Thursday, 25 December 2008

Putting Christ back into Christmas

My wife Carmen knitted a wonderful Nativity set recently and our grandchildren have enjoyed playing with it and even retelling the Christmas story. Now while this photo might suggest a different telling of the story, I can assure you that they know the story well, and have done since they were very young.

But it seems that less and less people seem to know the story of Christmas; well at least the true story of Christmas. Some suggest that as few as 1 in 14 children know the real story of Christmas in 'Christian' countries like Australia. There is such limited knowledge of the story of Jesus birth that the story is constantly distorted. Greg Clarke wrote recently about this (here) and lamented that "Baby Jesus Christianity is what we see around us at Christmas; immature, unrealistic, comical, domesticated. It's Jesus without the Christ, the baby without the adult". In fact, for many people, they don't even get as far as the baby Jesus and instead focus on Santa and family celebrations. At this time of year we have a great opportunity to share the story of Christ with everyone. Let's do it in whatever way we can.

I've written a post on my Literacy, Families & Learning blog (here) about using literature to share the story of Christmas. The best place to start is obviously the Bible, but if you're a teacher, or you want to share the true story of Christmas with other members of your extended family or neighbours, then there are many good children's books that can be given away that also share the story of the birth of Christ. Not many get beyond the baby Jesus, but some do faithfully share the details of Jesus birth and the fact that he was and is the Son of God.

I heard Rowan Williams on radio today talking about a competition in Britain to come up with the shortest version of the Christmas story. I couldn't help but wonder why he wouldn't simply get people to read Matthew 1:18-25. This is what my 6 year-old grandson Jacob did recently when his teacher suggested they bring in their favourite story to read to classmates as part of end of year activities. He decided (himself) to take in his Bible and read Matthew 1 (minus the genealogy of Jesus which he didn't think the other Kinder kids would get).

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" —which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

I hope that supporters of CASE and readers of this blog have a wonderful and meaningful Christmas, as we remember, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16). May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you, Trevor

Monday, 22 December 2008

The ethics of shopping

Carmen and I spent some time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong a few weeks ago essentially on New College alumni business. On the Saturday before we left Hong Kong for home we did what many people do when they travel to Asian cities, we went shopping for a bargain in one of the well-known markets. We were mainly looking for Christmas presents for our grandchildren, but as we wandered up and down the rows of merchants there was one very consistent cry:

"Copy watch, you want copy watch sir?"


Typically this was a question asked of me and it occurred at just about every second stand. It was sometimes followed with statements like "We've got Rolex, copy Rolex out the back, you want one, very cheap".

I had no trouble resisting the pleas of the many sales people. For a start, I wouldn't want my friends and the residents of New College to see me wearing a watch that looked like it was worth $5,000 (even though it was only worth $20); I'm not one for bling! But I'm also strongly against people ripping off the trademarks and intellectual property of other individuals and companies. I'd thought this through as a Christian long before I started receiving 6-10 SPAM emails daily offering me similarly wonderful 'replica watches' as the spammers call them. This decision seems like an easy ethical dilemma to resolve. But this made me think, what other ethical shopping dilemmas will I face this Christmas season. And which ones am I not even aware that I'm facing? What does it mean to shop ethically? What guidance does the Bible give us?

The problem of selectivity

Part of the problem with thinking ethically about shopping is that we tend to focus on one area of concern. For example, I know people who act (quite rightly) as campaigners for Fair Trade. Their concern is driven primarily by their desire to see justice for workers and suppliers (fair pay for products as well as the labour that produced them). Others campaign to ensure that we don't encourage the sale of wooden products that destroy the environment. It's easy to pick some issues that you can quickly make an ethical decision about while missing other areas of perhaps equal ethical concern. I suspect that we face ethical decisions as shoppers every day. Here are a few examples:
  • You are given too much change by the shop assistant - should you give it back?
  • You wear a piece of clothing but decide you don't like it - you are tempted to take it back for exchange after wearing it (just once), but should you?
  • You have to answer questions about your driving record when seeking a new insurance policy which will affect the premium you're charged - do you tell them the full story?
  • You see products that have most likely been manufactured by workers who have not been treated justly, (often clothing, but also household items in wood or cane). The workers might have been poorly paid, child family members could have been forced to work long hours and may have been denied education (especially girls), slave labourers may have been used, staff within family sweat shops may have produced the clothing and so on. How do you assess this and should you buy the products?
  • You have the chance to buy something that will tempt you or the recipient of the gift to break the law or act unethically themselves - e.g. police scanners that allow people to listen in on the police broadcasts, machines for multi-copying of DVDs and CDs, devices for detecting speed cameras so that you can speed in 'safety'. Should you buy such a device?
  • You see a book, CD, video or clothing item that is obviously a copy of a well-known brand (like my 'copy watch'). Do you purchase it?
  • You know that the seller is desperate for a sale (often this can occur in Asian countries) and you think you can drive the price even lower to the point that it is costing you almost nothing. Should you? I can well remember bargaining for a painting in a village in Indonesia about 5 years before I became a Christian and getting it for a ridiculous price. I recall later realising that it cost me 14 cents and feeling very guilty, as it was hardly a fair price.
This might all seem a bit much, you might think I'm going over the top! But am I? If you're a Christian reading this blog then like me you need to consider what the Bible has to say about ethical shopping.

What the Bible has to say that can help us?

The easy part is that if your action or choice is going to lead you or others to break the law then you shouldn't do it. While we are to be obedient to Christ first, we are to be obedient to the laws of the land that are set by authorities appointed ultimately by God. So, a 'copy watch' is out, as is an illegal video, copied music etc. Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 are helpful here, especially Rom 13: 1,2 & 7:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment....Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honour is owed.


But the Bible teaches more than simply obedience to the laws of the land; we are called to pay attention even to the 'spirit of the law' not just the 'letter of the law'. Jesus teaches about this in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20) when he says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


Jesus is suggesting to the Scribes and Pharisees that the righteousness that he expects is nothing less than complete conformity to God’s law. Jesus is teaching that it is the heart not just the outward deed is that is ultimately most important. This is God-given righteousness; hearts transformed by the saving grace of Christ, not a righteousness of outward compliance. Jesus demands more than just an outward pretence of honesty while all the time acting unethically and unjustly by seeking some level of right action, to keep up appearances, but quietly pushing the boundaries of what is right in one area while trying in another.

I’m challenged by Jesus’ words for I know that in my heart I’m tempted constantly to ‘cut corners’ so to speak, hiding behind a fa├žade of ethical action a heart that while viewed as free of guilt because of the righteousness of Christ, is still engaged in a daily war against the flesh. Jesus teaching is hard teaching here. What is expected of us? Mere token observance of the laws of the land? No much more than this. As Christians we must not relax “one of the least of these commandments” and what’s more I must flee the false righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees that fails to satisfy the heart and the mind, that seeks to glorify self in our actions, that is self made, not reflective of a repentant and obedient heart.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The culture of control

“The yearning for control has become a kind of modern madness. Stressed and destabilised by the rate of change, we have been looking in the wrong place for a solution to our anxieties and insecurities.”

These are the words of Hugh Mackay from an edited version of a speech he gave recently as the Annual Oration to the Australian Psychological Society of which he is a fellow.

He suggests that the global financial crisis has once again reminded us that most things are out of our control, including “the greed of others; the slackening demand for our resources; the fragility of under-regulated capitalism”.

He suggests that the human tendency at such times is to “crave…stability and predictability…ritual and repetition”, and that as a result, many have tried to take ‘control’ of their personal lives and the world itself in varied ways:

  • Reinventing the institution of marriage.
  • Transforming the nature of family life (e.g. 25%of Australian families are now single-parent families).
  • Having less babies, hence sending the birthrate tumbling to an all time low;
  • changing the way we work (e.g. increased female participation; increased part-time work etc).
  • Adopting what he calls “positive action” – if we can't solve global environmental problems then “let's clean up the bush, paint the school, join a choir, buy a hybrid car”.
  • Retreating into their shells and disengaging – turning attention to the self, including an obsession with the body, home renovations, putting our children in the best schools to "control” them.
  • Supporting greater controls for government, the courts and law enforcement.
  • Embracing dogmatic and hard-line fundamentalism in many forms – “…religion, economics, environmentalism or medicine and psychology”.
  • Excellence or perfectionism – seeking the perfect marriage, the perfect wife, the perfect school for our children etc.
  • Happiness – some have put their focus on seeking the secret to happiness.
He suggests that “….we shouldn't be surprised that so many people feel as if they're trapped on a runaway train, or that our consumption of antidepressants has tripled in the past decade, or that about 25 per cent of young Australians are suffering serious psychological distress, or that the incidence of binge drinking and serious assault has increased markedly over this period.”

But…

While Hugh Mackay seems to have put his finger on lots of things that ring true for most of us, his suggestions as to how we might respond to this failure to control our world, fall well short of what is needed. Even in his suggested solution, he has demonstrated simply another hopeless attempt to control the world and our future. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun? (Ecc 1:2-3).


We toil generation after generation and yet all of life still seems meaningless and futile. As the Preacher writes later, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Ecclesiastes stresses again and again that we have little control over our future. There is little that is ours to command. As Derek Kidner points out in his commentary on Ecclesiastes:

….we cannot extrapolate from the present. Whether things are going well or ill, we have to take them as they come, knowing that the whole picture will change and go on changing. ‘God has made the one as well as the other’ – good times and bad – ‘so that man may not find out anything that will be after him’ (Ecc 7:14)

God is in control

Hugh Mackay, might have put his finger on the ongoing malady of humanity vainly attempting to control its world, but he fails to point to a meaningful solution. He would have done better to have looked for an answer in the biblical words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:11-14):

“11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.”


There are at least three things worth mentioning from this passage. First, that God's desire for us is that we might be secure in his love and power. While Hugh Mackay rightly points out that we are unable to control our world - health, careers, aging, the economy, your family, education, the ills of our world, global terrorism, global warming etc – he misses the point that we can be secure in the knowledge that God IS in control of his world. God has a plan for each of our lives; one that he has planned in advance. Paul of course knew what it was like to feel as if life was out of control. In Romans (8:35-36) he talks about the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and the threat of the sword. And yet, he knew that ultimately God was in control.

Second, note that God's ultimate purpose in sealing us with his Holy Spirit (v 13) and guaranteeing us an eternal inheritance is for “the praise of his glory and grace”. Our real purpose is not to serve our own good, to gain personal happiness and fulfilment, to change the world for good and so on; no, it is to bring glory to God.

Third, note that the people for whom God gives a guarantee are those who believe in his Son:

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit

In spite of the uncertainties of this world and our inability to control it, God is in control, and he wants us to feel secure in his love and power.

There is another biblical truth to keep in mind (and in balance) with the words of Paul to the Ephesians. It is that, as good as this life can be at times, even when it isn’t ours to control, living this life isn’t the purpose for which God made us. In the Apostle Peter’s first letter he calls on the people of God to live their lives on earth as if they “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), people who while living on earth for a time and bound for a heavenly eternity.

Hugh Mackay’s response to our inability to control our world falls well short of the biblical explanation of God’s purposes for us. Mackay’s solutions are still grounded in the futility of ‘chasing the wind’. His writes:

“The current obsession with control looks to me like a symptom of a deep unease in our society. The yearning for control is a cry for help. The most useful response to that cry is not to say, "Here's how to get your life under control" but to explain that the deepest sense of wellbeing springs not from mastery of our circumstances - let alone mastery of others - but from mastery of ourselves.”

This is an attempt to control one’s world in yet another form! Mackay, suggests that while we can’t control the world, we can gain new purpose by controlling ourselves! His solution is as follows:

“We need to shift our focus from control to participation and engagement; from resistance to adaptation; from an unhealthy utopianism to a more realistic acceptance of life's disorderliness, its irrationalities, its unpredictability, its disenchantments, as well as its joys, its gratifications and even its occasional small triumphs.”

This different form of human control won't work either. Self control won’t take the emptiness away from human hearts, or the fears and the uncertainties; only throwing yourself at the mercy of the God of the universe and accepting the free gift of grace and forgiveness that he offers in Jesus will do that. We were designed and made by God for a higher purpose than simply to live for a short time on this earth. Simply taking the good with the bad, as Mackay suggests, won't work either, we will still be chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes again helps us, as it teaches that God places some sense of eternity in our hearts:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)


There is no need to see God’s unfolding plans for his creation as scary, frustrating or unsettling (while we might experience these emotions at times), there is purpose and pattern in what God is ordaining. It is God given and it is for his praise and glory. For us the challenge is not that life is constantly out of control, but that we can only ever grasp part of the unfolding plans of God. Instead of chaos there is actually a divine purpose. In this life there will be joy and sorrow, fear and confidence, love and isolation, evil and good, a time to live and a time to die. The answer to coping with a world that seems out of control is to understand that it is actually in the control of God, and that he has an eternal a plan for those who trust in Christ. Paul similarly (in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10) tells us that in this life we will "groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling" (v2). We struggle as wait to leave our 'earthly home' for our true destination, an eternal home. It takes the Preacher in Ecclesiastes twelve chapters until he too reveals the answer to the futility of chasing the wind and of humanity's struggles to control the world:

“13The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc 12:13-14)

One day there will be death and judgement so drop our pretence of self-sufficiency and commit our lives to the creator and God of the universe.


You can read the Sydney Morning Herald edited version of Mackay's oration here

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Christ & Culture Revisited: A review

In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the classic book, Christ and Culture. He set out to address the tricky matter of how Christians deal with culture, relate to culture and are positioned in relation to culture. He suggested that there are five main patterns when describing the relationship: Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox; and Christ the Transformer of Culture. He outlined each in detail presenting their strengths and weaknesses and aiming to allow the reader to make up his or her mind about the option they felt made most sense.

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.
All of the above should signal where Carson next moves with his critique, an application of biblical theology. For the purposes of this post, biblical theology can be defined as the interpretation of Scripture that insists that any passage must been seen in relation to the great themes and turning points in redemptive history. The whole of Scripture points to God's redemptive plan in Christ. Carson begins his critique with a his own summary of the key turning points:

  • 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).
Carson concludes his important 2nd chapter with some quick reflections that shape much of the rest of the book. First, that biblical theology should control and shape our thinking about Christ and culture. This Carson suggests help to explain why Niebuhr has so much trouble domesticating Calvin and Augustine to one of his 5 categories. Carson comments:

“…..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.