Book Review: Playing God


Over the past few years, Andy Crouch has quickly become one of my favorite writers.  I try to read or listen to anything that he puts out.  He thinks deeply about things that really matter.  His goal is clearly to honor the Lord by stewarding his life with an intentional gospel focus.  Playing God is an excellent read to unpack what power is really all about.  There is a lot in this book that speaks to the illusion of control that we all think that we can have over our lives.  Crouch offers a lot of freedom in reminding us that submitting to God’s power actually leads to a far more abundant life than anything we could attempt to throw together on our own.
Playing God is full of Scripture and equips the reader to contemplate what it would really look like to live out and in light of the Imago Dei philosophy of life.  Why do we continue to miss out on God’s best in favor of our feeble efforts at Playing God?  I highlighted several things while reading and have posted those notes below…
  • Power is a gift. p. 9
  • Power is the ability to make something of the world. p. 17
  • Power is simply (and not so simply) the ability to participate in that stuff-making, sense-making process that is the most distinctive thing that human beings do. p. 17
  • Like life itself, power is nothing—worse than nothing—without love.  But love without power is less than it was meant to be.  Love without the capacity to make something of the world, without the ability to respond to and make room for the beloved’s flourishing, is frustrated love.
    This is why the love that is the heartbeat of the Christian story—the Father’s love for the Son and, through the Son, for the world—is not simply a sentimental feeling or a distant, ethereal theological truth, but has been signed and sealed by the most audacious act of true power in the history of the world, the resurrection of the Son from the dead.  Power at its best is resurrection to full life, to full humanity.  Whenever human beings become what they were meant to be, when even death cannot finally hold its prisoners, then we can truly speak of power. p. 25
  • Just as the climax of creation, the introduction of God’s own image bearers into the world, only happens in the context of the divine community, so we often find that our own creative vision does not reach its full potential until we bring others into the process. p. 34
  • Power is for flourishing.  This means power is a gift worth asking for, seeking and—should we receive it—stewarding. p. 37
  • All true being strives to create room for more being and to expend its power in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust back the chaos that limits true being.  In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into mutual creation and tending of the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation.  And the process goes on. p. 51
  • Power is meant for image bearing, and image bearing is meant for flourishing. p. 54
  • Idolatry is the biblical name for the human capacity for creative power run amok. p. 55
  • Every idol makes two simple and extravagant promises.
    • “You shall not surely die.”
    • “You shall be like God.” p. 64
  • God hates injustice and idolatry because they are the same thing: the introduction into God’s very good world of false images, images that destroy the true images God himself has placed in the world to declare his character and voice his praise.  Whether making false gods (idolatry) or playing false gods (injustice) the result is identical—the true image of God is lost, and not just lost but replaced by something that purports, often very persuasively, to represent the ultimate truth about reality. The truth about God, and the truth about God’s very good world, is exchanged for a lie. p. 71
  • Benevolent god playing happens when we use the needs of the poor to make our own move from good to great—to revel in the superior power of our technology and the moral excellence of our willingness to help.  Benevolent god playing makes us, not those we are serving, the heroes of the story.  It happens whenever technological and financial resources are deployed in such overwhelming force, and with so little real trust building or relationship, that we maintain a safe distance between ourselves and the recipients of our largesse. p. 73
  • When the true God acts in history, no one and nothing is left unchanged.  But false gods leave everything the way it was—or worse—even while they flatter us with fleeting sensations of emotional and spiritual elevation.  The true God takes even small offerings and produces abundant results; false gods take huge offerings of many, time, energy, and talent, and give little or nothing in return.  Is image bearing in the world flourishing in proportion to the billions of dollars that Western Christians have spent on short-term missions?  If not, it is a sign that for all our best intentions we have failed to challenge the idolatries and injustices that keep the image of the true God hidden among the faces of the poor. p. 78
  • “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come up on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8 p. 89
  • “The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” 2 Timothy 2:10-12 p. 90
  • Jesus’ power does not flow through predictable channels.  Jesus is bound by neither the law of physics and chemistry nor the laws of social obligation and custom.  Jesus’ only obligation is to the mission of his Father—a mission that will withstand even the ultimate powerlessness of death. p. 109
  • Only Sabbath keepers can be trusted with the work of image bearing. p. 117
  • Force operates by mathematical symmetry.  I push the door with a certain amount of effort, and it opens to a corresponding degree.  But violence tends to have a quality of excess in which both sides end up losing.  p. 135
  • The words we use for power do not all mean the same thing.  Violence is physical force that has exceeded legitimate bounds; it does unnecessary harm or does harm for an unjust cause or without just authorization. Domination is pervasive and complete control over a person or a group of people. Force can sometimes be a very good thing.  Coercion is a broader idea than force, because coercion can be exercised just with the threat of force, as when a gun-wielding robber motions with his gun for everyone to lie down on the floor.  p. 140
  • Privilege is a special kind of power.  It is a form of power that requires no effort.  Indeed, only in unusual circumstances do we become conscious of it at all.  Most of the time, privilege just works on behalf of those who have it, never making the slightest demands of them.  p. 150
  • Privilege—the accumulated benefits from past successful exercises of power—is perfectly indifferent to whether those exercises of power were creative or oppressive, rooted in image bearing or in idolatry and injustice.  Indeed, sometimes you cannot tell whether privilege’s sources are good or bad. p. 153
  • There is no point in this story where Jesus gives up power—instead, it is the culmination and demonstration of his power.  What Jesus gives up in this story is not power but privilege and status. p. 164
  • As John prepares to tell this story, he tell su that Jesus, “having loved his own who were in the world…loved them to the end” (John 13:1).  The Messiah wrapped in a servant’s grimy towel is not giving up power.  He is restoring it to its original purpose, cleansed of its distortions—the power to love a lovely and loveless world to the uttermost.  None of his power is reserved for carefully guarding privilege or meticulously accounting for status; every bit of it is poured into this one end. p. 166
  • What is lost when institutions die is, in a word, power—the potential for image bearing.  When oppressive institutions decline, especially when they are replaced with institutions better suited to comprehensive flourishing, we rightly celebrate, but we should never wish for the decline of institutions in general, because to wish for that is to wish for a world emptied of the artifacts, arenas, patters of life and richly differentiated roles that fulfill Gd’s original intention for his image bearers to be fruitful and multiply. p. 195
  • QUAERITE IUDICIUM SUBVENITE OPPRESSO (from Isaiah 1:17, “seek justice, rescue the oppressed”) p. 109
  • If there is one abuse of power that sets the pattern for all other abuses, one institution that reminds us how pervasively corrupt institutions can become, one zombie that has been harder than all the rest to kill—it is slavery. p. 221
  • Paul’s letter to Philemon has never been fully satisfying to activists and abolitionists, nor to those who bear the burden of injustice.  It seems to incremental, too slow to right systemic wrongs.  But it is less slow than it is patient. Paul’s expectations of Philemon are indeed radical, but they are couched in the radical patience of love. p. 230
  • What wretched creatures we are, even and especially with all of our power and privilege!  What can deliver us from our entanglement with sin and death, even and especially at the heigh of our powers?  The Christian tradition has a simple and sobering answer.  We will need the spiritual disciplines. p. 237
  • As we practice the beautiful defeat of both the sociable and solitary disciplines, we find ourselves living more and more lightly in the face of power and privilege—our own and others.  If we want to be the kind of people who can take up power, and lay it down, the disciplines are the only adequate preparation. p. 240
  • What does the discipline of margins for gleaning look like for those of us who do not own fields or vineyards?  In essence, it seems to ask that in every area that we are especially competent, we must ensure that our productive work does not crowd out other image bearers.  Part of our responsibility with our own power, oddly enough, is not to use it as much as we can. p. 249
  • Making room for gleaning limits and disciplines our daily exercise of power.  Any of us who possesses any significant power should ask each day what we might leave undone that day for the sake of others’ creativity.  But on a weekly basis we are commanded not just to leave margins around our exercise of power but to withdraw from it altogether.  In the practice of sabbath, as of making room for gleaning, we once again play in the footsteps of the Creator God, whose work was not without rest and within whose sabbath all the rest of the story has unfolded. p. 252
  • There is no quicker way to discern our god playing or image bearing than to take the measure of our sabbath observance. p. 253
  • One reliable sign that you are worshiping, and playing, a false god is when your power has increased but you find yourself on an ever-steeper treadmill, less and less able to rest. p. 253
  • Sabbaticals are a tremendous privilege in the most precise sense of the word: the accumulated benefits of past exercises of power. p. 261
  • In the end, we have very little power.  We began our lives utterly powerless; we will end them in the same way.  Our first breath was a cry, and so will be our last.  In between we will forever lack the power we most would long for: the power to raise the dead.  As far as physics can tell, our activity in the world is neither positive-sum nor zero-sum, but negative-sum—every increase of order and fruitfulness comes at the cost of greater disorder and decay somewhere else.  No one has the power to turn back the remorseless one-way arrow of time “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor richest to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). p. 268

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