Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
IVP Books, 2013
288 pp., $25.00
Holy Power Source!
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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