Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today and the author of Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP, 2008), has a new book: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP, 2013).

He was kind enough to answer some questions about his new book and the neglected topic of power—and what we can learn about it from the painting of a banjo lesson.

How would you describe the relationship between your books Culture Making and Playing God?

They definitely have a family resemblance. Both of them, at heart, are about what it means to be a human being, especially a flourishing human being. Both of them are informed by sociology more than any other academic discipline (outside the theological disciplines). And I hope both of them manage to treat huge topics (culture and power, respectively) in ways that apply to “ordinary” people. One theme of Culture Making was that all of us, not just cultural elites, have the opportunity and responsibility to cultivate and create culture; a key theme of Playing God is that all of us, not just the “powerful,” have real power and the responsibility to use it well.

That being said, there are some pretty big differences. Playing God has a bit more of a critical edge to it. With Culture Making, I felt it was important to counter a pervasive Christian pessimism about culture with a positive, hopeful account. Playing God certainly is a hopeful book—because there is also a pervasive Christian pessimism about power that I am trying to counter—but it deals much more directly, and at more length, with exactly what has gone wrong in the human story. Idolatry and injustice are the biblical categories for the failure of human cultures and human beings’ misuse of power, and I spend quite a bit of time unpacking them and examining both ancient and contemporary forms of the most disturbing kinds of idolatry and injustice. That’s just what comes with the territory if you want to be honest about how far astray our use of power has diverged from God’s original intent.

Playing God also goes deeper, I think, into the theological matters at the heart of both culture and power. The overarching argument of the book is that we will never understand power—either its possibilities or its distortions—until we understand the significance of human beings being created in the image of God. This idea of bearing the image is so incredibly theologically fruitful, and has so many profound resonances and implications, that it ended up taking over the book, in a good way I think.

I have heard a lot of sermons, and read a lot of books, articles, and blog posts, on imitating certain attributes of God and the incarnate Christ (e.g., compassion, love, goodness, mercy, humility). And I have heard a lot and read a lot about avoiding certain vices that are contrary to the kingdom (e.g., selfishness, envy, pride, lust). But I can’t recall offhand hearing much of anything about power—either as a gift to be redeemed or an idol to be rejected. You’ve invested a significant amount of time now thinking about the redemption of power to promote flourishing for the common good. Why do you think the Church has neglected this topic in particular?

That is what prompted me to write this book: a dawning awareness that I was almost never hearing Christians—especially in the dominant culture—directly address power as either a gift or an idol. Now, that is not at all the case in many minority-culture communities. I’ve spent perhaps 50 Sunday mornings of my life, cumulatively, in African-American church settings, and I’d bet that at least a third of sermons I’ve heard in those settings have  directly addressed power and powerlessness in the context of American society, and how Christians should respond to those realities.

But of the couple thousand Sundays I’ve spent in majority-culture church settings, I could count on one hand the times the teaching directly addressed those topics. But the privilege of being in a majority is you rarely have to examine your own power closely. You often are not even aware that you have it. Oddly, power is frequently most invisible to the powerful—especially the form of power that I call privilege. So perhaps it is not surprising that majority-culture Christians rarely address it.

Power is a truly tricky topic, and that’s another reason you don’t hear a lot about it directly. Like the Holy Spirit, which in turn is like the wind, it is much easier to perceive power’s effects than the thing itself—in fact, you only know power by its effects.

The concept of flourishing is crucial for your book. What does it mean to flourish, and why is power such a key means and threat for the promotion of human flourishing?

I think of flourishing as fullness of being—the “life, and that abundantly” that Jesus spoke of. Flourishing refers to what you find when all the latent potential and possibility within any created thing or person are fully expressed. In both Culture Making and Playing God I talk about the transition from nature to culture as a move from “good” to “very good.” Eggs are good, but omelets are very good. Wheat is good, but bread is very good. Grapes are good, but wine is very good. Et cetera. And the Bible has a third category, which is glory, which I would define as the magnificence of true being, a kind of ultimate flourishing. It is significant that the New Jerusalem will be full both of the glory of God—the magnificence of God’s true being fully known, experienced, and worshipped—and “the glory and honor of the nations”—which I take to mean the fruits of human culture brought to their deepest and fullest expression.

The interesting thing is that flourishing never happens by accident. Intentionality is always involved. And for most parts of creation, intelligent, attentive cultivation is required for things to flourish. If wine is one “very good,” flourishing expression of the grape, well, you don’t get wine if you just let it ferment on its own—you get vinegar, or worse. Wine only comes with tremendous skill, patience, and indeed creativity.

And this is why power is so intimately connected to flourishing—flourishing requires the exercise of true power, power that is bent on creating the best environment for someone or something to thrive. And while human flourishing is of paramount importance, the witness of Scripture seems to be that we human beings are here not just for our own flourishing, but for the flourishing of the whole created order. I think this is why Paul says the creation is “groaning for the revealing of the sons of God”—that phrase “sons of God” (which of course includes redeemed image bearers both male and female) is meant to signal true authority and dominion. If the true “sons of God” were to be revealed, the creation would flourish in ways we only dimly glimpse now.

In the book you illustrate the gift of power by reflecting on your ongoing and awkward attempt to learn to play the cello as an adult as you observe the dynamic interplay of information and power in the relationship between you and your teacher. Even though you don’t use this illustration in the book itself, I know you have found Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting, “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), to be instructive. 

When did you first come across this painting, and when did you begin to make the connection between Tanner’s vision and the meaning of true power?

I’ve ended both books with a reflection on a painting (in Culture Making it was Rembrandt’s “The Artist in His Studio”). I had planned to end Playing God with “The Banjo Lesson”—and then Rublev’s “Trinity” took over!

But Tanner’s painting is an amazing portrait of true power, in the context of a music lesson. I first seriously encountered “The Banjo Lesson” in a seminar I led at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe in 2009. One of the participants, Doug Learned, gave an amazing presentation about Tanner’s work—Tanner was not only the first African-American painter of international renown but arguably the last American painter of that stature to be a serious and devout Christian.

What really got me thinking about Tanner’s painting is the two levels on which it operates. At one level, it is simply a portrait of the exchange of power that happens in all musical instruction (and instruction more generally), where the student acquires power without the teacher giving up any of their own power. Teaching is a paradigmatic example of how power can multiply and lead to flourishing without anyone being diminished or dominated. The teacher has real, asymmetrical power, capacity, and authority—something we too easily automatically associate with domination—but that authority is all devoted to the flourishing of the student. And yet the teacher also flourishes in that relationship, precisely by exercising power. Tanner captures the intimacy, trust, love, and patience involved in the true use of power for flourishing—and by including a jug and loaf on the golden-lit table in the background, suggests that what is happening here is not just mundane culture but a foretaste of glory.

At another level, Tanner was operating within a profoundly broken system of power, the system that sustained (and sustains) racism in the United States. The banjo was not a neutral cultural artifact—it was a kind of shorthand in the dominant culture for African-American (“Negro”) culture. The banjo was the instrument of vaudeville and blackface, of Sambo-style jovial entertainment offered up for the consumption of white audiences.

By painting a banjo lesson, Tanner was taking this visual symbol of the exploitation of his own culture and rescuing it from caricature and diminishment. He infuses this humble musical instrument and art form with all the artistry of the salons of Paris and all the dignity of “classical” instruments (like, say, the cello). I see this painting as a kind of restoration of image-bearing possibility—it restored dignity, agency, and beauty to a culture and a people who had been robbed of them.

And if you know African Americans of a certain age, almost all of them had an aunt or grandmother who had a print of Tanner’s Banjo Lesson in her home—it became incredibly popular in the Black community. For good reason—it is an African American artist, at the height of his talents, restoring the image of his own community. Tanner never wanted to be limited to painting “African-American” scenes, and in a way that makes this painting more powerful. He was not a genre painter. But when he turned to this subject, he brought all his skill and power to restoring others’ image-bearing capacity. That is true power.

What do you see in this painting that teaches us about the relationship of power to teaching, learning, and knowing?

At the first level, it says that power is meant to be shared, just as it is shared in this painting the older man and the young boy, with the beautiful depiction of cooperation—the man’s hand supporting the banjo’s neck while the boy plays; the boy on the older man’s lap, legs dangling down; their heads bent in attentive listening.

True power seeks relationship. Idolatrous, dominating power avoids and fears relationship. But true power is meant to be embedded in relationships of mutual trust, submission, and creativity—which is surely why we get that amazing “Let us make” at the climax of Genesis 1, the opening chapter of the founding document of monotheism! The true God is not a solo god. The true God is Trinity. And so all power, to be true and life-giving power, is exercised in the context of love.

At the deeper level, it says that in the world we have, broken and distorted as it is, one of the best uses of our power (like Tanner’s artistic power) is to restore the image-bearing capacity of the vulnerable, the least, and the poor. You can see the whole mission of God from Genesis 12 onward through Scripture as an image-restoring mission: calling forth a people who would image him, and restore his image, in a world full of idols and injustice; coming among them in incarnate, human form, the form of the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1); and pouring out his Spirit on the church so that we, too, now bear the image and redeeming power of Christ in a world full of broken images.

You contrast the vision of non-idolatrous redemptive power with the Nietzschean zero-sum understanding of power often exemplified in Western movies. Though learning to play an instrument may seem like a minor thing—especially if we will not go on to play it professionally—you see it as a way in which power can be expanded if it is shared. Can you explain?

Nietzsche had a relentlessly zero-sum conception of power as domination: if you have more power, I have less. And ultimately he thought the goal of every body was to utterly fill and control all space, to the exclusion of other bodies.

I think we, as Christians, have to insist that Nietzsche’s vision is ultimately false—though it rings all too true in the world that we have. And in music we get hints, at so many levels, that true power is not exclusive, does not require domination and control to be fully expressed. There is the remarkable property of musical notes to coexist, as Jeremy Begbie pointed out in Theology, Music and Time: a chord is a set of notes sounding simultaneously and harmonizing in ways that make the chord much more than just the sum of its parts.

I studied the piano extensively, and eventually played it professionally, but the cello has introduced me to something you rarely experience as a pianist. In my cello lessons, I’ll be sitting side by side with my teacher, and when he plays a note or scale, my cello starts resonating even if I’m not playing. It’s just how the physics works—strings start vibrating in harmony with one another. When we play a piece together, in unison or harmony, the complex interaction between the two instruments, not to mention the two persons bringing their skill (at different levels!) to the performance, leads to a rich, flourishing sound you cannot get with a single instrument.

It might seem foolish to put music up against Nietzsche or Machiavelli, as if that experience of harmony is enough of a counterweight to the terrible reality of violence and coercion used in our world to master and dominate. But music is one of the deepest and most profound expressions of human culture (and was, oddly and incidentally, one of Nietzsche’s great loves). It is a cultural universal—present in some form in every culture. Few things can reach or move us the way music can—for all its invisibility and insubstantiality, it has power in a very real sense. So why wouldn’t it be a clue to the nature of true reality, a reality deeper and realer than Nietzsche’s world of competition and domination?

Obviously, to use power well in this world we have to move beyond just music lessons. But music lessons, with their harmony, cooperation, mutual submission, discipline—and joy and delight—are not a bad place to start reconceiving what we think power is about, what it is for, and just how good and even glorious it was meant to be, and one day will be.