Playing God: A Book Review

Playing God coverI wanted to read this book for two reasons. One, I’m a fan of Andy Crouch, both as a writer and as a person. I respect his mind and appreciate his perspective on matters of culture and faith. But a close second was the book’s very intriguing subject matter. Redeeming power? Nearly all we read and hear about power these days is fitted over the assumption that power is an all-corrupting influence, in short supply and corrosive. Certainly not ripe with potential for redemption. Certainly not something to embrace and recognize without shame, if you are a person of relative power.

This is a big book, and I knew it would be heavy in more ways than one, so I’ll admit I opened it with a sense of committing myself to something that might take me a while. Something I might break from and come back to, that might become a “should finish” when I got about halfway through.

I was wrong. I sailed through this book with a highlighter, fascination, and a sense of resonance that stayed awake the whole time.

The book

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

(Published by InterVarsity Press, 2013)

What this book offers

If you’ve read Andy Crouch’s writing before, you’ll approach this book, as I did, expecting a very thoughtful treatment of the subject of power–and that’s what you’ll get. But it might lead you to some more profound insights than you anticipated. Crouch explores the idea of power thoroughly, pointing out expressions of power that we take for granted in everyday life, many of them positive and life-giving. He shows how power can be a very good thing, and how those who have power are called to do good. Essentially, he tells us, “The world is infinitely worse, and infinitely better, than it appears. And that is what I have come to believe about power” (p. 26). Then he has the audacity to tell us that “power is a gift worth asking for, seeking and–should we receive it–stewarding” (p. 37). This is a counter-cultural message.

At the same time, he doesn’t fail to confront abuses of power, including many that are hidden among us–and that may benefit us when we’re not paying attention. He questions the assumptions that fester under many common ideas about power, pointing out how Nietzschean philosophy serves to perpetuate abuses and seizures of power in the name of hoarding a scarce resource. He points us toward a better world, where power that mimics that of God himself creates flourishing, injects power where it didn’t exist, shares power among thriving people.

Crouch shows us two basic kinds of power: the kind that comes from God, multiplies power, and commissions those who hold it to flourish (the power of “image bearers”), and the kind that mimics false gods (the power of “god players”), who promise that we will be like God, then demand more and more from us, impoverishing others in order to feed themselves. The ultimate expressions of such power are among the offenses God most hates: idolatry and injustice. In contrast, he challenges us to see and imitate the power of God as described in Genesis and Revelation–the power that creates, gives power to others, and commissions them to act as he does.

Crouch speaks of the tempering role love plays in partnership with power, but also challenges us to think about power itself as necessary and good in that relationship: “Like life itself, power is nothing–worse than nothing–without love. But love without power is less than it was meant to be” (p. 25). Behind such power, paired with love, is “the most audacious act of true power in the history of the world, the resurrection of the Son from the dead.”

As he helps us think about power as a good gift, Crouch looks through these lenses at Jesus’ wedding miracle, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ death and resurrection, the biblical slave Philemon, modern-day slavery, and a host of cultural references. He affirms the critical and potential positive power of institutions. And for individuals, the observance of spiritual disciplines, which can function to tame our power and make us image bearers rather than god players: “If we want to be the kind of people who can take up power, and lay it down, the disciplines are the only adequate preparation” (p. 240). These disciplines can make us more likely to use our power as Jesus did in his life on earth: “The disciplines form us into the kind of people who interrupt our agenda for others rather than interrupting others for our agenda” (p. 245).

What I liked about this book

I appreciate the way this book made me think deeply and question some of my own assumptions about power. It’s both thoughtful and challenging, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also empowering–encouraging readers to walk away with a sense of power rooted in who God is and his calling on us. “Like [God],” Crouch tells us, “we are meant to pour out our power fearlessly, spend our privilege recklessly, and leave our status in the dust of our headlong pursuit of love” (p. 281).

And while the book is thoughtful and philosophical, it’s also practical and prescriptive. I also walked away with clear ideas for how I might seek to be an image bearer, acting powerfully but not in service to myself or any other false god.

I also appreciate that the book draws heavily on two sources: the Bible and the world around us. This is not a book based merely in human reasoning, but it’s also not a denial of what is true about this life.

I needed Crouch’s affirmation of institutions. Like him, I’m a bone-deep Generation Xer, and I need to see portraits that portray the value of institutions as they can be, painted not in idealism or veneration of past idols, but in hope and calling. He calls the church, specifically, to recognize our power and use it well, rather than pretend we don’t or shouldn’t have power: “Far from being aloof or detached from power, the church is all about power–the end of power, meaning the purpose of power, the taming of power, and the unleashing of power for true flourishing” (p. 271). This is not the same as playing god. “Only in the context of true worship can we hope for power to flow through us without having dominion over us” (p. 273).

What I would change about this book

There’s very little I can find fault with in this book. But I do think it would benefit from more application to “the common man.” Andy Crouch is an extraordinarily gifted person, and he is using those gifts well. But most of us–even privileged, powerful Westerners who have much in common with Crouch–would consider ourselves more “everyday” people. I believe this book and its implications apply to everyone–we are all made in God’s image and given some power–but his illustrations and applications don’t always ring true for Average Joe. I’d love to see more definition of how people who feel very ordinary have power and opportunities to use that power–perhaps in ways Crouch doesn’t.

Who should read it

This is a definitive work we should all be talking about. It has made what I believe will be a lasting impression on me. I would recommend it to anyone who’s ready for an eye-opening read. But it’s especially applicable to pastors and other church leaders, leaders of other Christian organizations, and anyone else who leads others in Jesus’ name.

1 Comment

© 2013 Amy Simpson.