Book review: “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power” by Andy Crouch

I only give a five-star rating to books I consider not just thought-provoking, but paradigm shifting, and this one earns it. I rarely find contemporary Christian authors that simultaneously engage with a rich Christian historical legacy, while also cogently addressing modern problems. Books by contemporary authors often fall into two categories: self-help books with a weak theological veneer, or tomes that were dusty before they were even reached the self, and do not address a living church.

This book takes on a vital discussion of today: power. The power in institutions, privilege, asymmetric power balances in relationships and society, including race and gender in America, and more. And discussions of power usually aren’t positive. Andy Crouch diagnoses the problem:

Not long ago I was on a panel with a woman whose wisdom and insight I very much respect. During our discussion the topic of power came up. “I recognize that power is a reality,” she said reluctantly, “but I think all we can do is contain it and limit the damage it causes.” In her mind power always does damage.

The whole point of this book is to counter either the tragic view that power always hurts, the suspicious view that power is always bad, and the naive view that we can do away with power completely. But this is not a defense of power, at least in the traditionally understood sense. Couch acknowledges that power is regularly misused and abused in tragic ways.

From the beginning it was not so.

Instead Couch redefine what true power actually is:

Power is for flourishing. When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they are meant to be. And flourishing is the test of power.

Couch takes Creation itself as the archetype of power and from which we should model any exercise of power. God exercised his power in order to create beings who could exercise their own agency and power.

You can read Couch’s book as a response to Nietzche’s model of power that abound in today’s underlying assumptions about power:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.

Behind every extension of goodwill is the will to power. No effort isn’t suspect.

The thing that Couch somehow finds an expert balance is acknowledging the wrongs done with power that we are much more aware. For example, he has a masterful discussion of privilege, which he defines as the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power, and examines misuses of privilege in colonialism and race in the U.S. These discussions were some of the most powerful for me, because they don’t often come up in Sunday School. In fact, we avoid them or worse, they are labelled as leftist. Acknowledging power isn’t leftist, and if anything is necessary for the responsible use of power.

Latter-Day Saints have a powerful canon that adds to the discussion of power. Some of the most poignant are contained in D&C 121 discussing the priesthood:

The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

But while Couch confronts abuses of power, the bigger part of his discussion focuses on righteous models of power and what true power that brings flourishing can look like. One of my favorite discussions is his explication of the father in the parable of the prodigal son:

At the nadir of the story of each son, each one is lost: all alone with his own mean fantasies and quickly diminishing idolatries. In stark contrast is the expectant, running, embracing, kissing, shouting father, who is also the one who leaves a part in progress in order to go out and plead for his son to come in. His power is embedded and expressed in the yearning for relationship, for the opportunity to foster abundance in the lives of his beloved sons.

This father, indeed, is what the various fathers of the biblical story– from Noah to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to David– never quite managed to be with their own families. He does what they rarely managed to do with their own power: use it for ever-increasing abundance and blessing… He is the God we are meant to play.

I like this discussion, because we rarely try to envision us in the place of the father. We more likely view ourselves as the prodigal. Which is good, and we should. We will play all three roles throughout our lives. But while we all need grace in our lives, we will also be called upon to extend grace and to exercise power to help others flourish as well. I have been pondering this passage in my calling as a member of the bishopric. I don’t feel comfortable in it. I always thought it was because I wasn’t bishopric material. But I think I could understand this in terms of power. I don’t feel comfortable exercising power, because I am painfully aware of how it can be abused. I too am suspicious of power. But if I understand it in terms of flourishing, then things change. I have had bishops and other leaders who have changed my life for the better. They were good stewards of their power. And so I should seek to be a good steward as well in my exercise of that power.

There are too many good points in this book to cover. Other points I found particularly poignant include:

  • How institutions, including institutional churches, exercise power– for good and for bad– and a model for institutions to help individuals flourish.
  • The biblical concepts of Sabbath and Jubilee, and how they invite the powerful to relinquish their power.
  • Paul’s model of the radical patience of love to overcome institutional wrongs in his letter to Philemon.

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