Last December, I was in New York at a Q Session with Andy Crouch, the executive editor of Christianity Today. I left completely inspired in rethinking how I approached ministry and my involvement in culture. But I did not fully comprehend the depth and impact of what he was drawing my attention to until I read Playing God, his most recent book.
Many books on practical ministry and culture are repackaging similar concepts. There are a million books dealing with contextualizing ministry or engaging our culture. While many of these books provide fresh and interesting insights, very few of them get down deep to the foundational levels of a particular issue.
Crouch begins with examining what it means to be human, but he goes in a direction you might not expect–he focuses on power. For Crouch, “power is a gift” and is inherent with being human. Crouch points out that power is often misunderstood as being dangerous and it often spoken about with great discomfort. Through rooting power in what it means to be human Crouch is able to reframe power as something that is not simply related to politicians, leaders, and kings but related to all humanity and shows itself throughout all aspects of society.
Power is not something only seen at a macro level, the evidence of power is probably most readily seen at an individual level. Crouch defines power as, “Power is simply (and not so simply) the ability to participate in that stuff-making, sense-making process that is the most distinctive thing that human beings do.” (17) Power is central to what it means to be human. Crouch roots it in creation and connects it to the image of God. In rooting power in creation Crouch does not simply right off power as being something that corrupts, but rather something that has the potential to bring about tremendous good. “Flourishing power leads to flourishing life.” (25)
Though Crouch points to how power can bring about flourishing he also does not avoid from confronting how power has been abused. Crouch identifies two main perversions of power: idolatry and injustice: “Whether making false gods (idolatry) or playing false gods (injustice) the result is identical—the true image of God is lost, and not just lost but replaced by something that purports, often very persuasively, to represent the ultimate truth about reality.” (71) Because power is connected to the image of God any perversion of power typically results in the loss of a person’s image bearing capacities. When a person has lost power, the ability to create, the ability to flourish they have lost their image bearing capacities. And for Crouch this can happen through one’s own idolatry to something or through the injustice inflicted upon them by another. But Crouch does not stop at the individual/interpersonal level he then goes on using this same framework regarding power to begin to examine institutions.
The word ‘institution’ can generate a number of varied reactions. For young evangelicals, ‘institution’ is a dirty word. But Crouch does not see institutions with the same distain. Like ‘power’, Crouch sees the good in institutions. Crouch argues, ‘The best test of any institution, and especially of any institution’s roles and rules for using power, is whether everyone flourishes when everyone indwells their roles and plays by the rules, or whether only a few of the participants experience abundance and growth.’ 185 ‘Power’ can be used for good, and institutions can be arenas for flourishing. Crouch sees institutions as being essential in creating and developing arenas where power can be used to bring about flourishing. But like his examination of power he also points to the destructive potential institutions present.
Two particularly important observations Crouch makes regarding negative aspects of institutions pertains to Zombie Institutions and race/ethnicity in the church. Zombie institutions have nothing to do with actual zombies, Crouch uses this terminology to describe dying institutions who are ‘unaware of their own failure’. Crouch specifically points to how some churches have become Zombie Institutions: ‘But over time the imperatives of self-preservation can create a risk-averse culture that prevents continued learning and growth. Zombie churches exist to keep the lights on rather than to be the light in dark places; they turn inward rather than outward; they serve insiders and ignore outsiders.’ (200) Zombie churches seem to be a growing reality in the United States. Admitting failure is not exactly a huge value in our country and I do not know many churches willing to admit their failures or who are even aware of them. Crouch’s observations are well thought out and provide excellent questions in evaluating institutions, especially when evaluating churches.
Crouch does not leave one stone unturned when examining power. He addresses abortion as well as incarceration, but his observations regarding race and ethnicity strike at the heart of issue in relation to the church. Crouch states, ‘What most distinguishes white evangelical Protestants from black Protestants is not their theology or even their desire for racial reconciliation, but evangelicals’ lack of institutional thinking.’ (201) Crouch could not have articulated this any better, evangelicals are aware of the need for racial reconciliation but do not have the ability to think at a systemic level. Personally, I have sat in a number of church staff meetings where some individuals have confessed that they are completely unaware of the existence of racism at a systemic level. Crouch’s examination and arguments regarding institutions are enlightening and truly get at the root of many issues that churches currently face. However, the same issues he points to within churches are issues that so many other institutions face as well.
Crouch is an optimist, but he does not have a naive optimism, his optimism is rooted in his hope and love of God. Playing God does not fall into one of the many cynical contemporary Christian books. And his book does not just tack on a half-hearted hopeful conclusion to consider–hope is instilled throughout the entire book. For Crouch vulnerability and dependence upon God is what it means to flourish. And he paints a wonderful picture of what this looks like through the stories of his friendship with a man from World Vision and his practical discussion regarding Sabbath Rest. Throughout my reading of the book I felt empowered and felt as though the book itself was a demonstration of Crouch’s heart to bring about flourishing.
Throughout Playing God Crouch demonstrates a wonderful ability to engage and exegete scripture and draw out applications relating to issues of power. He does not use scripture simply from one half of the bible or proof-text, but draws upon the entire biblical narrative, which in turn further emphasizes his thesis regarding power as being incredibility important to consider.
Andy Crouch’s examination of power in Playing God is one of the most significant works I have read recently. This book reveals the deep root issues within humanity and the world and gives hope for dealing with these issues. Crouch gets to the heart of something–power– that is so basic to what it means to be a human. In this book, Crouch truly takes up the vocation of a prophet. He criticizes the use of power but then imagines a beautiful way in which power can be something that is very very good. Through addressing power he then is able to touch on so many other issues throughout society. Crouch’s examination is thorough and comprehensive, he addresses power at an individual level and at an institutional level. The value of this book is found in its potential to inspire and bring about radical reformation in the way we see our relationships and participation within institutions.
[Editor's Note: Andy Crouch is a member of the Fuller Theological Seminary Board of trustees. But the reviewer didn't know this, so everything's cool, right? --TB]