Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power is in print! It can be ordered in hardcover from Hearts and Minds Books or directly from the publisher, InterVarsity Press, where you can also buy a DRM-free eBook version. The Kindle edition is available now for Amazon, and the hardcover should be in stock at Amazon by the end of September.
With Playing God, Andy Crouch explores the subject of power and its subtle activity in our relationships and institutions. Giving more than a warning against abuse, Crouch turns the notion of “playing God” on its head, celebrating power as the gift by which we join in God’s creative, redeeming work in the world.
“In deft moves of integrating sound biblical theology with astute observations about culture, Andy Crouch wades into the immense topic of power—the powers, institutional power, cultural power, racial power—to offer the alternative Christian perception of power, a power that can be reshaped by the gospel about Jesus Christ, refashioned by love and reoriented by a new community called the church. In this book worldly power is deconstructed and replaced with a new kind of gospel power.”
—Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary
“It’s likely that most readers of this book will both possess more power than they realize and feel uncomfortable with the amount of it that they know they’ve got. This book holds keys to liberation. It illuminates that power is, foundationally, good. It offers 3D pictures of what power is for (flourishing) and what its right use looks like (creative image-bearing that expands our own and others’ joyful ‘meaning-making’). Crouch’s Bible-saturated teaching frees us from guilt and guides us in the active, humble and, importantly, essential calling to steward our power, thus helping us avoid the equal dangers of abusing our power and neglecting it. Playing God is a wise, deeply insightful, imaginative work; by heeding its lessons, Christians will be far more fruitful in their efforts to advance Jesus’ kingdom in our broken world.”
—Amy L. Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling
“Perhaps no question with such urgent life-and-death consequences is more poorly understood among Christians in our era than the stewardship of power; but gloriously, in Playing God, Andy Crouch provides the clarity we need in this once-in-a-generation work of sweeping theological and sociological depth. It is fresh, rigorous, profoundly helpful and a delight to read.”
—Gary A. Haugen, president & CEO, International Justice Mission
For some reason, any kind of fasting prompts questions about logistics. So, to start with the F.A.Q.:
Did you really turn off all screens for all of Lent? Mostly, yes. My laptop and tablet disappeared into a cabinet. I turned off my email altogether. Same with Twitter, Instagram, Feedly, and the rest of my familiar digital companions—all gone. I deleted nearly every app on my smartphone except those relating to weather and travel plans. And I kept my phone and message apps active to communicate with family and friends.
So it wasn’t a total fast. But compared to my normal life, in which a rectangle is glowing in front of me seven to nine hours a day, it was a dramatic and initially disorienting change.
If you’re a Christian, you don’t have “a calling.” You have three. Two of the three are fundamental and universal—that is, they aren’t optional and they aren’t individual, but they are by far the most important callings in your life. The good news (and hard news, actually) is they each come with a community who can help you fulfill them—in fact, without that community you won’t fulfill them at all.
Your first fundamental calling is shared with every other human being: to bear the image of God. We are here to reflect the Creator into the creation, and to reflect the creation’s praise and lament back to the Creator. To bear the image is to exercise dominion, caring for and cultivating the good world and making it very good through our creative attention. Most human work falls under this heading, which is why Christians work gladly alongside neighbors who don’t share our faith, and also why almost all human work is perfectly appropriate for Christians. It requires no more justification than this: bearing the image by working fruitfully in the good world is what we were always meant to do.
The statesman and theologian theologian Abraham Kuyper is all but forgotten in his native Netherlands, but his reputation continues to flourish in the United States among Christians looking for better ways to imagine their role in Western society. They often come to Kuyper for his account of the “cultural mandate”—the biblical theme of responsibility for the world so often neglected in narrower versions of conservative Christianity. But they stay for Kuyper’s most distinctive contribution, his carefully developed account of culture’s “spheres,” each with its own features, functions, and significance. The family, government, science, art, education, and more are each essential. None can be reduced to the other, and each requires particular virtues and bequeaths us particular forms of flourishing.
Now, the Dutch Reformed heartland of western Michigan has given us a cultural product that Kuyper surely never imagined, but that would surely make him proud. It is designed to help the church reclaim our true calling: to live out our salvation, in the words its title borrows from the Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann, “for the life of the world.”
Technology keeps getting more and more personal. First “personal computers,” which sat on your desk, gave way to laptops, which sat in a rather more intimate position. Now laptops are giving way to tablets and phones, which nestle in your hand and slip into your pocket. And early next year, the Apple Watch will wrap around quite a few wrists, which it will tap gently to signal that a friend is calling or a message has arrived.
You could say the Apple Watch will be the ultimate personal computer, but more to the point, it is one of the first intimate computers. It promises to be with you every moment of the day (though it will part with you at night for recharging—such sweet sorrow), aware of your every motion, responsive to your touch. It will be close enough, Apple promises, to feel your heartbeat—and share that heartbeat, in a feature that is either sweet or slightly creepy, with a friend.
I think Sting sang about this kind of intimate watchfulness a generation ago: “Every move you make, every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.” Oh, that song was not so much sweet as slightly creepy? Well, it won’t feel that way with the Apple Watch—unlike Sting’s hovering would-be lover, it is watching you in order to serve you. After all, in the reverent tones of Sir Jony Ive, narrating the watch’s introductory video, this is technology that “embraces individuality and inspires desire.” What could possibly go wrong?
If we lived in normal times, few would notice if the Supreme Court agreed that a group had the right to practice its religious views without government interference. The plaintiffs would sigh in relief, the chastised government agency would formulate new rules, and we’d all move on.
Obviously, we do not live in normal times. The farther we get from the Supreme Court’s decision on behalf of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, the less it feels like a victory for anyone. Instead, it reminds us that fewer and fewer of our neighbors understand how religious organizations—and all communities smaller than the state—contribute to human flourishing and the common good.
Here are two simple questions.
Can we have Jesus without justice?
And can we have justice without Jesus?
The answer to the first question is straightforward enough. If you define “justice” as “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor,” then Jesus himself makes justice central to his ministry in his “inaugural address” in Luke 4. These sweeping promises from Isaiah are fulfilled in the person of Jesus himself: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:22).
Omari Sealey seems like a good man, the kind you’d want at your side during life’s hardest moments. He is the uncle of Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old who was declared dead by doctors three days after a tonsillectomy went horribly wrong on Dec. 9. He has bravely stepped before the cameras, along with Jahi’s mother Latasha Winkfield, to explain why they refuse to remove the equipment keeping Jahi’s body alive.
“Our faith is so strong that we don’t even think about the possibility of death,” he told CNN in December. “We believe with all the prayers from everyone around the world and the prayers with our family that she will wake up.”
I admire such faith. I am moved by the outpouring of love and concern from around the world and the donations (almost $55,000 and growing) to the family. But I’m afraid Jahi’s family is putting its faith in the wrong place, in technology that can never give them the miracle they seek.
For an ancient holiday, Christmas has had a surprisingly cozy relationship with the modern world. The commercial radio age began on Christmas Eve, 1906, when "O Holy Night" was sung on the first AM radio broadcast. You could write a whole history of Christmas broadcast television, from sleepy Whoville and its Grinch to Charlie Brown specials (not to mention Gian-Carlo Menotti's NBC opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast in 1951). Christmas provides the leitmotif for It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, Elf and Home Alone. And 2013 brought us Christmas albums from Mary J. Blige, Erasure, Nick Lowe, and (no joke) Bad Religion. Without Christmas, our popular culture would be as flightless as Santa's sleigh without its red-nosed reindeer.
The Twittersphere lit up this past week with the revelation that Mark Driscoll's new book includes passages that bear a striking resemblance (though not quite word-for-word equivalence) to material from the book that is cited as their source. Further digging found a Bible study guide published by Driscoll's church in 2009 that did lift an entire passage, word-for-word, from an InterVarsity Press commentary on 1 and 2 Peter. The ensuing controversy has revolved largely around one of the last truly scandalous words in the English language: plagiarism.
I believe this scandal is largely misplaced.
This Sunday, thousands of pastors will prepare for worship. Some of them will wear distinctive clothing—the albs and stoles of liturgical churches echo ancient priestly garments. But many more pastors will wear nothing that marks them out as different from their congregations.
Walk into many of our churches today, especially the ones that are growing fastest and spreading their influence widest, and you could never pick the pastors out of the crowd.
Except, perhaps, for one difference.
When Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII are canonized as saints later this year, the world will be reminded that there is no other Christian tradition approaching Catholicism’s rigorous process of naming saints. The Vatican administers an internal process that includes a “devil’s advocate,” a lawyer dedicated to making the case against the candidate’s sanctity, and the requirement of two verified miracles attributed to the deceased. (Saints always are deceased—the church borrows the Greek maxim, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” and applies it to holiness as well.)
Even the Vatican’s strictness on sainthood may be easing, however. When the coming canonizations were announced last month, Pope Francis waived the miracles requirement for John XXIII. But the church still remains unique in its sainthood practices.
The only non-Catholic denomination that has something like it is the Eastern Orthodox church, whose worshippers bestow a kiss on the icons that crowd the sanctuary, greeting them like members of their family. For Catholics the saints are “up there,” well placed to whisper special requests in the divine ear. For the Eastern Orthodox, the saints are “right here,” surprisingly intimate presences in the earthly church.
These are the remarks I prepared for yesterday’s press conference sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table.
As a journalist, part of my job is to watch for change, and ask why that change is happening. There aren’t many changes more dramatic in American evangelicalism than the way its leaders have embraced the indispensable justice of immigration reform. How do you get to the point where more than 180 leaders and more than 10,000 people sign a statement of evangelical principles on immigration reform, and where 30,000 people sign up to be prayer partners in that effort?
I want to highlight three reasons for this remarkable consensus.
1) Evangelical Christians serve. They are involved in countless forms of service in cities and towns. And in those settings of service they directly experience the dignity and the needs of both documented and undocumented immigrants. And it’s both dignity and needs. This movement is not just driven by a sense of compassion for need, it is also driven by having been humbled by the dignity, commitment, and faith of immigrants.
2) Their churches and institutions have been enriched by generations of immigrants from every part of the world. A lot of pollsters like to break out the opinions of “white evangelicals.” But as you see from the group of leaders gathered here, one of the most remarkable features of evangelical Christianity in the United States is its ethnic diversity. [I venture to say that in any American city, if you look at churches founded in the last twenty years, the vast majority are evangelical or Pentecostal, and a great number are founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.] And the more you are a leader in this movement, the more you become aware of the strength of that diversity and how much of it comes from recently arrived residents and citizens.
3) They have read, and been converted by, the Bible. They have seen how directly Scripture addresses the responsibility of nations to welcome and protect the most vulnerable: widows, orphans, and ‘strangers.’ There’s a reason the Evangelical Immigration Table could put together a 40-day prayer challenge featuring biblical readings on immigration: There are 40 days worth of material in the Bible on immigrants and immigration. A just and humane system for recognizing and welcoming immigrants is a biblical non-negotiable for any nation that wants to reflect the heart of God.
One of my other jobs is to tell stories. For three years I’ve led a project called This Is Our City, telling stories about ways that Christians are seeking the flourishing of their cities. Last year we were in Phoenix, and we produced a documentary film about Ricardo, who came to this country with his family as a young boy. He became a star football player in high school, and was offered a football scholarship to college, and it was only as he filled out the forms for that scholarship that Ricardo realized not just that he could not receive the scholarship with his current legal status, but that there was no obvious pathway to ever be recognized as an American, a citizen of the country he loves and considers his own.
Ricardo’s story is a moving story. (You can view it at bit.ly/ricardoct.) But seven years ago my predecessors at CT told another moving story about another Christian who wanted to come to America, named Maria. The context was an editorial supporting immigration reform. That was 2006. It has been seven years. The stories are just as moving, the cause is just as just—it’s time for action. And that is what we are hoping for in 2013.
We live in an age deeply suspicious of institutions. Pastor and performance artist Rob Bell spoke for many of his peers when he asked pastors at Duke Divinity School in 2010, "Do you ever feel like you signed up for a revolution [when you went into ministry], but ended up running a corporation?" Less than a year later, Bell left his pastoral role for a new, less institutionally constrained, calling in Los Angeles.
Implied in Bell's question is a deep frustration with the institutional church and with institutional leadership. But an institution does not have to be a calcified bureaucracy, slowing sucking the soul out of its inmates. Part of why we are cynical about institutions is because we have a limited view of what institutions are and how they work.
Even as our culture has swiftly moved toward accepting same-sex marriage, the term "homosexual" has already disappeared among those who have taken the time to listen and learn from gay and lesbian neighbors and friends. For good reasons, the preferred language among those neighbors has become "LGBT"—"Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender" (or "Transsexual").
We should welcome this shift, because it actually helps clarify the multiple sexualities whose representatives have banded together to seek legal recognition and relief from stigma and shame. Indeed, the initialism LGBT is increasingly augmented by references to Queer (or Questioning) and Asexual persons—thus including those who find their sexuality ill-defined by the existing heterosexual or homosexual categories. It also often seeks to include Intersex individuals, the small but real number of persons whose bodies are born gender-ambiguous.
There are plenty of Silicon Valley, California, stories that are worth telling. You can tell a story that goes back a generation, about Silicon Valley as the land of the engineers, the people who tinker and hack and iterate and refactor. There may be no place on the planet where smarts can take you farther than on this little peninsula—especially technical smarts, the ability to harness physics and math to human needs and desires. Technology at its best seems friction-free, and Silicon Valley is a place where the world seems pliable beyond our ancestors' wildest imaginations.
You can go further back and talk about the '49ers, the ones who converged on northern California during the first Gold Rush, leaving everything behind in hopes of striking a seam of abundance—a story that still seems relevant more than 160 years later. The gold is gone, but the sudden and arbitrary lightning strikes of riches are still here—neighbors in identical houses with similar jobs who end up with three or six zeroes of difference in their wealth. You may have to be fantastically hardworking and absurdly gifted to enter this lottery, but it's a game of chance all the same.
The voices followed me through the airport yesterday afternoon, their insistent tones blaring as loudly as the glaring screens that have colonized nearly every public place in American life. They chased after me offering insider knowledge: "The autopsy reports on Adam Lanza and his mother are providing some gruesome new details … "
I scurried out of sight and hearing of whatever gruesomeness was about to be unveiled. They quoted press releases from lobbying groups: "… prepared to make meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again.…" I pondered how many PR professionals had polished that artfully vague phrase—"meaningful contributions"—and whether they truly believed that such a travesty would never happen again, no matter how meaningful their client's contributions.
No, it will happen again.
Downtown Seattle’s Daniels Recital Hall, with its soaring Beaux Arts dome, intricate woodwork and stained glass, is about to become a church again. The developer who saved it from the wrecking ball has signed a long-term lease with Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, a resolutely evangelical congregation that has been worshiping in a former nightclub since its founding in 2008. With 1,500 members, the congregation outgrew its old, less-than-ideal quarters, where for a time the congregants used exotic dancers’ cages as coat racks.
Christians in Seattle aren’t alone in wanting to reclaim the heart of their city as a place for worship. Though the American evangelical movement is often stereotyped as rural and provincial, it has actually had its greatest success in the suburbs and exurbs, where entrepreneurial pastors found cheap land and plentiful parking to build the “megachurches” of the past generation—think Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., seating capacity over 7,000.
But a new generation of church founders believes that city centers will be the beachhead of a new evangelization. While U.S. cities aren’t growing as fast as overseas metropolises like Lagos or Shanghai, their renaissance since the crime-ridden 1970s is one of the cultural headlines of the last generation, and it has been accompanied by burgeoning urban congregations. On a Sunday morning in any American city the signs of change come in literal form: placards on sidewalks and corners announcing church meetings.
I'm not sure when I started hearing more about "the common good" from fellow Christians. But I'm pretty sure Christianity Today had something to do with it. This magazine spent 2005 exploring pastor Tim Keller's proposal that Christians be "a counterculture for the common good." Now we're in the midst of This Is Our City: two years' worth of articles, documentary films, and events for leaders in cities around North America. Our team has realized that what we're really looking for are what we are calling "common-good decisions"—times when Christians make choices, some small and relatively easy (say, volunteering in a neighborhood school), others major and costly (say, moving into a tough school district), to seek the good of their neighborhoods.
The phrase also comes up in the perennial but newly vigorous conversation about the role Christians should play in American culture. Gordon College president Michael Lindsay titled his 2011 inaugural address "Faithful Leadership for the Common Good." Gabe Lyons, who convenes diverse church and civic leaders every year at the Q conference, describes its mission as "ideas for the common good." (Full disclosure: Lindsay and Lyons are friends, and their organizations have been the recipients of my family's financial support and have paid me for speaking engagements.) The phrase appears three times in the National Association of Evangelicals' (NAE) 2001 "call to civic responsibility" titled "For the Health of the Nation," which CT editor in chief David Neff helped draft. After longtime vice president Richard Cizik left the NAE, he founded a new group called the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
But a slogan isn't the same thing as a vision. And the more I've thought about and vigorously promoted the phrase "the common good," the less I'm sure we know what we mean by it.
A few years ago, I found myself in a room with more diversity, intelligence, and energy than I've experienced almost anywhere else. It was a spring Saturday morning in a suburb just west of Richmond, Virginia, and gathered in a meeting room of a pleasant nondenominational church was a group of about 50 people, most of them young adults, all of them keenly engaged in a series of sessions about faith and cultural responsibility. These students, instructors, and mentors for the Richmond Christian Leadership Institute (RCLI) were nearing the end of their ten-month-long immersion in the opportunities and challenges of cultural leadership in the city. The next month, they would be meeting again, this time in an inner-city African-American church. RCLI is a moveable feast.
Only five years old and limited to about 30 students per year, RCLI is already having an outsize influence on the city of Richmond, and on the Christian community there. Its influence hinges on its innovative approach to civic education. Its participants come from every sector of culture—primarily business, nonprofit organizations, and local government—and from a vast array of neighborhoods, churches (53 different churches have been represented by RCLI's 151 participants to date), and ethnic and racial backgrounds. What they share is a serious commitment to Christian discipleship, some demonstrated capacity for leadership, and a love of their city. And after ten months together, they have something else in common: an in-depth education in Richmond's history, culture, neighborhoods, government, and economy. They also have friendships with fellow emerging leaders they would never have met any other way.
RCLI's approach to training the next generation of civic, business, and church leaders is a good measure of the health of the Christian community in Richmond, and Christians' commitment to the health of their city. I believe RCLI, both in the details of its programs and the philosophy that has shaped its work, comes as close to a secret of Christian civic renewal as you're ever going to find. At least if a tremendously challenging, multifaceted effort based on decades of investment, learning, reflection, trial, and error counts as a "secret." It has several qualities that could be borrowed for culture-making efforts almost anywhere: