satan as a concept and left it only with abstract sin.

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  3. […] grown more powerful and then in turn used that power to seduce more people into their death cult. We don’t know if the powers and principalities are ever personal in the way that demons are described in the […]

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