Playing God

Alan Noble
Andy Crouch. Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. IVP Books, 2013. 288pp. $19.99/£15.99

Underneath the spiritual artifice and social media antics and tribal rhetoric, nearly every major conflict that preoccupies Christianity in America today concerns the relationship between power and goodness. Christians must abandon positions of power and authority or succumb to their corrupting influence and defame the name of Christ, the one who Himself abandoned power on the Cross, argues one popular theology of power. In its lessor form, this theology may appear merely as skepticism that authority and the institutions which enable them are capable of serving God faithfully, perhaps born out of abuse and neglect at the hands and words of those given spiritual leadership over them. In its more extreme form, power differentials of all kinds are necessarily seen as injustices needing remedy. In its most insidious and nihilistic form, power differentials are both unjust and inevitable, and so our only hope for progress is an eternal usurpation of authority and power. Andy Crouch's second book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (very kindly sent to me for review by IVP) winsomely, effectively, and biblically challenges this theology in its various forms by arguing that power as a creative force for image bearing is at the center of our faith, and that through a proper exercise of power, we honor God and bless our neighbors.

Crouch wrote Playing God for a general audience, and it is a pleasant, easy read with vivid images and rich examples of power found in everything from learning to play an instrument to rescuing slaves in third world countries. His focus shifts smoothly from macro to micro uses of power and from taxonomic definitions to practical applications. When at all possible, Crouch grounds his argument in Scripture, devoting significant sections to exegesis of the creation story in Genesis and the book of Philemon. These sections are generally helpful, but at times feel unnecessary. For evangelicals who are skeptical of the biblical support for Crouch's argument, I suspect they'll find his forays into Scripture to be sufficiently grounded. More theologically or philosophically minded readers may remain incredulous, but Crouch is working from a well-established scholarship on power. 

In fact, one of the strengths of his book is that he manages so simply to present difficult theological, philosophical, and sociological arguments to his popular audience. Among his influences and sources are James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, Kyle A. Pasewark's A Theology of Power, John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory, Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order, Michael Foucault, Max Weber, and John Howard Yoder---which is to say that Crouch is informed by the major texts one would expect from a much more scholarly work. The only notable absence was David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite, a dense and polyglot book whose beginning chapters offer the best response to the nihilist postmodern belief that being is power and necessarily violent. Hart's work, together with Hunter's sociological approach to the same topic, and Playing God form a robust study of the goodness of power.

To make his case, Crouch begins by establishing that power is fundamentally a gift from God, one beginning in Genesis. The pinnacle of power is "creative power", which "allows creatures to become themselves, flourishing in their own distinctive ways with their own proper being" (p.147). From there, he moves to the chief abuses of power: idolatry and injustice, both of which seek to diminish the image bearing of others. In his second part, Crouch looks at the insidious nature of power, its ability to hide from us, to escalate into fundamentally coercive and harmful forms, and to blind us to our own privilege. Part three focuses upon the roles of institutions as distributors of power. The final part of the book offers readers ways to discipline power.

Most helpful was the section on the importance of institutions for human cultural flourishing. Institutions are wielders and distributors of power, and as such, have become an easy target for criticism from many sources inside and outside of the church. Crouch claims that any institution has four components: artifacts (the things the institution works with), arenas (the spaces they work in), rules, and roles. Whenever one or more of these components becomes driven by idolatry or injustice, the institutions become forces of destruction. However, when artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles are all in place and driven by a desire to honor people as bearers of God's image, power enables all parties to flourish. Crouch devotes some space to discussing the importance of cross-generational institutions, noting that the most influential institutions are those that intentionally pass their structure on to the next generation. This idea weighed heavily on me, as I reflected on how few of the vibrant churches in my hometown were more than a generation old. How can churches expect to make a lasting impact on their communities if they cannot dwell in community over time? Here, as elsewhere, Crouch is incisive and insightful. 

As a model of the kind of image bearing use of power Crouch has in mind, he highlights the work of the International Justice Mission (IJM). Although Crouch is careful not to frame his argument along specific political party lines, there are places in Playing God that I believe resonate strongly with conservative ideals, and the model of IJM is one of them. Specifically, Crouch praises IJM for their work in preserving and shoring up local institutions across the globe in places where great injustices exist. Rather than seeing themselves as outside saviors who will usurp the roles of local authorities, or as revolutionaries who will replace existing institutions, or as anarchists who want to dismantle all institutions, IJM always tries to work with local governments to help them create artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles that promote image bearing. In the most basic and I think essential way, this is the work of conservation. More importantly, Crouch observes that this philosophy rejects the cynicism that mars so much social work. IJM hopes all things for individuals and institutions. 

Near the end of Playing God, Crouch offers some ways to discipline our use of power. Notably, he turns to the spiritual disciplines for this work: "The classical Christian tradition has emphasized three practices that radically interrupt lives of power and privilege: solitude, silence and fasting. Each of these practices involves the intentional pursuit of secret defeat, the perfect antidote to a life of sociable success" (p.239). It is the simple and personal but also humane nature of this response that makes it so compelling. But I do worry about the effectiveness of such a solution given the larger, secular institutions Christians interact with. In other words, offering the spiritual disciplines as a way to prevent misuses of power makes perfect sense for the International Justice Mission, but what of state universities or nature conservation groups? Crouch briefly argues that institutional change happens through individuals, rather than through "institutional solutions." The implication is that we have an obligation to be good "trustees" of the institutions that we are a part of, and we ought to seek out positions of power so we may be good trustees. But supposing we can't place good Christian trustees in every major cultural institution, are there other means to improve them? It would be interesting to read suggestions for taming power in secular institutions as well.  

One of the most intriguing ideas in Playing God is Crouch's concept of "gleaning." I say Crouch's concept because although he takes for his model the text in Leviticus 19:9-10, his application is original and directly influenced by his theology of power. Crouch argues that the key to the concept of gleaning in Leviticus was that the poor and alien were given space to exercise their image bearing by working to harvest for themselves. "Fruitful agriculture" provides an abundance so that the needy have an opportunity to work and eat. Gleaning involves an intentional limit to power and productivity, and in this sense it is antithetical to modern concepts of charity work and enterprise, which reduces labor for the poor in the former and demands 110% from workers in the latter. The implication for modern society is that we ought to leave space for others to work: "In every area that we are especially competent, we must ensure that our productive work does not crowd out other image bearers. Part of our responsibility with our own power, oddly enough, is not to use it as much as we can" (p.249). In my own field of literary criticism, I wonder if this approach might provide a more fruitful way of addressing the domination of the literary canon by white men. Teachers and writers in positions of power should not be motivated by fears of not being inclusive enough, but rather should desire to help preserve all true image bearing. We might ask ourselves, how are we using our position of power to make space for others, particularly those who are different from me, to flourish and bear the image of God? And make no mistake about it, we want a diversity of image bearers writing and teaching. As Crouch makes clear repeatedly, it glorifies God and blesses all of us when others are able to more fully live as image bearers. 

One weakness of this fine book was the vague way in which the difference between power rightly used to command and wrongly used to coerce was defined. For example, in his excursus into Philemon, Crouch concludes that "The one role Paul will not step into is that of a master ordering a subordinate. He will not use the coercive power that distorts and diminishes human image bearing" (p.224). While it is certainly true that Paul declines to order Philemon to forgive Onesimus and free him, he does note that he has the right to make such a command, which raises the question, would it have been "coercive power that distorts and diminishes human image bearing" if Paul had commanded Philemon, or would it simply have been less effective? Put differently: did Paul choose between two righteous approaches to discipling Philemon, or between a moral and an immoral option? At the very least, it is conceivable that Paul could command a believer in a situation similar to this. In this section, it is not entirely clear whether Crouch is suggesting that such use of coercion is necessarily harmful to image bearing, or just this specific case, and if it is just this specific case, why? Later, he argues "Abolition and criminalization are coercive measures even when they are morally justified. They restrain action, which is to say, they constrain power and cut off the supply of oxygen for image bearing" (p.229). It is difficult to come away from this quote without feeling a sense of moral opprobrium to what Crouch identifies as "morally justified." What is unclear here is the morality of suffocating someone's image bearing abilities. Is this inherently sinful, as it is an affront to our Creator? Considering the importance of discerning good and abusive uses of power for his argument, it was disappointing to find some ambiguity here. 

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Playing God is that no careful reader should finish the book without experiencing several moments of revealing discomfort. Crouch challenges our images of ourselves, our motives for seeking justice, our distrust of authority, and our objections to power. This is an important work for this time in the church's history. As we recoil from "institutional religion" and power, Andy Crouch calls us to remember God's original, creative use of power, and His command for us to go out and exercise that same creative power as bearers of His image.

Alan Noble, Ph.D., is Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Christ and Pop Culture and is an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received his Ph.D. from Baylor in 2013. He and his family attend City Presbyterian in OKC