Interview by Jeffrey Overstreet (email@example.com) | Illustration by Jacob Thomas
When Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, told people that he was writing a book about power, many of them responded with the same quotation from British historian Lord Acton: “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In fact, some of the Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and staff among Crouch’s audience recited the quote along with him as he began his keynote address for SPU’s 13th annual Day of Common Learning on Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
This common response illustrates his primary concern: When we think about power, we tend to think of its abuses, its forceful and violent forms — what he calls a “Genesis 3” version of power. Humankind fell when they stopped working together and sought to “be like God” on their own.
But is power really such a bad thing? As Crouch quickly pointed out, SPU had lent him some power at this very event. He drew attention to the manifestations of his “power,” from his microphone to his “garment of power” (a sport jacket).
In the rest of his lecture, “The Good News About Power,” Crouch highlighted an alternative to “Genesis 3” power. It’s better, he said, to embrace a “Genesis 1” vision of power. God meant for us to exercise creative power, not corrupted power.
Verbs ascribed to God in the Genesis 1 creation story, said Crouch, show the Creator exercising power through creativity instead of domination. Instead of saying (as Star Trek fans might say) “Make it so!”, God’s verbs open up possibilities: “Let there be” or “May it be.”
Human beings, God’s “image-bearers,” are meant to collaborate with him and with each other in the ongoing work of creation. As creation continued, God said “Let us create” because creative power is collaborative. Crouch pointed out that Mary said “May it be” when she received the call to bear the Christ child, and Jesus said “May it be“ in Gethsemane when he opened himself to God’s will. Unlike monetary power, he explained, when creative power is exchanged, it is not a zero-sum game. “It’s not about ‘If you have more, I have less, or if I have more, you have less,’” he said. “Creative power leads to the flourishing of the world.”
Crouch recalled how his cello teacher, in giving him lessons, gave Crouch power to play the instrument without losing any power himself. “Thus,” he said, “the total amount of power in the room increased.”
“Human beings, God’s ‘image-bearers,’ are meant to collaborate with him and with each other in the ongoing work of creation.”
Power has been on Crouch’s mind for a long time. He has written two books about it: Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. And he’s exercised it in other ways: He’s the executive editor at Christianity Today, and the former editor of Re:generation Quarterly. He’s an influential voice at Fuller Theological Seminary, The Equitas Group, Books & Culture, The John Templeton Foundation, and the IJM Institute. He was an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus minister at Harvard for 10 years, and he’s led worship for gatherings as large as 20,000.
After his speech, Crouch conversed with students and faculty and participated in the day’s events. From a diverse program of Day of Common Learning follow-up sessions — which included presentations such as “Asian Americans: Power, Oppression, and Identity,” “Models of (Servant) Leadership in Music and the Military,” and “Re-thinking Power and Powerlessness: Listening to Iraqi Voices in Blogs from Baghdad,” among others — Crouch chose to attend one called “Immigration: Power and Privilege.”
Later, he took some time to explore questions about power with Response.
When it comes to understanding power, American Christians seem as divided as any community. How can we discern which kinds of power to exercise and which to avoid or relinquish?
We should avoid forms of power that isolate — that is, forms of power that distance us from other people who are different and who have little strategic value to us. We should avoid the kind of power that prioritizes strategy and impact over people, power that uses people as means to our ends in the world.
Instead we should seek the kind of power that treats people as ends. That’s the kind of power that leads to people’s flourishing. Those forms of power ask, “How am I pouring myself and all my resources out for the flourishing of others?”
What are some forms of power we might not be aware that we have, power we can exercise meaningfully?
One of the most underestimated forms of power that most Americans have — a power that is not reciprocated — is the freedom to go most places in the world. Take advantage of your freedom of movement! The ability to choose to be in places of great difficulty, suffering, and vulnerability is a power that almost every American has. And it doesn’t have to be international. For example: Right around the corner, in every American city, is a hospital — a place fraught with tremendous pain, uncertainty, and fear.
This power can be misused in the form of exploitative or voyeuristic short-term trips. That sort of thing can generate a sense of “Wow! I’m really living, because I’ve experienced poverty!” That’s not very helpful.
I also think the power to risk failing is another power we may not realize that we have, or we may just decide not to exercise it — we choose to preserve a sense of comfort. Nothing that leads to human flourishing happens without risk. This is the essence of idolatry: the desire to believe there’s a way to control ourselves into flourishing. All truly good things require me to open myself up to possibilities that I can’t control.
In your book Playing God, you talk about the role of institutions in the cultivation of human flourishing. In a time when cover-ups and scandals have increased distrust of churches as institutions, how can churches use creative power to restore trust and integrity?
When people talk about the decline in trust of the church as an institution, we have to keep in mind this is in the context of the decline of trust in institutions of all kinds.
We know that approval of Congress right now is as low, or nearly as low, as it’s ever been. People disagree with Congress in general, but they tend to be more positive about their own representative in Congress. The closer you get to local politics, the more people express some basic level of trust, on average.
We can take a clue from this. It is a huge mistake for the church in the U.S. to put all of our eggs in a basket of national figures and national leaders who become famous or notorious. One way to win trust is to not attempt to be global, but to be local: to serve a particular place, a particular people, really well.
We are two or three generations now from the collapse of trust in American institutions that happened in the 1960s and 1970s. We are now seeing the full flowering of that wave of anti-institutionalism. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that it’s going to take us three generations to rebuild institutions that are worth trusting.
There is a very important biblical word that has been much neglected in American Christianity and maybe Christianity in general: lament. We need to be a part of the restoring of institutions by leading in lament.
Andy Crouch exercised the power of taking the stage in SPU’s Royal Brougham Pavilion when he spoke about the use of power.
Lament is the full naming and bearing of what has gone wrong. Institutions, organizations, and committees like to skip over lament when something has gone wrong. But if you do not include lament in your cycle of institutional renewal, you leave unaddressed the real grief and losses of whatever ways that institution has failed. On the other hand, if you actually make room for lament, then there’s room for actual healing, forgiveness, and freedom to come.
Can you give an example of the need for institutional lament?
The most toxic aspect of race relations in the United States is that, while we fought a war to end slavery, we never lamented slavery. We never lamented the legacy of race-based exploitation of people, and so we never made room to be fully healed from it.
And this isn’t just about slavery. It’s also about the expropriation of our continent from the people who were here before the Europeans arrived. We have not lamented what was lost in the settling of America. If you don’t lament, you don’t get real renewal.
Lament is not complaint. It’s not bitterness. It’s not manipulative, trying to get your way by accusation. It’s simply publicly, thoroughly grieving the truth.
What have you learned about creative power in your leadership role at Christianity Today?
I’ve been in an executive role for just two years, and a lot of beautiful things have happened. Very few of them are because of me. That’s a great thing about leadership — there’s too much for any one person to do. Instead of feeling disappointment that I didn’t get to write a certain article, I say, “Oh my goodness! I assigned that article to this person, and she did so much better with it than I would have done.”
The interactive nature of the Internet, and the power that it gives anyone to publish anything, has challenged the power of the press. At Christianity Today, how have you responded to that challenge?
One way we’ve responded is that we ended the comment section on our website. Online comments were giving our platform and our significant readership to people who had not earned [readers’] trust, people who were benefiting from our large platform for their own notoriety. It was contaminating the incredibly careful work that our team does to publish stories and get them right. People who make the most toxic contributions to these conversations have no authority of their own — all they can do is borrow the authority of the website they’re commenting on.
The question then is this: How do we avoid just disengaging? How do we avoid saying “We just publish, we don’t listen”? We try to give space to reasonable critiques. We publish those in our letters section.
It’s easy to feel inundated with bad news about injustice and crises. What are some ways the power of media can be used for good instead of adding to the clamor?
People are aware that things are wrong in the world. They’re not aware that there’s hope for the world. I would love for us to spend most of our time raising awareness of hope. That’s what Christians have to offer. There are stories of hope in Christian community that do not exist elsewhere. It’s very powerful, showing how systems have been changed for the better, because it says to people who take systems for granted “It does not have to be this way. It can change.”
How do you think universities can exercise creative power to bring hope to the world?
I worry about the temptation to spend a lot of time on “activism.” It’s very important that universities not justify themselves by showing that “we care about these concerns.” The brief time that students have here is a time when they need to dig deeply into the library, work really hard in the lab, and develop certain kinds of skills.
Educating and graduating people who know how to handle a domain of science, who have thought deeply about human psychology and development, or who know the richness of the texts that we inherit in our literature — that is the most important thing universities do. Universities prepare people to be adequate to the challenge of living in a very complicated world.