Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Andy Crouch): A Review

PLAYING GOD: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  By Andy Crouch.  Downer’s Grove, IL:  IVP Books, 2013.  288 pages.

We all know the adage that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  We look at places like Washington, D.C. and watch as idealistic leaders get sucked into the political morass, beholden to lobbyists more than to the people who elected them. But it’s not just politicians.  It happens to people in business and in the religious world. Perhaps it is better to shun all forms of power.  And yet, is this possible?  Can anything be accomplished without some form of power being tapped?  Should we shun power?  Give it up in the name of God? 

Andy Crouch, the executive editor of Christianity Today, Evangelicalism’s leading magazine, and author of the previously published Culture Making, argues that power is a gift of God.  Thus, it is good, as all gifts are meant to be good.  And “remove power and you cut off life, the possibility of creating something new and better in this rich and recalcitrant world.  Life is power.  Power is life.  And flourishing power leads to flourishing life” (pp. 25).  But, there is a dark side to power – that is power exercised without love.  But remember that without power, love ends up unable to fulfill its promise and thus ends in frustration.

  Power is a gift and it is part of our inheritance as ones created in the image of God, which means that we are, as human beings, “image-bearers.”  The premise that we are “image-bearers” is a central focus of the book, for Crouch wants us to own up to our calling, to embrace power as a gift and use it in ways that lead to the flourishing of our neighbors.  The title of the book, Playing God, stands as a reminder that we are called to share in the work of God, and that means exercising the gift of power.

But you might say – didn’t Jesus empty himself of power?  Crouch would answer – it wasn’t power that Jesus gave up, but rather he gave up privilege.  There is a significant difference between the two.  The problem then isn’t power itself, for without it life is impossible.  The problem is that it can be and is corrupted.  Therefore, it stands in need of redemption.       

The process of redemption begins with remembering the purpose of power, which, according to Crouch, "is for flourishing -- teeming fruitful, multiplying abundance." (p. 35).  Toward that end – the redemption of the power that is necessary for participating in the work of God – Crouch sets out on a journey that comprises four parts.  Part one, entitled “The Gift of Power: In the Beginning It Was Not So,” starts with a meditation on Genesis 1-2, and from there in a series of four chapters explores the premise that power is a gift and the challenges posed by idolatry and injustice, before returning to the concept of human beings being icons of God.  Being image bearers is not only the task of Christians, but of all human beings, so that “whenever a human being manages to refract into the world something of the true character of the Creator God, even when they do so imperfectly and incompletely, we who are Christians recognize the unmistakable sign of God’s original grace in creation, his continuing grace in sustaining goodness in a world gone wrong, and his ultimate intentions for the cosmos” (p. 97). The section concludes with a meditation on John 2 and Jesus’ gift of wedding wine.   

Moving on to Part two, which begins with a mediation on Exodus 20 and “The Ten Words,” and concludes with one on John 13 and Jesus own attitudes toward power and privilege. In this section, entitled “The Grip of Power:  It Will Not Be So Among You,” we look at “the hiddenness of power, force, coercion and violence, and the lure of privilege.  In other words, we must look at the dark side of power and understand its lure and need of redemption. 

The section of the book that I found most interesting and compelling was Part 3, where Crouch looks at institutions.  Entitled “Institutions and Creative Power: From Generation to Generation,” Crouch reminds a people that has become increasingly anti-institutional of the importance of institutions.  Consider the current atmosphere where the people hold government in contempt.  Congress has an approval rating near zero and the President’s ratings seem in free-fall.  But it’s not just government.  Institutional religion is deemed unredeemable.  We are, as a culture, embracing this idea of being “spiritual but not religious.” In other words – we want God without the wrappings.  But is this possible?  The subtitle of the section is important – “From Generation to Generation.”  How do we pass on values and our faith from one generation to the next without some form of institution, including the church?  Crouch writes that “institutions are the only way that the gift of power can be fully expressed, because institutions are essential for flourishing” (p. 169). Whereas institutions and institutionalization are often portrayed as stifling innovation and creativity, they are, nonetheless, essential for cultivating these very values.  Yes, innovation and creativity will challenge the status quo, but without institutions there is no arena of support to nurture that creativity.  Crouch writes that institutions have four crucial elements.  They will have artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles.  The process itself takes time, at the very least three generations.  Here, Crouch points us to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who together provided the necessary context for the covenant of blessing to be passed on generationally.  Thus, it takes the four ingredients plus three generations for something to become an institution.  Power is cultivated and distributed through these institutions, not just in the immediate context but over generations – what Crouch calls the posterity gospel.  In this regard, he laments the tragedy of our most creative leaders pouring themselves into forms of church life that last only a generation.  That is, they are doomed to be irrelevant to the children of the founders.  He hopes that perhaps a new generation of leaders will arise who see the value of planting seeds for posterity. Of course, not all institutions are healthy.  Some are broken and need to die, but surely not all are.  Knowing how to discern where to invest takes wisdom and prayer.

In the fourth part of the book, Crouch invites us to celebrate the gift of power.  Power needs to be tamed by engagement in spiritual disciplines.  It is to be tamed by Sabbath – taking time weekly, and yearly, and perhaps every seven years taking time off for a year to do something outside the vocation (as a pastor I’m just finishing three months off after five years of service).  It is here in the conversations about disciplines and Sabbaths that I found myself having issues with Crouch. I found his political views present here in ways that cause me difficulties.  He is an evangelical who seems to have Republican leanings.  I am, on the other hand, post-evangelical and Democratic leaning.  Thus, I found his comments on gleaning, sabbatical, and retirement seem to me unrealistic.  Put a different way, it appears that he hasn’t experienced poverty or heavy labor.  He’s gone to the best schools, and even when he lost a job, it merely offered opportunity for his wife to get a better job.  We who are part of the creative class might not need to retire – at least not in the traditional way – but what about those whose lives are spent in heavy labor, whose bodies are tired. What about the poor who can’t afford taking off a year to do something else?  Besides will their job be there when they return.

I did find the book to be insightful and provocative. There is much to learn as a result of the conversation about power, especially the fact that power is essential to life and to human flourishing.  It’s also good to remember that even if we are equal at one level there will always be inequality of power – for a variety of reasons.  Power is a gift.  It is essential to life.  But it must be tamed.  This is all good, but while he speaks of privilege and its dangers, Crouch seems to me, in the end, somewhat blind to his own privilege, especially when he speaks of responses to poverty. Then again, I also struggle with my sense of privilege as a white male living in America with a good education – not Harvard mind you, but still a good education.

Even if I do have a few qualms with the author’s approach, I believe that this is an important book and important topic for our time.  For many Christians, especially on the left, power is deemed problematic, especially if it is coercive in nature.  For others, power is something to be grasped so as to control the destiny of a nation and a people, to impose one’s values on society.  But, a true approach to power lies somewhere in between, and Crouch is helpful in discerning that balance.


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