What do a president, chief executive officer, parent, baby, warlord, and pastor all have in common?
They all have power.
The president has power to finalize laws that structure society (138).
The CEO casts a vision for a company and directs it to the goal (59).
The parent has power to take care of a baby and, for that matter, a baby to call the parents whenever it desires (44).
A warlord has power to traffic people, start local wars, or bribe officials to look the other way (153).
The pastor has the power to spiritually form people under him (184).
Each of these people have the ability to wield their power for good or evil; they can create an environment for human flourishing or destruction. Andy Crouch writes his book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power for these people—those who wield power (from significant to small ways) properly and improperly.
Whether these power users recognize it or not, they did not gain their power by their own volition. Instead, it is a gift from God, and this is Crouch’s main idea (9). Crouch argues that gifts constitute two parts: it has to be good and it has a giver (9).
Power is normally thought of in negative terms because when it is misused, it creates a lasting image (for example, Hitler’s holocaust). However, when someone in power does something good, it is normally ascribed to their commitments to do the right thing.
Either way, power is rarely wrought from someone (at least, not in a violent sense), but is normally bestowed from the person who has greater power to the one who has lesser power (for example, through a corporate promotion).
This implicit image people have about power is why Crouch’s thesis is so controversial. However, Crouch does not pose a controversial thesis for controversy’s sake: he sees power’s proper direction oriented towards human flourishing, so society’s collective imaginary needs adjusted (13). If one uses power properly, they will begin to realize their full potential as God’s image bearer and start to help others realize their full potential as God’s image bearers, too, whether they are redeemed or unredeemed.
Crouch prosecutes his thesis in four main moves:
- Argues for viewing power as a gift (the foundation of his thesis),
- Explores how sin corrupted power,
- Examines its institutional and creative nature, and
- Identifies its telos.
The views above reflect an understanding of power that begins with its sinful direction:
However, Crouch starts with its original structure—creation (32). Since God created all things good in Genesis 1 and 2, therefore his power to create and the power he bestowed to his people also must be good.
As a result, God’s image bearers are to take God’s creation and cultivate it to its fullest potential—they have been given power and use it to create.
However, Satan recognized this power, and tempted Adam and Eve with corrupted power (Gen. 3). Power’s nature is still good, but Satan misappropriated it, corrupting its existence (64). Adam and Eve believed his lie and attempted to usurp God’s power with their now meagre power, otherwise known as idolatry (55).
Humans are communal beings and in this already/not yet state, God’s people need help stewarding the power he gave them.
One of the avenues God uses is institutions (169).
Institutions are able to “create and distribute” power more broadly and equally than a sole individual could (170).
Additionally, if someone recognizes their own weaknesses, they can rely on the strengths of others to accomplish a goal.
Finally, institutions can steward power to the next generation(s) (178).
However, these benefits do not mean that sin has not affected institutions (196). Sinful institutions can cultivate systemic oppression and perpetual ineffectiveness in systems. Institutions can amplify power—they can either assist in human flourishing or through the destruction of others.
Ethically, stewarding power (207) looks like disciplined usage (233), resting from its use (247), and looking forward to its redemption (268).
An image people can have of power is when a top executive at a business transforms the landscape of their market (233ff) or when a world leader goes to war.
However, disciplined power, though it can take these forms, is also exhibited through more “menial” examples like doing dishes (240ff) or not slamming a door (133-4).
Additionally, as the divide between work and life are blurred, it is easy to begin working more because “the company depends on me” or “no one else does their work.”
However, by regularly pausing throughout life and choosing to not exercise power leads to a proper utilization of it. Regularly taking a sabbath from power is a reminder that people are not God (253)—it wars against idolatry. No matter what, people cannot escape the dilemma between the proper utilization of power or the misuse of it in this life.
In the end, death serves as a reminder that God has bestowed power on his people (268) and that power will one day be corrected and directed towards cultivating the New Creation (269).
Overall, Crouch does an excellent job of convincing the reader that power is a gift—from the smallest form to the greatest form. He masterfully walks his readers through the redemptive narrative of power by first defining power in its creational estate, highlighting how the fall corrupted power and its usage, and finally couching the final state of power in its current ethical usage. Throughout his whole book, time and time again he points his readers to his thesis: that power is good (although it can still be used sinfully since God’s people live in the already/not yet) and that its source—the Gift Giver—is God.
Crouch’s strong points consisted in his relevant examples and whimsical arguments (though they could be heavily nuanced and deep at times).
For example, by exploring Steve Job’s and his work at Apple, the reader observes a complex yet important use of power. On the one hand, he is able to change the technological landscape with the invention of the iPhone—he exhibited his imago Dei (59). However, his eating disorder could not be controlled and the fact something ruled over him drove him insane (62).
Additionally, Crouch repeatedly points to Old Testament law and how much of it contributed to the proper utilization of power.
For example, when it came to gleaning, the workers ignored the edges of the field so that others could exercise their power by gathering (248).
However, Crouch’s weakness lies in how he views all of life as power—which can be a dangerous image to shape one’s worldview. While the current conversation surrounding privilege has increased with quality in recent years, reading Chapter 8: The Lure of Privilege felt burdensome:
While people should be more conscious of their privilege and how it can be lorded over others, the implicit demand of constant awareness of one’s privilege is a weighty call.
Now, Crouch does argue that privilege is not all bad, though it is dangerous (154). Explicit discussion on how one could properly wield their privilege would have benefited this discussion and the ongoing discourse in culture.
I would highly recommend this book to all who are in positions of leadership—positions that inherently wield power. Crouch’s thesis and subsequent argument offers a healthy corrective (if not, awakening) to power and its proper usage. Arguably, all Christians should read this because they wield power in some way (even in the house among children or in friendships) as Crouch highlights throughout the book, especially with those who struggle with properly aligned ambition in life.
This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Drs. Michael Williams and Daniel Zink and Professor Aaron Goldstein in God & Humanity: Foundations for Counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.