Book Review: Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch

The other day I was interviewed for a position at a megachurch pastored by a nationally known pastor. The interview went pretty well, we laughed, I shared a few stories, fielded a bundle of questions, etcetera. It was an usual interview. In fact, it was a bit too usual. At one point I had been asked for my strengths, but at the end of the interview one of the interviewers began to stumble over how to phrase a question. After a few moments of internal debate, she said, “it seems so wrong to ask someone what their weaknesses are.” I did answer the question and a few more before the interview concluded, but that comment stuck with me as I weighed whether I thought such a church would be a good fit. To be fair, maybe she meant to say it seems so awkward to ask someone what their weaknesses are. But she said wrong. As if weakness is something that we don’t discuss, or at least not in such company.

This is one of the reason I am such a fan of Andy Crouch’s latest book Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. This all to typical idea that we need to play to our strengths and keep our weaknesses under wraps, not only strikes me unbiblical, but seems like a recipe for disaster. Rather, leaders, as Crouch argues, need to embrace the entirety of who God has designed them to be, strengths and weaknesses and everything in between.

Andy Crouch, for those who are unfamiliar with his name, has authored two previous books Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Both have been well received in the Christian world, earning endorsements from Timothy Keller, D.G. Hart, Makoto Fujimura, and Richard Mouw to name a few. Not surprising as Crouch is among the cream of the crop for conservative evangelicalism. He sits on the board of Fuller Theological Seminary, holds the position of executive editor at Christianity Today, and regularly has a byline in The Wall Street Journal. Crouch’s uniqueness are a thinker and influencer comes from his ability, like Keller, to comfortably discuss theology and culture with academics without being so wrapped up in the life of the mind as to neglect the laymen. 

In terms of this particular book, Strong and Weak, Crouch plays on his nerdiness by basing it on one of his self-proclaimed favorite things—two-by-two charts:

Following from the second chart, Crouch describes the Christian duty to reach out to those in quadrants 2-4 move toward and into quadrant 1. This seems obvious looking at the chart, but Crouch points out that we often fail to talk about weakness or vulnerability biblically. Crouch writes: 

Here’s the paradox: flourishing comes from being both strong and weak… Flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability, both capacity and frailty—even, at least in this broken world, both life and death… We haven’t just forgotten this basic paradox of flourishing, as if we have misplaced it absentmindedly. We’ve surpassed it. We’ve hidden it. We’ve fled from it. Because we fear it… We are afraid of both sides of the paradox of flourishing.

— Crouch, Strong and Weak (pg. 11)

Rather than placing strength/authority and weakness/vulnerability on intersecting axises, we place them on a one dimensional spectrum. This subtle error tricks us into thinking that strength and weakness are opposed and we strive, then, for an unattainable balance. Which forces us to either walk an imaginary tightrope or choose between the two poles. Instead, Crouch says, “the journey of Christian discipleship, and true power, would involve not just a progression toward one or the other, but toward both at the same time” (23). Much of the book then is an exposition of this pursuit. Two points of interest that Crouch is especially effective in addressing are the effect of video games upon our flourishing and the idea of hidden vulnerability. These are both interesting concepts that bear reflection.

The greatest challenge of success is the freedom it gives you to opt out of real risk and real authority.

— Crouch, Strong and Weak (pg. 77)

If you take a look back to the flourishing chart above, you’ll notice that catty-corner to flourishing is withdrawal. This, Crouch argues, is the greatest danger that we face in the western world. This was not at all surprising to read. Since I was a teenager I have heard a healthy dose of sermons and speeches on the ills of apathy. But Crouch says that current technology has created another issue, more insidious than apathy:

The real temptation for most of us is not complete apathy but activities that simulate meaningful action and meaningful risk without actually asking much of us or transforming much in us.

— Crouch, Strong and Weak (pg. 82)

It is not, Crouch argues, that apathy is the problem. It is not that the election or gathering or march comes can goes while we opt again and again for the comfort of an ergonomic controller over social action. Rather it is that we actually think that we simulate risk and therefore only achieve simulated authority and simulated flourishing. “Admit safety”, Crouch writes, “the world have never before known, the greatest spiritual struggle many of us face is to be willing to take off out bubble wrap.” Afraid of actual risk we trade in flourishing for safety. We ignore that little voice that prompts us to enter into risky situation in which dependence upon God is a requirement.

What makes this type of withdrawal particularly insidious is that it is still simulated. The couch potato is not just infatuated with television, he is immersed in an environment that distorts reality. My wife and I talk about this during a conversation on the appropriateness of socio-political comments on social media. My wife, ever the crusader for life, had waded into a discussion on abortion through a friends Facebook post. When telling me about her repartee and wit, I explained that I thought she was right, but that such media is an ill-advised location for such comments. My reasoning was two-fold, and the first fold is irrelevant to our particular discussion, but the second fold was that such discussion rarely make progress because our interlocutors shutdown the conversation or delete the post when they either feel like they are no longer winning or simply tire of the topic. Often the result of honest engagement with a political Facebook post is that a friend of the poster (who usually doesn’t know you) enters the fray with a profanity laced rant rather than an actual argument. Such was basically the sum of my wife’s foray into the discussion on abortion. Reason has not prevailed, the f-word did.

Why bring up such a point? Because this is an example of such simulated authority. From the security of a keyboard and with the endless disposal of YouTube videos that support my position, I can bolster my courage and airdrop my tidbit in (securing the moral high ground on the premise that the final word wins), and close the tab. Such interactions take place with such rapidity that I am never challenged to ask the all important question “what if I am wrong?” In my virtual reality with my “social” media, I am never challenged to say something to another persons face, see the impact of my words, and prepare to hear a rebuttal. There is no legitimate risk, there is no legitimate growth. Video games provide the same equation but courage to debate is exchanged for courage to fight. 

Moving on to hidden vulnerability. 

Hidden vulnerability is an easy concept to grasp and a hard one to apply. As a millennial, something I am loathe to admit, I understand the ills of non-transparent leadership. Scandals involving ENRON or British Petroleum displayed how corrupt and entangled the various systems of government and business could be. My generation heard about these from a angry, liberal, snarky comedian named Jon Stewart. He decried the secrecy of the Bush administration and mocked the absurdity of decisions made behind closed doors. We got the message nothing but pure transparency keeps evil in check. But do we really want pure transparency? Do we really want to see every memo, every threat, every potential disaster that a nation or investment could encounter. The answer is no. This is difficult for a generation that made authenticity a guiding virtue. Crouch understands this, “Leadership,” he writes, “is to bear the risks that only you can see, while continuing to exercise authority that everyone can see.” 

The job of a leader is to communicate effectively about the risks without causing panic and instability, which often means that part or whole of a threat remains secret for a time. Which means that the burden of the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual stress that comes with a threat is bourn entirely by the leader. In fact, often such hidden vulnerability is endured to increase the authority of others. In some contexts risks are hidden in order to cover up failure, but in the context of true leadership, risks are often covered to give the ability for other lower level leaders to maneuver more freely. Hidden vulnerability then is about empowerment not deception. 

With those to topics introduced, I commend Crouch’s Strong and Weak to you for your reading and application. For leaders, it will give pointer and a framework to operate on in order to move toward flourishing. For those who are not in leadership, it may lend insight into the interworking of healthy leadership so that it does not seem clandestine or nefarious. Of course there is bad leadership and Crouch sketches that too.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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