Straight White Men Shouldn’t Write about Power and Privilege, Right?

Straight White Men Shouldn’t Write about Power and Privilege, Right? October 28, 2013


This post is part of the Patheos Book Club. To see more posts about this book, see an interview with the author, and add your own review, see the Patheos Book Club.

On this blog and elsewhere, I have been repeatedly told that I am blind to my own privilege. Of course, it’s hard to see what you’re blinded to, and if you protest a statement like that, you’re being obstinate and defensive. That’s why a lot of straight, white men like me — and especially those of us employed by the academy — avoid writing about such things, so we can avoid the charge, “Who the hell are you to write about such things?!?” Instead, we choose other things to write about.

Evangelicalism isn’t as beset with political correctness as the progressive academy, so maybe that’s why Andy Crouch could unashamedly tackle the subject of power and privilege in his new and compelling book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Also, Andy is a journalist, so he can claim a bit of objectivity in his approach.

Andy Crouch

But Andy’s a confessional journalist, not a newspaper reporter. He does have a dog in this fight. While he has a more conservative tack on Christianity, he and I are similar in many respects — well bred, well educated, well connected. In other words, privileged. From this charge, Andy does not shy away. In a section of the book entitled, “The Neutrality of Privilege,” Andy writes,

“Privilege is not bad. To the contrary, it comes in the form of benefits. And privilege is not necessarily exclusive — it can be widely shared. We all benefit from countless past exercises of cultural power, from the invention of indoor plumbing to the translating of the King James Version of the Bible to the first person who dared to eat the allegedly poisonous tomato and found that it was very good. All of the human cultural inheritance is privilege, in this sense, and every person, not just those from dominant cultures, benefits from past exercises of power by their parents and more distant ancestors”

This excerpt is indicative of the book as a whole. Andy is clear-eyed and forthright in his writing, and he avoids the constant caveats and backtracking that too often laces the writing of straight, white men in this era. His point is that power is real. It cannot be avoided or wished away. In fact, he claims that power is a great gift from God, and it should be used as such.

I first encountered this argument many years ago in the writing of Jacques Ellul. Andy take a very different path out of the conversation, however, than Ellul (and me). Ellul ended his career by basically advocating Christian anarchy as a way to restore freedom to the world, and I lean to more Marxist and Foucauldian readings of power. Andy heads more in a direction laid out by the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank, a theology of which I am none too fond. For example, Andy is too sanguine about the potential of institutions, IMHO.

But in spite of our differences in conclusion, Andy’s book is essential reading. An Andy Crouch book is always a long time in coming, but always worth the wait. Playing God is no exception.

A couple weeks ago, I used this space to criticize a piece published by Leadership Journal about how pastors should respond to gay parishioners. One of the editors of that magazine took to Twitter to wonder aloud if I’d appreciate anything written on that subject by anyone more conservative than me. The answer is yes, something by Andy Crouch.

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