Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
IVP Books, 2013
288 pp., $25.00
Holy Power Source!
If I had the power to "write" (as icon painters describe their act of creating) an icon of S. Kandaswamy, a government official from Chennai, India, I would tell a truer and deeper tale of Andy Crouch's Playing God than I could with any collection of sentences. In April 2011, Kandaswamy instigated a police raid of a brick kiln. Local police forces freed the hundreds who had been enslaved there and arrested the kiln's owner. The raid caused great celebration among the staff and friends of the International Justice Mission, a bastion of the Christian anti-trafficking movement, who had gathered only weeks before to pray for the end of bonded labor worldwide.
In most retellings of this tale, the point would be to highlight the empowerment of the victims. But Crouch signals his book's essential project by noting that IJM celebrated Kandaswamy, as well: a man engaged in the righteous exercise of rightful power, which challenged an unjust institution that destroys human flourishing.
As Crouch notes, icons are meant to be looked through, not at; in Kandaswamy's icon we would see a picture of the redeemed and redemptive power that Playing God so ably outlines. These include the essential relationship between the divine image and human power; the bold equating of idolatry and injustice as manifestations of distorted power (which, by circumventing the tired, zero-sum relationship between evangelism and social action, may well prove to be one of the book's most significant contributions); the significance of institutions as structured conduits of power between generations; and the possibilities and requirements of individual responsibility to account for power and privilege.
Playing God is an audacious, admirable work. Crouch's first book, Culture Making, aspired at nothing less than offering an alternative to H. Richard Niebuhr's seminal Christ and Culture. But the sequel is even bolder in targeting the philosophical giants Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose influence on the modern world defies superlatives. Crouch's contention is that the philosophers are right that power is everywhere—but perversely wrong in seeing it as essentially coercive and violent.
The first four words of Playing God present its simple and controversial thesis that "power is a gift" and therefore good, when exercised as God intends. The rest of the book unpacks this claim. Though the content in Playing God is new, its thematic structures demonstrate many core concerns also evident in Crouch's other work. Its treatment of power tracks roughly with Crouch's characteristic insistence on a four-part biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation—a schema (not of his own devising, he'd be quick to add, but rather deeply grounded in Scripture and the teachings of the church over the centuries) he proposes as a corrective to the "working Bibles" of many Christians, which omit Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 in their nearly exclusive focus on fall and redemption.
The inclusion of and emphasis on creation/re-creation provides the basis for understanding the book's project, because the constructive link Crouch draws between power and the imago Dei—the fact that human beings are made in the divine image—serves as the theological key for the entire work. For Crouch, human beings' status as "image bearers" provides both the source and purpose of power as gift. In Crouch's reading of Genesis, God's power is shown most fundamentally in its creative openness, yielding "abundance and delight"—in contrast both to rival ancient creation stories and modern philosophies alike, which are essentially conflictual. True power is therefore "jussive," we learn in one of the book's most delightful sections, referring to the open-ended grammatical form of the "let there be" that God uses to speak the world into gloriously creative existence, "teeming" with life.
The outcome-specific imperative form ("make it so") that many people assume to be power's primary form is actually therefore secondary, in God's command to humankind "to teem and become agents of teeming." That is, humans are designed to wield jussive power as "agents of creativity," rather than acting as bureaucrats imposing a rigid heavenly order. In sum, "power is meant for image bearing, and image bearing is meant for flourishing."
In addition to this theoretical underpinning, Playing God offers practical handholds through Crouch's journalistic penchant for approachable imaginative frameworks, such as the fourfold framework of institutional essentials (artifacts, arenas, roles, and rules) and the "sabbath ladder" of power-redeeming disciplines (daily "gleanings," weekly sabbath, sabbatical year, and Jubilee celebration).