Eyebrows furrowed and eyes downcast, Andy Crouch apologized profusely to a room full of sociology and anthropology majors and faculty for going five minutes over his time limit in chapel before their meeting. “I’m going to be beating myself up for it for an hour and half tonight,” he groaned, explaining that he expected most students attending chapel to mentally check out by the time chapel ended. But before he could continue to express his distress to the group, he was interrupted by senior Andrew Sedlacek’s raised hand. “It has been a very long time since I’ve been that engaged in chapel,” Sedlacek said.
On Oct. 15, Crouch, the executive editor of Christianity Today, delivered a chapel speech, in which he previewed his subsequent lecture on his newest book, “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.” Crouch’s chapel service was unconventional in a number of ways, which fostered the engagement that students like Sedlacek felt. Crouch was not only the chapel speaker, but he also served as the musical worship leader. He bookended the chapel service with a traditional African-American spiritual song, “Over My Head,” and a hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” encouraging the entire student body to learn the lyrics and sing along.
According to associate professor of communication Read Schuchardt, “Chapel was amazing because we all participated in making chapel happen.” When Crouch made singing along a central part of his chapel speech, he allowed “the audience to feel like they were speaking, too,” Schuchardt said. Perhaps not coincidentally, this exact form of empowerment was the main topic of Crouch’s book and lecture that night: the act of sharing creative power.
Crouch explained that he hoped by writing “Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power,” he would foster an informed discussion about power. In an interview, Crouch said, “It dawned on me that when I heard people talk about power, either they were talking in ways that were very cynical about power or very naive about power.”
At 7 p.m. on the same day, Crouch delivered his lecture in Barrows Auditorium to a crowd of a few hundred students, faculty and residents from the surrounding Wheaton neighborhoods, as the 2014 Ivan Fahs Memorial Symposium speaker. Professor of anthropology Brian Howell introduced Crouch, who was met by enthusiastic applause as he approached the lectern. Crouch humbly acknowledged the welcome and proceeded to expound upon the substance of his book in a series of slides and anecdotes as he paced back and forth in front of the stage.
Turning to the topic of creative power, Crouch revealed the painter Henry Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson,” depicting an older African-American man teaching a young boy how to play the banjo. As the painting appeared on the projector screen, Crouch implored the audience to silently contemplate the image before discussing it with their neighbors and then with the crowd.
Crouch argued that the gentle forms depicted in the painting suggest a “positive-sum transaction” taking place — a transaction which does not involve any party’s loss, but rather increases their total power and which brings glory to the man and to the boy. This is because the man imparts his power to the boy without losing any power himself. The implicit question asked was how we can foster positive-sum transactions with our own power.
Despite the encouraging tone of his message, Crouch imparted a special warning about power specific to Wheaton students. He said in an interview, “Be wary of the prestige that attaches to Wheaton in the Christian world … the danger of being an iconic institution is basically the danger of pride.”
He continued, “God’s image-bearers are scattered everywhere, and future leaders for the Christian church are scattered everywhere. They’re not just concentrated in places like Wheaton that often think of themselves as central.”
Many students, such as sophomore Michael Chen, voiced their appreciation for Crouch’s words of wisdom in the lecture. Chen remarked upon the uniqueness of the lecture topic, saying, “Instead of being held captive to the ills of our times, (Crouch) … looked to God and pointed us to him as a reminder of another sort of power that exists — creative power to increase the flourishing of others — and reminded us that we, too, image-bearers of God, can use creative power as a force for good.”