The Paradox of Flourishing
An interview with Andy Crouch
Andy Crouch is an expert on many things. His book about creativity, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, won the Christianity Today book of the year award in 2009. He followed that up in 2013 with Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. His latest book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, comes out this weekend.
What are three things you would like us to know about Strong and Weak?
Andy Crouch: It is simple! It’s based on one core idea—what I call the paradox of flourishing. We only flourish when we have both authority and vulnerability together. The whole, small book is just a straightforward unpacking of that key idea.
It is short! This book is about one-third the length of my previous two books.
And it is for anyone who cares about others’ flourishing, not just their own. It’s the book I’ve written that most directly addresses the challenge of leadership—how to become someone who helps other people thrive.
You define vulnerability as the willingness to take meaningful risks. What is some of the most meaningful risks you’ve taken in your life, and what resulted from those risks?
Crouch: Undoubtedly the most meaningful risk of my life was proposing marriage to my now-wife Catherine—though, over 20-plus years, I’d say it has proven to be much more a risk for her than for me!
But I also think about my apprenticeship in college to the music program at St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca, New York, where for a year I was the pianist for the “Zion Harmonizers” junior choir. Of course, they were also taking a risk on me, a suburban white kid with almost no exposure to black gospel. But they graciously welcomed me into their church family, letting me fumble my way into a deeper understanding of both the technical and the spiritual richness of the black gospel musical tradition.
My year with that choir and that church was profoundly formative. I learned what it was to be a minority, both by being an ethnic minority (of one!) as a white person in that church, and through hearing and overhearing what it was like to be African American in a place like Ithaca. I was opened up to pain and joy, and witnessed both of those expressed in worship, in ways I never had been before. And I was, by the grace of God, set on a journey, one I hope will be lifelong, of apprenticing myself to people and communities who are very different from me and the places I most naturally fit. It always feels like a risk—even to this day, after many years in and out of black churches, I’m conscious of the complexities, potential misunderstandings, and mistakes I am liable to make when I’m welcomed in to those kinds of settings. But it has borne some of the best fruit in my life.
What do you consider to be some of the biggest hindrances to flourishing for your children’s generation?
Crouch: Technology. Of course, technology itself (by which I mean the devices and systems that make our lives radically easier through the application of scientific knowledge about the world) is a very good thing. But like all very good things, it is exceptionally susceptible to becoming an idol. And I would say that in many forms—not just screens and media—technology is the dominant idol of our time. It is attenuating the development of the most profound human capacities, from musical performance to conversation to sexual intimacy (and chastity, which go together, of course) to how to suffer and die faithfully. Of course there are huge upsides to technology. But if I had to pick the greatest threat to flourishing for my children, it is the possibility that technology will replace thick, meaningful, demanding experiences with thin, shallow, easy ones, and leave them unprepared for the real joys and challenges of life in this beautiful, broken world.
And, thinking specifically of my own children, I consider affluence a huge threat. As I say in the book, we have repeated over and over in our family, “The only thing money can buy is bubble wrap.” To the extent that my children and many like them grow up in an environment of unbelievable affluence, they are at grave risk of choosing to be insulated from the best and worst things about our world. That will not only prevent them from flourishing but will also prevent them from being agents of flourishing in the lives of others.
In what ways do you personally wish to be stronger? Weaker?
Crouch: I want to learn to take more initiative in my marriage and my closest friendships. I want to write more boldly and quickly, with less fruitless procrastination. I want to practice the piano more seriously, rather than coasting on the technique I acquired many years ago.
I want to be more available to family and friends who are themselves vulnerable because of illness or loss. I want to be less defensive when others criticize me and my work. I want to spend time in places where I am anonymous and unknown, where what I do or say will make no contribution to my “platform” or broader influence.
Please comment on this statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
Crouch: I totally agree, though I’d make one modification: I think the real test of flourishing is the third generation, our children’s children. As I wrote in Playing God, the Bible really does not offer anything like what we call the “prosperity gospel,” but it definitely has a “posterity gospel.” The biblical blessing “May you see your children’s children” encompasses the hope that the way we live and the things we cultivate in the prime of our lives will still be available to, and still be a source of flourishing for, the children we will know only in old age. You haven’t really changed culture unless you’ve changed it unto the third generation and beyond.
So much of what looks like “flourishing” at one moment turns out to have externalities—hidden costs or vulnerabilities, often paid and borne by others—that don’t become apparent for years, decades, or even centuries. This is why I find the end of Psalm 90 so moving: “Establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.” To have our work “established” would mean that God in his mercy makes it a blessing for many generations to come, not just for our ephemeral moment. That seems to me the essential prayer of the culture maker—which means, the essential prayer for all of us.
Dave Baker works at Baker Book House where he is responsible for school accounts and diversity initiatives.