Forget everything I’ve said about the powers lately, because Kevin says it better. This is a sermon that lasts about 50 minutes, and it’s well worth your time.
There are several points in this sermon that are worth expanding on, but I’d like to focus on the connection between idolatry and the powers, and specifically about how the powers actually come to be.
In my last post I talked about how we do not actually create the powers, because they are created or ordained by God. This is not completely true, and I repent of this misinformation! There is a very strong sense in which we are co-creators with God at work here. We are co-creators with God, and we can see this in several ways: in the way that we continue to care for creation; in the way that we create art, culture, and even science and technology; and in the way that we create more and more human beings! These are all important ways in which we create things, participating with God in his continual work of creation in both physical and spiritual senses. And that’s the kicker: we can create things in a spiritual sense.
Think about intellectual property: we take great care to make sure that people get proper credit and payment when they create a poem, a song, an invention, or even simply an idea. What have we actually created? We call it intellectual property because it’s just ideas – there’s no physical thing attached to it. But when we create a culture – and we all play a role in creating culture, and increasingly so in the digital age – have we created “intellectual property”? Is it just ideas? No, it is much more – a culture is a spiritual thing, a power, either an angel or a demon at any given point. So let’s get that straight first: we do create things, even spiritual things. This is a part of being made in God’s image, a part of our privileged place in God’s creation.
In his sermon Kevin quotes Walter Wink, who points to the angel of the church in Revelation, saying that this angel is a representative of the church, that it actually cannot exist without the people it represents. So when a church is created, so too is an angel, the spiritual force of that new institution.
Wait – we create angels?!
Kevin points out that we give power to things all the time, using the example of idols. Actually, he uses the example of his teddy bear (Kev, you need to let it go!): this little bundle of material and stuffing has incredible power over Kevin, drawing a very visceral response from him if any harm would come to it. He’s spent most of his life investing that little bear with meaning and value, and so (at least to him) it is now much, much more than material and stuffing – but not in a physical sense. The OT prophets chided people for worshipping idols that they made with their own hands, out of wood or metal or clay, but these people were only doing what we do today with our favourite shoes, or television shows. Star Trek is not just a television show, it is a spiritual force that holds power over millions, but only because those people have invested it with so much meaning and value and authority that it actually governs them to some extent.
This investing of significance, value, and authority is what Madeleine L’Engle calls “Naming,” and it plays a central role in the second book of her Time quintet The Wind in the Door. Walter Wink calls L’Engle’s children’s novels one of the best introductions to the concepts of the powers, and for good reason. The following is an excerpt from The Wind in the Door, in which Meg talks with the cherubim Proginoskes about Naming her principal, Mr. Jenkins:
“Progo! You said we were Namers. I still don’t know: What is a Namer?”
“I’ve told you, a Namer has to know who peopleare, and who they are meant to be. I don’t know why I should have been shocked at finding Echthroi on your planet.”
“Why are they here?”
“Echthroi are always about when there’s war. They start all war.”
“Progo, I saw all that awfulness you took me to see, that tearing of the sky, and all, but you still haven’t told me exactly what Echthroi are.”
Proginoskes probed into her mind, searching for words she could understand. “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he really is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”
Meg said, unhappily, “If I hate Mr. Jenkins whenever I think of him, am I Naming him?”
Proginoskes shifted his wings. “You’re Xing him, just like the Echthroi.”
“Meg, when people don’t know who they are, they are open either to being Xed, or Named.”
“And you think I’m supposed to Name Mr. Jenkins?” It was a ridiculous idea; no matter how many Mr. Jenkins’ there were, he was Mr. Jenkins. That’s all.
But Proginoskes was most definite. “Yes.”
“But how do I do it? How do I Name Mr. Jenkins when all I think of when I see him is how awful he is?”
Proginoskes sighed and flung several wings heavenwards so violently that he lifted several feet, materialized, and came down with a thud. “There’s a word – but if I say it you’ll just misunderstand.”
“You have to say it.”
“It’s a four-letter word. Aren’t four-letter words considered the bad ones on your planet?”
“Come on, I’ve seen all of the four-letter words on the walls of the washroom at school.”
Proginoskes let out a small puff. “Luff.”
“Love. That’s what makes persons know who they are.”
-Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door, 111-114.
Naming, as it is called here, is one of the ways in which we can invest significance and value into something or someone. We have a long history of Naming, ever since God paraded all of the animals before Adam to be Named in turn; Adam’s Naming of the animals wasn’t an arbitrary choice of sounds by which to call them, it was a deeply spiritual bestowing of value on the things that God had created. If we call it simply “Love”, as Progo pointed out, we’ll only misunderstand – it’s not the same as the way that we love our families, or our mate, or our favourite shoes, which is precisely why Madeleine L’Engle had to use Mr. Jenkins as an example, because Mr. Jenkins isn’t “lovable” in any notable way. Naming involves seeing who someone really is, seeing their true value, and then declaring to the cosmos that this true value and identity is synonymous with this person. It’s actually very simple, really: we Name someone when we see them and love them the way that Jesus does.
As I’ve said, Naming someone or something is not the same as loving your favourite shoes, though they are both a form of investing value and significance into something. The difference is that when we Name something, we’re proclaiming its true significance; when we invest significance into something that it does not actually deserve, if we value it more than it is worth, then it becomes idolatry. Kevin loves his teddy bear, but it’s not actually his bear that he loves: he’s transferred all of his nostalgia for his childhood, all of the feelings of happiness and comfort he had when he was a kid, into this bear, and it has come to represent all of that to him. In that sense, this bear has become an idol (though a harmless one). Not all of our idols are as harmless as our teddy bears and security blankets.
Work is an idol. Sports is an idol. Fantasy novels are idols. Not to everyone, and not all the time, but these Powers will always hold as much power over us as we invest in them. Some people Name the lottery as their only hope, and though it is an empty hope, to them it truly does seem to be all the hope they have left. This is a Power that controls them, but they have willingly given that authority to it, turning a game into a demon. In this sense, we are not only under the control and tyranny of the powers, but we are complicit in their crimes, paying a regular tax of significance and value that we continue to give them which only makes them stronger.
We are the authors of our own misery, and we are responsible for the misery of others, all because we can no longer see the world the way that God does, so we give our spiritual power to things that do not respect or deserve it. We need perspective – the kind that only Jesus can bring. We need the Holy Spirit to be the authoritative spirit in our lives, in our churches, in our towns and cities, nations, corporations, not through some sort of Christianizing but through correctly Naming each other and only ascribing value and significance where it is warranted – that is, where God has ascribed it.
When Paul says that we do not fight against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities and rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, he’s not just pointing out that we can’t win spiritual battles with physical weapons. Human beings, though we are responsible for the powers, are also improperly Named. God has Named us, ascribed great authority and value to us: He names us his Children, his Stewards, his Friends, because he knows who we really are. When Paul says we’re not fighting against flesh and blood, he’s pointing out that even though it seems like other human beings are our enemies, we are actually all on the same team, part of the same family, victims of the same plague, and yet we can’t see that because we haven’t been properly Naming each other (or ourselves). Corporations Name us Consumers, and so we are; Governments Name us Taxpayers, and so we are; God names us Child, Heir, Friend, Beloved, Blessed, Precious, but we’re not listening. Whether it’s Mr. Jenkins or Joseph Kony, I need to Name my enemies properly, because where I see a jerk or a monster, God sees Precious, Beloved, and Jesus sees Brother.
If you get a chance, listen to Kevin’s sermon and read A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly-Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle.