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).
At the outset of Playing God, Crouch expresses a hope that the book will inaugurate a broader Christian conversation about the nature of power. In support of that end, my one significant concern with the book lies in Crouch's treatment of violence. Crouch writes that if sociologist C. Wright Mills is correct in saying that "the ultimate kind of power is violence," then "Christianity is not true and Christian faith is foolish." This is because violence, by Crouch's definition, is "force that is intended to damage," force "that undermines dignity." If violence is ultimate, then power could never be good, because even non-violent power would be compromised by the threat of degenerating into its most extreme form. Since this is incompatible with Crouch's understanding of power as being for the flourishing of image-bearing, he concludes that violence is "the ultimate distortion of power."
In lieu of envisioning human power as a spectrum with violence as its essential limit, Crouch proposes the metaphor of a crossroads. One path leads to violence. The other employs power for the "restoration of human flourishing." The crossroads metaphor perfectly illustrates the aspiration of a "common good" theology, because it portrays a benevolent end as immanent to human action—it is a matter of making good choices with good intention. Playing God proposes a vision of power as ultimately benign, even as it acknowledges pervasive abuses of power.
The difficulty with this move is that it downplays the violence of God that separates us from creation, in the form of God's judgment in history, and new creation, in the form of apocalypse. By Crouch's definition, violence is the ultimate distortion of the fall, degrading the image of God. Hence, it seems God can never be violent. But this forces Crouch to skirt the persistent biblical theme of God's violence, which he must call by another name. In his treatment of the destruction of Sodom and the first 20 chapters of Revelation, he refers to the divine action as "God's judgment."
That it is. Yet can it really be argued that God's judgment in these cases is not violent? That it does not destroy lives made in the image of God? One unpleasant exegetical conclusion to be drawn from such texts—not to mention the accounts of the holy wars of ancient Israel—is that the image-bearing motif might not be sturdy enough to do all the theological work Playing God asks of it. The centrality of the imago Dei to the injunction against murder (Gen 9:6) must mean that God wants us to take it seriously, but the wholesale killings perpetrated by God in the biblical history and in the prophesied apocalypse seem to indicate that God is perfectly willing to destroy those made in his image, in terrible ways, en masse. It is difficult to conclude that these actions are not violent simply because it is God who does them, or because they serve God's purpose.
Yet none of this is to undermine Crouch's essential constructive contribution: that the beginning and ending of the biblical story are visions of creative, thriving power, and that this is thus the greatest form of power. The question might simply be the degree of access we have to these creative forms of power. If we acknowledge the reality of God's violence, isn't it possible that both Nietzsche and Crouch could be right? Because we are hemmed in by violence, Nietzsche and Foucault recognized something true about fallen reality. Postlapsarian power is ultimately violent, both in its essence and fullest expression. But the Christian hope that Crouch relentlessly revisits is that postlapsarian reality is not itself ultimate.
It seems that this dialectic might generate exactly the sort of productive conversation Crouch desires. For example, we cannot imagine that power in the fall will ever be innocent. Per Mills as summarized by Crouch, all power is "part of a system that 'ultimately' tilts toward violence." Yes, which is why Christians must be unceasingly suspicious of power, and rigorous in disciplining it with justice—an introspection encouraged by and demonstrated in Playing God. And this might also chasten some of the cultural ambitions that have attended the ascendant evangelical turn toward "the common good."
Precisely because of future hope, however, we need not participate in the nihilistic reductionism that collapses all present power into violence. Instead, per Crouch, those called to redeemed lives, freed by the promise of resurrection from the prison of seeking status, can regard their power as a very good gift to be given away for the flourishing of all.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of Christians for nuclear threat reduction and the global abolition of nuclear weapons. He is the author of The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (InterVarsity Press).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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