How do I describe one of the very best books of the year? How do I tell about a book (in a way that invites you to buy it from us) that is so very rich, journeys into so many fields of study, is oh so wonderfully, wonderfully written? Words nearly fail me. The brand new book by Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP; $25.00 – on sale for 20% off; $20.00) is very, very good, and – a credit to its remarkable breadth and glorious detail – is a bit hard to adequately explain.
Mr. Crouch is a good thinker and has thought about this topic — the nature of power — long and well, so his insight is profound and well-developed. He has thought of almost everything, and looks at his topic from many facets. Like a shining jewel (if I may use an metaphor that is often used undeservedly) the book shimmers, reflecting this insight and that, from this angle and that, with beauty and texture and solidity. It is a study of power and, significantly, as the subtitle insists, how God can use His image-bearers to bring redemption to the dangers and sadnesses of power abused. I hope you will believe me when I say (and if you ponder it a moment you will see) that it is not just for CEOs or politicians or influential leaders. It is for all of us.
POWER AS PART OF A GOOD CREATION GONE WRONG
First, a main point: power is a gift. Crouch can say this because (as he explains in an excellent few chapters) it is part of the created order. A robust and sturdy theology of creation and the cultural mandate to “make something of the world” that teems and swarms with potential is necessary for a full understanding of our call to culture-making, in which the use of power finds its home. Although the gift and vocation to take up our offices in cultural authority by exhibiting our human instincts for creativity and influence is the burden of his previous book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, just now out in paperback (IVP; $20.00 ) he revisits this Biblical theme with as much clarity and good sense as I’ve ever seen.
There are no breathy shout-outs to Abraham Kuyper or Al Wolters and his generative book Creation Regained; surprisingly, he doesn’t footnote James K.A. Smith even once; nor does he cite the new and excellent God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation by Jonathan R. Wilson. I’m a cheerleader and networker and get passionate about all this, so would have noted that his friend Gabe Lyon (in The Next Christians) has expressed wonderfully how the “next generation” of young adult Christians increasingly understand that the Bible presents a four-chapter story that starts with creation, moving through the cosmic and serious fall, graciously receiving Christ’s death-and-resurrection that brings redemption, to the final hope of a restored creation. He doesn’t even cite N.T. Wright’s books (although he does cite an article) who taught us to be “surprised by hope.”
TO CHANGE THE WORLD
He does, in a serious footnote, mention an important few chapters in the Oxford University Press book, To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. The body of Crouch’s text, though, is not laden with pull quotes from the usual suspects. It is his own mature reflections, carefully developed, wondrously shown, informative and interesting.
Playing God does emerge from these sorts of authors and conversations, and his audacious claim that power is a good gift grounded in the possibilities built into the blessed creation itself and to be gladly taken up by people for the sake of human flourishing is clearly supported by the best of popular-level conversation these days amongst evangelicals, especially. Who doesn’t want to change the world? What religious author these days doesn’t at some point talk about transformation? We are way past the “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through” nonsense of the pietistic “Christ against culture” which bred apathy about social concerns among many fundamentalists. Fundamentalists themselves, of course, have loudly moved away from such disinterest in social reform, seen clearly in the divisive rise and demise of the Moral Majority.
But yet there is little consensus among church folk about the proper way to engage culture, work for social transformation; it seems to me that some of the negative reactions to the religious right, even among their own disillusioned leaders, have taken us back to this basic question: can power be exercised well? Can Christ-followers use power faithfully? Are there avenues of culture-making, and using power well that are not particularly political? That is part of the focus of Hunter’s work and his call to mere “faithful presence” (unlike the populist agitating organized by both the religious right and the religious left.) All of these kinds of questions (and more) simply must wrestle with the question of the nature and just use of power.
And so, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power has much, much to commend it that is so very needed in cultural conversations among those wanting to transform the world as well as those who are in retreat, given the noxious results of the culture warring of previous decades.
For those who have read the aforementioned Al Wolters (for instance) it will come as no real surprise to hear that power is (like all things, according to the Biblical story) created good, terribly fallen, and being restored to normative use, redirected by Christ to serve human flourishing and the common good by people who are avenues of God’s grace and mercy.
However sensible it sounds to some of us — made good, messed up, now being renewed in Christ — Andy is not sure that most people have this basic set of worldview assumptions. Again, without using the language of worldview, he reminds us that creation and its structures and potentials is good, things in it (such as power) are distorted by fallen ideologies and is in principle being redeemed – and he goes to pains to make his case.
POWER AS GIFT
The first unit of the book is entitled “The Gift of Power.” These are beautiful chapters and, in a style and pattern which he manifests throughout the book, he mixes fairly serious sociology, feet-on-the-ground storytelling, and very insightful Biblical reflections, not to mention examples from his own personal experiences. Crouch is, I suppose, a journalist by trade (not to mention an accomplished pianist which explains some excellent music-related illustrations and ruminations, from Bach to Shostakovich, to contemporary worship bands) so there is much good reportage of interesting and poignant episodes illustrating good uses of power from around the world. Like the delightful stories and impressive examples that appeared in Culture Making, he tells of famous artists and social innovators (he draws on the biography of Steve Jobs a lot), of CEOs and politicians, but also home-makers and local businesses like his favorite mechanic. This makes the book, even the more abstract portions, very accessible, always showing the practicality of his insights about power.
His theory of power as creational good but always distorted by idolatry and misuse, opens up layers and layers of meaning, new angles of consideration, and will disavow us of many wrong notions and unhelpful postures. He combats our cynicism as well as our fear of power. He connects this in a brilliant chapter to Jesus being made in God’s own image and how, in Him — we are icons! It will invite us to realize that as God’s own agents in the world, bearing the image of the triune God of power, we have great potential to accomplish much. And it is right that others bear authority and use power as well. The whole thing is enlightening and so very fascinating. The rave reviews from many impressive reviews are sound the same tone: it is a one-of-kind-book that is thoughtful and a delight to read. This is, simply, the best treatment of the subject I have ever seen.
IDOLS AND INJUSTICE
And yet. We know, and he knows better than most of us, that this is not simple. Saying that power is a gift (even as we pay homage to how it is abused) just isn’t enough. In a fallen world, power is abused and abusive; it is hurtful and tragic. Andy has spent hundreds of hours volunteering around the world in places where power is abused, where privilege and status and wealth align to form systems and institutions and structure of great injustice. With potent, focused Biblical study (get Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider for a more sweeping study of all the Bible says about structural evil and systemic injustice or Just Courage or the other books by Andy’s friend from International Justice Mission, Gary Haugen) Crouch shows how idolatry and injustice are often related, nearly two sides of the same bad coin. He commends the recent little Tim Keller book, Counterfeit Gods, on idolatry, which is very good, but Andy brings unusual insight. His chapters which study this, ruminating and exploring and pondering, holding each nuance and facet up to the light, are increasingly rewarding, with each chapter bringing greater clarity to the conundrum of the nature of brokenness in a modern world. We come to feel the horror of the title, the consequence of the ploy named in the title: playing god. As one reviewer wrote, reading it left “idol shards everywhere in its path…”
Some of this is painful to read. Mr. Crouch is not only a huge fan and trustee of the justly famous IJM, he has been with them and with development organizations such as World Vision, in places like India, working with them to expose modern day slavery, child sex trafficking, the cultures of dysfunction where police are bribed and human rights conventions are flaunted. These descriptions are not meant to be sensational and, again, he is not breathy or brash. The writing is calm and clear and the prose, while crafted with consideration and care, cannot help but be poignant and moving — powerful. Crouch’s insistence that power is a good gift and that image bearers can make something of the world that is good for all and which increases human flourishing, never, ever wavers. In most chapters — including the excellent chapters in the first unit — he fearlessly takes us to the horrors of injustice and the awful implications of idolatry, but the book is not depressing. There is joy amidst the hard stuff, as we are given glimpses of power being used well, unfair advantage examined, reconciliation and restoration actually happening. If you are a sensitive soul who bears the weight of the world already on your shoulders, and don’t like books that are too heavy, do not fear. Despite the ever-present concern of our prideful “playing god” with our power grabs and games, the book really is hopeful. The good, the bad, the ugly are tempered by testimony of the ways of God, the good gifts of the Lord seen in the many creative initiatives humans take to do good in the world. And for every bad and ugly thing he has seen, there are good and glorious things to which he introduces us as well. From the cultural power to make good wine to ways to deconstruct gender privilege on to powerful stories of multi-ethnic prayer services, he makes us smile and be glad in every chapter. What a journey!
Space does not permit a detailed evaluation of his many side-trips. One urgent topic should be noted: he explores well the terrain of conversation well-known among those who are called to peacemaking and to the work of conflict resolution. (And who of us isn’t, after all?) He describes the nuances of difference between force, coercion, and violence, and examines the benefits and sorrows of each, in different situations. His brief ruminations on Iraq and Afghanistan are truly insightful, offered mostly in passing, but wise and illuminating. My, my, how I hope many will study this book line by line, carefully studying this part, especially, taking in his theologically sound perspective and notable balance. (Ideological hawks and Biblical pacifists alike may find fault, although – let it be so! – both may nod their heads in agreement at times, glad for his good words on their behalf. He offers something better than the indecision of waffling — on the one hand, but on the other hand — but blends good insights from rich conversations between Augustinians and Anabaptists which have gone on for centuries. Even now, as the world again ponders questions of war, this is very, very important material. It isn’t a large section, but it is good to get us thinking.
A very, very helpful part of Playing God is Crouch’s remarkable emphasis on institutions. I have in previous posts noted the wonderful column by James K.A. Smith in a recent Comment, “We Believe in Institutions” and while Smith is more colorful than Crouch, his piece would be good to read alongside the vital third part of this book. (I am sure that Smith will review it soon in Comment, so watch for that, as I am sure it will be excellent.) Using power redemptively and fruitfully, Crouch insists, will entail “thinking institutionally” (he applauds the stylishly written book by that name by Hugh Heclo.) He makes much of the “generation to generation” rhetoric of Scripture and suggests that it takes three generations to accomplish lasting cultural contributions embodied in sturdy institutional forms.
Sorry to sound like a broken record but, again: this is notable stuff; really, really good, and rather rare. I don’t know of any other book that ruminates on this so carefully, sanely, and helpfully. He gives a nod in a good footnote to the good work of Victor Lee Austin’s Up With Authority but for my money, Playing God is so much better!
I do admit to wanting a bit more, here, though. Crouch usefully draws on “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” but doesn’t explore the role of prophets and whistle blowers very much. Is outside-the-system protest most often a squandering of social capital, as he seems to suggest? How much patience ought we to have as we press for reforms and prudent changes as we serve as salt and leaven? Citing King seemed to even work against his argument, as the famous letter pressed against moderation and patience and complicity — the letter was not written to nasty racists but integrationist-oriented pastors who argued for slow reform. I know Andy does not minimize social sin (and he has particular passions about the sins of race and the lure of privilege.) But as good as this section was – and I’ve never read anything this interesting and wise and helpful – I hope those discussing it will press further along and deeper in. Nothing would please him more, I’m sure, if culture-makers use their human power in good ways to undo the bonds of oppression, even if it rocks the boat. He seems to think, although doesn’t dwell on it, that some who rise to denounce injustice or who opt out of the systems of brokenness, are not so much resisting the principalities and powers, but are merely opting out. Calls for radical change most often should account for the fact that our world is sustained by institutions, and social change, therefore, must be long-lasting, structural, cultural, and institutional. He makes the point (interestingly) by talking a lot about football.
So we shouldn’t opt out or mouth off in knee-jerks of cheap protest against The Man. Still, I know, and he does, too, I’m sure, those who have adopted a “Christ-against-culture” stance as a strategy to change the world. They exercise the power of weakness, the moral force that emerges from those in solidarity with those in the margins. They are Franciscan “fools for Christ” and they are Catholic Workers serving with the homeless and dying. They are in jail for acts of civil disobedience and for acting up in ways that Old Testament prophets often did – not to influence legislation, really, or make minor reforms, but to dramatize the call to public repentance and shake up our captive social imaginations. Crouch is not tone deaf to this more anarchistic movement within the church and he surely respects the likes of Dorothy Day or Shane Claiborne. But it seems that he is inviting us to a different sort of lifestyle than resistance, but using power as culture makers, neither opting out or railing against…
It is a vision we all need to more deeply understand and rehearse and embody and it should make for very important conversations about things that really matter.
In doing so, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power seems to hint at a more faithful way that is “in but not of” the world of institutions, bureaucracies, and agencies of power. Some may be called to form new monastic communities away from the centers of Empire, but more of us exercise our insight, authority, and power in the midst of more traditional jobs, with vocations to professions and guilds and associations. We may live in small towns, work in middle class careers, attend fairly ordinary churches. We discover ways to make a difference, using gifts and power, tempered by love, graced by God’s own desires for restoration and wholeness, here and there, as we can. Radical, missional, reformational, or common-place, mundane, mainline disciple, this is a book for you!
FORGIVE YOUR INSTITUTION
One of the ways he offers this vision of ordinary dispatches of redeemed power within fairly common social establishments and modern institutions – which reminds me of the famous phrase by Dorothy Soelle, about “revolutionary patience” – is in a simple line he shares from a friend of his who is a CEO of a large nonprofit. This acquaintance suggested that those who are the best trustees of institutions are those who have forgiven them. One early reader told me how this phrase struck him, and I looked for it as I read. Indeed, when I got to that line, it caught me dead in my tracks. What does that mean? How does one do that? Why would one do that? What organizations and institutions have I forgiven? Which institutional systems and cultures have I help create that need forgiving? How is naming sin and dysfunction liberating and redeeming? (And whenis it mere discontent and narcissistic?) How can we be agents of change, with love in our hearts, resisting the inertia of harsh bureaucracies without revolting (or being revolting?) Can we be stewards of our institutional influence, by being profoundly aware of their brokenness and, in forgiveness, serve them nonetheless?
Can, as one section puts it, power be tamed?
Interestingly, the book ends with a rumination on spiritual disciplines. I saw this in the table of contents and (sorry) nearly shrugged it off. A bit trendy, I thought, perhaps a way to end the book in a way that preaches well, with an oh-so-popular nod to contemplative practices and such. Oh my, how jaded of me. These short chapters were brilliant, very insightful, helpfully challenging. His teaching about the Older Testament legislation about gleaning and Jubilee and Sabbath point us to institutional structures that create space for God. Leaders who exercise power (not to mention those of us with more common house-hold ways of exercising power) simply must pay attention to their interior lives and the cultures their spirits create. As with other sections, I have pages noted to quote for you – alas, there are too many good lines, too many fine paragraphs, too many instructive analogies and illustrations. You really are going to have to get this yourself. You, too, will think it ends well.
Even in those final chapters, Andy follows his custom of offering solid Biblical teaching, helpful ociological insight, good storytelling, and some candid personal testimony. His own story of doing dishes (often at the last minute before he departs for a trip) in service to his household rang so true, I laughed and sighed right out loud. You too, Andy? We are a funny bunch, aren’t we, those of us with middle class values and some degree of privilege and opportunities to travel and speak and make culture in public ways. We may think it all through, preach and speak and join task forces and committees to accomplish much, but at the end of the day (sometimes, the end of a very long day) we have to do the dishes. Such chores can be perceived as a dumb add on, a begrudging duty, even, maybe obliged out of odd and cranky motives. Or, it can be an authentic expression of culture-making service, power used by gifting others for the sake of long-lasting flourishing, within institutions (in this case, a family in a neighborhood and a network of friends and guests who have shared meals in a home.) His description of the warm suds and the need to do dishes before heading out the door to speak was a gift for me, and will be for many of you, I’m sure. Yes, Playing God is informed by serious scholarship, and covers all manner of global concerns, social and culture analysis, theological depth, and hopeful stories from the front-lines of the world’s harsh injustices. It makes a radical case that the Biblical story gives us an account of the good and the bad and the glory of power, and this is essential to understand. But it ends up, often, in places like this – homely, small, local. It is a book for us all.
POWER ABUSED IS HURTFUL (AND YOU’VE FELT, I’M SURE)
You have most likely experienced frustration, perhaps agony or worse, at the hands of power gone awry. If you’ve been in the court system, if you’ve been in hospitals or schools, chances are you’ve been hurt by stupid bureaucracies and have seen hard-hearted power mongers, “lording it over others” as Jesus put it in Mark 10. I know we have in our family and not a day goes by that I do not lament sorrowful things I have seen with my own eyes. It is no wonder many of us are jaded or cynical or to damaged to care much more. We have seen what this damned world has to offer. We hunger for God, we cry out for redemption, we long for meaning, but sometimes – especially those of us on the grayer side – lose our zeal for social reformation, for cultural engagement, for public justice. This book is for you.
I know this book will help the rising generation, the entrepreneurs and movers and shakers that are taking up their callings with youthful idealism and righteous zeal. It will offer the intellectual tools to get the job done right. I pray that many younger culture-formers buy this book. I pray that you learn from Andy’s deep well of thoughtful consideration, that your worked is framed by his vision, your attitudes informed by his wise work. If you have young friends who see themselves as responsible global citizens or Christian activists or interested in the common good, I hope you get them this book. It is a must.
But it is also for those of us who grow tired of doing good, who ponder if things can ever change, who are less “surprised by hope” than we ought to be. For those of us who chip away at this and that, reacting to what we see on the news, too tired to care or too unschooled to know much what to do. We, too, are culture-makers, and whether we are called to be whistle blowers and prophetic agents of bold change or whether we are embodying slow, careful, relationships within tired institutions, we all can be servant leaders, gifting the world with wise exercise of the kind of power God has given us to use. Playing God warns us of what not to do, but more, its subtitle rings out: it shows us how the risen Christ is Redeeming the Gift of Power.
What does that look like, redeemed power, exercised carefully within culture? What kind of exercise of power can we offer? What habits of heart and spiritual practices will equip us to be faithful in our use of power (and in our reaction to the power of others?) Can we, as Crouch puts it, live into a way of life that shares “disciplined power”?
THE DISCIPLINE OF STUDY: READING TO HELP GET IT RIGHT
One such spiritual practice is the discipline of study. We have to understand well the way power is seen in the Bible and how it is arranged in our culture. We have to know and appreciate better what we’re gifted with, what we’re up against, what directions we should point the institutions in which we live and move and have our being. We have to unlearn some stuff, battle some instincts and postures that do not serve us well.
It would do the gracefulness of the writing and the subtly of the ideas of this fine book to say it is about “understanding power from within a distinctively Christian framework” but for some of us, this is how to say what it offers. We will not be able to grapple with privilege and idols and learn to serve, repent and celebrate, share and use power well without this foundational approach. Playing God is an essential book for thoughtful Christians, a true gift, a must-read. I am thankful that God has graced Andy Crouch with the power of words, with the gift of gab, with the ability to report and to ruminate. Perhaps it is enough to say this: this book will help you understand our world and be God’s image bearers with Christ-like fruitfulness. We commend it to you as it is surely one of the most important books we’ve seen in years.
Kudos to InterVarsity Press for the sturdy hardback, the colorful flyleaves, handsome typesetting and the nice production of this important work. It is a very handsomely produced book.
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