Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
When it comes to power, Christians often gravitate toward one of two familiar poles. One holds that power is a neutral tool that can be used for good or ill. Recognizing its usefulness in getting things done and making the world a better place, this position seeks power and strives to wield it well.
The other clings to Lord Acton’s famous nineteenth century dictum: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acknowledging the damage that power-wielding people routinely inflict upon those around them, this position eschews power and either gives up on making a difference in the world or seeks “power free” methods for effecting change.
In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch seeks a mediating position between these poles. He is suspicious of claims that there is such thing as a “power free” method, and his interpretation of Scripture leads him to believe that Christians have a responsibility in this world to use power wisely for the common good. Yet he knows enough about the role of sin in the Bible story to avoid naïve claims about the supposed “neutrality” of power.
Power is not simply neutral, according to Crouch; it is dangerous. Because of its hazardous potential, it is all the more important for Crouch that godly people who have been shaped by the Scriptures exercise the proper use of power and model it for others. He therefore exhorts believers to respect power, seek power, and partner with persons and institutions with power to bring about positive change.
Because Crouch frames this book as a sequel to his work in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, I read the latter first. I don’t think doing so is necessary. Both books stand on their own just fine. Yet both books made the same sort of impression upon me. Crouch has solid insights, is a gifted writer, and has no shortage of illustrations to reinforce his points. He mostly affirms positions that are easy to affirm, especially if one is not suspicious of his one-dimensional view of power. Occupants of both poles would agree with much of what he says and then simply put more or less emphasis on different aspects.
Where Crouch more directly challenges readers, he does not hit hard enough or convincingly enough to change a skeptical reader’s mind. I found myself consistently wishing he had dedicated more time to supporting his points with a deeper reading of Scripture and less time to illustrating them. I also wish he spent more time engaging the insights of careful thinkers who disagree with him. They may have called into question his univocal view of power and spurred him on to a more robust analysis of the nature of power itself.
These preliminary remarks have a lot to do with target audience and writing style. This book may not have been written for people like me. Yet there is a deeper issue that Crouch needs to address regardless of his audience. Both books could benefit from a more careful analysis of the specific vocation of God’s people in a fallen world. For the remainder of this review I spell out what I mean by this.