[K:NWTS 25/3 (December 2010) 46-52]

Book Review

D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. 243pp., Paper. ISBN: 0-8028-3174-5. $24.00.

In light of what seems an enormous contemporary interest among evangelicals in "influencing the culture for Christ"—consider the number of voices urging us to be engaged in the arts, politics, sports, and the like, not infrequently in reaction to earlier, "fundamentalist" prohibitions against such involvements—a book by a respected evangelical thinker on Christ and culture is no doubt a welcome thing.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and author of nearly fifty books on an impressive range of topics. His Christ and Culture Revisited is, as one might guess, a revisit of H. Richard Niebuhr's five models for seeing the relationship between Christ and culture, as set out in his famous 1951 work by that title. Carson's is also a revisit of the broader question of Christ and culture in general, dramatically changed as it is from Niebuhr's day.

It is changed largely for three reasons: (a) the Church today confronts, and, as a result of advancements in communication, knows itself to be confronting, not a single culture (Western, say), but vastly different cultures across the globe; (b) our modern, heightened sensitivity to the question of the superiority or inferiority of one culture as over against another, under the pressure, chiefly, of multiculturalism; and (c) a similar and related sensitivity to how the way we think about Christ and culture (and everything else) is governed by our own particular culture, that is, is "necessarily perspectival"—a sensitivity induced, or intensified, in no small part by postmodern relativism.

Carson begins with a discussion of the meaning of "culture" and settles, for general purposes, on the definition of Clifford Geertz: "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 attitude towards life" (2).

As for the meaning of "Christ" in Niebuhr's thinking: "the sweep of the interpretations of 'Christ' that he embraces is doubtless too broad, if one is trying to limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture. As a result, certain elements of his understanding of the possibilities of the relationship between Christ and culture should, I think, be ruled out of court, where they are decisively shaped by a frankly sub-biblical grasp of who Christ is" (10).

But all of that, important as it is, is prolegomena. Soon enough Carson gets to the main subject, Niebuhr's "fivefold paradigm." And although Niebuhr's Christ and Culture is almost sixty years old, "it is difficult, at least in the English-speaking world, to ignore him. His work, for good or ill, has shaped much of the discussion" (xi). Nonetheless, says Carson, it is not without its flaws. Its five options—(1) Christ against Culture, (2) The Christ of Culture, (3) Christ above Culture, (4) Christ and Culture in Paradox, and (5) Christ the Transformer of Culture—thus come in for two chapters of review and critique.

Carson takes aim principally at Niebuhr's handling of Scripture, as it bears on his paradigm. Though Niebuhr's is "a commendable attempt to ground his configuration in the foundation documents of the Christian faith," his attempt "fails in certain respects." Niebuhr's second option (The Christ of Culture), for instance, according to Carson, "is certainly found in historical movements" (those indebted to Schleiermacher, F. D. Maurice, or Albrecht Ritschl, the "cultural Christians" of nineteenth century classical theological liberalism), but these movements are "of doubtful Christian authenticity and have no warrant in the Bible"; and the fifth (Christ the Transformer of Culture) "is found in restricted forms in the New Testament, but certainly not in the strong form Niebuhr would like to see adopted" (40).

The larger problem for Carson, however, is Niebuhr's understanding of the way the Scriptural canon works, again, as he sees it in support of his categories. Niebuhr, says Carson, takes the view that "the Bible in general, and the New Testament in particular, provides us with a number of discrete paradigms. We are being faithful to Scripture so long as we align our choices with any one of these paradigms, or perhaps even with some combination of them." Which is to say that, for Niebuhr, "the canon's 'rule' is . . . not so much in the totality of the canon's voice, as in providing the boundaries of the allowable paradigms" (41-42). Thus is it possible, in faithfulness to Scripture (according to Niebuhr), to choose between his five options.

Not so for Carson. Although he acknowledges the diversity of the Bible's modes of presentation, its variety of genres, it is the Bible as a whole that constitutes the canon—"and this canon's 'rule' lies in the totality of the canon's instruction, not in providing a boundary to possible options" (41). So it is, in Carson's judgment, that "we should not think of each pattern in Niebuhr's fivefold scheme as warranted by individual documents in the New Testament, such that we have the option to pick and choose which pattern we prefer, assured that all are equally encompassed by the canon that warrants them individually. 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).

What Carson means by "a holistic grasp of the relations between Christ and culture" is a comprehensively Scriptural view that incorporates "all the major biblically determined turning points in the history of redemption: creation, fall, the call of Abraham, the exodus and the giving of the law, the rise of the monarchy and the rise of the prophets, the exile, the incarnation, the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the onset of the kingdom of God, the coming of the Spirit and the consequent ongoing eschatological tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet,' the return of Christ and the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth" (81).

This insistence on assessing the relationship of Christ and culture (indeed most things) in terms of a "canon-stipulated vision" is the fulcrum upon which the whole of Carson's discussion turns. It is where he begins and ends and stands throughout. It shows up over and over again. As regards Niebuhr's options, then, it must be asked: "Do the biblical texts offer these types as alternatives that believers are welcome to choose or reject? Or are they embedded in a still larger and more cohesive understanding of the relationship between Christ and culture, such that the four or five options of Niebuhr's typology should be thought of as nothing more than possible emphases within a more comprehensive integrated whole? If the latter, then Christians do not have the right to choose one of the options in the fivefold typology as if it were the whole. The name of that game is reductionism" (206).

Further: "It can be shown that Niebuhr's five options tend to emphasize a selection of these biblical-theological turning points and downplay others. For example, the second option, 'the Christ of culture,' talks happily about the goodness of creation but seriously downplays the fall and its entailments. On the whole, Niebuhr's discussion is thin with respect to the fact that current relations between Christ and the church [did Carson mean "the culture"?] can be properly perceived only in light of eternity, of a hell to be feared and a new heaven and new earth to be gained. All of these turning points must be held together all of the time as we try to think constructively and holistically about the relation between Christ and culture" (206, italics in original).

In other words, Niebuhr is not genuinely biblical enough, and is perhaps out of date—especially in an age of violent persecution of the Church in places such as Cambodia or Sudan where "Christians in such environments do not spend a lot of time contemplating Niebuhr's typology." That does not mean of course that Christians in those environments think only in terms of "Christ against culture." It does mean, though, that "the reality turns out to be more complex" than that covered by Niebuhr's scheme (223). Moreover, useful as such schemes might be, "thoughtful Christians need to adopt an extra degree of hesitation about canonizing any of them in an age in which we are learning the extent to which our own cultural location contributes, for better or for worse, to our understanding of these theological matters, as of all theological matters" (224).

Where, then, does that leave us? What should be the Christian's and the Christian community's position in relation to culture? If none of Niebuhr's options, by itself, suffices to explain or guide, what does?

The situation in which we find ourselves is complex, says Carson, and our response to the culture paradoxical. We can be neither fundamentalists nor liberals. A "canon-stipulated vision" will "embrace the exclusive claims of Christ and the uniqueness of the church as the locus of redeeming grace, and yet it will demand of believers that they recognize their creaturely existence in this old, fallen creation and reflect on the ubiquitous commands not only to love God but also to love their neighbors as themselves. Instead of imagining that Christ against culture and Christ transforming culture are two mutually exclusive stances, the rich complexity of biblical norms, worked out in the Bible's story line, tells us that these two often operate simultaneously." Hence, "to 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 will, ironically, help us to be far more flexible than the inflexible grids that are often made to stand in the Bible's place" (226-27, italics in original). In this way "we will live in the tension of claiming every square inch for King Jesus, even while we know full well that the consummation is not yet, that we walk by faith and not by sight, and that the weapons with which we fight are not the weapons of the world (2 Corinthians 10:4)" (228). And even though a Christian worldview will almost certainly produce a way of life opposed to the world's, Christians must live in the world as salt and light (143-44). The opposition, furthermore, is inherent: "believers constitute a separate community distinguishable from the common culture" (165), and, at the extreme, "where opposition, persecution, and even martyrdom await Christians with any pubic face, expansive chatter about theoretically ideal models of possible relations between Christ and culture is little more that speculative farce" (194).

That is the core of Carson's brief: a critique of Niebuhr's typology from a "biblically holistic" point of view and the way in which Niebuhr can be applied, or not, to the current situation, plus broad biblical guidelines for the Christian's and the Christian Church's role in the culture. Along the way Carson takes on a number of other topics pertinent to the prosecution of his case. In sorting out the meaning of "culture," for instance, he finds himself needing to establish (contra certain modern commentators) that there really is such a thing to talk about. He argues (contra postmodernism) that, as regards God, we can in fact know something about him; there is truth out there, even though we might not grasp it all or any of it perfectly. He is unambiguous in his defense of propositional truth and of truth-without-quotation-marks, vis--vis, again, postmodernism and the claims of the so-called emerging church. All of chapter five is a useful comment on "Church and State" as that relationship is part of the larger discussion, and includes thoughtful reflections on the significance of Islam for that discussion. But even there, his point is "to demonstrate through this optic, one more time, that choosing one of Niebuhr's models is an exercise in reductionism" (145).

While reminding us at length of the dangers of secularism, power, and the worship of democracy and freedom, the last two being traps into which patriotic American Christians might be prone to fall, Carson is not timid about labeling as "left-wing" certain "social agendas that relativize all values and all religious claims, except for the dogmatic claim that all such values are to be relativized" (77); as "off-beat" those interpretations of Scripture that contend that "all doctrinal matters are 'open,' and therefore that rigorous biblical theology is impossible, and therefore that biblically based worldview formation is impossible" (83); or as reflecting "almost laughably poor research" those books (there are a number) of the "secular far left" that attempt to tie all evangelical and conservative convictions to "theocratic authoritarianism" (184-85). No drudge for political, or theological, correctness here.

Conspicuously absent from Carson's study, though, is comment on the New Testament's virtual silence on the subject of culture. I know, for a start, of no English concordance where the word occurs. One thinks of C. S. Lewis's remark, "On the whole, the New Testament seemed, if not hostile, yet unmistakably cold to culture. I think we can still believe culture to be innocent after we have read the New Testament; I cannot see that we are encouraged to think it important" ("Christianity and Culture," Christian Reflections, 15).

Granted that Lewis is using "culture" to mean (as he tells us) "intellectual and aesthetic activity"; granted also that that is too limited a definition for Carson's purposes ("culture" for him would include such "high culture" but, as we saw, not be restricted to it)—still, it seems, since Carson's (and Niebuhr's) subject is Christ and culture, that the Scripture's silence, if only its failure to use the word (in any sense), might be an interesting and useful place to begin.

Similarly the New Testament's, in particular Paul's, view of "the world," is almost always negative—but, except for minimal treatment in the chapter on church and state, hardly dealt with here. While "culture" and "world" may not be interchangeable, they often connote, especially perhaps in the ordinary Christian mind, much the same thing. As the juxtaposition "Church and state" is not the same juxtaposition as "Christ and culture," but germane to it, so in my estimation might "the world" and its connection to "culture" merit consideration as well.

Nevertheless, the book can and should be read (as Carson himself recommends) as "a meditation on how a robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against the most egregious reductionisms" (82), Niebuhr's not least.

Carson makes that point well; and although he makes it perhaps too often—the book, for my tastes, could have been tighter and therefore shorter—he does make the point. Given Niebuhr's nearly iconic status, not to mention the importance of the topic, it is a point worth making. Carson's reflections on the Christian response to culture in the contemporary world, as well as those on postmodernism and Islam, are likewise helpful.

—Richard A. Riesen