Carson, D.A. Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012
I recently had the privilege of reading and interacting with DA Carson’s book Christ and Culture Revisited. Dr. Carson is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he has served since 1978. His primary academic work is with the New Testament, though he has written extensively on issues related to the church and her place in contemporary western culture. This particular book takes up a reflection on the relationship(s) between the church and culture in the early twenty-first century.
I found this volume to be an interesting book because the launching point for its reflection is the seminal work, Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr originally published in 1951. In many ways, this review is a review of another review. One might say it’s a bit of book review version of Christopher Nolan’s dream within a dream film Inception.
Carson’s project is not to simply critique or applaud Niebuhr, but to “revisit” his thought and categories in order to help the church think through the gospel in the cultural setting some six decades later. The work is comprised of six chapters with a growing emphasis which flows out from the conceptual into some very practical concerns.
Chapter 1 begins with a contemporary discussion of what we mean by the word “culture” with Carson defining and defending the usefulness of the concept. He affirms several different definitions of culture while acknowledging what he calls the succinct and clear contribution of Clifford Geertz:
The culture concept…denotes the historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, as a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life (2)
Considering this reflection and the sheer reality that the church exists in various times and places, there is a necessary presupposition that there is some sort of relationship between Christ and culture. From this acknowledgment, Carson launches into his “revisiting” of H. Richard Niebuhr’s work. The rest of Chapter 1 is spent in a succinct and helpful recounting of Niebuhr’s iconic categories for how the church relates and has related to its cultural settings: Christ against Culture, The Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and finally, Christ the Transformer of Culture.
Chapter 2 begins Carson’s evaluation of Niebuhr’s work and he is clearly critical. After expressing some gratitude for the comprehensive nature of his categorization, he launches into a steady critique. First, he whittles down the categories from five to four by setting aside the Christ of Culture. Niebuhr’s examples of this category from history are early Gnostic Christianity and various flavors of theological liberalism in western society. Carson’s contention is that these flavors of ideology seem to have very little to do with Christ or Christian theology. He concludes: “If sober reflection commends the conclusion that neither is a Christian movement in any sense worthy of the adjective ‘Christian,’ then not much is left of this second category.” (36) His critique continues towards Niebuhr’s handling of the Bible and his relationship to canonical revelation. Carson contends that Niebuhr tends to chop the Bible into separate voices and paradigms (e.g. Matthean Christianity, the Johannine community, Pauline churches etc.) rather than a unified revelation with a holistic vision. Carson contends that we should look at the major themes and non-negotiables of Biblical Theology and apply them to our cultural situatedness. He spends much of rest of the chapter outlining these non-negotiables. This biblical-theological vision should serve as the basis for particular communities of Christians to evaluate and respond to their particular cultural setting and time. Carson prefers this dynamic model rather than the comprehensive categorizations given to us by Niebuhr.
After moving on from Niebuhr, Carson begins his own Christ and Culture and it is a bit of a journey. Chapter 3 has the goal of giving us a more flexible view of culture without giving culture the dominating voice it has many times today. In doing so, Carson takes us through the perplexing halls of Postmodernism, emerging church thinking and some specific jousting with the work of James K.A. Smith. Carson seeks to justify the idea that the church is culturally embedded yet distinct enough to be in conversation with her surrounding cultural worlds. He offers Christianity as a different way of seeing and looking at one’s own culture when one sees things Christianly (86, 87). Carson also takes the time to justify and salvage our use of the term and concept of worldview from its detractors. Carson, in a sense, uses this chapter to argue that talking about “Christ and Culture” is a legitimate endeavor in a day when postmodernity seems to lose so much in the weeds of linguistic and epistemic uncertainty. The following is illustrative of Carson’s legitimization of this shorthand:
I cannot continually say that by “Christ and culture” I really mean “a Christian culture and its relation to its surrounding culture, understanding that every Christian culture is necessarily shaped by its surrounding culture even while it forms part of it, and even while it has strong ties to Christian cultures in other parts of the world by virtue of shared allegiance to the Bible and its storyline, to which all Christian cultures lay claim, which authoritative text has, for Christians, a norming authority that enables them in substantial measure to withstand the pull in the direction of other elements in the broader culture,” and so forth. We will usually take such caveats as the “givens”and speak, more economically, of Christ and culture, but do so in a way that these broader considerations are not ignored.(98)
I found that to be quite humorous and myself grateful for his intellectual battle to redeem our use of the shorthand “Christ and Culture.”
In Chapters 4 and 5 we find Carson’s application of his canonical application to thoughts about Christ and Culture as he approaches significant issues in contemporary western culture. In Chapter 4 he addresses secularism, democracy and power before taking up the massive issue of Church and State in Chapter 5. These chapters are illustrative of how one thinks through the issues of his own culture with robust categories from the biblical-theological narrative.
Finally, Chapter 6 is used to summarize his argument and then look at various options for Christ and Culture interactions over the last century and paths taken by contemporary thinkers. In this analysis, Carson also includes how a church in a setting of persecution, outside of the power and confines of recent western civilization, might see and engage this whole “Christ and Culture” enterprise.
As expected from a scholar of D.A. Carson’s stature, the book was copiously researched and footnoted and a great addition to the other treatments on culturally engagement in my library. We now turn to revisit Carson’s re-visitation for some critical reflection upon the work.
It is a difficult task to state only a few of my appreciations of this book as I found the strengths far outnumbering its weaknesses. This was a volume where I found much to delight in and commend to others. In order to be concise, I will limit myself to these three major strengths in the work: the book is Canonically Focused, Contextually Committed, and Constructively Hopeful. I will handle each of these in turn.
Throughout this volume, Carson remains a scholar committed to canonical and confessional orthodoxy. As a Christian scholar, he insists that the major narrative movements of the Bible itself shape our cultural reflection and engagement. When exhorting Christians to evaluate their cultural setting and engage,Carson wants thoughts of creation, fall, redemption in Christ, a new covenant, and a coming kingdom of heaven, or of hell,to be directly in our view(44-58). The text of the Bible must be in the forefront of our thinking lest we veer off into cultural compromise or the abandonment of the mission.Carson maintains this focus even amidst of a deep and rigorous interaction with contemporary cultural ideologies.
Another refreshing aspect of the book is Carson’s wide-eyed awareness of our current cultural setting. He neither bows to a naïve modernism that sees one’s own point of view as culturally privileged, nor to a pessimistic postmodernism that forfeits the birthright of revealed truth to the most recent of knowledge skeptics. Carson is careful to distinguish a robust cultural engagement from the overconfidence of the past as well as the trepidation of our present. Furthermore, he also exhorts God’s people to bring to bear biblical narrative and gospel truth to our own communities present. By drawing on gospel non-negotiables in the face of our current cultural idols, earthly powers, and communal situations, the church may contextualize both its witness and cultural interaction with thoughtful engagement and wisdom. With such a method of thoughtful engagement, we might avoid the reductionist categorization of Niebuhr and others (225,226). Such a strategy would call for the church to pray and to think about how to interact with the spirit of our age, the zeitgeist of this place and time. This forms a wonderful triangle of interaction between Christ,the covenant community and mission of God in the present world.
The final strength of Christ and Culture Revisited, I found in its overall tone. This is not a pessimistic work, despairing about the overwhelming onslaught of the secular world. It is realistic about the current challenges in western culture while not capitulating our most precious truths as the church. He maintains a voice that reflects faith and hope without a naïve triumphalism. Carson sees a path forward for the church in culture whether it is in power or under persecution. This is a hopeful path of trusting Christ within every culture as we continue to live as a distinct people within His story and mission. This path is one I hope to continue to follow in my own home, church, and city.
Though I did not find many weaknesses in this book, there were a few things from Chapter 3 which detracted from the overall flow and argument of the work. In Dr. Carson‘s treatment of postmodernism, epistemology, and worldview, one starts to feel as if he is a bit of a spectator in a larger, more involved, and nuanced battle. In order to engage well with Chapter 3, one really requires some prior reading in deconstructionist literary theory, philosophy, and perhaps some of Carson’s previous writings. As someone who has read some of his engagement with the “Emerging Church” movement, I felt at home in the discussion and was aware of his many interlocutors. If this was not the case, I would have been completely lost. One of my daughters was recently reading to me portions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and I became overwhelmed with this feeling of cross-eyed confusion. My fear is that some readers may have that experience in some of the bowels of chapter 3. In a similar vein, the extensive jousting with James K.A.Smith and the radical orthodoxy crowd took on a similar feel.
In the past, I have been thankful for the articles, lectures and books I have read by Dr. Carson. His intellectual rigor along with a devoted biblical commitment to Christ has continued to be a refreshing guide to my own life and faith. I think his evaluation of such an influential work like Christ and Culture is both needed and helpful for our time.His judgment that the five fold typology now seems a bit parochial, (200) I found helpful and his own path forward to be inspiring. In what seemed like a false ending,before a final post script of the book, Carson quotes CS Lewis at length to offer wisdom to our age. I found that quotation to be quite helpful,and will close my review with it as well:
What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic systems. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.(Quoted in Carson, 225.Mere Christianity (1952; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 73.)
In light of these realities,we must take the truth of the gospel to people in culture and engage the systems and powers that be with the appropriate posture led by the Spirit of God. In doing so, we might manifest the glorious kingdom of Christ right in the midst of our time and culture.To such ends we submit our lives to our sovereign King who is to be forever praised among the nations.