Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press) $19.99 sale price $17.99
There are so many reasons that we recommend the latest Andy Crouch book, Strong and Weak that I hardly know where to begin. There have been a number of other reviews by people I trust, although, for my own quirky reasons, I haven’t looked at anyone else’s comments yet. I hear they are very good; I am sure, come year’s end, S&W will be on many “best of 2016” lists. We were so appreciative of Andy’s other good work, and a lecture we heard about this project as he was working on it that we wanted to tell you about it as soon as we knew we could take orders for it; maybe you saw our advanced promo of it at BookNotes at the end of last year.
And then, it arrived just in time for me to shout out about it on the big stage last February at the CCO’s Jubilee conference. It was delicious for us to have it right out of the gate, glad for the publisher’s eagerness to have it known among those gathered in Pittsburgh. Andy had spoken at Jubilee previously, and his talk there a few years ago on the goodness of God’s creation and our “culture making” task to “make something of the world” is surely one of the great main stage talks at Jubilee. You will enjoy the mastery of public speaking Andy shows, you will learn something, and be newly inspired to think about the large role faith can have in inspiring us to responsible action in the world as those who bear the creative image of God in the world. I do think that his 2008 Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP; $22.00) is one of the most significant books we’ve sold in our thirty-plus years of our own trying to help make something better of the world here in D-town. His Jubilee talk captures much of that book’s insight and pleasing, reasonable energy. WATCH IT HERE.
Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP; $25.00) was released in 2013. I sometimes say is the necessary follow-up to Culture Making. Insofar as we take up our callings to be creative in the world, paying attention to God’s presence in the wider culture, nurturing postures of holy, healthy involvement as Culture Making commends, we will, sooner or later, come up against hard complexities that we can abbreviate by words like sin or corruption or, less negatively, perhaps, power. There It is: if we are serious about culture-making, we will have to grapple with what it means to exercise power properly, what it means to speak truth to power effectively, and what it means to pay attention to institutions, local and national and perhaps global and to what some call our “social architecture.” The subtitle of Playing God is about “redeeming the gift of power” and that tips his hand considerably: power is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be exercised redemptively. Few Christian thinkers have thought adequately about helping us take up cultural influence in positions of power, even with the social architecture of institutions and mediating structures, in ways that might be called redemptive.
Of course, taking up power is a vague phrase, and Crouch is exquisite in Playing God as he carefully explains what it may or may not mean, and exploring the different sorts of institutions and arenas where we might exercise power properly. Or where we might be seduced to betray Christ by exercising power unjustly; the book title itself does bear that ominous concern. There are not many books like that one, and we have been promoting it since it came out, believing that it really is important. It is not only important, but it is so very thoughtfully written, with the right mix of astute theological awareness, good Biblical references, informed sociological analysis and tender (and at times powerful) storytelling from his own travels around the globe. Both Culture Making and Playing God are very good books.
Which takes us to the new, smaller – although still quite ambitious – lovely new work called Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing. It is (or so it seems to me) somewhat of a sequel or coda to Playing God. It continues to ask questions about power and authority, servanthood and embracing vulnerability by taking serious risks, learning how to avoid the grip of idols that can lock us into ways of living that are not free and flourishing, and ways of leading or exercising influence that are not generative or fruitful. As you should gather from the title, it draws upon in important ways – I only know a handful of books that seriously do this – Paul’s claim in 2 Corinthians 12 about boasting in his weaknesses. What in the world does that mean?
Crouch’s book is a must for anyone thinking about leadership or anyone who is hoping to take up responsible mission in their areas of influence. Work, home, church, civic life, campus? This book can help.
This video captures Andy’s smart prose, his remarkable insight, and the potent paradox this book explores.
However, as the subtitle suggests, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing is about full human flourishing, giving it a broader appeal than being about leadership as such. Yes, I recommend it to those wanting to be more responsible in “owning” their authority, their calling to exercise influence, for those who see themselves in positions of leadership, whether in the church or at work on within voluntary associations.
But I want to say that this book is wonderful for nearly anyone. If you are interested in reflecting on the very essence of the good life, if you are inclined to deepen your awareness of the nature of being in the very image of God, if you are willing to ponder some mysteries of the human condition and some curious angles on personal and societal flourishing, on personal growth and how that translates into wise and fruitful living in the world, this book will be one you will want to read and re-read. It is not simplistic, nor is it one of the nearly ubiquitous zippy pop treatments about getting stuff done or being happy; the first lines are these:
Two questions haunt every human life, and every human community. The first: What are we meant to be? The second: Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be?
So, yes, this book is for anyone seeking a good and meaningful life that is profoundly shaped by the Biblical story and faithful answers to these essential, haunting questions.
I’ve said this before and I hope it intrigues you — please don’t allow this description to minimize its sophistication or profundity — but much of Strong and Weak is an extended meditation on four ways of being, four combinations of authority and vulnerability. It is, simply put, about a single paradox that generates a “fruitful tension” of “complexity and possibility.” It is not simplistic, but it is fairly simple to explain.
Each of the four positions or postures explored and appraised can be seen in one of four quadrants of a four-square, 2×2 chart. And he has reprinted said 2×2 chart in every chapter, with a strong chapter on each quadrant.
I laughed out loud when I heard Barna leader David Kinnaman quip that “spreadsheets are my love language.” I smiled similarly when Andy wrote “There is nothing I find quite as satisfying as a 2×2 chart at the right time.”
The 2×2 helps us grasp the nature of paradox. When used properly, the 2×2 can take two ideas we thought were opposed to one another and show how they complement each other.
The world is littered with false choices. The leadership writers Jim Collins and Scott Porras talk about “the tyranny of the OR and the genius of the AND.”
You gotta love that, a reasonable, moderate fellow poking away at our either/or framework — taking up “the genius of AND.” Consider how he does it, by exposing a less helpful mental model, contrasted with the more generative 2×2 four-square chart.
Imagine the standard continuum, a right to left linear line with one extreme on one side and another extreme on the other. That’s how we often think about things, isn’t it? Contrast this with the four-quadrant 2×2 chart which transcends a simplistic this or that approach. As Crouch nicely says,
what we need is not a linear “or” but a two-dimensional “and” that presses us to see the surprising connections between two things we thought we had to choose between – and perhaps even to discover that to have the fullness of one actually requires that we have the fullness of the other.
Wow, what a quote that is!
He doesn’t belabor this (it is not at all tedious) but explains it helpfully. In his clarifying examples, he shows that it is often unhelpful having a mental model that puts two attributes on the left and right of a linear spectrum, in opposition. For instance, he invites us to consider good parenting; should we imagine a single-line spectrum with the qualities of firmness and warmth in utter opposition (on one end of the line, the authoritarian, boundary-setting, disciplinary parent on the far left pitted against, on the other side, a responsive, interactive parent full of warmth)? Should someone pondering what it means to be a good parent embrace one side of the spectrum or the other — or some muddled middle half and half? We are sometimes asked “where do you place yourself on the spectrum of…”
No. Crouch continues with the parenting example, to help us see the point of the 2×2,
Firmness and warmth, it turns out, are not actually opposites. They can go together – in fact, they must go together for children to flourish. Their relationship is much better shown with a 2×2.
He puts one on a vertical line axis and the other crossing it on a horizontal line and shows it with a diagram.
Map firmness and warmth this way, and you quickly discover that either one, without the other, is poor parenting. Firmness without warmth – authoritarian parenting – leads eventually to rebellion. Warmth without firmness – indulgent parenting – leads eventually to spoiled, entitled brats.
In fact, there aren’t just two ways to be a bad parent – there are three! The worst of all is parenting that is neither warm nor firm – absent parenting.
I so appreciate his helpful pages working this out in parenting, exposing the false choice and the way the four quadrants help us see the results of bad mental models. The lower left quadrant is perhaps the worst as it has neither warmness nor firmness. Up and to the right is the quadrant that combines firmness and warmth. In a way, that is the theme of Strong and Weak: up and to the right!
In fact, Crouch says this in this good introductory chapter. “Actually, the deepest questions of our lives is how to more further and further away from the quadrant III (absent) and more and more fully into quadrant I (kind.)” He says that this really “leads from a life that is not worth living to the life that really is life. And that, in a nutshell, is what this book is all about.”
Say it with me: up and to the right!
I suppose you see where this is going. Plot authority and use of our power on an up-and-down vertical axis. Cross it with the horizontal line marking vulnerability, risk, weakness.
Up and to the right? That’s the revolutionary Pauline/Christ-like combo of high power and high weakness. Can you imagine the lower right quadrant: no power and much vulnerability: that is called being exploited and yields suffering. Or, think of the upper left: high degrees of power but no risk or vulnerability: raw power is called tyranny; whether in an office or church or family or in the halls of government it leads to the sin of exploitation. And that lower left one: that’s what Crouch calls “withdrawal” and it could be characterized as low power and low vulnerability – those who live in this box take no meaningful risks since nothing is attempted and so there is little vulnerable in the safety of this room. A cruise ship may be fine for a few days, but this lifestyle of seeming safety is something less than full human flourishing. Authentic human flourishing is in that upper right quadrant, using God-given potential by taking risks to exercise meaningful authority, a paradoxical embrace of strength and weakness. Crouch doesn’t often use the term “servant leadership” (or cite the fabulous and moving book by Dan Allender called Leading with a Limp) but I gather this is what he’s talking about. Up and to the right – high amounts of authority coupled with high degrees of vulnerability.
Here is a short video clip of Andy explaining with great clarity and eloquence the “paradox of flourishing” — combining authority and vulnerability. Don’t miss it.
It’s counter-intuitive. A paradox, eh?
Well, welcome to Christology 101. There is something more profound going on here then the already keenly profound Pauline “boast in my weakness” thing. There is the grand insight of Chalcedon, crystallized in Phillipians: Christ is fully God and fully human. As a human, he truly suffered. His incarnation necessarily involved taking on limits and wounds and pain and – yes! – even death. The historic creeds insist, Andy reminds us, that Christ “descended into hell.” What?
In a very moving chapter in S&W entitled “Descending to the Dead” Crouch tells of the Orthodox icon called “The Harrowing of Hell” that “shows Jesus, triumphant over death, grasping the arms of Adam and Even – in most versions of the icon they look rather startled – and lifting them out of their graves.” Crouch continues,
Whatever exactly took place on Holy Saturday, that most solemn of Sabbaths, the day itself is crucial to the full truth of Jesus’ lordship as Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There is a gap – between Jesus’ death and his resurrection….
After some beautiful writing that reveals how Mr. Crouch is nicely ecumenical and deeply rooted in the best spiritual thinking of the ancient Christian traditions, and after some psychologically profound comments about the fear of death, he comes back to descendit ad inferos. “The descent to the dead finds its way into the myths that shape our culture – and probably every culture” he notes, which leads to some fun nods to pop culture and ends up with a few serious lines about the exceptionally serious endings books of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series. I suppose most will recall that the otherworldly version of the famous train station is named King’s Cross.
The most beloved children’s books of our time – or perhaps any time – are unflinching in their understanding that true happy endings are won only a the greatest cost, and that no king is truly a king without a cross.
And so it goes, from Orthodox icons to smart children’s literature, from anecdotes of respected Christian leaders illustrating vulnerability by their own transparent lifestyles to examples and laments of deep injustices – from the abuse of authority in the local church to horrific global matters such as sexual trafficking and child slavery. Crouch is elegant in his prose, judicious in his stories, always clear, often moving, and occasionally delightfully understated. This is not a loud or demanding book, it isn’t packed with breathy calls to change the world or high-octane stories of ostentatious transformation. S&W is a rich, thoughtful, mature, and remarkably interesting guide to taking better steps towards deeper human and cultural flourishing.
There are, to be clear, four key chapters in the first half of the book, each on the disorders and possibilities within each of the four quadrants in his nifty 2×2 chart. He has lived with this stuff well and has much to say in chapters simply named after the four quadrants:
The second half of Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing unpacks the process more, highlighting the journey “up and to the right.” These rich chapters include the aforementioned ruminations on the descent to the dead which I commend to anyone wanting to understand the grand paradox of Christian living (and dying to self.) There is a very provocative chapter called “hidden vulnerabilities” that is about the perceptions other may have of us, about carrying our own vulnerabilities in secret, a chapter that is a must-read for those in leadership positions. Read it, also, for the spot-on description of doing a public speaking gig with brand new shoes on! Ha!)
Yes, of course, Crouch quotes the now famous “Daring Greatly” TED Talk by Brene Brown, but this is no cheap swiping of the current phrase de jour. Andy has lived into this deeply spiritual and truly challenging path and he helps readers by inviting us to several disciplines and practices – from confession of sin to laughter, from fasting to learning via ropes courses, and some clear-headed, if radical, advice about giving up power and willingness to suffer. Throughout S&W, he offers lovely description of conversations he has had with others on their own struggles “up and to the right.” From social justice activists in Central American war zones who work with the poor to seemingly wealthy entrepreneurs in their high-tech start-ups to fairly ordinary church folk dreaming up new initiatives in their parishes, Crouch explains how the temptations and blessings of these four quadrants – three of them rooted in imbalances of power and weakness – are worked out in ordinary life,. He shows nicely how the move towards embracing vulnerability can lead to the proper exercise of power and can form within and among us the virtues of the good life. The life that is true life.
The invitation to deeper risk, greater embrace of our own vulnerabilities, of power embraced as part of Christ-like servanthood, is described more creatively and more carefully, more profoundly and probably more practically in Strong and Weak than in any other book I know. Crouch’s four-quandary 2×2 chart inviting us “up and to the right” is golden, solid, helpful, brilliant, even. Maybe Crouch himself feels a bit vulnerable taking this risk of appearing simplistic or cute after his magisterial Playing God. I don’t know. But I do know that I am grateful not only for this schema and the rubrics that he’s developed to help us imagine and talk about all this, but for his candid sharing of his own stories, making the book really helpful. I am very grateful for this near-genius way of getting at true flourishing, the kind of life we are made for, both/and, not either/or. Can we be both powerful and vulnerable, have authority and yet serve others? Does the path “up and to the right” make sense, and is it do-able? Should we take this seriously? Read it for yourself and see. I think it is transformational.
Here are two final observations about this fine book.
First, I suppose you know that Andy is a prominent evangelical thinker and highly regarded journalist/speaker; his platform is well deserved. He has more experience than most in the halls of power, having worked in elite ministry at Harvard and having served on Boards as internationally known at International Justice Mission. His wife has a prestigious PhD in science and teaches at an Ivy League school. Andy plays classical piano, and, well, he’s a pretty sophisticated guy. Even in this accessible work he draws on very serious scholarship (one may not realize this until one studies the end-notes which nicely comment on books such as the Cambridge University Press text The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology by Oliver O’Donovan or Victor Austin’s significant T & T Clark masterpiece Up With Authority or the very, very good We Answer to One Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God by David Koyzis.) Mr. Crouch is aware of large issues in our culture, including freighted matters of race and privilege and class and the abuse of power – the pages on healthy views of policing are very, very good and timely — and I just don’t want anyone to think this is light-weight stuff based on his little chart or that he hasn’t done significant homework about the nuances and implications of this stimulating material. It is very nicely written, but every page reveals his fine, substantive thinking.
The second is this: Andy tells a few wonderful stories that show us that as scholarly and urbane and well-read as he may be, he, like most of us, lives in the ordinary world of raising teenagers, doing the dishes, getting along with extended family, paying bills and all the rest; he writes about going to a high school reunion, about college-age crushes, a pretty significant job failure, about his foibles as a public speaker, about coping with anxieties on a high ropes course, about dear, dear friends he has tragically lost to cancer. In that regard, he is like you and me, living day by day in the typical stuff of the real world.
Several times he tells poignantly of Angela, his own niece, who has a exceedingly severe handicapping condition, and the great joy and burden, the beauty and cost, of raising her well. At times I was moved to tears as he captured the stress and love within the extended family that has rallied in care for this beloved girl. In the hands of a lesser writer or an author of dubious character these revelations might feel maudlin or even tawdry. Like Henri Nouwen, though – I am thinking of Adam, his lovely book about his mentally-challenged friend Adam – Andy is frank and realistic and yet invites us to ask very hard question. Is Angela flourishing? Is her family? How does that work?
I certainly know (and you probably do, too) that this stuff — taking risks, being vulnerable, serving the poor, giving up idols in order to exercise Christ-like cultural power for the common good — “preaches” well. It really does sound great, doesn’t it? It’s easy to say that we must give up control in order to embrace more authentic flourishing, daring greatly and all that. But, really? What does that even look like in an ordinary life? And isn’t such a vision a lot more distressing and costly then we usually admit? Do we with privilege sometimes romanticize the plight of the poor, the condition of those who bear burdens like Angela and her parents? Andy does not romanticize this or think about only in the abstract; his tender stories about his niece and her family become nearly iconic in the book. This is where the rubber hits the road, this offering of insight into the implications of being strong and weak, of being truly human, of a deeply Christian view of what it means to embrace a life of love.
Which is to say the book is serious and clear, potent and charming, powerful and gentle.
Maybe I should draw up my own 2×2 chart, putting heady, serious, institutionally-savvy, theologically-rich, culturally relevant, mature, important content on one vertical line. I’d put wonderfully-crafted, charming, moving, poignant, touching, story-telling on the other, crossing it over, making that four-box chart. Some books are high on the content continuum but they score low on the writing line. Others have strong writing but must be placed low on the serious content axis. (Ahh, and then there’s that lower left quadrant: bad content and bad writing. Yikes!) Andy Crouch and his three books, including the new Strong and Weak? They are up and to the right, high on strong content and created with well-crafted writing. You should join him there.
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