Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
Reviewed by Todd C. Ream, Higher Education and Student Development, Taylor University and Aaron Morrison, Student Development, Nebraska Wesleyan University
Power is not what it used to be. At a point in time we now vaguely remember, a handful of newspapers provided an authoritative look at the affairs of the day. Such details were then supplemented by nightly news broadcasts of no more than 30 minutes on the major networks. For the inspired, PBS offered the MacNeil/Lehrer “NewsHour.” The advent of the Internet cast the power these outlets once possessed into a sea of chat rooms, discussion boards, blogs, and even a few legitimate websites. Having a voice in such matters no longer depended upon garnering the respect of an established outlet. You simply need some initiative and the hope that if you metaphorically shout loud enough, someone might listen.
One person who understands the present and future value of power is Andy Crouch. As a follow-up to his highly regarded Culture Making, the Executive Editor of Christianity Today offers Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. What this new book lacks in quantifying the changes power has undergone up to the present moment, it more than makes up for in terms of the manner in which Crouch wrestles with the normative claims defining and redefining power. As a result, his book will prove to be worthwhile reading to anyone concerned with how to discharge most faithfully the influence God bestowed upon him or her.
While prevailing sentiment is that power ultimately corrupts, Crouch argues from the very beginning that “Power is a gift” (9). By their very nature, he contends gifts are good and they require a giver (and a receiver). With the giver in this case being God and the receiver being humanity, the corrupted side of power is not inherently a quality of power but the result of its exposure to human depravity. Idolatry and injustice plague us and power can quickly devolve from its original role as an agency for blessing. In order to try and rectify this challenge, Crouch then contends, “Power is rooted in creation, the calling of something out of nothing and the fruitful, multiplying abundance of our astonishing world” (12). The bulk of what then follows in his book involves tours of power at its best, its worst, and lessons for how we can know the difference.
In doing so, Crouch claims he writes as a journalist, meaning his task is “to make complicated things clear, quickly, for people who could be doing something else” (11). He thus wants his book to have a wide audience, but this desire does not make his offering simplistic. For Christian scholars, Playing God presents an opportunity to help students at any level wade into the challenges of human interaction on both an individual and corporate basis. The questions Crouch offers on the nature of power can also generate far-reaching inquiries which can season the palate of almost any scholar. To name only a few, philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and organizational theorists will all find something to consider at the intersection of their interests.
This approach is readily evident to anyone who reviews the notes in the back of the book. Crouch uses footnotes to credit the main influences in his thinking but his notes also provide a plethora of suggested reading for scholars interested in cultural engagement. A variety of major works in theology and sociology, interviews, newspaper articles, and even Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs are mentioned. Crouch collects his thoughts from many unique and diverse stories, including his own, as he crafts the narrative arc of Playing God.
Playing God is divided into four parts, punctuated by biblical explorations or places where themes of power are present in Scripture. Crouch reminds his readers he is not writing a theology of power. Rather, he hopes his use of the Bible prods readers to see how Scripture continues to form our imaginations regarding human life.
The first part of Playing God then begins the previously mentioned case he makes for power being a gift. While lessened and diminished by sin, Crouch holds power as a reflection of grace. Beginning with the Genesis narrative as he did in Culture Making, he illustrates the rootedness of power in the creation narrative and the intent for the multiplication of power and subsequently abundance in our immensely diverse world. He ties power back to our image-bearing identity and to the role humanity plays in reflecting our Creator while living within creation. Of particular note is Crouch’s story of experiencing iconography at the Monastery of St. John on the island of Patmos. Here he offers that the image of the Apostle Paul embracing John the Disciple suggests the significance of similar images not only as something we look at, but also as something we look through. Images, according to Crouch, invite us into the formation of relationships. He then connects the use of images to humanity’s image-bearing role and eventually asks the question of whether we are playing God in the first place instead of asking whether we are making or being idols. Such language regarding idols and icons might appear initially confusing to many evangelicals wisely remembering the danger of idols. However, Crouch carefully distinguishes between the image bearing God calls all Christians to represent and the falseness of images which distort it.
The second part of Playing God delves into society’s more common perceptions of power as negative. Rather than re-treading old ground, Crouch enlivens the discussion of negative narratives of power by connecting idolatry and injustice concretely to playing a false god. He makes this negative power akin to a hidden creature. Whereas good uses of power result in a present and visible creation, evil uses seek deception, enticing us into delusions of grandeur. When this hidden creature emerges, according to Crouch, it takes the form of coercion and violence, which he identifies as “the ultimate distortion of power” (137; italics in original). Part three of Playing God then examines how power is channeled over space and time through institutions. In an age defined by distrust of institutions, especially among evangelicals, Crouch’s words prove considerable. A section showcasing his journalistic prowess is found in the opening pages of chapter 9, “The Gift of Institutions.” Here he uses the analogy of American football in terms of how we identify institutions. In addition, for disillusioned revolutionaries and reformers, he provides a dose of hopeful reality in his section titled “All Institutions Fail.” Finally, in part four, Crouch ties the themes of Playing God together with the question of how Christians can individually locate power under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He suggests utilizing classical spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and meditation, and so on as means of placing power in its most just and thus proper context. His account of washing dishes after a day of work provides a sacramentally meaningful picture of how small, daily habits humble us and open us to grace. Through practices where the spiritual connects with the material, Crouch believes we can become people who can truly bear the image of God in lives of true, creative power.
Playing God, and the arguments it contains, comes to us as scholars continue to muse over cultural engagement in light of a post-Moral Majority era. Titles such as Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s Why We Can’t Change the World, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, and Crouch’s own Culture Making recently left their mark on this conversation. Playing God represents another assessment of how Christians might relate their faith to a pluralistic world. By focusing on the nature of power, Crouch brings our attention not just to abstract, systemic issues of cultural engagement, but also to more deeply personal levels of pointing out how power operates in our relationships with others. His book cuts to our daily, individual thoughts and behavior with the world around us, offering a challenge to reform power in ourselves first before seeking corporate reform.
While Crouch is to be lauded for his efforts, one possible dimension that is missing involves a quantified discussion of how power has changed in recent decades. As stated in the opening, the nature of how news is defined, produced, and disseminated has changed drastically. Icons such as the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post face unique financial challenges they did not face previously. Crouch offers little to no data indicating these types of changes. However, such changes define the landscape in which this redeemed notion of power must live and breathe. As a result, we would suggest Moisés Naím’s The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be (Basic Books, 2013) as an appropriate prequel to Crouch’s otherwise exceptional contribution. In a manner equally accessible to Playing God, Naím quantifies those shifts in considerable detail.
Power might not be what it used to be but neither is power inherently evil. Andy Crouch’s Playing God goes a long way to helping a wide variety of audience members understand networks of power and the power they personally hold. Having power is one thing. How one uses power is a whole other matter and strikes at the heart of what Crouch is seeking to argue in his worthwhile read.