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The late Walter Wink’s masterful three volume treatment of biblical “powers and principalities,” — what he calls “the invisible forces that determine human existence”– begins with an introductory observation about the contemporary dismissal of their existence. 

Angels, spirits, principalities, powers, gods, Satan – these, along with all other spiritual realities, are the unmentionables of our culture. The dominant materialistic worldview has no place for them. These archaic relics of a superstitious past are unspeakable because modern secularism simply has no categories, no vocabulary, no presuppositions by which to discern what it was in the actual experiences of people that brought these words to speech. . .Having repressed the spiritual so long . . .we no longer have ready access to it. 

(Unmasking the Powers, 1,2) 

I discovered Wink’s trilogy on the powers and principalities (Naming the Powers, 1984; Unmasking the Powers, 1986; Engaging the Powers, 1992) soon after I returned to the United States from ten years of ministry with international churches in the Arabian Gulf states of Oman and Bahrain. Many who attended these churches were from cultures and traditions where angels and demons and other such denizens of the invisible realm were as real as the noses on our faces. Through their eyes I became aware of spirits who had been hidden or even nonexistent to me before. I met angels. I was asked to cast out demons. The trickster apparitions Muslims call jinn haunted our home in southern Oman.  

This doesn’t mean that I went full-on Frank Peretti.  My deeply ingrained rationalism made it difficult to make that leap – which is why I was so appreciative of Wink’s work. While acknowledging and verifying the reality of powers and principalities, at the same time, Wink dismissed Peretti’s cartoonish creations. 

Angels and demons were real, but less personifications and more like structural phenomena, powers embedded in the skeletal foundation of corporate entities. Churches had angels. So did General Motors. Demons made their malignant appearance at football games (particularly in the unruly crowds at European soccer games), not because they were possessing individuals, but because they created a mob mentality that caused people to lose their inhibitions.  

Wink helped me affirm what I had experienced in the Gulf without having to abandon my rational bearings. But it took German film director Wim Wenders to give voice to something that continues to puzzle me. Why is it so difficult for those of us in the secular west to even begin to imagine a reality which others experience as part of the very warp and woof of life?

I heard it in a scene that Wenders embeds in the second of his films imagining the presence of angels among us: Faraway, So Close. The scene depicts two angels named Cassiel and Raphaela sitting on top of a skyscraper having a conversation about the humans they have been sent to comfort. 

Raphaela: I’m almost weary, Cassiel.  It’s so exhausting to love people who run away from us. Why do they shun us more and more?

Cassiel:  Because we have a powerful enemy, Raphaela. People believe more in the world than us. And to believe still more they’ve created an image of everything. They expect images to allay their fears, fulfill their dreams, provide their pleasures, satisfy their longings. 

Human beings didn’t master the earth.  The earth has become their master. 

Raphaela:  Remember how simple it once was?  We would appear to them and put words into their hearts. We would say “fear not, I’ve come to proclaim.”

That’s when we were the only voices. Now people are besieged with new lies every day.  Ever louder, baser and more intrusive lies which dull their senses, so they’re unable to hear our message. 

“But the heart of this people has grown hard. They’re eyes are closed and their ears can’t hear lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts.” 

I think Wenders is on to something here. We don’t acknowledge the presence of the powers, either benign or malignant, because in our quest to master the earth we have allowed the earth to become our master, the determinant reality that eclipses all else. There is no God but God intones the Muslim call to prayer, echoing the Judaeo-Christian affirmation of a divine singularity. Not so, says our materialistically honed sensibilities – what matters is matter. It’s all that matters. And so our eyes and ears and hearts have become closed to the spiritual realities which determine our existence without our awareness that they exist at all. 

I have no answers as to what it will take for us to recover the ability to regain this awareness. But I do believe that Wink is correct in what he says about our need to do so. In his words:

A reassessment of these powers – angels, demons, gods, elements, the devil – allows us to reclaim, name, and comprehend types of experiences that materialism renders mute and inexpressible.  . .They are never more powerful than when they are unconscious. Their capacities to bless us are thwarted, their capacity to possess us augmented. Unmasking these Powers can mean for us initiation into a dimension of reality “not known, because not looked for,” in T. S. Eliot’s words. In the new world of quantum physics and the new sciences of life and consciousness, these antiquated, repudiated, and neglected Powers can open new awareness of the richly textured plentitude of life, its abysses as well as its ecstasies.

Unmasking the Powers, 7

John Hubers

John Hubers recently retired after serving as a Reformed Church in America missionary partner with the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He and his wife served as a missionary pastoral team with churches in Oman and Bahrain. John also taught missiology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He holds a PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in World Christianity and Global Mission.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wink and Wenders. Wonderful. Thanks.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    I used Wink in my Prophets class as an introduction to the biblical world view: God seated on the throne and surrounded by the angels who carried God’s words into the world (often referred to as the divine council). I used it in my Prophets class because the prophets were those people taken up into the divine council and also sent to carry God’s words into the world. Thus angels made of dust. The whole Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God makes no sense if we cannot see the angels but also the prophets as messengers of God, the spiritual infrastructure of reality.

  • John Hubers says:

    Thanks, Tom.

    And yet, we, too, have succumed to a materialistic world view. Can’t remember when I last heard a sermon on angels….

  • Juan Pellegrini says:

    We only came to the States 23 years ago.
    The rest of our lives was in South America.
    It would be too long to tell the hardships, and the achievements that accompanied our marriage, trying to live a Christ Centered life.
    We experienced things, that we keep to ourselves. We have never told anyone. Not even our two beloved children. One day, we will tell them, not now.
    But my wife, and me, we know.
    Sometimes, we just look at each other, and in silence we just nod with our heads.

    Thank you John for the article.
    23 years ago, our materialistic life changed for the better.
    It also allowed us to gave our kids a much better future.
    But absolutely, We are living proof, on how such a materialistic world can shun the Spiritual One.
    I really, at this point, don’t know either how to return to it, without looking, superstitious, controlled by emotions, delusional, non conformed to current standards.

  • RZ says:

    Lots of head scratching here for me! I do not disbelieve in angels or demons, but I have never reallt met one. Of course God is sovereign over both the physical and spiritual realms. But I often feel as though the scriptures are being more descriptive than declarative in describing divine encounters, not that they have not and cannot occur. Angels are perhaps part of something larger, namely the entire realm of non-material thoughts, emotions, conscience, relationships, prayer, etc. So I do not necessarily need to recognize a demon in one ear and an angel in the other.
    What bothers me, though, is when a Christian claims the right to differentiate when a cause is either angelic or demonic, as though they have a direct (prophetic) line to God. I can have a more reasonable conversation with atheists/ agnostics than with most Christian friends, leading me to believe sin is more self-deceptive than demonic. Thanks for the discussion.

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