July 11, 2014

a book review: Playing God

Things I learned about Andy Crouch in Playing God:
·He is a white man in a traditional family.
·He listens to classical music.
·He voted against Obama in 2008
·He believes institutions are vital 
·He believes privilege is good, if dangerous
·He believes power is good.

Of course, there is much more he reveals about himself, but I suspect that how you view the list above will determine how you receive the book.  Many will find it an affirmation of what they already believe and many will dismiss it out of hand – which would be a shame.  It has a lot to offer, particularly for  small groups and various church discussions.  For this I am excited.

The argument of the book is that power is basically good, but fallen in our world.  He tugs at scripture to demonstrate that God’s power is creative for our flourishing with the Imago Dei but distorted by the Fall.   Thus, he links idolatry and injustice in a clear fashion in the first section.  The next section details how power moves in people, hidden or not, and claims that force, coercion and violence are not synonymous with power.  I especially liked his examination of short-term missions here.  Because of these lexical distinctions, he can affirm coercion as moral suasion, a necessary use of power, if only to limit evil.  In the third section he highlights how institutions are vessels of power meant to help humans flourish and this I think is probably the section that raises the most eyebrows. 

The final section is an familiar IVP ending, full of personal anecdotes and practical disciplines meant to tie people to the great themes explored earlier.  It feels oddly disconnected from the rest of the book and the typical study guide questions sure to follow conjured in my head.  Honestly, for a book that so easily dismisses Nietzsche, Foucault, and much of the 20th centuries’ philosophical achievement, it would have been nice to read a more robust engagement instead of the tried and true IVP formula of; Bible talk-big idea with illustration-personal anecdote, stir to taste.  I’m not saying it’s bad-it’s probably pedagogically effective, but after decades of reading IVP, its too familiar… There seems to be a disconnect between the books form and the gravity of the subject.  (Interestingly, this final section is really the place the church is mentioned as a witness to an alternative kind of power.)

Allow me to say something unfair:   I am not sure how Jesus is required to make sense of power in “Playing God.”  Jesus does not seem material to the discussion. Of course, triumphing over the powers is mentioned, but there is not enough analysis of how Jesus' power might be different from the world's, and this creates confusion in light of the emphasis on institutions.  In fact, it is striking that such a book does not waste much ink portraying love as the ultimate expression of power; naming power as love, or defining  power as God’s self-giving.  The emphasis falls instead on a human flourishing that makes space for others creatively.

So"Playing God” describes power in fashion recognizable to anyone regardless of creed, which leads me to wonder what is specifically Christian about the book's notion of power.  Now of course, that's unfair to say - clearly "Playing God" is rooted in the Christian Story- but other then affirming God wins, is the New Testament needed at all to describe power as Crouch does?  The Barthian in me wants to call it an Old Testament consideration without enough reference to revelation, and the Anabaptist in me wants to examine the role of institutions, especially the church (!) in participating in this power.  Is the problem with power in the world simply that it strays and we just need to set it back on track?  Was Jesus only operating with power that was already in the world?

In the end I am uneasy about this book.  I am uneasy with a white evangelical author discussing power without examining how power shapes perceptions and epistemology.  I am uneasy with US citizens asserting the necessity and good of institutions without discussing the genocide of Indigenous Peoples here.  Racism as  way of knowing is not addressed, important, I think, for a white author asserting things about power.  There are big questions of immanence and natural law in the background, here, of theodicy and the substance of Christ.  Of course, he did not set out to write a systematic theology, so my expectations may be unfair, but I think we must at least address Christendom if we are to talk about power.

At its best, the book stands as a subtle rebuke to evangelicals for losing hope and not pursuing justice; not hoping for local and large scale change.  It might be a good example of Brueggeman's theology from above. At worst, the book serves as a defense of an improved status quo.  It puts a lot of eggs in the evangelical basket of culture making; placing our hopes in whether or not we can get institutions to roll over and make nice.  Interestingly, it might be a return to an earlier progressive, Christianity. 

And yet for all my concerns about the theological shortcomings of the book, I paused and wondered if I should comment at all.  When I read of the work Crouch does with International Justice Mission, a strange stillness crept over me, an awe about the effective application of love in our world, practical and liberating.  His description of World Vision’s work, both good and bad, was honest and compelling.  I cannot fully agree with his vision of power, but I cannot dismiss it either, and am grateful for his thoughtful work in the name of Jesus.  

dont let them bury me....im not dead yet

November 8, 2013

The New Pacifism - links galore for the seeking!

There are some really neat blog posts being written about "The New Pacifism."  It revolves around a synchroblog event and you can find links and comments on twitter at

Some really neat stuff discussed.  I'd love to chat more about it locally, too, especially at the intersection of Latino & Asian American worlds in CA.  Seems significant in light of immigration policies.

November 6, 2013

Loyalty, NBA, and the Transcendent Black Athlete

Ramona Shelburne wrote an interesting piece on the ESPN website in which she observes that the new NBA superstars are not as loyal to the franchise name as they are to their own brand.  Guys like LeBron and Kobe are worldwide brands selling all manner of things.  Unlike team equipment, much of the merchandise and endorsement money they earn goes directly to them, not their team.  She observes:
Since LeBron James' infamous 2010 decision, the rest of the NBA's best young stars have chosen to play with the rest of the NBA's best young stars. Franchise history and Q-rating have mattered little. 
It's at this point that the old guard starts railing about a generation of highlight-seeking, fundamental-lacking, self-absorbed superstars who have no concept of team basketball. 
But while the old guard rails, the young men running today's NBA have been cozying up to Wall Street CEOs and sitting in marketing meetings with the shoe companies and Madison Avenue executives who have been doing a better job at building their brands than individual NBA teams for the past couple of decades. 
The message those CEOs and "mad men" deliver is simple: The sooner you win, the better your brand becomes. The more you win, the bigger your brand grows.  James was the test case, and is now the example they all follow.

I appreciate Shelburne's insight and respect her perseverance in the hyper-male sports industry, but I think there is a further dimension to explore in her essay: race.  A lot of the head shaking, state-of-the-association bemoaning needs to be reconsidered in light of the racial composition of the NBA.
The transcendent black athlete has always been controversial in US sports, right?  But to bemoan the loss of team brand loyalty as the athletes themselves become the brand runs the risk of hoping black athletes would remain loyal to white billionaires who  begrudge the athlete's freedom. (Just look at the last collective bargaining agreement trying to limit player movement.  -they don't do that for day laborers.)  I'm still mad Howard left the Lakers - the Lakers are the home team, but it might be a good thing that the players are not under the thumb of the perennially wealthy WASP club.  (Who also donate to particular political campaigns....but that's another post)  Labor has a larger voice, in essence.

Of course, the sub-elite players still have their financial success tied to the franchise's performance, so the good-ole' boy team brand billionaire club isn't going away.  As Goldman-Sachs demonstrated, billionaires are good at avoiding that.  At least at the top, there is a class of NBA athlete - largely black- that is less obligated to them, and earning what the market commands.  (yeah, I know -market economy is a whole nother deal, too.)

October 23, 2013

Theological Confusions: Art

I have a couple of issues.  Well, more than a couple.  Somewhere in that mystical confluence we call "person" where the brain and the heart meet, I am aware there are deep seated confusions I harbor about the Kingdom of God.  I get the easy things in life twisted.  So here they are, offered as discussion material.

What is a real Christian rationale for art?  I will sometimes teach about the value of art in its sheer excess - art is a sign of excess, an overflowing of beauty that testifies to a superabundance of goodness in God.  I can accept that -in part.  It is a very romantic notion.  But there is a part of me that is too much like Judas - I am always left wondering about the wasted resources (including time), wondering if there is something more healing or fruitful that could have been approached instead.  It seems awfully wasteful to create paintings or buy instruments when that money very well could be used to feed someone hungry, contribute to their education, buy them a Bible, etc.

Permit me to be honest for a moment.  I love cars and woodworking.  I love the beautiful things people make from common materials, some of it practical, some of it simply breathtaking.  But these things require tools and materials, and expensive tools and materials at that (even the reclaimed stuff).  Especially cars - I am transfixed by the stuff people can do with an English Wheel.  I would call my self a hot-rodder but I've never built anything.  Who can afford it?  How can anyone rationally justify a $50,000 car as banks foreclose on responsible people who have lost their jobs due to health problems...

So these are examples of how I experience the tension.  I hear similar things about other media; music, pottery, etc.  Again, I don't teach this to people - I feel equally guilty squashing people's enthusiasm.  When I preach, I preach about the significance of Art.  I encourage people to it, valuing the creativity and expression.  But personally it is difficult for me to justify and I use the same line of logic Judas does when the woman anoints Jesus.  I rationalize my own teaching by focusing on the therapeutic aspects.

At bottom, I suppose my question is "when is it ok to not be explicitly actively loving people with your time and stuff?"  or, what "counts" as a spiritual pursuit of art," or maybe "how do we justify the resources art requires?  Even, what is a Christological justification for art?  When is there too much invested in it?  This is a deep theo-motional* confusion for me.  What say you?

(eat your heart out, Pat Riley)

© undone 2012 | Blogger Template by Enny Law - Ngetik Dot Com - Nulis