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A Feature Review of
Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing
Hardback: IVP Books, 2016
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Reviewed by Ryan Johnson
In the heart of every woman and man there is an acute understanding that we were created for flourishing. Equally present, however, is a devastating realization that we have failed to realize that purpose. One needs only point to the exploitation of young children by traffickers or the amassing of wealth at the expense of others to prove the point. The subsequent effect on our neighborhoods and communities is heart-wrenching. The critic and prophet share the ability to bring these things to light. The difference, however, is that the critic ends with this illumination while the prophet goes on to offer a message of hope and a vision for change. This is what Andy Crouch has done so well in each of his previous books, Culture Making and Playing God. This is what he does again in this important book, Strong and Weak.
In the beginning of the book, Andyintroduces what he calls the, “paradox of flourishing.” For many, the concepts of vulnerability and authority stand at odds with one another. The general belief is that to open oneself to risk and vulnerability is to give up authority whereas the pursuit of greater authority is seen as a way to shield oneself from vulnerability. Indeed, many Christians today have fallen victim to this way of thinking, often referring to it as “downward mobility.” Too often in practice it leads to the eschewing of authority and a false sense of humility. In a conversation with a student during his time in campus ministry Andy came to question that way of thinking. It is to this issue that Andy offers a corrective to a hurting and broken world.
Andy points out that the common way of looking at authority and vulnerability is steeped in zero-sum thinking and instead offers the counterintuitive understanding that true flourishing comes about by increasing vulnerability and authority simultaneously. It is important to understand what Andy means by these terms as they are used so frequently in common parlance that their meanings are often distorted or so vague that they lose all meaning. He thus defines authority to mean “the capacity for meaningful action.” Authority therefore is contingent on your ability to make a difference based on your action or inaction. Vulnerability on the other hand is defined as, “meaningful risk.” This is an important distinction because for some the practice of being self-effacing is done for manipulative purposes rather than being truly vulnerable. The simple idea of combining these concepts to find flourishing forms the thesis of his work and the message of flourishing is directed not only at individuals but also to communities.
In order to illustrate his point, he utilizes the tool of the 2×2 grid. The 2×2 grid is an exceptional tool in dealing with paradoxes that run contrary to popular belief. They often allow us to see two things in a nonlinear relationship that we ordinarily see as opposite ends of the spectrum. In his 2×2 grid, Andy places vulnerability along the horizontal axis and authority on the vertical axis. With this grid established, he begins to expound upon each quadrant. Through the use of poignant stories and powerful examples, he demonstrates what each looks like and their corresponding tragedies. Each quadrant was also assigned descriptive labels beginning with the upper right corner and moving clockwise: Flourishing, Suffering, Withdrawing, and Exploiting. These terms are effective in laying a fundamental understanding for each quadrant.
Andy’s discussion of the three deficient areas is superb. Indeed, his experiences with a number of organizations and his attentive interactions with people have given him the ability to see the effects of these quadrants in vivid detail. The chapter on suffering, which he defines as vulnerability without authority, is particularly relatable. Andy makes the point that every person has experienced a time where he or she was incapable of meaningful action that would result in a change in their situation. He goes on to convey several stories which deal with communities that have endured suffering as the result of someone else’s use of exploitation (authority without vulnerability). His variety of stories creates a common ground from which to build while being careful not to equate the suffering of one person or people group with that of another.
Just as exploitation and suffering are opposites of the same coin, flourishing according to Andy finds its opposite in withdrawing. He defines this as being the quadrant that has low vulnerability and low authority. This discussion is perhaps the most broadly accessible section of the book as its examples are stripped right from popular culture and should strike a chord with many whose social interaction is largely dependent on their use of social media and technology. With the rampant escapism in our culture facilitated by the use of smartphones and the increasing divisions between individuals and communities, withdrawing is perhaps our greatest hindrance to flourishing. Andy’s analysis of this problem provides keen awareness and the first steps toward flourishing.
While nearly every reader will have experienced vulnerability without authority, few have experienced the opposite. In his discussion on exploitation, however, Andy delves into the human heart and persuades us to do the same. Reading this chapter, you are immediately confronted with your own longing for authority without risk. It is a condition of the human heart that can be traced back to the Garden of Eden and the desire to be “like God.” He powerfully calls us to see the danger of this longing by saying, “Vulnerability shed by one group of people is inevitably borne by others’ suffering.” Indeed, Andy’s insight here comes as a crucial call to leaders to examine their leadership practices and more importantly their motives for leadership.
Like any good prophet, Andy does not let us leave without offering a vision of what could be. He says, “Leadership does not begin with a title or a position. It begins the moment you are concerned more about others’ flourishing than you are about your own.” Andy is saying that the flourishing of an individual walks hand in hand with the community’s flourishing. This is a profound truth that many of us in leadership positions need to hear over and over again. He goes on to expound the idea that leaders are tasked with the responsibility to bear the vulnerability of the community that the community has no authority to address. He calls this hidden vulnerability because it causes the leader to hide certain risks from the community. Undoubtedly, there is a truth in this statement, but there is also a serious danger in hiding too much of the risk. Leaders must be very intentional with the risks they choose to bear.
The book Strong and Weak is a powerful work from the capable hands of Andy Crouch. It delivers the simple idea of combining authority and vulnerability to produce flourishing. In just a cursory glance at the headlines of today and society at large it is easy to see the intense need of this way of leading and this way of living in community. May we embrace both authority and vulnerability as we strive towards a flourishing life for ourselves and our communities.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com