Book review - Collected Readings: Walter Wink

Questioning Church
The Bible
Image of a field of wheat
Ed Henry F French

Book review by Peter Fisher

This book contains extracts from Walter Wink’s major works, with an introduction and a very useful summary by the Editor. It is a record of a life and a life’s work.

Walter Wink died in 2012 - an academic whose work grew out of experience. This volume begins with an Autobiographical Essay written by Wink in 1994 – the title is “Write What You See”, and that is what we have in “Collected Readings”. He could have added “and what you experience, what you feel and what you believe”.

In college Wink went through an atheist phase which came to an end with a profound spiritual experience at a Pentecostal church; one result of this was a tension between reason and experience which stayed with him all his life. Wink had come to believe in the reality of God through an experience, but his understanding of this experience changed many times during the course of his life.

In his first book, Wink commenced battle with what he considered to be the false objectivity of much Biblical scholarship: this book, “The Bible in Human Transformation”, begins with the sentence “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.” Wink maintained that subjectivity was always involved; he refers to the Heisenberg principle that the observer is always part of the field being observed, and disturbs that field by the very fact of observation. One reason why he considered it bankrupt was because the methods of historical criticism left no place for the human imagination; humility and imagination are needed for that transformation of individuals and communities envisaged by the evangelists.

Wink became occupied with the Biblical theme of the Principalities and Powers; three major books followed in the eighties – the Powers Trilogy (“Naming the Powers”, “Unmasking the Powers” and “Engaging with the Powers”). In preparation for getting to grips with Powers in the contemporary world, Wink spent some time in Pinochet’s Chile; he was horrified by the brutality of the Regime and disgusted at the way the US Government gave support to Pinochet and other Right-wing dictators in south and central America. (Our Prime Minister at the time also supported Pinochet).

The Apartheid Regime in South Africa declared Wink an illegal visitor after his first spell in that country; he went back a second time undercover and became an advocate of non-violent opposition; Wink was convinced this was Jesus’ way of confronting the Powers that oppress and grind down humanity. The Powers are not only political and military; the term in the New Testament covers all those forces and pressures, mostly unconscious, which prevent us living our authentic selves.

Some thirty years after publishing “The Bible in Human Transformation”, Wink returned to the problems of the Quest for the Historic Jesus. He had come to be convinced that it was impossible to find an objectively true picture of the real Jesus – we all create the Jesus we need. The Church had since the earliest days turned the human Jesus into the heavenly Christ and inexorably slid into an escapist world buttressed by dogma and hooked on authority.

The final section of “Collected Readings” focuses on Wink’s last major book, “The Human Being; Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man”. The Son of Man, or the Human Being, is an intriguing and ambiguous expression which, Wink believed , Jesus used for himself and probably also for his disciples. A part of “The Human Being” focuses on ten individual Son of Man references. The text of Mark 2 vv 23-28, for example, has Jesus and his disciples in a cornfield on the Sabbath; the disciples pluck the ears of grain because they are hungry. Pharisees arrive and complain to Jesus about his disciples defiling the Sabbath. Jesus replies that meeting human need takes precedence over religious rules, and that “the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath”. The clear implication here is that “son of man” includes the disciples.

Wink believes that the biblical notion of the son of man is “an archetypal image” that functions as a “catalytic agent in the service of the Self”; as such, the “Human Being drives one towards an emerging and transformative consciousness of the ‘Human One’, authentic humanity, God within us as God was within Jesus”. “Wisdom’s Child, the son of the man, seeks to incarnate God in the human species. That Human Being lures people to the fuller humanity that is God, the Human One, and is exemplified by the life of Jesus.” (p.285)

Myth, according to Wink, is a story by which we try to make sense of ourselves and the world we live in. For the last 2000 years Christianity has been dominated by the Myth of the Heavenly Christ. Perhaps only now are we beginning to realise how poorly it has served us: The challenge of the person and the teaching of Jesus has too often been sidelined; nature and the material world have been regarded with hostility; it has frequently been appropriated by Domination Systems in the interest of Powers that exploit and suppress large sections of the world’s populations.

The way forward as Wink sees it, is to continue with creating the historical Myth of the Human Jesus. As an archetype we seem to know instinctively (“in our bones”!), that the Human Jesus is our representative and gives hope to Humanity. Wink’s life-work is a tapestry of honest scholarship, experience, imagination, compassion and hope. With his dying we have lost a prophet for our time.


Fortress Press, Minneapolis
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