Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

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This writing is not intended to be a summary of the book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch.  Rather, my purpose is to capture thoughts that relate to a question of interest to me, “how should Christian organizational leaders operate (that might be different from secular organizational leaders.”  Crouch includes many fascinating observations and arguments about topics such as zombie churches, gleaning, and the perils of short mission trips, but these will not be the focus of this summary.  I do also include extraneous information that I happen to find interesting. 🙂  I also include direct quotations as much as possible since I may include these thoughts in a later article and I need to cite information appropriately.

 Crouch’s overarching framework is the Biblical description of power as creation rather than equating power with coercion, as is so common today.  When we use power as God intended, we are “image bearers.”  If we use power inappropriately we are “playing God,” hence the title of the book.  Crouch also attempts to resurrect faith in “institutions,” which many people regard suspiciously today.  He makes the argument that institutions are “indispensable for human flourishing” (p. 13).  Crouch says “power is the ability to make something of the world” (p. 17). 

 “What is the deepest truth about the world?  Is the deepest truth a struggle for mastery and domination?  Or is the deepest truth collaboration, cooperation and ultimately love?” (p. 48).  This observation suggests that sheer power struggles will never ultimately succeed.  If the goal is to confiscate power from one entity to another, there is no gain to the world.  Crouch shows why the approach of the Occupy movements and Saul Alinsky can never ultimately succeed.

 “Pixar’s and Apple’s top executives were surprisingly often people of Christian faith” (p. 61).

 “God hates injustice and idolatry because they are the same thing” (p. 71)

 “Benevolent god playing can be even more destructive than malevolent god playing” (p. 73)  [such as short-term mission trips].

 “’All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.’”  This is C. Wright Mill’s crisp statement in his influential 1956 book The Power Elite.  …  The point of this book is that Mills is wrong.  No – more strongly than that: the point of this book is that if Christianity is true, Mills is wrong, and if Mills is right, then Christianity is not true and Christian faith is foolish” (p. 133).

 “The best way I know to define privilege is the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power” (p. 150). 

 “There is another kind of privilege that cannot be shared without loss.  It is intrinsically scarce, and its pursuit leads to some of the most egregious acts of god playing.  The name for it is status” (p. 156).

 “How long does it take before we can consider a cultural pattern an institution?  I would suggest that the minimum number of generations is three” (p. 176).

 “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” (p. 185).

 “The only biblical prosperity gospel is a posterity gospel – the promise that generation after generation will know the goodness of God through the properly stewarded abundance of God’s world (p. 188).

 “While we may no longer live in a world where the institution of slavery is taken for granted, there are other “peculiar [unique] institutions” that grant godlike power to a few and rob others of their image-bearing dignity.  These institutions are completely visible, tightly woven into history and law, evident for those who have eyes to see in signs on buildings in many cities and towns, yet also all but invisible, rarely discussed and easily ignored.  Consider just two.  The first is the institution of abortion.  …The second is incarceration in the United States” (p. 226).

 

 

 

How should Christian leaders relate to power?

–       Crouch makes the very important point that anyone who has the power of status, even just privilege, can easily cut herself off from creative flourishing.  Just because power is not abused doesn’t mean that the potential of power isn’t changing a variety of dynamics around the leader that she is likely blind to.  If a leader establishes a pattern of always having the final word, she cuts off the possibility of a subordinate interjecting a great idea after the fact.  If an executive is going to visit a plant and everyone cleans and creates an artificial environment for the executive’s visit, he will never know what the plant is really like.  Another example reminds me of my experience consulting with the Royal Bank of Canada years ago.  A management “benefit” was that managers did not have to transact business with the bank the same way customers did.  They didn’t have to stand in the same lines, fill out the same forms for a loan, etc.  This was clearly recognized as a benefit because intuitively they knew that conducting these transactions was a hassle.  No one thought, though, why do we make these transactions a hassle for regular customers?  They were too protected from the process to be conscious of this dynamic.  So, Christian leaders need to find ways of ensuring that their privilege and status don’t short-circuit the flourishing of the creative process and other people.  Intuitively, we realize this, which is why we are drawn to examples such as Pope Francis dispensing with the use of the Popemobile and shows such as Undercover Boss.

 

–       Crouch offers the job interview as an interesting example of how creative power could occur.  Typically, the interviewer sees the interview as part of her regular duties, no big deal.  For the interviewee, on the other hand, this is a memorable occasion of high stakes.  The interviewer seemingly holds the power, but she is interviewing because the organization is not powerful enough, hence the need to hire someone.  He essentially develops the argument that the best interviews are explorations of collaboration.  This is an ideal example for all meetings of Christian leaders. 

 

–       Christian leaders should try to create power maps of the dynamics around them.  Since they themselves will be blind to most of those dynamics, they need “many cartographers,” to help them understand how their power affects everything that happens around them.

 

–       “Max Weber defined power (using the German word Macht) as ‘any probability of imposing one’s will within a social relationship even against resistance.’  That last phrase is crucial.  Power for Weber is about overcoming resistance; it is about the ability to coerce” (p. 133).  Weber’s influence, of course, is still pervasive in organizations today.  Christian leaders should minimize thinking about the “ability to coerce” and think about creative power as collaboration.  Leaders should use coercion to “protect the possibility of creation” (p. 147)

 

–       “False god players believe that to have what we really need and want, we have to break our promises….. God playing demands not just the chance to make our dreams come true but the freedom to discard our obligations to people who no longer seem to serve our immediate interests” (p. 235).  Crouch makes the point that Christian leaders keep their commitments, that they are mindful of who is affected if they make a change at the last minute or don’t show up for something.  Steve Jobs was apparently notorious for this.  Crouch also argues that this was not part of his “genius,” but in fact inhibited his genius.  “True greatness and true power is faithful all the way down, including humbly quick to admit limitedness, sin and brokenness, and to ask for forgiveness” (p. 236).

–       “What can deliver us from our entanglement with sin and death, even and especially at the height of our powers?  The Christian tradition has a simple and sobering answer.  We will need the spiritual disciplines” (p. 237).  The first three are solitude, silence, and fasting.  “There are other important disciplines that can or must be done in community: the practices of Sabbath, confession, study, tithing, and prayer” (p. 240).  “There is no quicker way to discern our god playing or image bearing than to take the measure of our Sabbath observance” (p. 253).

–       Crouch makes a number of interesting observations about the sabbaticals that occur weekly, every seven years, and every Jubilee year.  Presumably, a Christian leader, or at least owner, should establish a process whereby every employee can experience a weekly Sabbath.  However, since the Bible doesn’t require that it be on Sunday, I wonder whether an organization could operate 7 days/week if they chose to, provided everyone took a Sabbath break.  Presumably, it is easier to close on Sunday, like Chick-fil-A.  Secondly, it seems that organizations should allow for sabbaticals every seven years.  Crouch laments that in our society people are strongly encouraged to save for retirement, but not to save for six years so our fields can lie fallow in the seventh.  I’ll have to give some more thought to the implications of Jubilee.  Crouch does note that the bankruptcy laws in the United States reflect the spirit of the Jubilee year. 

–       Crouch also makes a number of interesting observations about gleaning.  He suggests that people should even leave aside the billable hours on the edges of our fields if we could do the work, but there are other people who could do the work better.  Very interesting.  This would have some strategy implications for Christian leaders.  Crouch makes reference to Jabez’s prayer to “expand my territory,” but does it in the context of allowing for more gleaning as our territory expands.

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