Crouching Corriedale, Christian Dragon: a ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ book review.

 Christians are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be in the world but not of it and reflect Christ’s coming kingdom more than the prince of this age. Yet too often we are indistinguishable from the wider culture, with the same dysfunctions and proclivities.  Nowhere is this felt so acutely as in the realm of power. The ongoing Christian fetish with leadership means the church often mines the corporate world and politics to discover how to lead churches and impact communities. The results are something effective but not without cost. Too often our leadership doesn’t reflect the character of Christ or challenge the power structures.

9780718022358_3Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are two guys who grew up in a church and wanted to probe what the Christian approach to power and leadership should look like. They observe, “Over time we have come to see the way of power commended in Scripture is not the way of power we have seen in evangelicalism”(xxi). They describe examples of unhealthy power dynamics in the church.For example, Goggin relates visiting a church with a model of a ziggurat in the lobby, the church’s accomplishments on plaques on the side. There was apparently no sense of irony that the church had reconstructed the Tower of Babel in their foyer. Years later the church leadership melted down due to lack of financial accountability, fear and intimidating leadership and divisiveness (59-60).

They delinate other aspects of flawed and toxic leadership in the church:

Leadership of any kind will always be alearning to unhealthy, domineering and narcissistic individuals. The church is not immune to this, because the church can provide a context for power. A toxic leader is someone who maintains power and significance by manipulating followers through their own fundamental drive to be powerful and significant. Toxic leaders dominate and control. Toxic leaders weild their personalities to cement their power, relegating their followers to a position of dependence on them rather than on Christ. Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders, because they pose a threat to their own power. Toxic leaders create an unhealthy symbiosis between themselves and the organizations they lead, such that their absence would equal the collapse of the organization. In other words, a leader is toxic if he ceases to live according to the way of Jesus—the way of love, humanization, and truth, giving himself instead to the way of manipulation, dehumanization and deception (147).

If you have been part of a church, you likely have experienced and seen these dynamics (and maybe caused a few of them?). So, in The Way of Dragon or the Way of the Lamb they take a journey through the landscape of Christian culture to gain wisdom from some Christian sages. They intentionally sought out people who did not use their power for their own sake (16). They interview J.I Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier and John Perkins.

These sages have a lot to say to Goggin and Strobel! From Packer, they learn that in “Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way” (23). In their conversation with Jim Houston and his wife Rita, they probe how the quest for power in the church has revealed the quest for self-redemption. In contrast, Christian spirituality points to dependence on Christ and his example of self emptying as the key to human flourishing (43-44). Marva Dawn,  a theologian plagued by a lifetime of physical infirmity, is well acquainted with weakness, but also aware of the need to stand against the powers—insitutional and systemic evil. She points out the power of weakness and standing with the weak.  Perkins reveals the power of love in overcoming racism, xenophobia, and hate. Vanier speaks of the power in shared vulnerability and weakness in community. Peterson describes how to pastor a church in the way of the lamb. Willard described the importance of faithfulness over the value of success (152-53)And they said lots of other things too.

Because this book was fashioned around a series of conversations, it isn’t strictly linear, but cycles around similar themes. I think it is significant that the people profiled here are lions in winter, leaders at the end of their lives reflecting on what it has meant to live a lifestyle that is both faithful to Jesus and reflects the way of the lamb. Since their interviews both Dallas Willard and Rita Houston have gone to be with the Lord.

This is the second book that Goggin and Strobel wrote together (their previous book is Beloved Dust). I loved their first book and I couldn’t help but like this one too. It didn’t hurt that they literally interviewed all my favorite authors. As a Regent College guy, I have been strongly impacted by Peterson, Packer, Houston and Dawn. Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy shaped my understanding of Christian formation. I met Perkins in the midst of urban ministry and found someone who loved more, suffered more and had more wisdom than my (at the time)twenty-something heart could hold. I’ve long admired Vanier and the work of L’Arche and Peterson shaped my entire understanding of what it means to be a pastor. My admiration for each of these folks continues to grow. If evangelicals sainted people, each of these sages would make the short list.

I appreciate the insights that Goggins and Strobel draw from their interviews and their encouragement to lead different and wield power differntly from the world. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. -★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

M is for the Marginalized (an alphabet for penitents).

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. -Matthew 9:11-14

 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”-Matthew 11:19

Maybe Lent has been easy for you. You gave up something you shouldn’t imbibe too much anyway and after an initial struggle, you’ve starting to feel the freedom in new routines and habits.  But is that really the point? It is possible to keep our little rule and our little fast and fail to follow Jesus—going where he goes and loving who he loved.

Jesus’ critics called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, indicating he had the wrong sort of friends. He loved the religious outsiders—those colluding in the Roman occupation and profiting from injustice,  and those who weren’t welcome in the temple because of their lifestyle. Jesus was a lover of the marginalized, the outsider.

He came from a tiny rural village, conducting much of his ministry in Galilee, far away from the seat of power and the religious establishment. He had friends in low places, and outside of a couple of Pharisee friends, he didn’t have strong relationships with the ‘right’ sort of people. The crowds that came to him were the poor, the disenfranchised, the revolutionaries, the tax collectors, and the sinners. These were those without hope in the socio-political world of the Roman Empire or the religious world of first-century Judaism.

What strikes me as odd, is how a season of Lent, which is all about following Jesus, has become such an insider affair. Ash Wednesday is for insiders. Religious outsiders don’t get it: “You got some grease on your head.” “Dude, wash your face!” Lenten fasting is a strange cultural artifact for the wider culture: “So what are the rules of Lent?” “You are giving up what? Why would you want to do a thing like that?” None of what we do seems to make sense from the outside, and yet the outsiders are with whom Jesus spent most of his time.

If our Lenten fasting helps us apprehend the truth about Jesus and his place in our lives, and if the season is about following him, then we need to be intentional about connecting with the margins. In our age, as in Jesus’s, this means the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. This means the neighbor who wouldn’t be caught dead in church (likely because of bad memories of the hypocrisy she found there). It means standing up for the forgotten and invisible people in the community such as the urban and rural poor,  naming injustice and being cognisant of privilege and power dynamics, and cultivating friendships with people who have nothing to contribute to our personal success. It means attending the wrong parties and hanging out with people with the wrong lifestyle.

Of course, Jesus did all this without falling into the temptation inherent in negative peer-pressure but he was denounced as a drunkard and a glutton. He was willing to risk ‘guilt by association’ to love those on the margins. You can’t follow Jesus—go where he goes and do what he does—without making some dangerous connections. If you aren’t friends with the marginalized, who are you following?

From ‘the Will to Power’ to God’s Will for Power: a book review

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.