Authority + Vulnerability: A Review

I finished reading Andy Crouch’s newest book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing, this weekend. I was telling my wife about it, and she asked why I had been interested in reading it. I said, “Um, because I read everything Andy Crouch writes?” While there are in fact many things Crouch has written that I have not read, I have been a fan of his ever since his days editing re:generation quarterlya magazine of Christian cultural criticism, in the early aughts. He has published two previous books, Culture Making (a declaration that Christians ought to make culture, not just critique it), and Playing God (a declaration that power is not so bad after all, and can in fact bring about a lot of good), both of which I devoured.

Strong and Weak is a bit different from those previous two books, though. The hardcover is a smaller format, for one thing, and so it is much shorter. For another thing, while the Amazon classification system put both Culture Making and Playing God into the “Social Issues” category, Strong and Weak is in the “Church Leadership” and “Self-Help” categories. While there are similarities, this book leans more toward leadership issues than cultural critique.

Crouch begins the book by claiming that, to bring about true flourishing, it is necessary for us to have both authority and vulnerability, where authority is “the capacity for meaninIMG_0057gful action” (35) and vulnerability is “exposure to meaningful risk” (40). He places these on a 2×2 chart that he uses throughout the book. The combination of authority with vulnerability (quadrant I) leads to flourishing; having vulnerability without authority (quadrant II) leads to suffering; having neither authority nor vulnerability (quadrant III) leads to withdrawing; and having authority without vulnerability (quadrant IV) leads to exploiting.

In the first part of the book, Crouch defines more fully each of the four quadrants. The second part of the book is devoted to setting out the path to flourishing, and is chiefly made up of two chapters: “Hidden Vulnerability” and “Descending to the Dead.” Both of these explore paradoxes related to getting into the upper right quadrant. In the first, he writes that “the most important thing we are called to do is help our communities meet their deepest vulnerability with appropriate authority—to help our communities live in the full authority and full vulnerability of Flourishing. And it turns out that in order to do that, we often must bear vulnerability that no one sees” (122). In the second, he writes that “the most transformative acts of our lives are likely to be the moments when we radically empty ourselves, in the very settings where we would normally be expected to exercise authority” (151). In other words, we get to flourishing by going through suffering.

It was appropriate for me to read this book over Easter weekend, as I found it to be a valuable reflection on both the death and resurrection of Christ and his call for his followers to take up their crosses and follow him. This book was simple and profound, and I expect that it will stay with me for a long time as I seek to grow in leadership and help others to flourish.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Power Was Made for Flourishing: A Review

The word power has the ability to make even the least squeamish among us flinch. It can call to mind images of violence, abuse, and selfishness. When we hear the word power, we think of Lord Acton’s saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is bad guys who have power, we think—even though it was He-Man, not Skeletor, who said “I have the power” in every episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Even people who want to use their power for good (so common knowledge tells us) must wield it cynically, unable to keep themselves from being dirtied by it. People who don’t want to compromise must avoid power at all costs.

Andy Crouch will have none of this kind of thinking. His contention, in his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, is that power is good. It is a gift. It is, he writes, “the ability to make something of the world” (17). He sets out to show us in this book what power was meant to be, and what it still can be. It is not always a zero-sum game, in which my increase in power means a decrease in someone else’s. We have been taught to think this way through the influence of thinkers like Nietzsche and Foucault, and it is reinforced during even the most civilly contested elections—which theoretically exist, somewhere. No, the best kind of power is when powerful people create new power in other people without the total power being reduced, as when a teacher teaches a student. In other words, not all power is domination. When we believe that all power is domination, and that the ultimate nature of reality is a power struggle, we believe a lie.

Instead, Crouch argues that the ultimate nature of reality is that God created us to bear his image. When we fail to worship God as his image bearers, we worship idols. “The question is whether we are making idols—investing created things with ultimate significance—or whether we are being ‘idols’ in the sense of Genesis 1:26, images and signs of the ultimate truth about the world” (97). The bad uses of power that we see on a regular basis are not the inevitable result of the nature of power itself. Rather, abuses of power are brought on by idolatry, and “in the beginning it was not so.”

Probably the most eye-opening parts of this book for me were the chapters “The Hiddenness of Power” and “The Lure of Privilege.” I am, like Crouch, a white male citizen of the United States. By virtue of those three things alone (not to mention other factors like education), I am privileged, and in ways that are mostly invisible to me. For example, I once heard a few friends, who were women, talk about their experiences of hearing whistles and catcalls as they walked down the street. Before hearing that conversation, I thought that sort of thing only happened in the movies (and old ones, at that), not in real life. I have never had that degrading experience, merely because being a man has granted me certain privileges that I did not ask for, and that I mostly take for granted. Crouch writes of Jesus that while he did not give up exercising power, he did give up the privilege and status that could have accrued to his power. I’m not entirely sure I agree with Crouch’s precise distinction between privilege and status, but I do agree that inherited power can be good at some times and bad at others.

I haven’t even touched on Crouch’s chapters on institutions, which are a helpful challenge to people who are suspicious of institutional power. This book is worth pondering slowly, and perhaps with a group of people. I found it difficult to read quickly. It is not that Crouch’s prose is undecipherable; he is in fact a clear and lucid writer. But his subject matter is such that I had to pause frequently and reflect on what he was saying. This book is worth reading, and re-reading, especially for anyone who is suspicious of or cynical about power.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

June 2009: Books Read

1. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. I’d been looking forward to reading this since it came out last year, and when I was talking with my cousin (who is not a Christian) over Christmas about a book to possibly read together, I knew this was the one. Since February we have been reading about a chapter at a time, he e-mailing me his thoughts and me responding with my thoughts. It has been a fruitful dialogue, I think, mostly because Keller covers so much in this book. The first half features chapters on various questions/objections that people in North America have about Christianity (e.g., “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”), and the second half features chapters that examine the claims of Christianity. Keller has clearly done a lot of thinking about cultural and philosophical issues and a lot of talking with non-Christians, and it shows. I highly recommend it both for believers who want an overview of modern/postmodern Western objections to Christianity, and unbelievers who want to know what some responses to those objections are.

2. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society by Rodney Clapp. The title of this book says it all, really. Clapp argues that we are in a post-Christian society, and says that the church’s response to this situation should not be to attempt to reassert Christian cultural dominance but to become a culture unto itself. I bought it used, and the previous owner had written a lot of question marks in the margins, and I could see why. It’s much too short for Clapp to really develop his arguments, so I’m not too sure that it’s likely to convince many people who don’t already agree with the thesis. I enjoyed it, but wouldn’t call it a life-changing book. For those who want more fully developed thought in this area, I’d recommend the work of John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas.

3. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch. I’m a sucker for books about culture. All you have to do, as an author or publisher, is put the word “culture” in a book title, and you can guarantee that I’ll at least pick it up and look at it. I was already familiar with the work of Andy Crouch, largely through the influence of my Sunday School teacher when I went to Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Fritz Kling. Back then (this was seven years ago), Fritz would hand out copies of the magazine of which Crouch was the editor, re:generation quarterly. I remember reading through a few issues and especially liking Crouch’s voice. One time, Crouch even came to Richmond and I went to meet him with Fritz and a group of others. I don’t remember a lot about the meeting except that Crouch talked about highways and how they were a product of and also produced culture. I thought his habit of looking behind the stuff of everyday life and wondering why it was there and what it said about culture was fascinating, and a good habit for me to develop too.

Culture Making has talk about highways, and so much more. Crouch rejects one-dimensional Christian responses to culture, calling us to reject some, embrace some, but above all, make some. Culture abhors a vacuum, he says, so it isn’t enough for us to just pick and choose what we like and don’t like. If we want good culture(s), we need to make it. He presents a reading of the Bible in which culture is prominent, and urges us to stop trying to change the world. What we can do, instead, is start making culture in small groups (“the 3, the 12 and the 120,” he calls them) and trust God to magnify our culture-making efforts.

It also has the story of what happened to that little magazine, re:generation quarterly. It failed, but Crouch encourages his readers to try and make culture, even if it sometimes means failure. Crouch is a good writer, and this is a good book. I hope it makes it into the hands of many Christians.

4. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Even though many people of my generation read this book when they were in junior high or high school, I did not. Since it has been so powerful for so long and for so many people, I decided to read it.

How can I review a book like this? I can only say that it was heartbreaking in its ordinariness. Everyone who reads the book knows how extraordinary the circumstances were under which it was written: Anne and seven other Jews hid in a secret apartment in Amsterdam for over two years as most other Jews in Europe were shipped off to death camps by the Nazis. In the end, the residents were shipped off too and only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances, though, the most compelling part about the book to me was just how ordinary it was. Anne was truly gifted as a writer, but in so many ways she was just like any other girl: she had conflicts with her parents, she desired romantic love, she had hopes and dreams for the future. One reason for the popularity of this book, I think, is that so many people can relate to Anne. She seems like us, or like someone we know and love. And because she is so like the rest of us, we can’t help but be chilled and saddened by the fact that what happened to her happened to millions of others, and could happen to anyone.

5. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. I can’t remember the first time I heard who Dorothy Day was, but I’ve been curious to read this book, her autobiography up to the early ’50s, for a while. The front of my copy of the book calls her a “legendary Catholic social activist,” and I was curious to see how she got started, what motivated her, and what led to the Catholic Worker Movement, which she co-founded.

The book didn’t disappoint. It was a quick read, and I found her description of the movement and the people involved to be inspiring. It made me want to be a part of something like it. Her writing isn’t all inspirational, however. After all, it is called The Long Loneliness, and she is honest about the loneliness it is possible to feel in the midst of many people and in the midst of a great movement.

One tidbit that was surprising to me was that Day was not a socialist in her Catholic Worker days. I had assumed that she was… I suppose because I had read somewhere that before she became a Catholic she worked on several socialist newspapers. She actually describes herself as an anarchist and pacifist.