Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, met up with TWI’s Missio in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to talk about his new book, Playing God, on the morning after giving a talk for The Trinity Forum, followed by a response from syndicated columnist Michael Gerson and questions from the audience. Missio asked Andy how the previous evening’s event went, and then explored the themes and implications of Playing God for life, faith, vocation, and culture. [The conversation has been edited.]

TWI: How did it go last night at The Trinity Forum event? How you do prepare for something like that? Do you try to improvise?

Andy Crouch: I was a bit more intimidated than usual. It was a pretty high-powered crowd, so I came as prepared as I could be. But every time I deliver a talk, I try to take a meaningful risk.

One of the real challenges over the course of speaking about this book has been getting into the subject. The original title for the book was Creating Power, so I would begin talks on the subject of power, which I found was the most deadening way to start a conversation. It’s very hard to get into that topic in an engaging way. Defenses would go up, and it depended on the group as to why that was the case.

A huge break-through came when my publisher and I realized that the concept of “playing God” is what the book is actually about. The book is ultimately about bearing the image of God. It is about power, but it’s really about the deeper matter of playing God, which gives us much quicker access to much better news than simply “talking about power.” So I tried to communicate that last night.

During last night’s Q&A, there were a variety of questions about the people who come here to D.C. to work with tremendous idealism, but quickly discover that they are at the very bottom of this vast superstructure of power. They feel so far from being able to influence anything, although they likely have more influence than they realize. There were several questions about how one shepherds people with that experience, which is very much the D.C. experience.

TWI: How did you answer that?

AC: Doing campus ministry at Harvard, I came to believe that the most important thing I could do was to try to rescue people from striving. In my book, Culture Making, I talk about three categories of students I saw at Harvard. First, there are “the legacy students,” who sail in with the wind of privilege at their backs. The next and by far the largest group at Harvard are “the strivers,” from whom you got this sense that, from a very young age, they had been prepped by their families to grab things whenever they could. Finally, and by far the smallest group, were those I called “the children of grace.” They may have had a good deal of privilege, and had worked quite hard, but they weren’t animated by either of those things. Rather, they were animated by the sense that it was a gift that they were where they were; they were animated by gratitude and grace. The other two groups could have re-narrated their stories to realize that it was grace that they were at Harvard.

Life simply isn’t about achievement—as strivers believe; nor is it about what I deserve—as the entitled and privileged often believe. It is about grace. I get to say thank you and steward it, rather than try desperately to make things happen, which is a huge temptation.

The other main question that we explored was, “Should we strive for power?” I understand where that question comes from, but the truth is we have more power than we know what to do with as image bearers of God. The deepest reality is what C.S. Lewis says in his essay “The Weight of Glory,” that you have never met an ordinary mortal. Because we are made in the image of God, in principle, we have access to more power than we can even imagine. It may not seem to be true, but most people have much more capacity to shape their world than they give themselves credit for. So I think the real issue is not whether I try to grab more power than I already have, but rather whether I am truly aware of who I am, what I have, and become accountable for how I steward that.

TWI: Any critical comments?

AC: Mike Gerson offered one, which was that I don’t dwell much in the book on the jagged edges of power, which is the reality that some people have to make decisions about using force, up to and including lethal force, as a part of their work. Unless one is consistently Anabaptist, then we must give an account of how a human being can survive wielding that kind of power.

There has been some criticism of the book specifically from Anabaptists, and I’m sure as more people read it, there will be more from many points of view. That is inevitable, though the honest truth is that criticism, especially unfair criticism, is incredibly, embarrassingly painful to receive. It’s amazing how much I can dwell on and cannot get out from under critical things that people say or write. It’s so hard not to be captivated or captured by critique, but it is also the most helpful thing offered to me, honestly.

There is an amazing prayer by Nikolai Velimirovich, a Serbian bishop in the Orthodox Church who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His prayer is called, “Thank you for my enemies.” [FULL PRAYER.] It’s a long prayer to God thanking him for his enemies, and for all the ways that they have made him more like Christ and made him more dependent on God. He says, “Enemies, not friends, have confessed my sins to the world. When I was not willing to confess my sins, they have confessed them for me.” The refrain in it is “Lord, bless my enemies. Even I bless them and do not curse them.” Finally, he says, “Lord, multiply my enemies greatly in number, and make them pursue me ever more furiously so that I will truly flee to you, and know that I have no hope other than you.”

Now, to be sure, I don’t think of people who write critical things, even unfair things, about my work as my enemies necessarily!

TWI: You do have a lovely acknowledgement in Playing God of those who have offered criticisms and critical support.

AC: Yes, but an enemy is someone who fundamentally does not wish you well. Very few people who have written critically about me have written like that. I do have a couple of people who are true enemies—that is, they are implacably against my flourishing—but their critiques are the least helpful because they are unhinged. But the serious critiques identify what’s missing in my work and what’s wrong in my heart.

TWI: A great deal of the theological anthropology in Playing God is clearly informed by Orthodox theology. Any leanings in that direction?

AC: I’m not Orthodox. I’m Anglican. But if I were to join a continuing communion, I would join the Orthodox Church. Fundamentally, I’m a Wesleyan, and John Wesley was very influenced by the Eastern fathers. They were important to his own anthropology and theology. His whole idea of sanctification is very much like the Orthodox notion of theosis but stated in a Western way. And my fifth chapter about icons is shot through with Orthodox thought. I don’t want to scare off too many Protestant or more Reformed readers, so I frame it differently in the book from the usual Orthodox formulations. The truth, though, is that I’m probably about 90% ready to be received into the Orthodox Church. But I doubt that will ever actually happen, because that last 10% is by no means inconsequential.

TWI: A few months ago, Missio spoke with IJM Institute’s Bethany Hoang about her book Deepening the Soul for Justice (IVP, 2013), on Sabbath-keeping and injustice. You explore this theme deeply as well. Please parse out the relationship between idolatry and injustice. It sounds like they are two sides of the same coin.

AC:  There are a handful of ideas in this book that I would love for people to really grasp. The most important is the idea that idolatry and injustice are two different manifestations of the same thing. Both are about the distortion and, ultimately, the destruction of the true image of God that is meant to reside in human beings. We have to explore image-bearing some before we understand those two sides.

The two aspects of image-bearing are authority and vulnerability. Human beings are like every other creature biologically, but we are given an incredible amount of dominion. If you think about that word dominion from a pre-technological perspective, it’s pretty crazy. For a pre-technological culture to be told that humans have been given dominion over the birds of the air, . . . I mean, what does that even mean? It’s totally different for us as a modern, technological people to not think much of that because we fly in planes. But for a pre-technological people to pray, “What are human beings that you are mindful of us,” followed by, “You have given human beings dominion over the works of your hands, the birds of the air, all that swims in the sea”—mind-boggling! The Israelites were not known as a sea-faring nation. Whenever you read about the sea in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s the realm of chaos. The Phoenicians and Tyrians go there, but the Israelites don’t go there. Yet here is an Israelite poet in Psalm 8 saying that God has given human beings dominion over the sea. There is a sense of authority invested in human beings unlike any other creature.

Also, human beings take an interest in the other creatures of the world in a way totally asymmetrical from the interest the other creatures take in us. The squirrels in my yard do not take an interest in me in the way that I do in them. I watch the squirrels in my yard—not to control them, not to hunt and eat them, but just to behold them, and marvel at them. Children do this even more than adults; they have a sense of dominion over and care for the natural world that other creatures simply do not have. There is no corresponding concern for other creatures not of their own species.

So we have both more authority than other creatures, but we are also more vulnerable than any other creature. We arrive in the world less capable of handling the threats and challenges of life than other creatures. Most creatures that walk do so within minutes of being born—we take nine months or a year to take our first steps. The most remarkable metaphor the Bible gives us to express our vulnerability is to say that the first man and first woman were naked. No other creature was naked. No other creature without clothing is more vulnerable to fellow creatures or the natural environment than human beings. You don’t look at any other creatures and say, “Oh, that creature is naked,” except for human beings. So we have extraordinary authority matched with real vulnerability. That is image-bearing, simply put.

Now, idolatry is fundamentally driven by the quest to minimize our vulnerability and maximize our authority. Ultimately, idols promise that “you will be like God” (utter authority), and that “you shall not surely die” (no vulnerability). You will not be dependent on God, and you will have automatic immortality. You will be safe from everything you fear, and you will have power over everything you desire. Because human beings can’t get that—that is, our own image-bearing will not deliver us infinite authority and zero vulnerability—we create substitute gods that we believe will free us from this matched set of image-bearing qualities.

A few more steps here before we turn to the two sides of the coin. One is that when we make idols, when we invest these hopes in created things, the image of God is lost in two ways. First, it’s lost through misrepresentation; now there are other things in the world that purport to represent God but they do not actually accurately represent God. So now there are competing images that do not give a true image of God. But at the same time, because those who create them become like them, even the image bearers lose their own image-bearing capacity. This is the biblical critique of idolatry. The more I serve the idol, the less agency I have, the less dignity I have, and the less capacity I have.

TWI: It’s corrosive of a self.

AC: Yes. The image is doubly lost because we have this false god—this figurine in ancient times, or this addiction in modern times—and all these image-bearers who are reduced to being like idols—deaf, dumb, unable to move, and unable to speak.

TWI: So you become what you worship.

AC: Right. Let’s now relate idolatry to injustice. In one sense the only difference between idolatry and injustice is that within injustice, instead of making and externalizing a false god, some human beings internalize the false god. Rather than making a false god, we begin to play a false God.

I was very influenced, as I say in the book, by Jayakumar Christian, the head of World Vision India. He said to me as we toured together, “When you see poverty, what you really see is someone playing god in the lives of others.” Injustice is when one group of people acquires the means and the will to image not the true God but rather a false god, one who in the beginning makes extravagant promises but ultimately makes extravagant demands. And there are those who become subject to these god-players. The perpetrators of injustice oppress others to cement their status as having all authority and no vulnerability, and while those they oppress wind up with all vulnerability and no authority.

Both of those are distortions. The false god misrepresents God, and the worshippers themselves no longer image God. The oppressor images a false god, and the oppressed can no longer see the image of God, even in themselves. I felt this very keenly when I was in these villages of India where child slavery is rampant. I met the parents of these children and wondered what was it like to be a parent who is not able to provide for your family. You see your child taken off and exploited, and there is nothing you can do. This is so degrading of the image, and it’s gone on for generations. That shame is woven deeply into how the society works. God looks at idolatry and says, “My image is lost here,” and he looks at injustice and says, “My image has been doubly lost.”

From the biblical writers’ point of view, idolatry is the fundamental problem, which is why the Ten Commandments begin with the words, “Don’t have other gods before me.” It does not begin with “Don’t oppress your neighbor.” It gets there but it doesn’t start there. The way that idols work is that they make extravagant promises that they fail to deliver on, which is the “success phase,” and they make minimal demands at the beginning which then escalate, which is when the idol enters the “exploitation phase.” And you could also say that this process is what generates the violence of injustice. Injustice is the violence of frustrated idolaters whose idol is no longer delivering, so they amp up their demands on other human beings to get enough sacrifice for the idol to keep working.

Take racial privilege. Racial privilege is just assumed for white people in America, and the system works adequately enough so that, as a white person, I never have to think about privilege. I’m not violent; I don’t see myself as oppressive; and my ancestors might even have been slave owners, but I don’t see myself as anything other than benevolent. I’m not actively oppressive. But once the underlying instability of that system begins to manifest itself, suddenly my idol is no longer delivering reliably, and I become capable of violence of a sort that I could never imagine. I haven’t yet seen the movie “12 Years a Slave,” but from all I hear it depicts what human beings are capable of when the systems that once served them stop serving them.

So in many ways, another way to think about injustice is institutionalized idolatry. Idols can be sufficiently effective in their initial stage to create institutions, but as the idols begin to fail, the institutions become more and more oppressive, and that is what injustice is.

TWI: And you must use other human beings as the fuel for the fire for the idol.

AC: And it seems that must be done, because we must get the things that the idol has, and you, the other human being, are in my way of getting that good thing.

I write about a very defining moment in my life—May 1992, when the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict had broken out. I was in New York two days after the verdict, and there was a totally unfounded rumor—very offensive even to repeat here—that “the blacks are coming to burn Manhattan.” It was totally false and incredibly offensive, and yet all of Midtown was shutting down. People were streaming into Penn Station to get on the Long Island Railroad. The level of fear and violence in that station was unbelievable. It was the most frightening scene I’ve ever personally witnessed. By orders of magnitude, 9/11 was far more traumatic, but May 1992 seemed particularly demonic because no one had flown anything into anything. There was no real threat. It was simply the hint that the system that has protected “us” might be crumbling in some way that triggered unbelievable panic and true violence. People were fighting for the last spot on the train.

That was a moment when the veil of my own privilege was stripped from my face, and my eyes were opened. This violence is here, all the time, waiting to happen because we live in idolatrous systems. When those systems start to fail, people do all sort of things to protect themselves.

TWI: During moments of crisis, the idols reveal themselves as failed.

AC: Idols are not all created equal; some are more effective than others. The least effective ones are those whose failures are evident most quickly. Crystal meth is actually a very ineffective idol because it’s negative effects show up too fast. It took just over 5 seasons for the whole idol to be exposed as a failure on Breaking Bad, right?

The most powerful idols are those that take centuries for their success phase to end. This invites an interesting but scary question, for we are only a hundred years into the technological age. Everything around us—the computer taking this recording, the lights, the comfort, the means of transport we used to get to Union Station—all of this was inconceivable to any generation more than a hundred years ago. We are in the very early stage of this phase. Clearly technology delivers benefits, but what demands does technology make on us? Of course, during the success phase, the benefits always outweigh the demands. That’s how idols become idols! We wouldn’t make the bargain of worshipping something that makes enormous demands right off the bat.

But all of us have made a bargain with technology. When we dig up these figurines from the ancient Near East or elsewhere, we wonder how any civilization came to worship these things. But they didn’t worship these things immediately; it took hundreds, even thousands of years, before that idolatry became reified. Who knows where the arc of the story of technology plays out?

TWI: I once saw something where someone took Legos and an iPhone, and created an iPhone dock reminiscent of the monolith of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a palpable moment of worship, almost unrecognizable.

AC: Right! Compare the refinement of the iPhone from earlier, clunkier devices that were less monolithic in their ease of use and the promises they made. Every iteration makes the iPhone purer and more compelling. The modern iPhone is so much more compelling as an object of desire than the 1990s cell phone. So, I believe technology is a result of human image-bearing, but the lesson of the Bible is that image-bearing also always carries the risk of image-making and god-playing. How could we imagine that this won’t come back to bite us? That’s the promise of the bitten apple of Apple’s logo: we’ve bitten the fruit and everything’s still okay. This time, we tell ourselves, we’ll bite the fruit and there will be no sting.

[Missio continues its conversation with Andy Crouch about Playing God in Part 2 of this interview tomorrow.]