Christian Living

Christian Power

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 10/05/2013

Justin Taylor posted an interesting and beautiful interview with Andy Crouch, author of Playing God, Redeeming the Gift of Power, wherein Crouch discusses the nature of Christian power:

Banjo-Lesson-560x789[Henry Ossawa] Tanner’s painting [“The Banjo Lesson,” 1893] is an amazing portrait of true power, in the context of a music lesson.... Tanner was not only the first African-American painter of international renown but arguably the last American painter of that stature to be a serious and devout Christian.

What really got me thinking about Tanner’s painting is the two levels on which it operates. At one level, it is simply a portrait of the exchange of power that happens in all musical instruction (and instruction more generally), where the student acquires power without the teacher giving up any of their own power. Teaching is a paradigmatic example of how power can multiply and lead to flourishing without anyone being diminished or dominated. The teacher has real, asymmetrical power, capacity, and authority—something we too easily automatically associate with domination—but that authority is all devoted to the flourishing of the student. And yet the teacher also flourishes in that relationship, precisely by exercising power. Tanner captures the intimacy, trust, love, and patience involved in the true use of power for flourishing—and by including a jug and loaf on the golden-lit table in the background, suggests that what is happening here is not just mundane culture but a foretaste of glory.

At another level, Tanner was operating within a profoundly broken system of power.... By painting a banjo lesson, Tanner was taking this visual symbol of the exploitation of his own culture and rescuing it from caricature and diminishment. He infuses this humble musical instrument and art form with all the artistry of the salons of Paris and all the dignity of “classical” instruments (like, say, the cello). I see this painting as a kind of restoration of image-bearing possibility—it restored dignity, agency, and beauty to a culture and a people who had been robbed of them....

[Tanner] was not a genre painter. But when he turned to this subject, he brought all his skill and power to restoring others’ image-bearing capacity. That is true power.

Christianity changed the West’s understanding of power. Our culture is saturated with its ideas today, so it’s easy to forget how radical this was:

Christ Jesus...although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted him (Philippians 2:5–9).

Jesus, who had ultimate power, humbled Himself to the point of death for the sake of others. This is the life He called us to when He said:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25–28).

Certainly there have been those in the West who have abused power, but when you look at what is admired in this culture, you’ll find that it’s this vision of Jesus as the self-sacrificing servant that is held in high regard. We take this for granted, but it has never been a universally-held ideal. “The word of the cross is foolishness” to those who haven’t been shaped by the Christian story.

Nietzsche is one example of someone who explicitly rejected the Christian view of power in favor of a “zero-sum conception of power as domination,” as Crouch mentions in the interview. But even those who aren’t atheists have difficulties with the cross. Muslims, for example, reject the idea that Jesus died on the cross for the very reason that their concept of God’s power doesn’t allow for a prophet to suffer this kind of humiliation. They find our vision of a divine Jesus on the cross incomprehensible.

Ideas shape individuals and cultures, teaching them what they should love and pursue. May you become as steeped in the Christian story as Henry Ossawa Tanner was so that everything coming out of you takes on the shape of truth, beauty, and human dignity.

Read the rest of the interview.