I haven’t yet read Andy Crouch’s new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, but it’s been hard to miss. An essay on power from Crouch is the cover story in the October 2013 issue of Christianity Today (where Crouch is now executive editor). Borrowing concepts from anthropologist Geert Hofstede, Crouch observes that American “culture’s attitudes toward power, or at least toward power’s display, have shifted dramatically in a few generations”: from a “high power distance culture” (in which “power is made visible and tangible, and dramatic differences in power are seen as a natural, indeed crucial, part of a healthy society”) to a “low power distance culture” (in which “visible hierarchy and signs of power are discouraged.”). What is true of corporate culture, according to Crouch, is also increasingly true of evangelical leaders; he points to the differences between two highly influential pastors: Charles Stanley (who “preaches to this day in a suit and tie, a substantial Bible resting before him on a wooden reading desk”) and his son Andy (who is “universally referred to by his first name, has no doctoral degree, and usually wears an open-collared polo”).
But even as “Those with power are expected to treat others as equals, not as subordinates,” Crouch warns (again from Hofstede) that “The difference between low power distance and high power distance is not whether some people are more powerful than others. That is true every time human beings gather, whether we like it or not. The difference is whether the powerful want to be seen as powerful.” But because we live in a low power distance culture, we tend not to think of power — certainly not as a matter for Christian discipleship.
So Crouch calls for a “new conversation about power in the church. One in which power is not talked about “strictly as something negative—something dangerous to be avoided—rather than as a gift to be stewarded.” Instead, such a conversation
would acknowledge, indeed insist, that power is a gift—the gift of a Giver who is the supreme model of power used to bless and serve. Power is not given to benefit those who hold it. It is given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself. Power’s right use is especially important for the flourishing of the vulnerable, the members of the human family who most need others to use power well to survive and thrive: the young, the aged, the sick, and the dispossessed. Power is not the opposite of servanthood. Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very purpose of power.
Being this honest, and positive, about power would help us grapple with its dangers. If power is irredeemably negative, none of us would want to admit we have it—which means none of us will be accountable for the power we have. We would conceal our power like a flesh-toned microphone, pretending that power’s dangers, and responsibilities, don’t apply to us.
But if power is a gift, then we can be accountable for its proper use—to its Giver, and to one another.
Not everyone is sold on the need for such a conversation, or that Crouch is sufficiently attentive to the full breadth of insights about power available from Scripture and Christian tradition. See, for example, John Nugent’s feature review of Playing God in the Englewood Review of Books. Among other critiques, Nugent argues that Crouch has not thought hard enough about powerlessness, or about the role played by those wielding power in rebellion against God:
The power of the cross is a kind of power to which Crouch pays insufficient attention. Nor does he tend adequately to the power of weakness, smallness, suffering, or faithful minority witness.
More significantly, Crouch does not account for the fact that from Abraham forward God has been asking a people to be less powerful than they could be in order to create space for God to be their strength and power….
I suspect that Crouch knows all of this and that it even occupies a place in his system. The problem with Playing God is that this place is not defined. That which is distinct about Christian power receives little elaboration, and important questions posed by the biblical witness remain unanswered. What must God’s people do that only they can do? In God’s sovereign purposes, are there not tasks of world maintenance that God uses rebellious powers to accomplish and tasks of world redemption that God uses only the church to accomplish?
Again, I haven’t read Playing God in the first place, so I won’t pretend to evaluate it — or a critique of it. (Though I would mention that prominent evangelicals instantly weighed in with strong, and opposing, opinions of Nugent’s review: Scot McKnight found it “Incisive and clear and insightful”; John Wilson… not so much.)
But I would be interested in hearing fellow educators respond to the notion of high/low power distance within the setting of a school, college, university, seminary, etc.
My own university generally inclines towards low power distance. Of the four basic principles enunciated in the late 19th century by Bethel founder John Alexis Edgren, the one I hear more than any other (e.g., in a faculty listserv post just yesterday) is that the relationship between teacher and student ought to be “one of real friendship and helpfulness, remembering that One is our Master, and we are all brethren.” No small number of Bethel faculty go by their first names, and even if a title is preferred, it’s rarely “Dr. _______.” And you often encounter a scarcely muted (and, in my opinion, somewhat misbegotten) disdain of lecturing, which is often set up as a high power distance relic in dichotomies with “student-centered” approaches.
I’m of two minds on this. I do appreciate the “real friendship and helpfulness” ideal from Edgren, and so tend to be leery of creating unnecessary distance from my students. I suspect that Nugent is right that Christians — including Christian professors — must attend to the “power of weakness, smallness, suffering, or faithful minority witness.” (Richard Hughes’ essay on the vocation of a Christian scholar centers helpfully, in this respect, on the values of the “Upside Down Kingdom” over which Christ reigns.)
But I do think that Crouch is right that low power distance cultures have simply made hierarchy less visible, not eliminated power. Christian college professors who go by their first names, dress casually, orient their offices so that no desk comes between them and visitors, sit in circles rather than stand at the head of a class, etc. still bear significant power over their student-friends.
(And it strikes me that this whole question is highly gendered at Bethel and other evangelical institutions. Power-averse male professors can engage in hierarchy-hiding behavior that is not always a realistic option for female colleagues who are not automatically granted respect by young Christian men and women unaccustomed to — and sometimes unhappy about — encountering women in positions of power.)
And in the mode of scholars, many of us regularly exert power over what we study without giving it a second thought. It’s a rare week that I don’t think of Beth Barton Schweiger’s warning (in her contribution to Confessing History) about “the stunning imbalance of power between historian and subject,” the former able to use the latter for her own “purposes… pleasures… professional gain” (pp. 61-62). Not to say that most historians do so unethically — but if they’re anything like me, they’re unlikely to think of such power as a gift from God meant to be stewarded as wisely and selflessly as any other such gift.
I’m not sure that Crouch addresses the implications of his arguments for education (though he does seem to consider education as a source of power), so… What do you think?
Is there a need for a new conversation about power among Christian educators? Should they view power not as a danger to be denied or concealed but as a gift “given for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself”?