I admit it. I am suspicious of power. Some of my uneasiness stems from where I have seen injustice done towards those on the margins. But I also embody the typical GenX suspicion of authority and institutions. I mean, I am no anarchist, but I have an Anabaptist-like suspicion of all who wield power. Yet Andy Crouch’s new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power has got me to think hard about the positive, creative purpose of power. According to Crouch, power is not the problem, misdirected power is. Power is a gift from God which enables each us to flourish and engage in the creative task of image bearing.
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.