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.  


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