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Reading Notes 5.2.18 (The Powers That Be/The Traveler, The Tower, & The Worm)

Reading Notes 5.2.18 (The Powers That Be/The Traveler, The Tower, & The Worm)

Resource: The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink
Section covered: The Introduction (Pages 1-11)
Theme(s): Overall Introduction and setup for the book. The institutional nature of power, the limited explanatory power of sociology, the spiritual dimension of organizations/communities, the nature of angels & demons, and the Gospel of Jesus as an alternative to the system of domination.


Wink on the ubiquitous and systemic nature of power:

“All of us deal with the Powers That Be. They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families. But the Powers That Be are more than just the people who run things. They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships. These Powers surround us on every side. They are necessary. They are useful. We could do nothing without them.”

Wink on power as a double-edged sword:

“A contractor pays off a building inspector so he can violate code and put up a shoddy and possibly unsafe structure. A power plant exposes its employees to radioactive poisoning; the employee who attempts to document these safety infractions is forced off the road by another car and dies. All her documents are missing. Welcome to the world of the Powers. But the powers aren’t always that brutal. Some people enjoy their jobs. Some businesses make genuine contributions to society. Some products are life enhancing, even lifesaving. The powers don’t simply do evil. They also do good. Often they do both good and evil at the same time. They form a complex web that we can neither ignore nor escape.”

Wink on finding new meaning in the ancient concept of spiritual causation:

“For over thirty years now I have been tracking these Powers. I was interested in their systemic qualities, to be sure, but it was their invisible dimension that most fascinated me. Religious tradition has often treated the Powers as angelic or demonic beings fluttering about in the sky. Behind the gross literalism of that way of thinking, however, is the clear perception that spiritual forces impinge on and determine our lives. There is more to what goes on in the world than what newspapers or newscasters report. I was prepared to wager that our ancestors were in touch with reality when they spoke about the Powers, and that they might even know something our society had lost, spiritually blinded as it is by a materialism that believes only in what it can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch.

Wink on Angels as Corporate Personalities:

“My first real breakthrough in understanding these invisible powers came when I stumbled over the angels of the churches in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Why, I wondered, are each of the seven letters in chapter two and three addressed, not to the congregation, as in the apostle Paul’s letters, but to the congregation’s angel? The congregation was not addressed directly but through the angel. The angel seemed to be the corporate personality of the church, its ethos or spirit or essence. Looking back over my own experience of churches, I realized that each did indeed have a unique personality. Furthermore, that personality was real. It wasn’t what we call a “personification” like Uncle Sam or the Quaker on the box of oats. But it didn’t seem to be a distinct spiritual entity with an independent existence either. The angel of a church was apparently the spirituality of a particular church. You can sense the “angel” when you worship at a church. But you can also encounter the angel in a church’s committee meetings and eve in its architecture. People self-select into a certain congregation because they feel that its angel is compatible with their values. Hence the spirit of a church can remain fairly constant over decades, even centuries, though all the original members have long since parted.”

Wink on how an angelic or demonic ethos lies within the core of every system or institution:

“…The tenth chapter of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures extended my understanding to encompass the angels of entire nations, who represented their nation in the heavenly “court.” Cities, too, had angels, as did individuals….The powers That Be are not, then, simply people and their institutions, as I had first thought; they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures. If we want to change those systems. we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well. I found the implications of that ancient view staggering. It means that every business, corporation, school, denomination, bureaucracy, sports team–indeed, social reality in all its forms, is a combination of both visible and invisible, outer and inner, physical and spiritual. Right at the heart of the most materialistic institutions in society we find spirit.”

Wink on how a theology of power differs from secular sociology:

“…the spirituality that we encounter in institutions is not always benign. It is just as likely to be pathological. And this is where the biblical understanding of the Powers surpasses in profundity the best of modern sociology. For the angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that an institution is (which sociology is competent to describe); it is also the bearer of that institution’s divine vocation (which sociology is not able to discern). Corporations and governments are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased. They become “demonic.”

Wink on how to defeat institutional demons:

“I had never been able to take demons seriously. The idea that fallen angels possessed people seemed superstitious. But if the demonic is the spirituality produced when the angel of an institution turns its back on its divine vocation, then I could not only believe in the demonic, I could point to its presence in everyday life. And if the demonic arises when an angel deviates from its calling, then social change does not depend on casting out the demon, but recalling its angel to its divine task.”

Wink on violence as the modus operandi of unjust systems:

“Unjust systems perpetuate themselves by means of institutionalized violence.”

Wink on the alternative to institutional violence:

“In a world sinking into ever-deeper injustice and violence, Jesus offers an alternative to the Domination System that just cries out to be tried.”


According to Wink, every organization and institution has an ethos or spirit. This ethos or spirit constitutes the Angelic heart of that environment. When an organization/institution fulfills its spiritual purpose by producing good in society, it has an angelic function. when an organization/institution deviates from this purpose, it has a demonic function. The way to “defeat” demons is not by attacking institutions, but by summoning the fallen angel back to its original and benevolent purpose.

What separates this concept of an angelic/demonic ethos from the already existing concept of company culture? Apart from the addition of a mystical semantic, how does this concept add to our understanding of social and organizational dynamics?

Wink says these angels are not independent personalities nor are they merely the sum total of the individuals who comprise an institution. This initially strikes me as very unclear. Is “Angel” merely a metaphor for how we understand the energy or vibes or culture of an organization? Do these “Angels” depend on rituals or activities of any kind to grow stronger or weaker? When does an institution “get” or “receive” its angel? Does the angel “emerge” or “arrive” after company formation or does it contribute to company formation? Does it come from the leaders? Does it affect office politics and is it affected by office politics?

What does the process of calling a fallen angel to repentance look like?

Is Wink’s view of “angel as institutional ethos” compatible with a literal biblical interpretation of Angels? I’m curious to see how Wink might interpret individual angelic encounters like Gabriel’s visits to Zacharias/Elizabeth or Mary/Joseph or Daniel.

Resource: The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm by Alberto Manguel
Section covered: The Introduction (Pages 1-5)
Theme(s): The role of words throughout history and the metaphors by which we understand readers & reading


Manguel on the narrative disposition of human nature:

“As far as we can tell, we are the only species for whom the world seems to be made of stories. Biologically developed to be conscious of our existence, we treat our perceived identities and the identity of the world around us as if they are required a literate decipherment, as if everything in the universe were represented in a code that we are supposed to learn and understand. Human societies are based on this assumption: that we are, up to a point, capable of understanding the world in which we live.”

Manguel on metaphor as compensation for the impoverishment of ordinary language:

“To understand the world, or to try to understand it, translation of experience into language is not enough. Language barely glances the surface of our experience, and transmits from one person to another, in a supposedly shared conventional code, imperfect and ambiguous notations that rely on the careful intelligence of the one who speaks or writes and on the creative intelligence of the one who listens or reads. To enhance the possibilities of mutual understanding and to create a larger space of meaning, language resorts to metaphors that are, ultimately, a confession of language’s failure to communicate directly. Through metaphors, experiences in one field become illuminated by experiences in another.”

Manguel on the centrality of the “world as book” metaphor:

“Literate societies, societies based on the written word, have developed a central metaphor to name the perceived relationship between human beings and their universe: the world as a book that we are meant to read. The ways in which this reading is conducted are many—through fiction, mathematics, cartography, biology, geology, poetry, theology, and myriad other forms — but their basic assumption is the same: that the universe is a coherent system of signs governed by specific laws, and that those signs have meaning, even if that meaning lies beyond our grasp. And that in order to glimpse that meaning, we try to read the book of the world.”

Manguel on how the “world as book” metaphor sets the stage for the three dominant metaphors of reading (traveler, tower, and worm) elaborated upon in the book:

“Out of a basic identifying metaphor society develops a chain of metaphors. The world as book links to life as a voyage, and so the reader is seen as a traveler, advancing through the pages of that book. Sometimes, however, on that journey the traveler does not engage with the landscape and its inhabitants but proceeds, as it were, from sanctuary to sanctuary; the activity of reading is then confined to a space in which the traveler withdraws from the world instead of living in the world. The biblical metaphor of the tower denoting purity and virginity, applied to the Bride in the Song of Songs and to the Virgin Mary in medieval iconography, becomes transformed centuries later into the ivory tower of the reader, with its negative connotations of inaction and disinterest in social matters, the opposite of the reader-traveler. The traveler metaphor evolves and the textual pilgrim becomes in the end, like all mortal beings, prey of the Worm of Death, a grandiose image of that other, more modest pest that gnaws through the pages of books, devouring paper and ink. The metaphor folds back upon itself, and just as the Worm devours the reader-traveler, the reader-traveler (sometimes) devours books, not to benefit from the learning they contain (and life displays) but merely to become bloated with words, reflecting back the work of Death. Thus the reader is derided for being a work, a mouse, a rat, a creature for whom books (and life) are not nourishment but fodder.”

Manguel on the timelessness of words and the value of striving to understand their role in sense-making:

“Readers of the printed word are constantly being told that their tools are old-fashioned, their methods outmoded, that they must learn the new technologies or be left behind by the galloping herd. Perhaps. But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience. In the end, it may be more interesting, more illuminating to concentrate on that which does not change in our craft, on that which radically defines the act of reading, on the vocabulary we use to try to understand, as self-conscious beings, this unique ability born from the need to survive through imagination and through hope.”


Where is Manguel taking me? I find his setup interesting, but why these three metaphors (traveler, tower, and worm) in particular?

Are these truly those most dominant metaphors for reading or simply the most interesting to him?

What will understanding these metaphors offer to the reading experience? I’m exciting to delve into some history related to reading. I read quite a bit, but it will be fun to read about reading itself.

Resource: Thomas Carlyle on What Self-Help Really Means and the Healing Power of Love in Moments of Blackest Despair (Brainpickings binge)


Thomas Carlyle on the superiority of love and friendship over understanding and perception:

“It seems to me that the chief end of Letters is to exhibit to each a picture of the other’s soul, — of all the hopes and fears that agitate us, the joys and sorrows and varied anxieties in which a heart’s-friend may be expected to sympathise: and if I may trust my own judgement, this employment is even more useful… than any other to which our imperfect means of communication can be devoted… Man’s noblest part is not his poor glimmering taper of an understanding…: it is the heart that makes us great or little; and who would not rather be the meanest creature that can love, than the highest creature that could but perceive? … Oh for a friend — a bosom-friend — the treasure which many seek and few successfully — to be our own and ours alone, to have but one soul and spirit with us, to reflect back our every feeling, to love us and be loved without measure! I declare an hour of such high and sacred communion is worth more in my eyes than a whole eternity of shallow speculation.”


I agree with Carlyle on the superiority of love over the mere intellectual possession of information, but I wonder what Carlyle would say about those who claim to love understanding. Surely some degree of friendship and affection is necessary to get through the sorrows of life, but that is true of many things. Many things are necessary and none of them are sufficient on their own. Is it possible to proclaim the superiority of love as an experience without limiting that experience to a particular subject or object (ie loving a friend versus loving music)?

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