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Book Review: Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch

James P. Sullivan unleashed a soul-shaking roar. His patented bellow was the reason “Sully”—the lovable protagonist in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.—was the best in the scaring business. But as he produced his textbook yell, he saw for the first time the result of his authority: fear.

Scaring sleeping children, as his superiors told Sully, created the energy needed to power Monstropolis. Sully knew his job was to create reactions from unsuspecting kids, but his unlikely friendship with Boo, a toddler girl trapped in Monstropolis, forced him to really see his own work. And he didn’t like what he saw.

As Boo shuddered in fear at Sully’s roar, Sully knew everything had to change. His authority increased Boo’s vulnerability. Sully’s leadership created pain for children. Sully saw the consequences of how he was using his gifts. And it wasn’t pretty.

In Strong and Weak, author Andy Crouch does, again, what he’s keen to do: Write about an unsensational, seemingly undramatic topic that, in actuality, touches on every aspect of our human experience. Strong and Weak is about authority and vulnerability (not exactly ideas topping Google searches), yet it shows up just about everywhere, including children’s movies.

In the title, readers get an indication of the paradox Crouch exegetes in the book. In a word, Crouch defines strength as authority and weakness as vulnerability. His definitions of these dimensions of power anchor the book.

“Properly combined, authority and vulnerability lead to flourishing,” Crouch writes. “But when either is absent—or even worse, when both are missing—we find distortions of human beings, organizations and institutions. We find suffering, withdrawing and exploiting.”

At the center of Strong and Weak is a profound 2X2 chart Crouch uses to help us “grasp the nature of the paradox.” The paradox is that authority and vulnerability exist best together. This both/and perspective anchors Crouch’s arguments in Strong and Weak. Strength and vulnerability aren’t opposites. They’re complementary. Jesus perfectly modeled this.

In Jesus, we see full vulnerability. He was born in a stable, associated with the marginalized and died a criminal’s death. It isn’t an emotionally manipulative vulnerability—a tears-on-command, oversharing sort of faux transparency. No, Jesus risked all of himself on our behalf and modeled a life of complete vulnerability.

In Jesus, we also see his full authority. He made the dead come to life, gave the blind sight and emerged from the tomb victorious. His power created the greatest movement in the history of the world. Jesus led with historic authority.

Jesus wasn’t either vulnerable or authoritative. He was fully both. And, the truths of this simple paradox show up in every area of our lives and culture. In Scripture, we see it in Saul of Tarsus exploiting Christians with his authority. We see it in Pilate withdrawing from his authority in the indictment of Jesus. We see it in Jesus suffering unto death, emptying himself of all authority on our behalf. We can see it in our families and organizations. It shows up in politics and sports. And, it shows up in our films.

In the powerful turning point in Monsters, Inc., Sully watches an instant replay of his scare tactics on a wall of freeze frames. He witnesses how his work and industry exploit children. He recognizes that his distorted use of authority needs to change.

Sully starts with himself. He commits to no longer scaring children. Laughter, he finds, creates more energy than tears. Sully then reforms his industry, changing the very essence of how his fellow monsters power their world.

In our families, neighborhoods, organizations and churches, we hold power. The question facing us is how we will steward it. In Strong and Weak, Crouch provides a helpful framework for navigating that question.

Will we shirk our authority by withdrawing from the challenge? Will we abuse our authority by exploiting those around us? Will we ignore those without authority, thereby increasing their vulnerability and suffering?

Our culture is replete with examples of self-promoting, exploitative, manipulatively vulnerable, isolated leaders and institutions. The challenge for Christians is to embody Christ’s journey in how we lead, with real vulnerability and full authority held in tension with one another. In doing so, we will embody the death (vulnerability) and victory (authority) of our Savior. In doing so, we will lead confidently in our strength and weakness.

“The empty tomb or the cross?” Crouch asks paradoxically. As it turns out, Jesus shows us that leaders do not have to make that choice. In Strong and Weak, we see both are true in the life of Jesus. Both should be true in our lives as well.

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