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.
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.
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.
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.
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.