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Playing God: a book review

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch (Credit: InterVarsity Press)We all have some measure of it. There is a penchant for more of it when we experience victory. There is an inclination to abdicate it, and the responsibility inherent within it, when we suffer loss. What is it? Power. It can enable us to victory, bury us in defeat, and unknowingly take a variety of forms in our lives.

In his book Playing God, Andy Crouch elaborates upon the concept of power. Believing it is a gift from God, Crouch encourages the reader to consider the cultural assumptions that they place upon power. For some, that means reconsidering why they are afraid of exercising it, for others that entails examining their ravenous longing for it.

Crouch contends that "the deepest form of power is creation." Tracing it back to the genesis, Crouch writes that exercising power is a part of our image-bearing vocation. He invites the reader to re-imagine power as "creative love"—multiplied when shared, a type of power that empowers. As image-bearers of the One who is all-powerful, we have been given the admonition to "have dominion" over creation, as well as fill the earth by "subduing" it. Power is the good tool used to till and tend the earth in order to bring about the potential and promise God has stored within it.

However, Crouch also notes the misuse of power.  Power is value neutral in that power is not the problem, but the problem lies with the person who wields it. "Power at its worst," he observes, "is the unmaker of humanity." When we exercise power in this way, we no longer function as God's image bearers; instead we become idols and make idols. Similar to John Calvin, who observed that the heart is an idol-making factory, Crouch finds that the ungodly utilization of power creates a fearful, possessive spirit. Whereas, when power is utilized like God, it empowers others and fosters a type of flourishing. The latter gives generously, the former holds tightly.

Building upon his previous work in Culture Making, Crouch writes that institutions wield a significant amount of power, especially after their third generation. These institutions are significant power wielders and culture shapers. As Mitt Romney unfortunately, but accurately observed, corporations (as well as institutions) are a type of people. So just as people can misuse power, corporations have the ability to misuse power, enable systemic injustices, but also contribute to the communal good. In Crouch's work, he offers a similar sentiment that French thinker Talleyrand observed, that nothing changes without individuals, and nothing survives without institutions.

Crouch is not the first to contribute to the field of power. In 1959, French and Raven identified five different types of power: referent, coercive, expert, legitimate, and reward. Covey in 1991 identified three types of power, those being coercive, utility benefit, and principled-centered.

However, what sets apart Crouch is his academically substantiated but highly readable work. This is exemplified when he highlights and discusses power's manifestation in the concepts of privilege and status. Defining privilege as "the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power," his examples illuminate this succinct and spot-on definition. A type of pure privilege is status, which he finds is a "scarce resource" and suggests is "ultimately about excluding." Again, the morality of power lies not in itself, but in the wielder of it and how they use it.

Crouch's understanding of power is that it is a gift. Like any gift, it does not originate within us but is bestowed to us. As such, Crouch continually reminds evangelical readers to steward this gift well. Instead of being driven by Nietzschean desire for more, we should be humbled to play a part in God's redemption plan. This plan is less Hunger Games survival of the fittest, but more of a competition to outdo one another in bestowing honor and exhibiting grace.

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