Review: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Andy Crouch’s title Playing God has a double meaning. 1) Idols play God by lording it over and ultimately enslaving those underneath their sway. 2) But this doesn’t mean playing God is necessarily wrong—we were created to mimic our Creator not just in service but in what Genesis calls “dominion.” The difference between 1) playing God and 2) playing God is the difference between using your God-given power to enslave or limit other divine image-bearers and using it to enable their flourishing. It’s the difference, in biblical terms, between maximizing the profit from your fields and leaving the corners ungleaned for the benefit of the poor (a biblical idea Crouch helpfully explores). It’s the difference between using a poor man’s debt as an excuse to bond his children into lifelong slavery and using your power to strengthen the institution of law enforcement so that it can put a stop to this slavery. Power, Crouch argues, is not evil. It’s good. God made it and God has it. And God has apportioned it to us to use in holy, circumscribed imitation of him.
But Crouch’s subtitle is likely to put off some readers of this review: “Redeeming the Gift of Power.” I’d say only that if the Bible is allowed to use redemption terminology for something other than the salvation of individual souls (Luke 2:38), and if a writer is allowed to explain what he means, then there need be no problem. Crouch brings up the social gospel explicitly, and he just as explicitly excoriates it. But something he doesn’t exactly say (though what he says is quite consistent with it) might help us here: the Bible calls us on to perform “good works.” Don’t let legalistic religions steal “good works” from you! We were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10), after all. And why should those good works be made into a category separate from our “secular” vocations? Why should we limit the performance of good works to after 5 pm and weekends? What is wrong with a Christian founding a micro-financing institution in rural Cambodia? He is using his God-given power creatively, for the benefit of others, for good works. And if he takes his Bible seriously, people around him will know to glorify his Father in heaven for these good works (Matt 5:16). Conservative Christians are right to probe for the “balance” on this issue: when do my good works for others actually start obscuring the verbal gospel message? But books like Crouch’s are a help, not a hindrance, in exploring this important question.
Playing God should be read as a sequel to Crouch’s other major book, Culture Making [three bucks on Kindle right now], which argued that God’s original commands to mankind in Genesis 1—fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion over it—have never been abrogated, that they require us today to cultivate and create. Cultivate what is good in existing human traditions and create anew on top of those traditions. “The only way to change culture is to make more of it.” (p. 201)
As I said in my review of that book, this statement should be a welcoming briar patch for all the Brer Rabbits in Christian liberal arts higher education. This is precisely what we do: we teach our students the existing tradition of our disciplines, and we hope that by doing so they will be able to develop those traditions in a biblically faithful direction whether by correction or addition. But in both of his major books, Crouch’s focus goes beyond education to all the realms of human culture. And in Playing God, he examines from many angles a topic, power, that is even more touchy than education.
Underlying much of the academic fascination with power, it seems to me, is the presupposition that power is essentially about coercion—that even when power looks life-giving and creative, it actually cloaks a violent fist in a creative glove. I believe this is exactly backwards. I actually believe the deepest form of power is creation, and that when power takes the form of coercion and violence, that is actually a diminishment and distortion of what it was meant to be. (pp. 10–11)
True to this introductory paragraph, Crouch’s book is not a manual for Christian reconstruction along theonomist lines. Crouch even makes a great point of discussing the limits to our power that the Bible enjoins (much as, in Culture Making, he is less than optimistic about the results of Christian culture making, preferring to leave those in God’s hands). For example, Crouch is the first Christian I’ve ever heard seriously consider, let alone propose, that believers observe a “sabbath year.” It never occurred to me that a Christian might view this Old Testament principle as any sort of obligation, or even a blessing. And to be clear, I don’t think we’re obligated—nor do I think we can obligate God to fulfill his promise to Israel that he’d give them extra crops during the sixth year (the year before the sabbatical year). But Crouch doesn’t think ancient Israelites who took a year off were idle; they were free to engage in other cultural, familial, academic, and religious pursuits. This is a purposeful limiting of one’s agricultural power. Likewise the jubilee year is a limiting of one’s power to insist upon repayment of debts. Crouch’s exploration of this topic is penetrating and biblically rich.
But rather than tour his argument at length, I would like to focus on what was the most helpful and memorable section of Crouch’s book for me personally: his discussion of institutions (see him talk about this topic on YouTube). I found his analysis to be very illuminating. Institutions, he said (aided by the work of Hugh Heclo and D. Michael Lindsay) comprise four elements: arenas, artifacts, rules, and roles.
“A football” is a cultural artifact, but “football” is a cultural institution: a rich and complex system of behaviors, beliefs, patterns and possibilities that can be handed on from one generation to the next. And it is within institutions, in this broad sense of the word, that our most significant human experiences take place. Institutions are at the heart of culture making, which means they are at the heart of human flourishing and the comprehensive flourishing of creation that we call shalom. Without institutions, in fact, human beings would be as feeble and futile as a flat football. (p. 170)
An institution like football has pretty clear rules, because it’s a formalized game. But its rules extend beyond those enforced by the referees to include those “rules” observed by fans (don’t cheer for rivals, don’t be a “fair-weather” fan), the media (cover important games and players), and others. And the roles the institution creates make it possible for some people to use gifts—like the ability to loft an oblong leather ball great distances under extreme pressure with astounding accuracy—that would never otherwise be used, or at least featured to the public. The arenas of the institution of football, too, include not just FedEx Field in D.C. but all of the many stadiums, offices, media sound stages, T-shirt designers, etc. used to keep the system flowing. It becomes clearer the more you think of the sheer number of jobs created by the institution of football that “institutions create and distribute power, the ability to make something of the world.” (p. 170)
Now apply this analysis to your most beloved institution: what is the arena in which it operates? What artifacts does it create? What are its rules? What roles does it create—in other words, how does it enable human flourishing (the true test of power, Crouch says)? How can you contribute to a good institution’s neighbor-loving goals? And because institutions are capable of great evil as well as great good, what’s wrong with the rules at your institution? Are roles being squelched that should be developed? Are its artifacts worth producing?
I don’t know that I was knowingly anti-institutional before this month, but this book (and an issue of Comment I read) have shown that I was largely taking institutions for granted. What I have now is not a program for climbing the ladder at my institution but a deepened, biblically informed desire to do good works for others by means of the multiplied effectiveness of group effort we know as an “institution.” (One thing I might have liked Crouch to discuss a bit more is the limits and dangers of parachurch institutions.)
There is a great deal that separates me from Andy Crouch. He identifies with “Wesleyan instincts” (p. 284) I don’t share. He works for Christianity Today and other mainstream evangelical institutions. Especially at the level of institutions we have no links that I can think of—save, perhaps, for the diffuse “institution” of American evangelicalism. But it is a testimony to the power of evangelicalism’s take on the Bible and, I think, to the power of the Holy Spirit, that I can derive so much benefit from someone who differs from me so much. For example, I regard it as a very significant inconsistency that Crouch dismisses a straightforward reading of Genesis 1–3 and nonetheless builds his two major books (this one and Culture Making) firmly on the teachings of those chapters. Far from diminishing my faith in Genesis 1, Crouch has strengthened it by showing how relevant it is to daily life in this world. And far from denying or diminishing the fall in Genesis 3, which becomes problematic if there was no historical Adam (see Rom 5), Crouch seems very sensitive to the effects of the fall on even the best, most well-intentioned efforts of mankind. He is no Pollyanna. And “Redeeming the Gift of Power” doesn’t mean launching an effort to get as many evangelicals as possible into positions of political authority. That’s just not the way Crouch talks.
I don’t see this book as a threat to Christian conservatives. I see it—along with its more or less prequel, Culture Making—as essentially a call to biblical obedience. I also see it as freeing for the vast majority of Christian conservatives, that is, the people who sit in the pews and live in the 9-to-5 secular world. I imagine it could sound cloying to a Christian factory foreman when a upper-class white intellectual who listens to John Eliot Gardiner on Spotify all day and types up blog posts on his MacBook Pro tells him, “Your job is a significant exercise of power for the good of your neighbor!” But I think it’s biblical truth. God has called us to teach all nations everything Christ commanded us. But He’s called most of us to spend far, far, far more of our daily hours making widgets, testing soil acidity, binding paperback books. This isn’t an accident. We should all use the power gifted to us for God-glorifying and neighbor-loving ends.
(One more note: this book is one side of a conversation Crouch is having with many people, but perhaps especially James Davison Hunter, author of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. That book is on my Kindle waiting to be read, so I can’t speak to his objections.)