‘Playing God’ puts power in its place

Review of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

All of us enjoy ‘playing God’ from time to time, and I don’t just mean that in terms of video games or movies. Ever since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, we have all dedicated every moment of every day to trying our hardest to dethrone God and take His place as the all-powerful King of the universe. And as Christians, we hate that about ourselves. And when our dislike of our own natural sinful power-craving disposition meets with our instinctive American distrust of political power and authority, it is hard to have anything but a negative view of power. Yet in Playing God, Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch makes a compelling case for a transformed view of power and its uses.

While it is certainly true that power can be used badly (Crouch includes several extended discussions of how power can be used for both idolatry and injustice), Playing God encourages us to remember that power can also be used for great good. In a sense, power can also enable us to “play God” in a way that glorifies our Creator and images Him well. Power and the channels through which power flows (such as institutions and privilege) can of course be abused, but they can also be the means by which godly ends are accomplished. Using both Scriptural exposition and personal anecdotes, Crouch reminds us that power itself is not inherently evil—it is a tool that can be used according to the will and desires of the one wielding it, whether that one is the Creator God or created man imaging his Creator.

Overall, Playing God is an excellent work on the nature of power from a Christian perspective. Thoughtful and well-written, the book explores the use and abuse of power in a way that is even-handed, constructive, and beneficial to the careful reader. And while this book is perhaps a bit denser than the average book on the Evangelical market, it is all the more useful for that. Crouch burrows deep into a topic where others no doubt would skim the surface, and explores power in its complex and varied forms.

The biggest weakness of this book is that Crouch is a bit hazy on where exactly the Gospel fits into the discussion of power. He talks much about the cross as a place of victory, but little about it as a place of atonement: This discussion is particularly useful for Americans, who are inclined to be suspicious of power and authority (unless of course it’s our own power and authority under consideration, in which case it is of unimpeachable merit). We all believe that those out there with more power than us are out for both our blood and their own benefit, and that they must be restrained at almost all costs. Yet, Crouch reminds us that there’s more to power than domination and destruction. Power can also restrain, discipline, focus, and build. It can certainly be used by the strong to enslave the weak (some of Crouch’s best examples come from his time working with International Justice Mission to end such practices), but in the right hands it can also be used to liberate the oppressed. Crouch encourages us to look beyond the naked exercise of power itself to the source of that power and as whether it is flowing from evils such as injustice or idolatry, or from godly attempts to reflect the image of the Creator by working good and justice in the world.

This, I believe, is the reason that Paul saw the cross as the place of real victory over the rulers and authorities of his age—and every age. The cross “disarms” the reigning institutions of first-century Judea by revealing them for what they are. They are instruments of injustice, and they are instruments of idolatry. Like all idols, at the cross they exact the ultimate price, demanding the sacrifice of the Father’s Son in order to preserve their privilege. But in doing so they reveal their true character—and God reveals his true character. In public (making “a public example of them,” as Paul says), for all to see, we are given the choice between the power of false gods and the power of the true God. (205)

The cross certainly is a victory—the greatest ever. But why does the cross establish victory over rulers and powers? Ultimately, the cross is the place of victory because it is where God most glorifies Himself by making atonement for our sin in His own Son. The cross is victory not in some abstract or symbolic way, but because Jesus was punished in my place for my sin. In this great act of substitution, God bought a people for Himself and so rescued them from all the power and anger and might of the sin-sick world. And that is why the book of Revelation is such a triumph for the Christian to read: the beast, the whore, the devil, and all the powers of sin would destroy God and His people, yet Christ has already won the victory over them on the cross.

This great truth—the very center of Christian thought and life—could have been more clearly expressed in Playing God. The reason power is used badly for idolatry and injustice is sin, yours and mine and every human being’s who has ever had a smidgeon of power. And until the problem of sin is dealt with, there is no hope for “redeeming the gift of power.”

With that said, the book is nevertheless an excellent meditation on power and its uses and abuses. Crouch’s reminder that power is not inherently evil, but rather is a gift from God that can go awry if not carefully checked and managed is a useful one, especially as Christians increasingly see power fall from their hands in an ever more secular culture. However tempting it may be, we must never decry power itself. Even when it is used against us, it is a gift from God. We must resist the temptation to blame one of God’s gifts, and so unwittingly place blame on God Himself. Rather, we must praise God for this gift and enjoy its benefits, even while we work to correct its abuses in our own lives and in the world. 

I am quite happy to recommend Playing God to those interested in the subject matter. It is well worth your time.

This book is part of the Patheos Book Club.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. 

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