Tag Archives: Playing God

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

Andy Crouch has given us a beautiful book. (Sadly,if you’re reading it on your iPad you won’t be able to appreciate this.) The matte black jacket that has a slightly tacky feel. The multicolored crown graphic – the lower of which is the negative (I think) of the upper. The font. It all works well – bearing  the combination of Andy’s unmistakable touch and the skill of designers at InterVarsity Press – a redemptive sharing of power and a sign that others are flourishing. But I’m getting ahead of myself…Playing God Cover

Actually, what Andy has written in Playing God is even more beautiful. So by way of disclaimer, if my comments below make his work seem less than amazing, disregard my notes and go straight to the book.

For me, this book was transformational. In truth, my own take on power has been deeply conflicted and inconsistent for a long time – probably as long as I can remember. Despite reading and reflection – I’ve read any number of books about power & influence, studied with leadership thought leader Ron Heifetz at the Kennedy School, and even preached on this theme – I’ve been unable to overcome a profound tension. On the one hand, I’ve understood Jesus, whose life and teaching has always seemed to me one big invitation to lay down power and embrace the way of the cross. On the other hand, I work alongside students, professionals and faculty who are engaged in the academic enterprise at one of the most powerful academic communities in the world – followers of Jesus who want to USE their power in ways that faithfully express the way of Jesus.

Tony Campolo describes this stark tension better than anyone. In his 1980’s book, The Power Delusion, he highlighted the research of a little-known sociologist, Willard Waller, who articulated his “principle of least interest” – a defining motif for Tony that pits love AGAINST power. For example,

In both dating and marriage, each person endeavors to gain power over his or her partner. One way to do this is to withhold love. Therefore, the person who loves the least has the most power, and the person who loves the most has the least power. (p. 18)

So, in Tony’s economy (and in my own understanding for as long as I can remember) love and power cannot coexist peacefully – in order to love one had to lay down power. It is love OR power – it is binary. For Tony, at least in his writing, there was no recognition that love might not just coexist but be expressed through power. For him the only way to love is to renounce power. To be sure, Andy does come back to the abuses of power (playing a false god) later in the book. But first he writes expansively about the amazing gift of power and this was where my own view began to be transformed.

What I liked:

1. Andy starts and ends with the Bible

While he recognizes that the Bible isn’t a handbook about power, Andy invites us to bring our questions to the text and the God who speaks there, “asking,” as he says, “the Bible to form our imaginations about power” (p. 12). When he does this, it gives us permission set aside poorly integrated ideas about what power is and what it means to live with it faithfully. Asking us to read the whole Bible – including the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation, referring to the resurrection of Jesus as “the most audacious act of power in the history of the world” (p. 25).

2. Andy has given us a great definition of power and told us what it is for – Flourishing

For Andy, “power is the ability to make something of the world” and to interpret and give it meaning (p. 17-18). Power isn’t just destructive or coercive – it is creative. And when it is used well, it multiplies and creates more power for others. In fact, this is one test of power’s legitimacy: “when one person or group of people acts to deprive another of power, and especially when that pattern of exclusion persists from generation to generation—then something has gone fiercely wrong… true power multiplies capacity and wealth…” (p. 19). “Power is for image bearing and image bearing is for flourishing” (p. 54).

3. Andy describes the problem – Idolatry & Injustice

Idols are what people come up with when they misuse their creative power. They are objects made without reference to the truth of God and his character.  They claim – apart from God – to have the true interpretation of reality. Injustice is the practical outcome of idolatry since the idol has been substituted for the image of the true God. “God hates injustice and idolatry because they are the same thing… Whether making false gods (idolatry) or playing false gods (injustice) the result is identical—the true image of God is lost…” (p. 71). Andy’s description and illustrations relating idolatry and injustice were the clearest and most persuasive explanations I’ve read.

4. Andy invites us to “play God” as “Icons” of the true God

I’ve gotta say that this language isn’t what I would have chosen – it makes me nervous. For Andy “Playing God” is not just a critique of those who would misuse power as false gods. It is his invitation to the followers of the true God to – by grace – live as Icons – to “play God” – bearing God’s true image and exercising power for flourishing (p. 87).

5. Andy says that privilege is “power that requires no effort”

It is “the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power”(p. 150), and if we take the model of Jesus, is to be spent rather than conserved.

6. Institutions are the way we make something of the world and get it to stick

Andy’s formula for institutions includes what he calls four ingredients (artifacts, arenas, rules and roles) and three generations (founders, children, children’s children). Our role is to function as trustees (p. 213) who neither overplay or underplay their power. His discussion of Martin Luther King and the passivity of white moderates when they could have joined him in his “illegal protests” highlights the fact that institutions depend on the courage and action of people (p. 219).

7. Andy reminds us that God has provided practical and deeply spiritual means for taming power
He writes:

So anyone who desires to use their power for image bearing rather than god playing needs to embrace not just the disciplines that lead to success but the disciplines that lead away from it. The classical Christian tradition has emphasized three practices that radically interrupt lives of power and privilege: solitude, silence and fasting. Each of these practices involves the intentional pursuit of secret defeat, the perfect antidote to a life of sociable success. And each of these contributes to shaping us into image bearers who can use whatever power we are given humbly and wisely. (p. 239)

His discussion of gleaning and it’s application in modern settings to margins, the economy and power in general is a marvelous if improbable response to shareholder demands and personal ambition to claim all the value (p. 248).

What I’m still thinking about:

1. In working with younger people, how and when have you found it best to introduce this vision of power? Fr. Richard Rohr has said:

Unless a boy is initiated into “the mysteries” he will not now what to do with his pain and he would almost always abuse his power. (The Spiritual Journey of Transformation, Disc 1)

So by Fr. Rohr’s account I still have time for our two boys at home. I guess what I want to know is whether it’s too late to catch them if they’re already here at graduate school.

2. I know he only gave it one paragraph, but I’d like to hear more about why Andy so quickly writes off the community organizing approach of Saul Alinsky, calling it “zero sum.” What about times when the broader society has made peace with intrenched injustice? And what about situations where laws and other institutions align themselves symbiotically with the injustice of the root institution. Surely there are times when the coming together of the poor and dispossessed to organize themselves is a good use of power?  What about the American Revolution?  Or the ANC in South Africa?  Are some institutions not meant to be torn down?

Each spring prior to Commencement the InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Fellowship at Harvard gathers to bless and pray for dozens of students, commissioning them at our Ordination to Daily Work. Previously on these occasions it has seemed to me that the path of faithfulness for these soon-to-be-graduates was to receive the blessing, take the degree and then lay down all the related benefits (aka power) that a graduate degree from Harvard brings with it. Renouncing power for the love of God and neighbor. Now, I and my fellow chaplains will be able to point to a different way – encouraging these graduating friends to lay down their idols and become holy icons whose power and privilege is multiplied and shared and shaped by their journey with Jesus. I can’t wait to tell them about it.

As I was finishing these notes I happened to come across six short video clips and one longer one of Andy talking about some of the key ideas in Playing God.  These are good. Even more helpful is the longer conversation with John Wilson, Books & Culture (on page 2 of the link above).

Interestingly, John says that Andy’s book was transformative for him too. Maybe for you as well?


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