Reviewing: Christ and Culture Revisited

Here at Christ and Pop Culture, we don’t want our readers to think we just sit around watching movies and arguing about visual morality.  We like to read, too, and thought it might be helpful to review the latest book on the interaction between our faith and our spot in history.  Here, then, is my review of D.A. Carson’s, “Christ and Culture Revisited.”

How shall Christ and Culture interact?  The question is universal.  From Christians hiding in China, to the power and majesty of Catholicism, to the Moral Majority in America, to the reclusive Amish communities in Pennsylvania, the Church has struggled with the correct understanding of how faith applies to local context.  For years, various groups have fit themselves into one of H. Richard Niebuhr’s five categories:

Christ against Culture,

Christ of Culture,

Christ above Culture,

Christ and Culture in Paradox, and

Christ the Transformer of Culture.

D.A. Carson’s, “Christ and Culture Revisited,” critiques Niebuhr, and offers a more thoughtful and orthodox path forward.  It is an excellent bird’s eye view of a contentious topic, painted with broad but well-researched strokes.

In this review I describe its six chapters, draw out the, “takeaway,” ideas, insert a few notes, and give my overall thoughts.

Summary

Chapter 1 explains and reviews Niebuhr’s, “Christ and Culture.”  Niebuhr’s categories cast a fairly wide net, and Carson’s analysis begins to narrow it.  He argues that at least one category (Christ of Culture) necessitates a heretical view of Christianity, and as such is not acceptable as a category.

Chapter 2 continues critiquing Niebuhr by applying biblical theology.  Carson evaluates Niebuhr’s strengths and weaknesses, handling of Scripture, assignment of historical figures, and understanding of canon.  He also makes a key argument; to suggest that there are multiple views of Christ and Culture and that individual groups can rightly choose just one is incorrect.  This limiting of oneself to a single theme of Scripture (such as, say, appreciating God as Creator but not as Redeemer) is an affront to the wholesale acceptance of the historical-Biblical perspective.  It is akin to saying you are eating a Caesar salad when really you are just eating lettuce (my metaphor).

Carson then shows that a true paradigm for understanding Christ and Culture must necessarily accept a “bundle” of clear Scriptural perspectives.  This bundle includes;

Creation and Fall,

Israel and the Law,

Christ and New Covenant, and

Heaven and Hell.

Any paradigm that does not include or proportionally mishandles these perspectives is inherently flawed and inconsistent with orthodox Christianity.

Chapter 3 will be familiar to those who follow Carson’s work, but frustrating to those who do not.  As in many of his other lectures and writings, he spends considerable time interacting with his critics.  This chapter could easily be skipped by the curious layman, because it is mostly technical discussion of the definitions for culture and postmodernism.  However, it is a good chapter for those who want to understand the technical issues caught up with this type of critique, and have strong background in the debates surrounding these terms.

Chapter 4 discusses four major forces that impact and at times bend or challenge our understanding of Christ’s role in culture.  These four forces are the lure of secularization, the mystique of democracy, the worship of freedom, and the lust for power.  The chapter seems primarily designed to be thoughtful about the many problems at work in designing a universally helpful understanding of Christ and Culture.

Chapter 5 tries to deal with one of the largest issues in the Christ and Culture issue; that of church and state.  Once again, it seems to be a whirlwind tour of the major concepts that are tossed around when Christians try to plunge into this issue.

The first section deals with the disclarity regarding the terms, “religion,” “church,” and, “state.”  The second section then describes some biblical priorities for relationships between Church and State.  It discusses Opposition and Persecution, Restricted Confrontation, Differing Fundamental Allegiances, Different Styles of Government and Reign, Transformation of Life and Therefore Social and Governmental Institutions, and In the End Jesus Wins.

Chapter 6 closes the discussion with three steps.  First, he summarizes the argument of the book as a whole.  Second, he discusses some of the disappointed agendas and frustrated utopias of various Christian groups.  This includes The Fundamentalist Option, Luther and His Heirs, Abraham Kuyper, Minimalist Expectations, Post-Christendom Perspectives, and Persecution.  The third and final step is the Conclusion.

The Conclusion, though short, ties all the themes and discussions together with his central thesis, alluded to throughout the book.  To correctly discern the relationship between Christ and Culture, Christians must, “…pursue with a passion the robust and nourishing wholeness of biblical theology as the controlling matrix for our reflection on the relations between Christ and culture…” (p. 227)  Carson’s desire for fidelity to Scripture and willingness to reform to that end is very apparent.

Key Concepts

There are three helpful concepts that can be drawn from this book.

First, Niebuhr’s five views of Christ and Culture cast too wide a net.  They allow for disproportional and even heretical views of Christianity.  A truly biblical view of the relationship between Christ and Culture cannot allow paradigms that are unfaithful to the Biblical witness.

Second, a view of Christ and Culture must be flexible enough to fit and interact with a massive variety of contextual problems and situations.  In other words, if the Gospel is true, then a right view of Christ and Culture must give right guidance both to the rich American and the poor African, the persecuted Chinese and the free South Korean.

Third, right understanding of the Christ and Culture interaction in a local context is promoted by a commitment to biblical theology.  In other words, Christians rightly handle the Christ and Culture problem when their actions in local context flow directly from a healthy and proportional acceptance of the key claims of Scripture.

Notes

This book is terrific, and its conclusions are enormously helpful.  That said, it is fast and furious- Carson does not go out of his way to explain the wide-ranging theological, philosophical, and political topics he interacts with.  He gives plenty of books to consider for those interested, but this is not a detailed analysis so much as a call to a more Scriptural framework for analyzing Christ and Culture in local context.  I would recommend the book primarily for pastors, educators, and those with interest in political philosophy.   A background in history, theology, law, or political science would be especially helpful.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Carson’s book calls for Biblical faithfulness when we make choices.  Should we be more or less involved in culture?  Can a Christian go into politics?  Should we try to transform culture with Christian art or withdraw by homeschooling our kids?  What are the duties of the local church in regards to poverty?  To government?

Carson leaves these choices to those in individual context, but challenges them to make sure their choices align correctly with a proportional, faithful exposition of the implications of Scripture’s Truth.  It is a worthwhile challenge.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • David Dunham

    Great review Ben! I just recently gave a lecture on Niebuhr’s approach and spoke about Carson’s assesment of it and his conclusions. I am delighted to see that what I said was not off base according to your understanding of this book.

    Good review, brother!

  • http://www.provocativechurch.com Bill Reichart

    I like that Carson ties in a lot of his arguments into Biblical Theology and into looking at the whole historical redemptive story. It guards us from drawing poor and faulty conclusions from merely cherry picking verses within the Bible.

    Good work – this book was on my wishlist – now I definitely want to get to reading it.

    Bill Reichart’s last blog post..Vacation Pictures

  • David

    I really apprecaite that Carson insists on an eclectic view. I have for some time thought that Niebuhr’s appraoch was reductionistic.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Hm, all that and I still don’t know what Carson believes (apart from some brand of eclecticism). Also, it would have been nice if you had explained some of Niebuhr’s categories (even a one sentence explanation) because, honestly, I have no idea what Christ and Culture in Paradox could mean.

    But to your questions!

    Should we be more or less involved in culture?
    We can’t be more or less involved with culture. Even as we are, we are involved in culture. Culture springs up as naturally from us as aging. Both someone like me (who apparently has a love affair with the world) and an Anabaptist are equally involved and engaged in culture—because it is impossible, while we live, to be outside of culture.

    Can a Christian go into politics?
    Sure. I wouldn’t, but that’s because I’m wise beyond my years (you wouldn’t think it to look at me). But that doesn’t mean that it’s immoral for a Christian to become a politician or to labour in the political realm. They just have to realize that their involvement in politics is no more Christian than is working as a fry cook at a greasy spoon.

    Should we try to transform culture with Christian art or withdraw by homeschooling our kids?
    Neither. Why would we care to transform culture? The gospel is about the transformation of lives. Culture comes out of lives, not vice versa. Transform the life and you transform the culture; transform the culture and, well, you’ve transformed the culture and, in the end, who cares if you transformed just the culture?

    What are the duties of the local church in regards to poverty?
    As a body or individually? The church body should care for its needs and the need of the Commission. The individual should love his neighbour and enemy as itself. The church has its focus, the individual its own.

    To government?
    Obedience. Respect. Honour. No matter how retarded the government is.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Dane,

    The point of the book was not that Carson believes any one of Niebuhr’s categories is correct. He argues throughout that local circumstances are extremely influential on the approach a church takes to their local cultural context. His argument is not for a one-size-fits-all answer, but for the priority of biblical theology in guiding local solutions.

    If I get a chance, I’ll put a bit more about Niebuhr’s categories here in the comments section.

    The questions… thanks for your answers, but they were merely designed to highlight the wide range of issues that should be approached carefully, with a primary commitment to biblical theology for guiding those answers wisely. Local context will have a huge impact on how those look in the everyday world.

    Ben Bartlett’s last blog post..Healthy Interaction About Obama

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Ben – So he just critiqued Niebuhr without forwarding a replacement? Like he just said, “Niebuhr’s wrong for such-and-so reasons. A better view would be hypothetically more involved than his ideas. Now while I don’t know what a better view is, we do know that it would have to start with a better understanding of the Bible.”

    Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach. I just thought his response would be more thorough and kept waiting for The Answer.

    And yeah, I knew your questions weren’t meant to be answered, but I love answering questions, so I did. Plus, most of those questions really aren’t the kinds whose answers are all that different according to one’s local context.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Dane,

    The point, which he makes very strongly throughout the book, is that a single answer is an impossiblity. The Christ-Culture relationship is necessarily local, dependent on governmental and social conditions. His point is to avoid just “choosing” which you would like to act out, and to focus on creating local answers that flow naturally from the truths of Scripture as described by healthy biblical theology.

    It’s like a pitching coach in baseball… guys have different pitching motions, but he can teach them the key universal things to focus on that will make them better pitchers- more “faithful” to their primary goal.

    Ben Bartlett’s last blog post..Healthy Interaction About Obama


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