For over 50 years Christians have looked to this book as a key guide to understanding the relationship between their faith and culture. In a recent book Don Carson has respectfully ‘revisited’ this work and offers a new perspective on Niebuhr’s now classic text. For those just returned from a 30-year trip to the outer edges of the Galaxy, Don Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author or co-author of many well-known books on theology.
Carson’s book, Christ and culture revisted was born out of discussions with his students at Trinity, a lecture series in Paris and his own theological reflections and study of the thorny problem of how any Christian sits in relation to his or her culture. Even in writing the last sentence it sounds as if I am positioning myself outside culture. The inability of any Christian to sit outside culture is something that Carson rightly points out is a serious challenge. To my mind this should lead us to admire and be thankful for the early and seminal work that Niebuhr did, while not denying that the work needs to be reconsidered.
A definition of culture
Before commencing his critique Carson begins by seeking a definition of culture. Finding an appropriate definition of culture is obviously critical to understanding where we fit in relation to culture. Carson dismisses ‘high culture’ definitions then considers a number of alternatives before settling (primarily) on Clifford Geertz’s definition as one that is workable:
“[T]he culture concept……denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, 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.” [From Geertz, C. (1973), The interpretation of cultures, New York: Basic Books, p.89]
Carson's 'gentle' critique
Carson then summarises Niebuhr’s categories, with ‘gentle’ critique along the way, before making his agenda clear; what does Niebuhr’s work look like when viewed through the lens of Biblical Theology? While accepting that Niebuhr’s work has been influential and praise worthy because it has been able to embrace “…Catholics and Protestants, East and West, examples from the Fathers, the Middle Agers, the Reformation, and the Modern period, conservatives and liberals, mainstream believers (whatever they are in any period), and sectarians”, Carson suggests that this as a significant weakness for a number of reasons:
- He does not exclude any branch of “Christian” Gnosticism, nor any branch of “Christian” liberalism; why include heresy is Carson’s justified question;
- His use of Scripture is not always good, perhaps related to his quest to be comprehensive and inclusive; in particular his use of John’s gospel, and his tendency to use (for example) the 4 gospels as separate justification for differing patterns and in doing so, fail to see that the whole of Scripture constitutes the Canon;
- His broad and sweeping use of key historical thinkers leads to some unusual positioning of their arguments for one or more of his five patterns; in fact he uses the likes of Calvin, Augustine, Tertullian and Justin Martyr in support of specific patterns when the work of these writers would seem to cut across several patterns.
- Creation and the fall – God created us in his image and likeness, but God’s creation rebelled against him and now stands condemned and faces God’s wrath and judgement.
- Israel and the Law – God chooses Abraham, makes a covenant with him and through him also chooses a people, gives them the law, the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system.
- Christ and the New Covenant – God had a plan, he sends his Son, he dwells with us and becomes our new tabernacle and temple; he reveals his ultimate solution to man’s sin and rebellion; his own son will be the perfect sacrifice to atone for man’s sin. Jesus announces and inaugurates the kingdom of God and yet, the kingdom is still to come when Jesus the King returns.
- A heaven to be gained and a hell to be feared – there will be a culminating glory; judgement will be followed by a new heaven and a new earth for those who avoid the second death (Rev 20-22).
“…..in his idealisation of ‘Christ the transformer of culture’ model, he has simply left out the consummation. What he sees as a weakness in Augustine and Calvin suddenly becomes a strength: Augustine and Calvin are trying to integrate all the non-negotiables of biblical theology, which is precisely why they cannot adopt Niebuhr’s ‘pure’ form of the conversionist model.”
He concludes that under the lens of biblical theology “…perhaps all, of Niebuhr’s five patterns need to be trimmed in some way”.
Second, Carson warns against seeking patterns or paradigms or models to consider the relation between Christ and culture as Niebuhr has done. Instead, he argues, we should seek wise integration.
“….if for any reason we continue to think of different models of the relationship between Christ and culture, we must insist that they are not alternative models that we may choose to accept or reject. Rather, we shall ask in what sense they are grounded within the Scriptures, and how and when they should be emphasised under different circumstances exemplified in the Scriptures.”
Third, that we must insist on God’s sovereignty over the entire created order. “…the reality of God’s sovereignty reminds us that the categories ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’ are not mutually opposed in every respect……the two terms ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’ cannot be set absolutely over against each other, not only because Christians constitute part of the culture, but also because all authority is given to Christ in heaven and on earth, so all culture is subsumed under his reign.” While much of culture appears to be in opposition to God, or at the very least, people act as if they are free from God’s rule, the Bible teaches that Christ does and must reign with all authority, operating to bring about God’s plans.
Fourth, although the world is corrupted by sin, because the world was created by God it cannot lose all the glory that God built into it (Psalm 8). God continues to do good and to bestow his good gifts, and in holding back the judgement that must come. The natural world that God called into being operates under the authority of the resurrected Christ, and this includes everything that man creates including art, music and all creative works.
Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism
Chapter 3 is essentially an opportunity for Carson to say more about culture and how it is defined before moving on to consider postmodernism. He reaches some conclusions on culture which while self-evident are worthy of restatement. Culture is not just a noun, something out there to look at and observe, but also a verb, something in which individuals participate as insiders. As well, this discussion is not just about the individual, but rather communities and groups. Carson puts it this way:
We cannot “….reduce ‘culture’ to the level of the isolated individual. Culture, as developed in almost all contemporary discussion, is essentially communal….”
There is great cultural diversity in the world and the locus of particular cultures is variable and may overlap with other cultures. However, the diversity of culture as well as the commonalities across cultures, “…does not mean that one culture cannot be usefully compared and contrasted with another culture.” Culture, like every other part of creation stands under the judgement of God.
Carson turns in the second half of this chapter to a discussion of postmodernism. This is a relevant diversion, for as Carson points out, postmodernism with its acceptance and celebration of deconstructive pluralism, has argued against the use of any grand narratives to make sense of the world. Carson suggests that rather than simply dismissing postmodernism, that there is another way and cites Christian Smith’s “perspectival realism as the alternative way:
“A chastened modernism and a ‘soft’ postmodernism might actually discover that they are saying rather similar things. A chastened or modest modernism pursues the truth but recognises how much we humans do not know, how often we change our minds, and some of the factors that go into our claims to knowledge. A chastened postmodernism heartily recognises that we cannot avoid seeing things from a certain perspective…..but acknowledges that there is a reality out there that we human beings can know, even if we cannot know it exhaustively or perfectly, but only from our own perspective.”
Secularism, Democracy, Freedom and Power
In chapter 4 Carson addresses what he sees as four of the most significant cultural forces in the Western world: the lure of secularisation, the mystique of democracy, the worship of freedom, and the lust for power.
He argues that the Bible presents us with realities that run counter to prevailing worldviews when these forces are considered. He suggests that even where there are overlapping values in alternative worldviews (as there are), that we will view and deal with each of these forces differently to the rest of the world. Christians and Christian communities seeking to live under the authority of the Word of God as sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11-12), will inevitably live (to at least some extent) in a counter-cultural way at times in opposition to the values of the dominate culture. But the individual and the church does not simply withdraw from the dominant culture, indeed it cannot ever completely do so, rather Christians are to be salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16) and contribute to the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7):
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Church and State
Chapter 5 is devoted to a discussion of the relationship between church and state. Carson explores definitions of the church, nation and state before outlining what he sees as the biblical priorities for the relationship between church and state. He uses the topic (in a sense) as a test case for practical application in the light of his exploration of Niebuhr’s patterns and his own critique. While I found this chapter somewhat ‘meandering’, its conclusions show the worth of the journey that Carson takes us on:
- Christians who wish to be faithful to Scripture will not lose sight of the fact that they are citizens of heaven and that our identity is found not in the world but within the Kingdom of God.
- That the political system that Christians live in will change the way they work out the relationship they have to the state and the nation. Those living in western democracies have a different relationship to the state than the Christians of the 1st century living under Roman rule. This leads to many subtle challenges as we seek to make up our minds about things as diverse as: whether the state should give money to the church for welfare work; how we consider the Christian institution of marriage for non-believers; our attitude to religious liberty for Christians and for those who are not Christians in Christian nations.
Ultimately, while we tussle with such complexities, Carson draws on Richard John Neuhas to remind us that we must always come back to the truth “Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics……every sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.”
On disputed agendas, frustrated utopias, and ongoing tensions
In Carson’s final chapter he addresses a few extra agendas and ongoing tensions (somewhat serendipitously) and concludes:
“What the potted survey ought to tell us is that none of the powerfully advanced theories commonly put forward to explain the relationships between Christ and culture or to implement an approved dynamic is very compelling as a total explanation or an unambiguous mandate…..Christians need to adopt an extra degree of hesitation about canonising any of [Niebuhr’s patterns] in an age in which we are learning the extent to which we are learning the extent to which our own cultural location contributes, for better and worse, to our own understanding of these theological matters, as of all theological matters.”
My View of the Book’s Contribution
Carson’s book makes a useful contribution to the revisiting of Niebuhr’s work and the ongoing need to understand the relationship Christians (individually and collectively) have with culture. The strength of Carson’s book, for me, lies in his initial unpacking of the issues underlying any analysis of Niebuhr’s work, particularly his discussion of culture and his treatment of Scripture. Carson’s own application of biblical theology to Niebuhr’s work is insightful and engaging. The weakness of the book is that it lacks a degree of coherence and made me want more. I suspect that this is due in large part to its genesis. The exploration of the relationship between church and state was interesting, but I kept wanting to get my teeth into an exploration of other daily challenges such as the way Christians live within the workplace, the community, how we approach education and educational institutions and see the place of these sites of human activity in relation to the kingdom of God. For me, this is the sharp end of any discussion of how we understand our place as followers of Christ in relation to the culture in which we participate and the rich cultural transactions that are part of our daily lives. I look forward to future contributions from Don Carson who I admire enormously and whose work continues to inspire me and many others.
Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids (Mich.):William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.