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Book Review - Christ and Culture

Carson, D.A. Christ and Culture: Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2008.


D.A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and founder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition. He has edited and authored numerous books, including The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, and The Intolerance of Tolerance. He and his wife, Joy, have two children.


Summary

How does one be in the world but not of it? How do we balance dual citizenship; earthly and heavenly? Numerous passages in the New Testament speak about a coming kingdom that believers in Christ are part of. Jesus taught about living in the world during his earthly ministry, and addressed topics like taxes and governmental authority. How, then, do we as modern-day evangelicals synthesize this together and form a biblical worldview on culture? In Christ and Culture: Revisited, D.A. Carson addresses this topic through an evangelical lens to help guide the reader to a more comprehensive view of culture and Christianity. Carson revisits the classic work of H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, giving a summary of the five points offered by the author, then adding chapters that explore modern issues that Christians face, i.e. contemporary culture and postmodernism.


In chapter one, Carson defines culture and gives a summary of Niebuhr’s five points from his original work. After stating what he believes is not a good description of culture, Carson quotes Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions to provide a framework for which he will build on.

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand as conditioning elements of further action.[1](2)


After providing a definition for the reader to have, Carson begins to walk through the different viewpoints that Niebuhr gives. They are as follows; Christ against culture, The Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. Each of these views describes a relationship of Christ and culture, with different ideas and formations surrounding each. Niebuhr explores each view and contrasts some to the others. Of the five points, the only one that does not receive criticism is point five, Christ and culture in paradox. The absence of critique urges the reader to assume that Niebuhr holds to this position personally. “What is becoming obvious, is that Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within culture, namely Christ (however he is understood within the various paradigms of mainstream Christendom) and every other source of authority divested of Christ (though Niebuhr is thinking primarily of secular or civil authority rather than the authority claimed by competing religions).”(12) This is very helpful to the reader, because without that knowledge the rest of the work could seem disjointed.


The focus of the writer in chapter two is the viewpoint Christ and culture, as well as the impact of biblical theology on the topic. Carson also addresses Niebuhr’s handling of Scripture in some of the work, which he (Carson) believes are less than satisfactory. The author draws to question Niebuhr’s interpretation of the Gospel of John, in particular his statement that everything that is, is good. Carson argues, “But surely it would be more accurate to infer, ‘John could not say more forcefully that whatever the Logos originally made was good.’” (37) The writer then goes on to discuss that it is difficult for everyone to hold to a particular view of Christ and culture since there are multiple view. Immediately after this revelation, he goes on to say that if this viewpoint is the one that is correct, then Niebuhr must be modified. “Rather, we should be attempting a holistic grasp of the relations between Christ and culture, fully aware, as we make our attempt, that peculiar circumstances may call us to emphasize some elements in one situation, and other elements in another situation.” (43)


In chapter three, Carson writes on refining culture and redefining postmodernism, as well as addressing the emerging church. He details that the latter encompasses modern day life. “By contrast, postmodernism in America has become as sloganeering word that touches almost every human domain.” (88). There are many books, podcasts, and articles written on this topic and Carson directs attention to that. The end of the chapter Carson interacts with a book by James K.A. Smith that he takes issue with.[2] Carson accuses Smith of completely misrepresenting his work and uses several paragraphs to quote and express his disagreement.


Chapters four and five similarly deal with modern day issues including secularization, freedom, and church and state. Though they are not written together, I am including them as similar due to their topics. Carson contrasts secularization and secularism, defining the difference. “More precisely, secularization is the process that progressively removes religion from the public arena and reduces it to the private realm; secularism is the stance that endorses and promotes such a process.” (116) Freedom is a topic that Carson focuses on, writing that “it is easy to uncover ways in which the worship of freedom may actually displace the worship of God.” (129) I will give a more in-depth commentary on that later.

In the final chapter, Carson writes on different models of thinking through issues of Christ and culture, as well as navigating cultural Christianity. “My aim here is to survey a handful of common treatments of Christ and culture, to show why none of them, even the most insightful, should be allowed to control the discussion, and then to return to a comprehensive approach that allows a great deal of variation in emphasis.” (208)


Critical Evaluation

Christ and Culture: Revisited covers a very broad topic, and does so in a broad way. Sometimes the reader may feel that they are wading in deep water, and they are. Carson is known for academic writing, and he does not disappoint. The structure and organization that is presented is commendable and well formed. From the initial summary of the original, to adding his own views, the writer clearly communicates his intentions. That being the case, this book would be recommended for those who are willing to study and think deeply. Pastors and educators would benefit from reading this book, and those who might be more familiar with academic writing. To help with the discussion, and add to the readers knowledge, Carson offers many other books and resources to add to the discussion. This is very helpful for someone that is wanting to study the topic of culture more in depth. The Biblical aspect of Carson’s writing is strong, drawing from scripture to form his opinions. Carson writes clearly and passionately as he develops the form of his critiques and views.


Though not specifically addressed, the framework of Christ and Culture: Revisited, specifically in chapters four and five, seems to be focused geographically in North America. Though this is not a problem to the reader, it is interesting that it is not directly addressed, especially since the rest of the book is not focused the same way. Clarity to this could aid the reader in understanding the authors intent.


The section on worship of freedom in chapter four, Carson details the unique relationship of freedom in America and freedom in Christ, and that the former can hinder or even displace the latter. “It is easy to uncover ways in which the worship of freedom may actually displace the worship of God. Christ and culture may at some points snare common perspectives, but it is not hard to see how they are likely to clash.” (129) The writer is warning of an idolatrous nature that can take place if the desire for freedom becomes more than the desire for the Lord. The premise of this thought can be understandable, but can they not co-exist together? There is no argument that anything desired more than the Lord is idolatry, but a desire for freedom does not necessarily mean that idolatry is taking place. It seems that the writer is engaging in exactly what he was addressing as an issue with Niebuhr, that there is no room for in-between. It is either one or the other. As Christians, we are slaves to Christ, but a desire for freedom is not sinful. “The grand paradox inherent in such commitments falls right out of the Bible’s story line: that means our greatest freedom is to become slaves to Christ.” (139) Being a slave to Christ does not mean that one should not desire freedom.


One final thought on Christ and Culture: Revisited, is that while it is quite informational and formative on the topic of culture, there is little practical guidance on how Christians can apply what they have learned from the book. After drinking in so much, Carson could provide some direction on how to engage with the culture. How do we take head knowledge and apply to heart and hands? Of course, this would not have to be expansive, but having some practical application points could help to show the reader how to interact with culture using the knowledge learned from Carson. Doing so would be beneficial to the reader as they consider how to apply what they’ve read and engage with culture.


Conclusion

The topic of culture can be a vast well to drink from. It pulls from all areas of life, it changes, and it is hard to grasp. Though many write on the subject, there seems to be no definitive answer to how Christ and culture are to be interacted with. In Christ and Culture: Revisited, Carson provides a well thought out and executed explanation of what culture looks like. Though our culture may continually drive the topic of religion to be private, as Christians we are called to engage with culture and be light to the darkness around us. Finding the balance of interaction with culture is an ever-morphing task. With this help from Carson, we can think deeply and consider Christ and culture as we navigate the Faith in the public square. Even though the structure and content are heavy and deep, Carson successfully weaves together his views that help develop the topic of culture and the Christian life.

[1] Kroeber and Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, (New York: Random House, 1952), 357. [2] Smith, James K. A. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? (The Church and Postmodern Culture): Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (United States: Baker Publishing Group), 2006.

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