Can I Play God? The Temptation That Is In Andy Crouch’s Book

2013-09-27-JSmith-CrouchPower is a problem in our society. If you aren’t convinced, just take a look at Congress’ approval rating. For the average modern person in the West, the question is not “will power be abused?” but “when?” Western universities are saturated with the suspicion of power. And it does not help when our churches produce regular examples of leaders who are caught abusing power. The result of all this is we are all deeply cynical about power.
Yet institutions and the churches cannot exist without the exercise of authority in ways that flourish human life. It is crippling to a church or any other institution when all authority is neutered. Churches without authority waffle and go nowhere. On the other hand, when power is exercised abusively, even worse things happen. The exploitation of power for the ends of a singular leader (or leadership) destroys the fabric of an institution. Many churches or institutions never recover. We therefore need a serious discussion about authority and power for Christian life and witness. In his new book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch gives us this serious discussion

Rehabilitating Power via Creation

In Playing God, Andy Crouch seeks to rehabilitate power. Right from the start he sets out to define power differently over against the naysayers who see all power as a corrupting force. He says true power does not confine or dominate. Rather it is a gift which enables human flourishing. Taking a page out of Milbank, Crouch rejects the Hobbesian, Foucaultian, Nietschian views of perpetual conflict as the (ontological) core of our human existence. Instead, Crouch sees human existence as created for mutuality. Crouch asks, is the “deepest truth about the world … the struggle for mastery and domination” or is it “collaboration, cooperation and ultimately love?” (p. 48). For Crouch “true being strives to create room for more power … a kind of being that delights in sharing space and a deeper truer being that is able to create more space” (p. 51). Crouch turns us away from understanding the world as fundamentally agonism, struggle and usurping to cooperation, relationship and joint participation.

And so Crouch picks up a metaphor from Star Trek and expounds on what true power is. True power can be found in the difference between Captain Picard’s command “Make it so” and God’s creative command “Let there be” (p. 33ff). The subordinates to “make it so” are limited by the command. They are told to do this, and that’s it. Execute the specific decision and be done. The “Let there be,” on the other hand, bequeaths power to others, making room for more power. “Let there be” opens up space for more. When we exercise power in the Picard way, the flourishing of more life is thwarted. The true image of God is lost in us. We forfeit the bearing of that image in which we were created to participate with God in His power. For Crouch, the true measure of power: whether it flourishes image bearing. When we exercise power as given to us by God in creation, this power flourishes more power and brings forth more life. It is important here to recognize just how much Crouch grounds his definition of power in creation. This is a dominant theme for Crouch.

Yet Power Does Go Bad and Here’s How

But power can go bad. And so Crouch unfurls an account of idolatry and injustice that helps us see how whenever an image is lifted up as God, whenever an end, or goal, or person, becomes lifted up over God Himself as the sole purpose for exercising this power, we have idolatry and injustice. The image of God is marred both in the one exercising power as domination and in the one being dominated. This is a strong part of the book. There is much to like in Crouch’s wonderful exposition of how power goes bad. For instance, he poignantly unfolds how many short-term missions trips we take as churches are infected with the idolatry of lifting ourselves up over the flourishing of life in others (p.76). He shows how even in the name of justice and mission we commit subtle but heinous acts idolatrous power that dehumanizes people. His descriptions of how true power come the way of Jesus in ordinary life, unnoticed, relationally. This is very very helpful. (p.78).

Power therefore is a gift from God in creation and can only be exercised as a gift. It is for the flourishing of our lives in God’s good creation. It is to be prized, and stewarded in ways that live unto God’s purposes. Crouch has accomplished something here in this book. The book is worth a read if you too have become resentful and resistant to all exercise of power and authority in your life.

Can One Exercise Power in Autonomy From God?

But there is an irony here in Crouch extolling power as a gift (the title of ch. 2 is “Power is a Gift”). The way the New Testament uses the word “gift: (charisma) implies we are never in possession of the gift. It is a gift out of the never-ending relation of faith (there are echos here of Milbank and his arguments with Derrida in his “Can a Gift Be Given?”). The whole gift section of Romans 12 is headed by the act of being in submission to God (Rom 12:1-2). Then out of this we are encouraged to take up our gifts (in leadership) “according to the measure of faith which God has assigned” each person (vs 3). We are to exercise these ‘authorities’ out of mutual service in mutual relation according to our dependence upon the grace of God. The bottom line is: power in God’s Kingdom is one based on faith and total dependence upon Jesus as Lord and King by the Holy Spirit. And it is boundaried by our giftedness. If we step out of what has been given by God through Jesus by the Spirit, we lose all power.

But sometimes while reading Andy Crouch’s book I got the nagging impression that this was a book intended to help me know and understand power so I could then have more confidence in using it and knowing how to use it (for  Christian ends and purposes). That if I can avoid idolatry, and injustice, if I can understand how power works through the “let there be” instead “make it so,” then power can be rehabilitated and I can too become a better steward of power. I can be a faithful user of power.

I suggest this is the temptation and the danger in Crouch’s Playing God. We might actually come away thinking we can “play God” all the while thinking we are not “playing God.” For me, the problem with Crouch’s account of power is that he does not speak directly enough to this issue: that any authority exercised in autonomy from God from a position of hierarchy (from above) is not and cannot be redemptive power (although it can be preservatory in purpose – which is a discussion for another time).  Any time we exercise power in autonomy from God as my own possession, we are in essence limited, and often headed for a disaster, a repeat of the fall. Surely idolatry and injustice will follow. But the issue is autonomy.

There is an authority that comes from God that we can never possess, only participate in. Through faith, in dependence upon God, we can become conduits of God’s work in His authority in the world.  Acts 1:8 says “and ye shall receive power” but it is only “when the Holy Spirit shall come upon you.” It is totally dependent upon one’s submission to and receiving of the Spirit.  But once we seek to possess it as our own whereby to exercise God’s authority as our own, that power becomes devoid of God’s redemptive power. At best it can preserve society (like a good police force), at worst it becomes distorted into vicious human coercion.

The real problem therefore of the garden of Eden in Gen 3 was the problem of Adam and Eve usurping God’s power as their own. Satan tempts Eve by saying “and you shall be like God” (Gen 3:5) Later God observes “Behold the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil …”(Gen 3:22). From hence, the mutuality of the garden has been lost and now man shall rule over his wife (Gen 3:16). Here we see power gone bad, the result of sin.

All this to say, Crouch’s book is good but Crouch’s book is dangerous. Some may read it and take it as a Christian user’s manual for power and then go out and use their power in a more benevolent way in their businesses or places of work and think they can redeem the world. It may lead us to think that once we get our understanding of power sorted out we can go out and better exercise it. It may lead us into the danger of thinking we can possess God’s good power. But there is a difference between preservatory power aligned with God in the sense of preserving God’s creation, and redemptive power, that power at work in and through Christ’s reign for the restoration, healing and renewal of God’s creation. It seems Crouch is often talking about preservatory power not redemptive. For me, this distinction in Crouch’s book would have been helpful. Without the distinction, the book may tempt us to confuse the two.

The Church

Ironically, there is only one place where redemptive power can originate like I have described above: the church. Here power (as charisma) is exercised always in faith and dependence upon the Lord who rules from the throne of the ascension (Eph 4:8-11). Here our gifts in Him are never exercised in hierarchy from a position of power over someone, but out of mutual submission, no one overstepping his/her bounds ( vs 7,11). Here is the model of power and authority Jesus is always trumpeting (Mark 10:41-45, Luke 22:25-27etc.) and Paul is ever displaying (1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3ff; Eph 4:7-16 etc). Here Jesus is Lord and we are participants in His power through the gifts? This then becomes the model for all to follow in the world.

Ironically, except for a few pages in (p. 270ff) Andy Crouch does not spend much time on the church. This is curious. Crouch is adamant about locating power in creation and this may be the problem (grounding his account in creation versus the church). To ground one’s view of power in creation offers up the temptation to think we can enter power as people in the world and use it for good outside of the redemptive processes God has released in the church through Jesus Christ. And so, again, we might walk away from Andy’s book believing I too can now exert power in the halls of worldly power and that power can be redeemed somehow by recognizing things like Andy talks about, idolatry, injustice. But I suggest this way of seeing power has gotten us evangelicals in big trouble before (read the Bush adminstration as evidence no. 1). Instead, we must ever submit to the power of God from within the practices of the church, within our gifts, in mutual submission, and only then bring this power of the lamb humbly and subversively into the world. I suggest this is how God will bring down strongholds. This is the power, the power of God released in and through the incarnation by the Holy Spirit that shall take over the world.

Close But Not Quite

When Andy Crouch talks about participating in God’s power (versus domination via God’s power), when he talks about power as a gift (versus possessing it), he is already giving a nod to everything I am saying above.  So I’m glad Andy Crouch has written this book. I see a chastening move within evangelical Protestantism towards the dangers of power and the wielding of it within the halls of nation-state, culture, politics and academy. It’s a strange thing happening post George Bush that I saw it even in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (not that he’s an evangelical but many evangelicals love him). Evangelicals are chastening their attitudes and postures towards assuming power in the world. They are discerning more carefully the claiming of Christ’s Lordship over every “square inch.” Just because Christ, the Sovereign Lord has cried “Mine!” does not mean we can assume lordship. Instead we shall inhabit humbly, engaging the powers boldly, discerning each situation for our participation, whether that mean support, resistance or withdrawal, allowing God in Christ through the Spirit to work for his redemption of the whole world. It just seems to me, that many of my evangelical brothers and sisters cannot take the final step: to give up the reins of culture at large and see rather the local church, in all its humility, as the center from which God shall display to the world where it is heading. Andy Crouch’s book still has a bit of that evangelicalism in it!  🙂

What do you think?

P.S. I have another post coming on Crouch’s fine conversation starter of a book!


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