By Ryan Dahlstrom

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review was published in The Burner, a Fuller Theological Seminary publication on the church in contemporary culture.)

Last December I was in NYC at a Q session with Andy Crouch, the executive editor of Christianity Today. I left the Q session inspired to rethink how I approach my ministry and my involvement in culture. But I did not fully comprehend the depth and impact of what he was drawing my attention to until I read Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Crouch’s most recent book.

Crouch begins with examining what it means to be human, but he goes in a direction you might not expect—he focuses on power. For Crouch, ‘power is a gift,’ inherent with being human. Crouch points out that power is often misunderstood as being dangerous and is often spoken about with great discomfort. By rooting power in what it means to be human, Crouch is able to reframe power as something that is not only related to politicians, leaders, and kings, but as something related to all humanity that shows itself throughout all aspects of human culture.

Andy Crouch, "Playing God"

Andy Crouch, “Playing God”

Power is not something only evident at a macro level; the evidence of power is probably most readily seen at the individual level. Crouch defines power in this way: “Power is simply (and not so simply) the ability to participate in that stuff-making, sense-making process that is the most distinctive thing that human beings do.” Power is central to what it means to be human. Crouch roots power in creation and connects human power to humans being made in the image of God. In rooting power in creation, Crouch does not simply write off power as  something that corrupts, but rather identifies power as something that has the potential to bring about tremendous good: “Flourishing power leads to flourishing life.”

Although Crouch makes the case for how power can bring about flourishing, he also confronts the ways in which power has been abused. Crouch identifies two main perversions of power: idolatry and injustice: “Whether making false gods (idolatry) or playing false gods (injustice) the result is identical—the true image of God is lost, and not just lost but replaced by something that purports, often very persuasively, to represent the ultimate truth about reality.” Because power is connected to the image of God, any perversion of power typically results in the diminishment of a person’s image-bearing capacities. When a person loses power, loses the ability to create, the ability to flourish, they suffer a loss in their capacity to bear the image of God. For Crouch this diminishment can happen through a person’s own idolatry to something, or through the injustice inflicted upon that person by another. But Crouch does not stop at the individual or interpersonal level; he goes on to use this framework for understanding power in an examination of institutions.

Andy Crouch exercising cultural power at the piano. (Photo courtesy of Ken Fong.)

Andy Crouch exercising cultural power at the piano. (Photo courtesy of Ken Fong.)

The word ‘institution’ can generate a number of varied reactions. For many people, ‘institution’ is a dirty word. But Crouch does not see institutions with distain. As with power, Crouch sees the good in institutions. Crouch argues, “The best test of any institution, and especially of any institution’s roles and rules for using power, is whether everyone flourishes when everyone indwells their roles and plays by the rules, or whether only a few of the participants experience abundance and growth.” Crouch sees institutions as being essential in creating and developing arenas where power can be used to bring about flourishing. Power can be used for good, and institutions can be arenas for flourishing.

Crouch ranges across a wide variety of issues as he examines power in institutions, including abortion and incarceration, but his observations regarding race and ethnicity strike at the heart of issues of power in relation to the white evangelical church. Crouch states, “What most distinguishes white evangelical Protestants from black Protestants is not their theology or even their desire for racial reconciliation, but evangelicals’ lack of institutional thinking.” Evangelicals are aware of the need for racial reconciliation, but do not have the tools with which to think at a systemic level about such reconciliation.

Ryan Dahlstrom reading "Playing God."

Ryan Dahlstrom reading “Playing God.” (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Playing God is a very important book. Crouch gets to the heart of something that is so basic to what it means to be a human—power. In the book Crouch criticizes the use of power but also imagines a beautiful way in which power can be something that is very, very good. Through addressing power he then is able to touch on so many other issues throughout society. Crouch’s examination is thorough and comprehensive; he addresses power at an individual level and at an institutional level. This book has the potential to inspire a thoroughgoing reformation in the way we readers see our relationships with and participation within institutions.

Ryan Dahlstrom is originally from Northern California. He is currently serving as a Young Life Leader and Young Adults Pastor in La Crescenta, California. Ryan is engaged and really excited to marry his fiance, Jessie, in April.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

 

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