Power corrupts but absolute power is kinda cool

As the newest member of the Faith in Scholarship team, I’ve been asked to introduce myself as my colleagues have previously done. I am currently based in London (Ontario, Canada!) where I serve as chaplain and professor of theology at Western University. I also teach New Testament interpretation at Redeemer University part time. And I am Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Scripture Collective at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge (UK). 

I completed my PhD at the University of Bristol on the theology of Abraham Kuyper, the first 20th century prime minister of the Netherlands and author of the ‘reformational philosophy’ quote on the Faith-in-Scholarship page which has often been used to capture the idea of a world-engaging form of Christian life. For twenty years I’ve occupied an odd space: I am an ordained Christian minister who works at a public university, one foot in each world, fully at home in neither. 

My main academic interest grows out of this social location: I am working to develop a non-reductionistic missional theology of culture and society, identifying the institutions that make up the civic marketplace and what their unique power is that identifies and animates them. As I tell my students, what I’m really interested in at the end of the day is power: its nature and abuses. I’ve started my investigation with the power of the church.

Over the course of my life and work, I’ve personally experienced repeated instances of the abuse of power within the church. As a result, coming to terms with what the church’s power is (according to scripture and within the Kuyperian tradition) has been my initial focus. This requires multiple lines of inquiry: I am attentive to how scripture is read, interpreted, proclaimed, and applied as an exercise of power (without devolving into propaganda). I’m interested in how implicit/pre-critical assumptions (what is sometimes called worldview) shape and direct the formation of Christian culture/tradition, public perception of Christians and the church, and interpretive frameworks that demean, marginalize, and exclude (scapegoat) others. I’m curious how church leadership functions within a community founded by One who repeatedly rejected forms of power over others. 

All this has led me into 20th century postmodern philosophy, death-of-God theology, and the rise of psychedelic rock (Pink Floyd) as a cultural critique of imperial Christianity. I am intentionally cultivating what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a prophetic imagination so as to discern who Christians (and the church collectively) are called to be for today.

I was recently reading Educated, the memoir of Tara Westover, Gates scholar at Cambridge University after having been raised in a conservative (apocalyptic) rural Mormon family in Idaho, USA. A passing comment caught my eye. In a passage about how her university education shifted her perceptions, casting her family in a new light, she comments that “retaining power always feels like the way forward” (180, italics original). 

This strikes me as fundamentally true about our life in the world. (It’s also part of the annoyance of me: everything seems to hit my radar as being about power.) Whether it is within families, businesses, nation-states, or religions, there is a default assumption (what Westover calls a feeling) that the future is only made possible through the acquisition and retention of power. This is part of what was so shocking about Jesus’ way of being in the world: as Paul summarized, he had a mindset that “equality with God [wasn’t] something to be used to his own advantage” (Phil 2.6). And yet the church, which dogmatically claims to be the bride and ongoing presence of Jesus, has been lusting after the advantages of power for the last 1,700 years. For me, this raises all kinds of questions deserving of scholarly attention, practical reflection, and even personal introspection.

How do we encounter scripture in a way that allows our status quo to be called into question? How do we live as followers of Jesus, the one who did not pursue power, in a world addicted to power? What might the Christian life and the ministry of the church look like if we were to scrub away the fantasies of power that fuel our imaginations? These are the questions that animate my thought and work. It is not my goal to be an opponent of the church per se but to challenge the church and Christians to really be who they claim to be. This is what covenant loyalty to Jesus looks like to me – and that’s how it shapes my academic vocation. It looks like questioning things we assume to be true and beyond doubt, like the retention of power being the best way forward. What if it actually isn’t?

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​