Andy Crouch, executive editor at Christianity Today and author of Culture Making, just released his new book on power called Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. I haven’t read it yet, but apparently his thesis is that we’ve been given some shallow thinking on the topic lately, so Crouch wants us to re-examine our views of God’s gift of power in light of our creation in the Image of God and the redemption of that Image in Christ. Personally, I coudn’t agree more. Ever since reading James Davison Hunter’s critique of the Religious Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptist rhetoric of power in To Change the World, I find myself constantly chafing at the inadequate ways we’ve been trained to conceive and exercise it as Christians.
While I haven’t read Crouch’s book yet, I have found some stimulating reviews floating around the web worth checking out.
First, Justin Taylor interviews Crouch over at the Between Two Worlds blog:
Taylor: The concept of flourishing is crucial for your book. What does it mean to flourish, and why is power such a key means and threat for the promotion of human flourishing?
Crouch: I think of flourishing as fullness of being—the “life, and that abundantly” that Jesus spoke of. Flourishing refers to what you find when all the latent potential and possibility within any created thing or person are fully expressed. In both Culture Making and Playing God I talk about the transition from nature to culture as a move from “good” to “very good.” Eggs are good, but omelets are very good. Wheat is good, but bread is very good. Grapes are good, but wine is very good. Et cetera. And the Bible has a third category, which is glory, which I would define as the magnificence of true being, a kind of ultimate flourishing. It is significant that the New Jerusalem will be full both of the glory of God—the magnificence of God’s true being fully known, experienced, and worshipped—and “the glory and honor of the nations”—which I take to mean the fruits of human culture brought to their deepest and fullest expression.
The interesting thing is that flourishing never happens by accident. Intentionality is always involved. And for most parts of creation, intelligent, attentive cultivation is required for things to flourish. If wine is one “very good,” flourishing expression of the grape, well, you don’t get wine if you just let it ferment on its own—you get vinegar, or worse. Wine only comes with tremendous skill, patience, and indeed creativity.
And this is why power is so intimately connected to flourishing—flourishing requires the exercise of true power, power that is bent on creating the best environment for someone or something to thrive. And while human flourishing is of paramount importance, the witness of Scripture seems to be that we human beings are here not just for our own flourishing, but for the flourishing of the whole created order. I think this is why Paul says the creation is “groaning for the revealing of the sons of God”—that phrase “sons of God” (which of course includes redeemed image bearers both male and female) is meant to signal true authority and dominion. If the true “sons of God” were to be revealed, the creation would flourish in ways we only dimly glimpse now.
James K.A. Smith forwards the discussion in his review over at Comment, especially when he notes the ‘different story’ Crouch is telling about power:
Crouch reads cultural phenomena in order to discern the spirit that animates them, the worldview that undergirds them. “The premise of the Western,” for example, “as with the Nietzschean strain in literature from Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games, is that when you strip away the trappings of civilization, you will find raw, primal conflict, bodies in competition to occupy all space.” In the face of this, Crouch asks the most fundamental question: “What is the deepest truth about the world? Is the deepest truth a struggle for mastery and domination? Or is the deepest truth collaboration, cooperation, and ultimately love?” His reply is no less foundational: “I want to argue,” he emphasizes, “that Nietzsche’s ‘idea’ can be countered, point by point, with a very different vision of ultimate reality.”
This tack is just right: it goes to the root to recognize that how we conceive power comes down to fundamentally different mythologies, different faith-stances. What you think about power is always and ultimately rooted in some confession. In this sense, Crouch’s critique and counter-narration unwittingly replays—in much more accessible prose—precisely John Milbank’s critique of Nietzsche in his landmark book, Theology and Social Theory (especially chapter 10). A Christian understanding of power begins from a fundamentally different confessional standpoint. We refuse the myth that collapses power into violence and domination. We affirm a fundamentally different story in which power is a creative gift, and when we exercise that power rightly, we image God and love our neighbour.
Finally, towards the end of his review over at the Gospel Coalition, John Starke addresses what Crouch’s ‘good news’ about power has to do with our view of institutions:
But I thought institutions frustrated creativity and cultivation. Isn’t that what we’re led to think? Crouch recognizes institutions can make that mistake. He also recognizes institutions can cultivate a culture of injustice and oppression. But institutions provide, he contends, roles (think “father” in the institution of the family), arenas (think “galleries” for art), and rules (think “regulations” for day traders on Wall Street) where image bearers can flourish as fathers, artists, and bankers. The power of institutions is to distribute power for comprehensive flourishing, not merely private thriving.
The most helpful and intriguing part of Crouch’s book is his formula for what makes institutions that leave behind cultural significance. They must have four ingredients (artifacts, arenas, rules, and goals) and three generations (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). This is a helpful guide as he then turns to churches and church leaders who have “poured their energies into creating forms of church life that serve just a single generation.” Crouch sees institutions as something of a remedy for churches and other organizations to flourish across space and time, to be a blessing to our children’s children.
I don’t know about you, but it looks like I’ve got another book to read.
Soli Deo Gloria