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Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power Hardcover – 6 Oct 2013

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About the Author

ANDY CROUCH (M.Div., Boston University School of Theology) is editorial director of the Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today International. He served as executive producer for the documentary films Where Faith and Culture Meet and Round Trip. He also sits on the editorial board of Books and Culture and has been a columnist for Christianity Today. His writing has appeared in several editions of The Best Christian Writing and The Best Spiritual Writing. He was editor-in-chief of :generation quarterly and for ten years served as a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
A Uniquely Christian View of Power 23 Sept. 2013
By David Swanson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Playing God by Andy Crouch is a really good book. I'd heard the author allude to this project a couple of years back, if memory serves, and had been anticipating it ever since. As a white man who serves a multi-ethnic church in a predominately African-American neighborhood, I've thought about power a lot. I was curious what Crouch would say about it and am happy to report that his insights are fresh, theologically nuanced, and utterly intelligible. I assume many people will read this book and be helped by it.

There will be plenty of thoughtful reviews of Playing God; rather than add to that pile I'll share a few reasons why this book benefitted me and a few questions it raised.

As Crouch points out repeatedly, power, when it's talked about at all, is generally perceived negatively. For most of us, power is assumed to be a a zero sum game: one's attainment of power is equal to another's loss of power. Crouch points back to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as the most influential proponent of this view. In Nietzsche's world we each strive to extend our power over all space, competing with others on the same quest. In intentional contrast to Nietzsche, Crouch describes true power as the process of creating space for others to flourish. This, he says, is the vision we find in the Bible and represents power's gift.

Many readers, like myself, will not have realized how influenced they have been by Nietzsche's cynical view of power until they read Crouch's compelling case for a much more hopeful perspective. Later in the book the author helpfully (very!) differentiates power from privilege, dynamics I've made crudely analogous in the past. This is a somewhat common topic in our church; I'm convinced that white privilege is the achilles heel of most multi-ethnic churches. Playing God, with it's more hopeful view of power, gives me more nuanced ways of pointing out the destructive traits of privilege while making space for the positive uses of power that are worth moving toward.

The same paradigm-shifting nuance is true in the chapter about institutions. As a church planter, I've interacted with a lot of people who express particular wounds from experiences with churches. I've come to believe that every institution and organization is bent toward this sort of wounding potential. Institutions, after all, are made up of people capable of inflicting harm on others, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes not. (A note: I was glad the author devoted a chapter to the "principalities and powers" as this theological insight about systems is often neglected by evangelical-ish authors. I'd have liked there to be more about this; perhaps some interaction with Jaques Ellul on this important subject.) While acknowledging the strong tendency for institutions to slide toward self-preservation and the harm such a slide entails, Crouch remains - here it is again - hopeful:

"Institutions are the way the teeming abundance of human creativity and culture are handed on to future generations. So posterity, not just prosperity, is the promise of GOd to Abraham: countless descendants and blessings poured out on entire nations not yet born. Posterity, not just prosperity, is God's promise to David, a succession of sons in his line on the throne. And posterity was what the average Israelite prayed for as well - 'may you see your children's children!' - a wish that before death one would see the evidence that shalom and abundance would continue in one's own line after death. There is nothing quick about shalom. True shalom endures."

Playing God has much to commend it, far more than the few examples I've pointed to here. It also raised a few questions for me.

As much as I appreciated the hope about power that spills from the pages of this book, I couldn't help wondering about how optimistic the author is. OK, optimism probably isn't the best word and Crouch does a great job of outlining the abuses of power with personal stories and cultural observations. But still, from where I stand, and despite the compelling case made by Crouch, it's hard to share his hope about power. In the structures and systems of our city, power's evil offspring (Crouch very helpfully identifies these as injustice and idolatry) simply seem to morph from one form to another over time. The results are generations of disenfranchisement, violence, and oppression. Not only these of course; there are always instances and communities of goodness and beauty. And yes, there are many, many people and churches using their power to create space for flourishing. But these individuals and institutions always seem, sometimes quite literally, outgunned by other sources of power.

I wonder too about the way Crouch talks about the distinction between evangelism and justice. While strongly affirming the need for both, he makes the same move other evangelical-ish folks do. He writes, "In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not." This, I think, is quite incorrect. Many of the examples Crouch gives about justice work take place outside the USA. They are wonderful examples of the sort many Christians (these days, at least) strongly support. But the notion that justice is cooler or more acceptable than evangelism seems to expose a narrow (or geographically distant) view of justice. When I think of justice for many of my neighbors I think of changes to policy - education funding, gun control, law enforcement, economic development, drug policy - along with robust acknowledgment of and response to historic injustices that would be far from popular or cool with the majority of those holding the bulk of our culture's power.

But these are mostly quibbles and I'm reading Playing God from my own biased location. I hope many will read this book, that it will start many conversations, and, best of all, call churches to steward the power promised us by God's presence for the flourishing of all our neighbors.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Superb expository on power 28 Oct. 2013
By Daniel S - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have been waiting for a book like “Playing God” by Andy Crouch for years now, since I got more serious about reading (and applying what I read). There really is not a lot out there on Christian non-fiction related to the notion of “power”. It’s discussed somewhat in philosophy circles and even some theological circles, but even then it is under the umbrella of discussions around politics, economics, or social justice. All that is well and good, Crouch would say, but where is God in the midst of it and what do normal, everyday Christians, do with any of that?
In his book, Crouch offers an excellent portrayal and exposition of key narratives and events in the Bible within the meta-narrative scope of human history and experience. He also reflects deeply, yet with pristine precision of making sure his reading audience “gets it” a thought provoking and powerful (pardon the pun) discussion of power – its misuse and we can get regain or use it once more for good. Each chapter builds on its predecessor, with a common theme going through that of “idolatry and injustice”. This, argues Crouch, is at the core of what is really going on here. Why is it that “institutions” misuse their power? Idolatry and injustice. Why do some instigate violence as a means of power? Idolatry and injustice. Why do some use their privilege (which is not inherently evil) for evil instead of good? Idolatry and injustice.
The book talks about relatively “heady” objects of discourse, but in insightful and transparent ways – often times Crouch brings in personal examples in his life, which is always a good way to grab a reader’s interest (words without actions are just words). The climax of the book is toward the end with an exposition of “Sabbath” and its coattails of discussing “gleaning”, “jubilee” and even “sabbatical”. It’s refreshing in a book like this that even while one can get frustrated at “the world” for being the way it is (and not installing an economic system of jubilee for example), it is also encouraging that the Christian can understand all of this in the grand crescendo of eschatology (end times). Satan’s temptation to “be like God” in the beginning will only run its course for so long until we celebrate and worship our benevolent King near the flourishing Tree of Life.
My only critique, if you want to call it that even, is that I think more attention could be spent discussing the “principalities and powers” that one finds in other exhortations on power; such as that of Walter Wink’s trilogy of books examining that very subject. “Principalities and powers” are only alluded to briefly by Crouch. Personally, I would have loved to see such a sharp and applicable thinker like Crouch discuss this concept more. Apart from that, this book filled in a lot of gaps in my thinking about this matter. I find it extremely pragmatic for the everyday layman who also seeks to fill in those same gaps. I will be giving away copies of this book to friends for Christmas with a note to say: If you apply elements of this book into your business and ministry life, you will fail in the eyes of the world but succeed for eternity in the eyes of our Lord.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
From Will to Power to God's Will for Power 14 Oct. 2013
By James R. V. Matichuk - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
I admit it. I am suspicious of power. Some of my uneasiness stems from where I have seen injustice done towards those on the margins. But I also embody the typical GenX suspicion of authority and institutions. I mean, I am no anarchist, but I have an Anabaptist-like suspicion of all who wield power. Yet Andy Crouch's new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power has got me to think hard about the positive, creative purpose of power. According to Crouch, power is not the problem, misdirected power is. Power is a gift from God which enables each us to flourish and engage in the creative task of image bearing.

After Crouch's introductory chapters, Playing God unfolds in four parts. In part one, Crouch lays his case for Power being a gift. Two biblical explorations-The creation account in Geensis 1-2 and the wedding feast of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine-frame part one. Crouch avers that the creation account provides a picture of God's creative power and its connection to our image bearing. In chapter two, "Power is a Gift," Crouch argues against Nietzsche's `Will to Power' and might-makes-right vision of power. The Christian vision of power unfolded in the Bible is, "Real power, not just passive-aggressive coexistence but the power to turn the page of history, to deliver the poor, reconcile the lost, and raise the dead" (53). The Nietzschean view of power is unmasked as idolatry (ascribing ultimate power to an illegitimate source) and injustice (grasping at power, while leaving others powerless-chapters three and four, respectively). Chapter five shows that the alternative to injustice and idolatry is to be an icon reflecting God's image. Power becomes a means of creatively embodying the Kingdom in our context. The Wedding of Cana provides a case-study of the proper exercise of power (i.e. Mary and Jesus' example in the narrative).

Part two describes the grip of power. Two biblical passages also bookend this section of the book-the ten words of Exodus 20, and Jesus washing the disciples feet in John 13. Power, is often hidden from those who possess it (i.e. an executive whose words always close the meeting). The consequences of non-self aware power is that we fail to leverage it for good (chapter seven). Sometimes our personal power is the result of privilege (through our status as westerner, our wealth, our whiteness, or really anything else that sounds WASP-y) (chapter seven). Crouch also questions the assumption that power is ultimately about violence and coercion (as assumed variously by C. Wright Mills, Anabaptists, and Nietzsche). The alternative view of power that Crouch is sketching is our creative image bearing and does not treat power as a zero-sum game where the powerful dominate the powerless (chapter eight). The ten commandments orient us with the proper disposition to power and questions our underlying idolatry and proclivity towards injustice. John 13 show how Jesus, aware of his power and privilege modeled a different order of power for his disciples.

Part three is dedicated to describing the role of institutions. While institutions are broken and are often responsible for profound injustices, Institutions are also necessary for human flourishing. Commenting on one of the contemporary institutional failures in recent memory, the Catholic church's pedophile priests, Crouch observes that there was both the failure of "underlords"-priests who abused their position and power, and "overlords"-bishops, cardinals (& popes!) who failed to hold these priests to account (213-4). He concludes, "So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power (214). Crouch urges us to be `trustees' working within broken institutions to provide places and ways for people to flourish. International Justice Mission (IJM) is one example of an organization which works to strengthen institutions which restrain evil in particular nations and cultures (207-9). Crouch's biblical exploration of Philemon illustrates how the apostle Paul did not attack slavery directly but used his power, influence and hospitality to advocated on Onesimus' behalf.

Part four describes the `end of power' in terms of its telos, its porper limits and the eventual cessation of human power as it is swallowed up in praise of God.

This is a great book, inviting thought about how power, properly construed, is a necessary component of our image bearing, enabling to fulfill God's mission in the world. Some fruitful insights I gained from Crouch was the connection between idolatry and injustice (and the implications for evangelical's evangelism and social action). I also found his examination of the ;hidden aspects of power' and privilege incisive. Many injustices are perpetuated by well-meaning people who would never grab for power at the expense of others. Nevertheless non-examined privilege is responsible for a whole lot of systemic injustice. Crouch is able to sing the praises of power, while taking an honest look at where power goes awry.

The picture of power which Crouch paints is different from the `will to power' bequeathed to the modern world by Nietzsche, Foucult, et al. Crouch's reference point for power is God's own creative purposes described in the Bible (with special reference to the opening and closing chapters) This makes it a radical departure from power as usual. Thus while Lord Acton could say, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely," Crouch points out that no one has more absolute power than a parent has over their newborn babies; yet rarely does a parent use their power for ill towards them. If anything, a parent properly uses their power to care for, nurture, protect and feed the child. Power is not the issue, the disordered exercise of power is. Crouch made me long to see more redemptive acts of power, not in the mold of Nietzsche's `will to power,' but of `God's will for power.'

I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
An apt subtitle: "Redeeming the Gift of Power" 12 Jan. 2014
By Scott M. - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
“Power is a gift.” So begins Andy Crouch’s latest book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. What follows is certainly the most comprehensive , thoughtful, and imaginative meditation on power I’ve ever read. Crouch’s first book, Culture Making, remains one of my favorite books of the last 10 years, so it comes as no surprise that I enjoyed Playing God as much as I did.

My original temptation was to summarize the book as a theology of power, but to do so would be to misread Crouch entirely. Playing God is theological, but it’s also social, cultural, historical, economical, political, practical, relational, and so on. In other words, the book considers what the Bible has to say about power, but it does not stop there.

Crouch wants to share with us a robust vision of who God is, who God made us to be, and how we might better pursue the flourishing of God’s creatures and creation.

And what does that pursuit look like? Playing God invites us to forsake our god-making and god-playing in favor of true image-bearing. To be image bearers, as Crouch so masterfully articulates, is to be empowered by the Spirit of God toward lives of grace, justice, creativity, community, humility, wisdom, and worship.

This book will open your eyes to the power that both surrounds and indwells us. Watch the news and you’ll see power used and abused. Review your checking account activity or your calendar and you’ll see traces of god-making, god-playing, and image-bearing. Step inside what Crouch calls an “arena” — maybe a mall, a stadium, a church, or a school — and you’ll hear the hum of power above the din of the crowd.

Read this book, not because you’re hungry for power, but because you’re hungry for redemption of the power you already possess.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Naming, Ascribing, and Exercising Power 18 Jan. 2014
By Benjamin A. Simpson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Andy Crouch is a gifted journalist, and has come to be one of my favorite contemporary evangelical voices. In Playing God, Crouch turns his attention to the subject of power, analyzing what it is, how it is abused, its redemptive potential, and how Christians might exercise it well. Using familiar theological motifs like creation, idolatry, covenant, redemption, and restoration, this book moves back and forth between present realities, plagued by sin, and our ultimate, gospel hope.

Crouch's central thesis is that power is a gift. Crouch believes this claim is controversial. Standing in the wake of Nietzsche and Foucault, knowingly or not, we are suspicious of power. We believe that power's exercise leads to oppression, or we associate power with negative outcomes--the strong dominating the weak. We have difficulty ascribing goodness to power, or acknowledging creative potentialities waiting to be unleashed by its right use. Power, when it is used well, is not named as power, though this does not negate the dynamic it creates. Crouch suggests that if the church is to use power well, this must change. We must see that God has gifted humankind with power, has redeemed power by way of the cross, and is calling the people of God to use power in a way that makes tangible the shalom of God.

Of the topics explored by Crouch in this book, my favorite were that of the relationship of power to sabbath practice and the value of institutions. Those are sections I will return to in the future. This is a timely book on an important topic. I recommend it.
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