All posts tagged “Andy Crouch

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Book Review: Playing God

As I said on Tuesday, my nod for book of the year for 2013 goes to Andy Crouch for Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. My review has just been published in the winter issue of PRISM.

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Here’s an excerpt:

As we reflect on human history and as we deal honestly with the failures that so often characterize our own lives, it is apparent that we haven’t always “subdued the earth” in God-honoring and others-serving ways. Indeed, this is the dangerous nature of our God-given power. When twisted by sin, power becomes destructive. This is why we instinctually decry power as inevitably evil, or why we do what we can to avoid it altogether. But if Crouch’s thesis is right—that power is a gift entrusted to us by God for the common good—it would be wrong to eschew our power, even if such a thing were possible.

You can read the rest here.

Previously, I reflected on a couple of the book’s important themes here and here. For more on the book, here’s an insightful conversation between Crouch and Book & Culture editor John Wilson.

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Bearing the image in all its fullness

A topic that I’ve considered here on a number of occasions is the sometimes tricky relationship between evangelism and social action in Christian life. It seems to me this is an important relationship to grapple with, especially as evangelicals—those who self-identify with the spreading of the gospel (the “evangel”) in evangelism—recapture their concern for justice. So I’ve drawn on the insights of René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, and John Stott, to name a few, in making the case that evangelism and social action are both necessary, and that connecting them doesn’t require reinventing the wheel—people wiser than us have already laid the groundwork for integral mission. And, incidentally, they’ve lived it too.

41Mpb6giMfLAs Andy Crouch notes in Playing God: Redeeming The Gift of Power, despite the varying “emphases and preferences” of different traditions, few Christian groups today deny the importance of evangelism and justice, at least in principle. In other words, the divide between warring tribes—though by no means completely resolved—isn’t as gaping as it was through much of the twentieth century.

Crouch makes the case that what evangelism and doing justice have in common is that both are about restoring the marred image of God in his image bearers. Evangelism, he writes, is about “restoring the image bearers’ capacity for relationship and worship, where the true Creator God is named, known and blessed.” Doing justice, meanwhile, means “[restoring] the conditions that make image bearing possible.” As Gary Haugen has written elsewhere, when we act with compassion and courage on behalf of victims of oppression, it makes belief in a good God—one who loves justice and comes to the rescue—believable.

But Crouch puts his finger on a dilemma that may be unique to this generation of evangelicals: “Working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.” Indeed, it’s much more palatable to “join a movement” that even our unbelieving peers can get enthusiastic about, than to risk sounding arrogant or intolerant by articulating our belief that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And while there are plenty of good reasons why we can and should join broad coalitions around causes that are just, we must always remember that these causes can only take us so far. In the end they stop short of the ultimate good—Christ himself, who is inaugurating a Kingdom of peace and justice.

None of this is to discourage Christians from pursuing justice, but with Crouch I agree that “the justice generation” of Christians would do well to reevaluate how the “Christian hope for a world made new” should inform and shape the pursuit:

You do not have to believe in the Creator God to want to alleviate suffering. But justice is about much more than relieving suffering—it is about a vision of human flourishing. And the audacious biblical claim is that even good things that seem to contribute to flourishing become idols when they become our ultimate ends. Even the laudable goals of economic development, political freedom and human rights are only ultimately good when they are put in the context of something more ultimate than themselves. When we try to establish justice apart from worship of the true God, at best we will, as Jayakumar reminded me, simply replace one set of god players with another. What will never be addressed by these thin, secular conceptions of justice is the heart of the biblical understanding of justice: the restoration of the human capacity to bear the image in all its fullness.

If “thin, secular conceptions of justice” fall short, where would “thick, biblical” conceptions lead us? How does the “Christian hope for a world made new” shape our vision for flourishing?

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Flourishing from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

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On benevolent and malevolent gods

My proper review of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch is coming in a future issue of PRISM magazine, but in the meantime I thought I’d share some thoughts on a couple of his ideas that have really stuck with me since reading the book, which is excellent, by the way.

41Mpb6giMfLOne of the themes from the book that Andy touched on when he spoke at our Common Good PHX conference this spring was the connection between idolatry and injustice, and how both are the result of “playing God.” I’m still chewing on this idea, and Jamie Smith’s review in Comment offers even more food for thought.

Crouch’s ideas on this were crystalized after he spent some time in India with Jayakumar Christian, a hero of mine. “The poor are poor,” Jayakumar said, “because someone else is trying to play God in their lives.” Often this god playing takes sinister, downright evil forms. Brothel owners and slave holders come to mind. But other times, god playing happens under the guise of benevolence.

Indeed, as Crouch writes so convincingly, whether we know it or not, many of us bear some of the telltale marks of divinity, however imperfectly we steward those powers. Do-gooders routinely travel rapidly from place to place, an option inconceivable to billions of people (this is a simulation of omnipresence). We swoop in and observe others in their vulnerability, capturing every moment for posterity on Instagram or YouTube, and we leave having never disclosed much of anything about ourselves (a simulation of omniscience). And to top it all off, our money and our technology enable us to accomplish quickly and easily things the materially poor can’t reasonably envision doing, ever (a simulation of omnipotence).

Crouch continues:

All this god playing can take place with the best of intentions, with every hope of helping and with real “results” at the end: wells dug, structures built, children immunized, perpetrators arrested. And the materially poor may well be grateful for the concrete assistance provided by benevolent god players, and glad to be out from under the thumb of malevolent god players. But even at its very best, such god playing does nothing to alter, let alone transform, the most basic reality of poverty, which is the presence of irresistibly powerful god substitutes in the life of the poor. Whether those god substitutes are malevolent or benevolent makes less difference than you might suppose… Benevolent god playing may remedy the most obvious symptoms of injustice, but it leaves the underlying disease untreated.

If true, this has particular relevance for those of us, whether through our daily work or through our financial support, are involved with organizations committed to relief and development among the world’s poor.

I’m grateful for careful thinkers like Andy who put into layman’s terms what community development and human rights “experts” have been grappling with for decades and more. This stuff is complex, and the stakes are high. So this conversation about power—and particularly the role it plays in poverty and poverty alleviation—is a crucial one.

Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, on Poverty from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

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Repaso: May 10, 2013

1. The view from below
John Stackhouse (@jgsphd) shares a poignant passage from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison and concludes:

I almost never, ever, thank God for setbacks, disappointments, frustrations, and injustices in my life that would let me, for once, see things the way so many people see them all the time. I almost never, ever, reflect on what I have learned from those experiences…except how to do all I can to control the world (!) such that they cannot recur. I have, that is, learned nothing from the Desert Fathers, nothing from Benedict or Francis or the Jesus Prayer mystic, nothing from the Mennonites, nothing from the missionaries or activists or front-line relief & development workers. But Bonhoeffer—like me, a well-educated and successful scion of a physician’s home in a prosperous modern Western society—warns me about, and welcomes me into, a new vantage point from which so much (more) can be learned. Alas, Providence likely will have to teach me the way it taught him: the hard way.

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2. Secrets in Guatemalan soil
With the genocide trial against Rios Montt appearing to be nearing its end, PBS NewsHour ran this story about the remarkable men and women who have courageously and carefully uncovered the forensic evidence being used in the historic trial.

3. Prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Last year, the Kuyper Lecture (sponsored by the good people at the Center for Public Justice) was given by Miroslav Volf, who made a compelling case that religious exclusivism provides a solid basis for political pluralism. This year’s lecture was given by Stanley Carlson-Thies, a religious freedom advocate, who challenged the recent HHS contraceptive mandate, arguing:

The government must honor institutional religious freedom, and not just individual religious freedom or freedom of worship. It needs to have a policy of institutional pluralism rather than a policy of uniformity. It should acknowledge a general right for organizations to be distinctive in moral vision and religious conviction and practice, rather than expect moral uniformity with only the occasional exemption.

4. Playing God
If you’re anxious to read Andy Crouch’s (@ahc) forthcoming book (coming this November), you’ll enjoy this short talk he gave last year at Q. The video can’t be embedded, but here’s a blurb:

The word “power” often brings to mind the image of a mighty dictator or rolling tank, marble floors and wealthy exuberance. Power in our world is synonymous with force, violence, and poorly wielded influence. But Andy Crouch believes that power, as described in the words of Jesus, is creative, not coercive. It calls us to restore God’s image in a world full of broken bearers. In this talk, Crouch calls listeners away from a distorted definition of power to one that can change culture for good.

5. Switchfoot’s “The Sound”
I’m looking forward to seeing Switchfoot tonight at Chase Field after the Diamondbacks game. Here’s a favorite song of mine from a few years ago.

[Photo: Focus Forward Films]

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God is for the poor

God is for the poor – the oppressed, the widow and the orphan – and he is for humanity in our collective poverty, our ultimate powerlessness in the face of sin and death. But he makes known his redemptive purposes for us through both the powerless and the powerful, using both to accomplish his purposes. When God acts in culture, he uses both the powerful and the powerless alongside one another rather than using one against the other.”

– Andy Crouch, in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP)