Friday, October 4, 2013

Book review: Playing God

Andy Crouch's Playing God has received a lot of press recently.  For in-depth, thoughtful and positive reviews from smart people, you could look here, here and here.  I'm sure there will be more.
The thing is, I agree that this is an important book on an important topic, closely related to our recent posts on "chastened activism".  But I also think it is gravely flawed.  I don't usually do negative reviews but I've chewed over this one for a while.  If you want to know more, read on.

Playing God¸ Andy Crouch, 2013.  Reviewed by John Roe

“I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken” writes C.S.Lewis in Mere Christianity.  “What I cannot understand is the sort of semi-pacifism that you get nowadays which gives people the idea that, though you have to fight, you ought to do it…as if you were ashamed of it.”  According to Lewis, this attitude “robs magnificent young Christians in the [armed] Services” of “gaiety and wholeheartedness”.

It is undoubtedly one of the more bizarre paragraphs in Lewis’ oeuvre. The basic rhetorical move here is sometimes called the “false dilemma” – if something (war) cannot be unequivocally condemned, then it can be uncomplicatedly celebrated – and it seems to me that Lewis’ application of it inadvertently provides a pungent counterexample.  Even as we celebrate the courage of the warrior who faces death with “gaiety and wholeheartedness”, many of us would acknowledge that if that same warrior deals death without shame, he is thereby diminished as an icon of Christ.

Andy Crouch’s Playing God is an extended but similar false dilemma applied not to the concrete reality of war, but to the abstraction “power”.  If “power” cannot be unequivocally condemned (and Crouch argues that it cannot), then there has to be a way that it can be uncomplicatedly celebrated (and he undertakes to show us what that is).  To quote the dust jacket: “Wielding power need not distort us or others, but instead can be stewarded well through sabbath and spiritual practices.”

Everyone knows, more or less, what war is, but “power” is a slipperier concept.  In the course of the book the referent of the word veers between mere “potential”, the ability of human beings to act creatively, and “domination” , the ability of one human being to compel another to act in a certain way, irrespective of her will: between potentia and potestas, as we might say.  Such ambiguity makes it easier to arrive at a false dilemma.  Who could condemn potentia out of hand? – is it not (as Crouch correctly argues) a creational gift, an original good, and (however distorted by sin) able to be redeemed? (See his excellent earlier book, Culture Making, for a development of this theme.) But Crouch will have it that one who admits this is thereby committed to a similar view of potestas – “the hard truth is that no society can survive without coercion” and therefore (?) coercion too must be in some sense a creational good.  

Crouch summarizes the view of power that he is disagreeing with in this way

…anyone attempting to exercise power, or anyone who finds themselves with power, privilege or status, whether they like it or not, must imagine themselves perched on a steep and slippery slope that leads to violence, and must be constantly trying to avoid slipping down that slope.  Even if we manage to avoid slipping all the way down, we will never be able to shake the accusation that ultimately what we are involved in is degrading.
That is a pretty accurate summary of my own understanding of power (potestas) and it is therefore disconcerting, to say the least, to hear Crouch’s crisp dismissal: “if (this view) is right, then Christianity is not true and Christian faith is foolish.”   Apparently the greatest danger Crouch sees  is that Christians will be too diffident, that they will hold back from energetically exercising the power that God has given them.  Few outsiders (and here I speak as one of them) would concur that an excess of diffidence is the besetting sin of American Evangelicalism.

There is so much that is good in this book.  Crouch is aware of and names distortions of power, the denials (“We’re all servant leaders here”), the ego trips, the patronizing benevolence that can infect short-term missions, and he is also aware of ways in which creative power can be nurtured and preserved through institutional structures and culture-making (excellent chapters on this).  He offers sound pastoral advice for those in positions of coercive power.  But, for me, the book is ultimately vitiated by its facile assumption that “wielding power need not distort us” if we just get our spiritual practices right – like Lewis’ soldier who, freed from liberal self-doubt, goes about killing the enemy with “gaiety and wholeheartedness”.  In neither situation, it seems to me, can the stain be so easily expunged.

Towards the middle of the book, the mention of Babylon leads Crouch into a meditation on the second Gulf War.

One gauge of the depth of Hussein’s madness and blindness was his refusal to bend to the international community’s demand for clarity about Iraq’s capability for nuclear and chemical warfare.
This is a half-hearted sentence.  Hussein is named and shamed as a madman (rightly so!) while Bush and Blair and their cronies get to shelter behind the alias “international community”.  In fact, it is hard to doubt that the US and British leaders had set a course for war well in advance of any “international demand for clarity” about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs.  And why had they done so?  Both men profess Christian faith, and I think it plausible that their confidence in the virtuous nature of their own intentions misled them into believing that their potestas could be virtuously exercised, that they could in fact wield power without distortion, that they could, as Karl Rove reportedly said, “create our own reality”. 

In other words, they led their nations into a disastrous and unjust war of choice because they believed the theology of this book. 


John Roe said...

Here's another somewhat critical review (more nuanced than mine, though, and with more explicit Scriptural exegesis):

John Roe said...

I received a very gracious response from Andy Crouch himself ("thanks for writing - I'm sorry I failed to convince you"). He makes one point regarding the closing paragraphs of the review:

'I do wish you had given more context for the comment about the "international community" and Saddam Hussein. First, I don't know what phrase better captures the demands of the UN Security Council, especially resolution 687, which far predated Bush and Blair. That's a separate matter from Bush (43)'s coalition's decision to go to war in 2003. I suppose I could have written "the UN Security Council" and avoided raising hackles with those who detect a bit of doublespeak in the "international community" language. Second, and more important, I can't imagine any reader of your concluding paragraphs would guess that I specifically address the "blindness" of the US in the paragraphs following the one you quote. I think giving more context might change at least some readers' judgment about whether I am as unqualifiedly giving license to policymakers to "create their own reality" as you feel I am.'

I'd encourage readers to check this out for themselves - it is on pp131, 132 of the book.