Cultural power and powerlessness

In this post Jonny Woodrow, who has guest blogged a review of Culture Making by Andy Crouch , responds to comments on the link between cultural power and powerlessness. Here are his previous posts on the topic:

1. Christians shaping culture

2. Shaping culture by creating culture

3. Cultural power and culture making

Andy Crouch says that cultural power is the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good. This might mean simply knowing a language and being able to represent someone else’s interests in a context that renders them culturally powerless.

In this sense Moses has more cultural power than the Israelites. He has a relationship with Pharaoh that the Israelites don’t have. He doesn’t appear before Pharaoh as a Hebrew slave, but as an advocate. The story indeed shows us that it is God who pulls off the exodus but he takes the cultural power that Moses has and uses it for redemptive purposes.

In his book, Crouch sees a pattern of God redirecting the power of the relatively powerful in the service of the powerless, to bring people into His cultural renewal program called the new creation.

Jesus is the meeting place of powerlessness and cultural power in his death and resurrection. He becomes powerless, submitting to the cultural power of Rome, in his death, in order to initiate the ultimate cultural renewal program. So he is the perfect combination of powerlessness meeting cultural power in order to create something new.

The powerless can now take part in his new creation plan and the powerful can submit their power to him. Our own use of cultural power must be shaped by the cross. We submit ourselves to Jesus as the agent of cultural renewal, stepping back from attempts to become our own saviours, and we spend our power on the powerless with kingdom agenda in the power of the resurrection.

I think we need a concept of cultural power for two reasons. The first is because it is a fact of creation. We are all culture makers and cultivators (see previous post). We all have some ability to propose new ways of relating to the world and each other in our various social contexts.

The second reason is because we need to redeem the concept of power from the modern and post modern reduction of it to a simple competition between individual, arbitrary wills or influence. In his book the one the three and the many, Colin Gunton Shows how this modernist understanding of power comes from the churches failure to be thoroughly Trinitarian in our understanding of the way God relates to creation.

God uses his power to redeem and perfect his creation (including our use of cultural power) through His Son and His Spirit. Gunton argues that we have defaulted to arguing for the oneness of God over the threeness of God. The result has been that we understand God primarily as creator and forget that his will and power, in and over creation, are mediated through the Son and Spirit. Instead, power and creation are separated from the doctrine of redemption.  God’s power is conceived as an arbitrary will and creation is left with no intrinsic purpose. Creation and mans cultural power have no eternal significance.

In a non Trinitarian view, God’s power, is disconnected from his plan for the creation through the Son and Spirit. It is ultimately a non relational power. We are left with an understanding of God’s power as an individualistic will, disconnected from creation and emptied of purpose. Power is reduced to strength of influence..

As God’s image bearer, Adam is given cultural power to propose new forms of culture. But with a non Trinitarian view of power and purpose, the idea of image bearing, becomes a dangerous concept. It becomes a call to grab arbitrary, individual power and ultimately to over come God’s will. Power is conceptualised as a battle of individual wills. A powerful God is rejected as a power hungry, self centred, non relational, arbitrary force, who has no purpose for creation. God’s power and, power itself are not good news to anyone. Christians either get embarrassed about having power or they get intoxicated by it in the name of establishing the kingdom on earth.

A Trinitarian view of creation brings the concept of power into a redemptive and relational framework. It over comes the purposeless and individualistic understanding of power. God’s power is directed through the Son and Spirit to the perfection of creation. His power is relational and purposeful at its foundation, emanating from, and controlled by, what Gunton calls a community of love. As a result creation (including the cultural power of humans) has an eternal purpose. Gunton says:

The will of God is realized through a kind of community of love, so that the centrality of the Trinitarian mediators of creation ensure the purposeful nature of the creation, its non-arbitrary character. The creation has a purpose: the world is made to achieve perfection through time and to return completed to its creator. (The One, the Three and the Many, 120)

God’s power is something he spends on us in order to redeem our own use of cultural power, as part of the creation.

Crouch’s idea that power is the ability to propose a new cultural artefact is a useful concept. It is a deeply creational view of power. It is a relational view of power and it is a redeemable view of power because power can be turned back to God’s new creation agenda. The central question is how do we steward power rather than throw it off as a bad thing or make a grab for it.

I think we need to explore the concept of culture power, especially in the context of missional churches who want to take culture creation seriously. In our attempts to impact culture I wonder if the ‘battle of wills’ idea has shaped our understanding of power and influence. The church either wants to withdraw from culture, setting up its own sphere of influence or it wants to take over the secular establishments. In social action programs we can become condescending to those in need. The concept of cultural power and stewardship forces us to think about partnerships with the needy in finding solutions with other agencies in our cities.

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One thought on “Cultural power and powerlessness

  1. Thanks so much Jonny for the time and effort you put into responding to my comment. (I didn’t see anyone else who responded to your last post so assume it was directed at me. And sorry for this late response—very busy lately.) I don’t in any way consider myself to be on your level in this, but I will throw out some thoughts:

    1) Not to belabor the point regarding Moses, but I just don’t see how he had a “relationship with Pharaoh,” nor how the Israelites benefited from it. Moses had been an “enemy of the state” for 40 years. So God does not “take the cultural power Moses has” but more correctly he gives him a mandate to speak the words and exercise the power given him. The focus of the narrative is on God proclaiming his own power and name (9:16) and getting glory over Pharoah (ch 14), much less, if any on Moses as the agent. Moses is portrayed through the Pentateuch as a faithful, yet beleaguered servant whom the Israelites can’t seem to ever fully trust unless they see God’s hand. If the concept of cultural power is important, then we will surely find a clear example of it in the life of the early church. Jonny, would you be so kind as to point one out to me so I can understand better what is meant by “the pattern of God redirecting the power of the relatively powerful in the service of the powerless?” (There are lots of examples of this operating within the community of God’s people, but I would like to see an example that would apply to those outside the community, as the book appears to promote.)

    2) Certainly there is some truth to the statement that “Jesus is the meeting place of powerlessness and cultural power in his death and resurrection,” but I feel the more biblical emphasis would be Jesus as the meeting place of powerlessness and “the power of darkness” (Lk 22:53). The proposed link with his “submitting to the cultural power of Rome” is not brought out in any significant way in the NT, though some have sought to demythologize the “powers” in similar fashion.

    3) You say we need a concept of cultural power “because we need to redeem the concept of power from the modern and post modern reduction of it…” This statement reflects some of my misgivings about certain aspects (not all, of course) of the current “missional” movement. Specifically, I don’t feel *we* need to redeem anything. Nor do I see a need to be concerned about “our attempts to impact culture.” I have a suspicion that this outlook might be a case of eschatology-driven ecclesiology/missiology. If so, wouldn’t recent history have taught us sufficiently to guard against doing that?

    4) From your review I’m wondering about the scriptural moorings of the argumentation for the book’s thesis. The mysterious dynamics of the Trinity, the seemingly wide-open interpretations available for Gen 1-2 and some verses from the very figurative book of Revelation don’t seem to me to be the strongest evidence one can marshal for a position (perhaps there is more). Can these concepts and texts bear all the weight we put on them? I really don’t see Jesus or the apostles making cultural artifact creation a part of their ministries. If anything, it was a by-product, not the goal. Again, if you can provide an example of the early church engaged in this kind of intentional culture transformation, I would appreciate it.

    5) I’m a bit concerned about your statement that “A powerful God is rejected as a power hungry…” Is a more traditional view of God’s power necessarily trumped by “a relational view of power?” If Christians “get embarrassed about having power or they get intoxicated by it in the name of establishing the kingdom on earth,” perhaps they should take the focus off power entirely and put it back on the biblical concept of disempowerment. THAT is the “good news” for all of us.

    The book seems to be a legitimate reaction to a weak church. However, I don’t see misuse of cultural power as being the real culprit behind the problems of Christendom through the ages. It may actually be due to something much more fundamental: the lack of will to become like Christ in his death and to become the radically self-giving, self-renouncing, Christ-exalting disciples within the local body that God requires of us. What he does in culture through a community that practices this holy calling is not necessarily predictable. It may be that it has an indirect effect on transforming it. It may be that it does not. If I am reading the NT correctly it will most likely invite all kinds of resistance (cf. Jn 15:19). I see the pattern in the whole Bible to be one of God himself effecting change from the inside out. The NT puts forth no other program or agenda. Could the early church be accused of retreating from culture?

    I don’t want to come across at being at odds with the perceived message of the book, only that what is being promoted is not, in my opinion, the radical message the church needs to hear. Not to be harsh, but is helping people fill out forms a typical example of the kind of radical discipleship that we are to be taking away from our reading of the NT? The important thing as I see it is the Body possessing and expressing Life. Our main energies need to be focused there, just as the apostles did. What God effects through this culturally weak and despised community (found in many non-Western countries) is a glorious mystery and adventure, but I am confident that it will not be any LESS than the potential outcomes in terms of what appears to be the book’s thesis. Radical community is risky and messy (Paul’s letters attest to that), but it is God’s starting point and clear pattern for the kind of transformation he wills to bring about in all spheres.

    Thanks for listening!

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