Author and musician Andy Crouch is executive editor of Christianity Today. He holds degrees from Cornell and Boston University, was an InterVarsity campus pastor at Harvard, and served as editor-in-chief of Regeneration Quarterly. WORLD’s March 26, 2011, issue included my interview with him on his book Culture Making.
Let’s talk about your new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Why is power a gift that has to be redeemed? I want to reclaim the idea that it’s part of the vocation of human beings to have and exercise power, to steward power, but it has been corrupted by idolatry and injustice, so it needs to be redeemed. There needs to be a story that takes us past power as we know it, corrupted by the Fall, to a reclaiming. The great thing about the Christian story is we never just rewind to the original gift, but what unfolds through salvation history is actually better than even what was given at the beginning.
You write, “Idolatry is the biblical name for the mandate for the human capacity for creative power run amuck.” Play that out. Humans are invested by their Creator with this creative ability to make something in the world, and ideally, to make something flourish. But, instead, what they do is they make the one thing they were not supposed to make, which is images of God. They make God-substitutes. They themselves are the image of God, but they react to the instability of being both a creature and in the image of the Creator. The serpent appeals to that instability in Genesis 3, and human beings turn their creativity to this other task of making things out of the world that purport to represent ultimate reality. They displace their own image-bearing function onto these created things that cannot actually bear the weight of bearing the image.
That doesn’t work. The only one who can make an image of God successfully in the world is God. Human beings are commanded not to make images of God, but God has actually made at the moment 7 billion images of God. All of those image-bearers misuse their creativity to make these substitute images. The world was meant to be full of true images, but it’s full of false images. The creativity we have makes us able to turn almost anything into a substitute for God.
You write, “It can seem that the whole history of power is one long story of perversion and betrayal. In fact, if I were not a follower of Jesus Christ, I might believe that that was the deepest truth about power.” These days when we look at Washington it’s easy to get cynical about the process. How do you keep from seeing D.C. as one long story of perversion and betrayal? The main way I keep from becoming cynical: I try not to pay too much attention. I was on Capitol Hill last year trying to advance some perspectives on immigration reform. When I’m in the office of a member of Congress, maybe we disagree about either the end-goal or the steps to get to that goal, yet when I’m with that person, more often than not I leave fairly hopeful. But when I watch the news about what that person is doing and see it framed, I can easily become cynical. There are very cynical people in almost every system, and if you hang out with them, you will become a cynic. But, in those same systems, some people work with all the constraints and do not become kind of fatally cynical.
The Bible helps. I also immerse myself in this bigger story of Scripture, which says that God’s at work in bigger and deeper ways than we can imagine. In ancient Rome, more and more godlike attributes were ascribed to the emperor until eventually the emperor demanded to be worshipped as God, and at the same time that emperor is delivering less and less peace and security to the empire—this is the pattern of idols all over again.
Has power-seeking among Christians in recent years been more biblical or more idolatrous? You’re unwittingly serving an idol if it promises big results up front at relatively low costs. Some Christian political enthusiasts anticipated a quick result, relatively easily achievable, that probably was never possible. Idols fail to deliver, even while the costs go up and up—but when you serve the true God, often the initial results are tiny and extremely costly, requiring deep sacrifice, and in the very long run, bearing crazy-abundant fruit.
As in the early history of Christianity ... On the day of Pentecost, 120 people in the whole world are attached to this crucified Messiah, Jesus. Even 100 years later, maybe 20,000 out of the whole Roman Empire, but 400 years later more than half the Roman Empire has come to faith.
Is power-seeking like a drug? The initial hit is exciting, but it takes more and more to get less and less? Our modern concept of addiction maps very closely onto how idols work. Diminishing returns, accelerating or increasing demands. That’s the pattern of all idols, whether political, religious, or substances we worship as if they were God.
How about an analogy to writing: If it comes too easily, it’s probably not very good? Yes, which is why when people find out I’m a writer and say, “Oh, I love writing,” I think, “Oh, you’re not a writer.” If it’s that easy for you, I don’t think you’re really a writer, and I probably don’t want to read what you write, because it hasn’t been suffered enough.
God says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Should leaders use power to say, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the spaces of this organization with your own creativity”? I experienced this in a very vivid way as the executive producer of documentary films, very involved at the vision and often the resource provision stages. But on an actual shoot, I’m the least important person in the whole endeavor: I can’t run the camera, I can’t frame the shot, I can’t run the sound. These other people are flourishing, and I’m watching and celebrating and saying, like God, “This is very good.”
You’ve created the environment ... I’m trying to reframe our understanding of power from the imperative mood, which just gives commands. In limited domains the imperative mood is important, but other moods of the verb in Genesis 1 aren’t the imperative. It’s let there be this, and let’s make this together, and now you guys go make something. Very different from just commanding and controlling.
You write, “More and more resources of time and money go into the appearance of power, while less and less go into its actual exercise in ways that would create opportunity and true wealth.” How do you start changing that? Some institutions do not serve any ongoing good, and those need to be eliminated. We need prophets who are able to say, while everyone else is trying to avoid the issue, “This institution is not working.”