Walter Wink: One of a Kind

Walter Wink: One of a Kind February 3, 2014

One of the New Testament scholars who has captured both an academic reputation and a spirituality/church reputation is Walter Wink. A new autobiography is fresh off the press and it is the focus of this post, called Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, but first I have grabbed a bit from an older post about Wink to set the context for his own story.

Wink’s focus was on the powers, that is, on the principalities and powers, which he calls the “Domination System.” (So his theory of spiritual warfare, the first discussed in Beilby and Eddy’s Understanding Spiritual Warfare, is all about the powers — it is a “world systems model.”) Satan, Wink contends, has nothing to commend himself to the modern world; he is evil; our culture thinks in terms of systemic problems; Satan, for Wink, is the way of speak of an experience of the system of the Powers that Be. Thus, “Satan is the real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good” (57). The “archetypal image of the universal human experience of evil and is capable of an infinite variety of representations” (58). Without the experience of accusation Satan is nothing. He sees Satan as real today — in the erosion of traditional religions, in treating humans as robots, a world that denies the inner world, in seeing money as the ultimate, and in exploitative economic systems. History, Wink argues, belongs to the intercessors. Prayer is battling and haggling with God; it is genuinely a protest. Prayer is believing the future world of the kingdom into the present. This is the politics of hope.

Oddly enough, Just Jesus assumes his work on the Powers but discusses it very little and I admit that I wish we were given a full sketch of how he came to the various views in this major contribution of Wink. Instead of that, though, we are disarmed with a vulnerable man telling the story of his life that led in the end to his dementia, which is where he begins. His wife, June, opens the book up with a sad but Wink-ish story. In his last month, when he could no longer talk June asked him if he would move his long lanky legs as they lay in bed together, but he could not. She soon got out of bed to tuck him in and give him a hug and kiss, and he suddenly said “Open up your heart and let God’s love come in.” You may not like Wink’s politics or his theology, which was eclectically pluralistic, but this book will make you love the man.

Just Jesus is a collection of very short anecdotes and stories from Wink’s life that shaped his mind and vocation, including a painful opening story of how his father, a demanding Texan, Methodist perfectionist, made him stay all night in a dark room because Walter had lied, and how that kind of father had shaped his understanding of God as father and how he had to learn about God’s love and grace and unconditional covenant commitment to us … and how he had a powerful charismatic experience in the PacNW with some Pentecostals, an event both shaped him but also embarrassed him (after all, he had experienced plenty of bias against Pentecostalism). He was also shaped by a few experiences of racist ideologies that formed in him a stiff backbone to resist racism and injustices — and then his participation in the famous march in Selma.

He went to Southern Methodist University, then off to Union Theological Seminary, then a pastor in Texas for a few years, which included development of a healing service, and then he went back to Union for a PhD (on John the Baptist) and was offered a job teaching. But because he wrote a book in 1973 on hermeneutics, in which the opening line was that the historical critical method was bankrupt and that the academy and church were on different pages, he was not given tenure, he got more involved in justice politics, then was offered a new career at the continuing education center, Auburn Theological Seminary (in the buildings of Union), where he spent most of his life teaching. Alongside his wife, June, often enough working together in local church gatherings. (His son, Chris, was a founder of Blue Man Group.) He was involved in Chile, Brazil, South Africa — some good stories there — and of course throughout the USA. All the while thumping his message about the Power and the calling to name them and engage them.

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