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Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power Hardcover – October 6, 2013
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"Perhaps no question with such urgent life-and-death consequences is more poorly understood among Christians in our era than the stewardship of power; but gloriously, in Playing God, Andy Crouch provides the clarity we need in this once-in-a-generation work of sweeping theological and sociological depth. It is fresh, rigorous, profoundly helpful and a delight to read." (Gary A. Haugen, president & CEO, International Justice Mission)
"How are power and idolatry related? What can we learn from powerful people in our business culture like Steve Jobs? How can a Christian in power be a good steward and use it to help solve injustice in the world? These are just a few of the questions that readers will ponder from Crouch's deeply layered study." (Publishers Weekly, October 14, 2013)
"If this book hadn't been by Andy Crouch, I wouldn't have read it. A book on power? No thanks. But a book on power by Andy Crouch? Yes, I'll give it a try, maybe a bit reluctantly. Glad I did. (So much so that I started over immediately and read it a second time.) (John Wilson, Books & Culture, "Favorite Books of 2013", December 2013)
"Readers will find plenty of insight and inspiration here. As a journalist, Crouch places high value on clarity of style and usefulness for everyday life. He brings in stories from his personal life and from popular culture that sustain interest and shed important light. And he illuminates his theme through multipage explorations of key biblical passages, which will be helpful to readers with preaching responsibilities. Crouch's evangelical perspective bears provocatively on a conversation pertinent to everyone." (Charles Scriven, The Christian Century, February 5, 2014)
"Andy Crouch's Playing God goes a long way to helping a wide variety of audience members understand networks of power and the power they personally hold. Having power is one thing. How one uses power is a whole other matter and strikes at the heart of what Crouch is seeking to argue in his worthwhile read." (Todd C. Ream, Christian Scholar's Review, XLIV:3)
"A good book prompts you to ask questions you wouldn't have otherwise. A great book embeds some of those in your gut so that you can't shake them for a while. On that score, Playing God is a great book. It provoked nagging questions I haven't been able to shake (or answer!). . . . Playing God's proclamation of the good news about power is crucial and timely--an antidote to both our penchant to seize power exclusively as well as our allergy to assume responsibility." (James K.A. Smith, Comment Magazine, September 27, 2013)
"Playing God is an excellent resource for pastors who are afraid to use the power at their disposal. Crouch contrasts God-given power that brings light, hope and goodness to the world with a different kind of authority: that which corrupts and can be abused." (Bill Easum, Outreach Magazine, 11th Annual Resources of the Year: Leadership "Also Recommended," March/April 2014)
"In the end, power is for human flourishing, and it takes the shape of the cross. As Crouch says, '. . . We are meant to pour out our power fearlessly, spend our privilege recklessly, and leave our status in the dust of our headlong pursuit of love,' like Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us. That is our calling. That is what it means to play God in the truest sense." (Tim Hoiland, PRISM, Winter 2014)
"Playing God will be an important resource for undergraduate and graduate classes on leadership, reconciliation, and service. . . . It will also be helpful for organizational leaders in CCCU schools, helping them to think about how they view power and how their institutions organize the flow of power. Crouch is an evangelical thought leader, offering wise and intelligent advice here for Christians engaging a rapidly changing society and world." (Jenell Paris, CCCU Advance, Fall/Winter 2013)
"Playing God is an audacious, admirable work. Crouch's first book, Culture Making, aspired at nothing less than offering an alternative to Reinhold Neibuhr's seminal Christ and Culture. But the sequel is even bolder in targeting the philosophical giants Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzche, whose influence on the modern world defies superlatives. Crouch's contention is that the philosophers are right that power is everywhere--but perversely wrong in seeing it as essential coercive and violent. . . . Per Crouch, those called to redeemed lives, freed by the promise of resurrection from the prison of seeking status, can regard their power as a very good gift to be given away for the flourishing of all." (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Books & Culture, November/December 2013)
About the Author
Andy Crouch (MDiv, Boston University School of Theology) is executive editor of Christianity Today and the author of books such as Culture Making and Playing God. Andy serves on the governing boards of Fuller Theological Seminary and Equitas Group, a philanthropic organization focused on ending child exploitation in Haiti and Southeast Asia. He is also a senior fellow of International Justice Missions Institute for Biblical Justice. His writing has appeared in Time, the Wall Street Journal and several editions of Best Christian Writing and Best Spiritual Writing. Crouch served as executive producer for the documentary films Where Faith and Culture Meet and Round Trip, as well as the multi-year project This Is Our City, which featured documentary video, reporting and essays about Christians seeking the flourishing of their cities. He also sits on the editorial board for Books & Culture and was editor-in-chief of re:generation quarterly. He also spent ten years as a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University. A classically trained musician who draws on pop, folk, rock, jazz and gospel, Crouch has led musical worship for congregations of five to twenty thousand. He lives with his family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
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There will be plenty of thoughtful reviews of Playing God; rather than add to that pile I'll share a few reasons why this book benefitted me and a few questions it raised.
As Crouch points out repeatedly, power, when it's talked about at all, is generally perceived negatively. For most of us, power is assumed to be a a zero sum game: one's attainment of power is equal to another's loss of power. Crouch points back to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as the most influential proponent of this view. In Nietzsche's world we each strive to extend our power over all space, competing with others on the same quest. In intentional contrast to Nietzsche, Crouch describes true power as the process of creating space for others to flourish. This, he says, is the vision we find in the Bible and represents power's gift.
Many readers, like myself, will not have realized how influenced they have been by Nietzsche's cynical view of power until they read Crouch's compelling case for a much more hopeful perspective. Later in the book the author helpfully (very!) differentiates power from privilege, dynamics I've made crudely analogous in the past. This is a somewhat common topic in our church; I'm convinced that white privilege is the achilles heel of most multi-ethnic churches. Playing God, with it's more hopeful view of power, gives me more nuanced ways of pointing out the destructive traits of privilege while making space for the positive uses of power that are worth moving toward.
The same paradigm-shifting nuance is true in the chapter about institutions. As a church planter, I've interacted with a lot of people who express particular wounds from experiences with churches. I've come to believe that every institution and organization is bent toward this sort of wounding potential. Institutions, after all, are made up of people capable of inflicting harm on others, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes not. (A note: I was glad the author devoted a chapter to the "principalities and powers" as this theological insight about systems is often neglected by evangelical-ish authors. I'd have liked there to be more about this; perhaps some interaction with Jaques Ellul on this important subject.) While acknowledging the strong tendency for institutions to slide toward self-preservation and the harm such a slide entails, Crouch remains - here it is again - hopeful:
"Institutions are the way the teeming abundance of human creativity and culture are handed on to future generations. So posterity, not just prosperity, is the promise of GOd to Abraham: countless descendants and blessings poured out on entire nations not yet born. Posterity, not just prosperity, is God's promise to David, a succession of sons in his line on the throne. And posterity was what the average Israelite prayed for as well - 'may you see your children's children!' - a wish that before death one would see the evidence that shalom and abundance would continue in one's own line after death. There is nothing quick about shalom. True shalom endures."
Playing God has much to commend it, far more than the few examples I've pointed to here. It also raised a few questions for me.
As much as I appreciated the hope about power that spills from the pages of this book, I couldn't help wondering about how optimistic the author is. OK, optimism probably isn't the best word and Crouch does a great job of outlining the abuses of power with personal stories and cultural observations. But still, from where I stand, and despite the compelling case made by Crouch, it's hard to share his hope about power. In the structures and systems of our city, power's evil offspring (Crouch very helpfully identifies these as injustice and idolatry) simply seem to morph from one form to another over time. The results are generations of disenfranchisement, violence, and oppression. Not only these of course; there are always instances and communities of goodness and beauty. And yes, there are many, many people and churches using their power to create space for flourishing. But these individuals and institutions always seem, sometimes quite literally, outgunned by other sources of power.
I wonder too about the way Crouch talks about the distinction between evangelism and justice. While strongly affirming the need for both, he makes the same move other evangelical-ish folks do. He writes, "In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not." This, I think, is quite incorrect. Many of the examples Crouch gives about justice work take place outside the USA. They are wonderful examples of the sort many Christians (these days, at least) strongly support. But the notion that justice is cooler or more acceptable than evangelism seems to expose a narrow (or geographically distant) view of justice. When I think of justice for many of my neighbors I think of changes to policy - education funding, gun control, law enforcement, economic development, drug policy - along with robust acknowledgment of and response to historic injustices that would be far from popular or cool with the majority of those holding the bulk of our culture's power.
But these are mostly quibbles and I'm reading Playing God from my own biased location. I hope many will read this book, that it will start many conversations, and, best of all, call churches to steward the power promised us by God's presence for the flourishing of all our neighbors.
After Crouch's introductory chapters, Playing God unfolds in four parts. In part one, Crouch lays his case for Power being a gift. Two biblical explorations-The creation account in Geensis 1-2 and the wedding feast of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine-frame part one. Crouch avers that the creation account provides a picture of God's creative power and its connection to our image bearing. In chapter two, "Power is a Gift," Crouch argues against Nietzsche's `Will to Power' and might-makes-right vision of power. The Christian vision of power unfolded in the Bible is, "Real power, not just passive-aggressive coexistence but the power to turn the page of history, to deliver the poor, reconcile the lost, and raise the dead" (53). The Nietzschean view of power is unmasked as idolatry (ascribing ultimate power to an illegitimate source) and injustice (grasping at power, while leaving others powerless-chapters three and four, respectively). Chapter five shows that the alternative to injustice and idolatry is to be an icon reflecting God's image. Power becomes a means of creatively embodying the Kingdom in our context. The Wedding of Cana provides a case-study of the proper exercise of power (i.e. Mary and Jesus' example in the narrative).
Part two describes the grip of power. Two biblical passages also bookend this section of the book-the ten words of Exodus 20, and Jesus washing the disciples feet in John 13. Power, is often hidden from those who possess it (i.e. an executive whose words always close the meeting). The consequences of non-self aware power is that we fail to leverage it for good (chapter seven). Sometimes our personal power is the result of privilege (through our status as westerner, our wealth, our whiteness, or really anything else that sounds WASP-y) (chapter seven). Crouch also questions the assumption that power is ultimately about violence and coercion (as assumed variously by C. Wright Mills, Anabaptists, and Nietzsche). The alternative view of power that Crouch is sketching is our creative image bearing and does not treat power as a zero-sum game where the powerful dominate the powerless (chapter eight). The ten commandments orient us with the proper disposition to power and questions our underlying idolatry and proclivity towards injustice. John 13 show how Jesus, aware of his power and privilege modeled a different order of power for his disciples.
Part three is dedicated to describing the role of institutions. While institutions are broken and are often responsible for profound injustices, Institutions are also necessary for human flourishing. Commenting on one of the contemporary institutional failures in recent memory, the Catholic church's pedophile priests, Crouch observes that there was both the failure of "underlords"-priests who abused their position and power, and "overlords"-bishops, cardinals (& popes!) who failed to hold these priests to account (213-4). He concludes, "So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power (214). Crouch urges us to be `trustees' working within broken institutions to provide places and ways for people to flourish. International Justice Mission (IJM) is one example of an organization which works to strengthen institutions which restrain evil in particular nations and cultures (207-9). Crouch's biblical exploration of Philemon illustrates how the apostle Paul did not attack slavery directly but used his power, influence and hospitality to advocated on Onesimus' behalf.
Part four describes the `end of power' in terms of its telos, its porper limits and the eventual cessation of human power as it is swallowed up in praise of God.
This is a great book, inviting thought about how power, properly construed, is a necessary component of our image bearing, enabling to fulfill God's mission in the world. Some fruitful insights I gained from Crouch was the connection between idolatry and injustice (and the implications for evangelical's evangelism and social action). I also found his examination of the ;hidden aspects of power' and privilege incisive. Many injustices are perpetuated by well-meaning people who would never grab for power at the expense of others. Nevertheless non-examined privilege is responsible for a whole lot of systemic injustice. Crouch is able to sing the praises of power, while taking an honest look at where power goes awry.
The picture of power which Crouch paints is different from the `will to power' bequeathed to the modern world by Nietzsche, Foucult, et al. Crouch's reference point for power is God's own creative purposes described in the Bible (with special reference to the opening and closing chapters) This makes it a radical departure from power as usual. Thus while Lord Acton could say, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely," Crouch points out that no one has more absolute power than a parent has over their newborn babies; yet rarely does a parent use their power for ill towards them. If anything, a parent properly uses their power to care for, nurture, protect and feed the child. Power is not the issue, the disordered exercise of power is. Crouch made me long to see more redemptive acts of power, not in the mold of Nietzsche's `will to power,' but of `God's will for power.'
I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★
Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.