Carson, D. A. 2008. Christ and culture revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
Carson, who is a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, has written nearly fifty books. The audience for this book seems to be Carson’s theological peers, for its style is dense and the arguments difficult to follow without a good reading of Niebuhr, some understanding of French and Greek, and an interest in pursuing sources found in the footnotes.
Fifty books by Carson is a fitting figure, for it is over fifty years since Niebuhr first wrote Christ and Culture, the classic book that Carson explicates in the first two chapters, and refers to throughout the book.
In Chapter one, Carson invites us to think about culture, drawing extensively on Niebuhr and his book on the relationship between Christ and culture. To do so requires an examination of what “culture” means today, so Carson provides a preliminary definition as “the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population.” He briefly notes the contributions of anthropologists such as Kroeber, Kluckholn and Geertz, but examines closely that of Niebuhr: “Culture is the ‘artificial, secondary environment’ which man superimposes on the natural” (p.11). Niebuhr associates culture with ‘the world’ and therefore pits Christ against culture, in his first pattern. However, as Carson points out, even “The most radical Christians inevitably make use of the culture, or parts of the culture” (p.15).
A second pattern is to see the Christ of culture, who is in charge of all things, a position that is attractive to Niebuhr because “it does not make him seem as alien as the first position does” (p. 18). Carson mentions a number of men who seemed to hold this position: for example, Abelard, Emerson, Jefferson, Kant, Locke, Maurice, Ritschl and Schleiermacher–all listed in the index. The third pattern is Christ above culture, where Christ’s sovereignty is as distinct over culture as it is over the church. A number of early church leaders adopted this “synthesist” view, such as Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr and Thomas Aquinas. The fourth pattern of Niebuhr is Christ and culture in paradox, represented by Augustine, Kierkegaard, Luther, Marcion and the apostle Paul. The final template in Niebuhr’s fivefold pattern is Christ as the transformer of culture, with Augustine (again), Calvin, Kuyper, Maurice, Niebuhr (possibly) and Wesley as exemplars.
Carson’s critique of Niebuhr relates to his handling of the Scripture, his assignment of historical figures to his patterns, the position of the canon, and his views of creation, the fall, and Christ and the New Covenant. Carson comments in detail and finds fault with Niehbur’s views on each of these points.
Chapter three discusses “Refining culture and redefining postmodernism” and claims that all considerations on culture today have abandoned the ‘high culture’ (Christ above culture) approach. Carson draws on the linguistic analogy of how a speaker’s competence is different than his performance, questioning if this follows in culture and society. However, a person performs in culture according to his standing in a community and not, as in language performance, as an individual, indicating the need for a “complex, subtle, and flexible” approach to cultures. For, as Carson indicates, any evaluation of culture depends on a set of values and, from the Christian perspective, all in culture not attached to God is evil. All cultures benefit from common grace but “some cultural stances are more reprehensible than others” (p. 73) and one’s values provide an assessment of the stances. Carson claims that the evil in societies is pervasive and that “we human beings can corrupt the unity [of language] and turn it into rebellion, and we can corrupt the diversity and turn it into war” (p. 74).
Christians are only a part of any culture, with changes that are brought about by “fresh immigration, international events, economic trends, educational trends, the popularity of various political and economic ideas, developments in the media, pop entertainmentÉ and much more” (p. 77). Modern culture has values of diversity, tolerance, freedom and equality, but non–Christian define these from a perspective where creation and sin are ignored. Carson follows with a sweeping discussion and evaluation of present day postmodernism, concluding “If an unchastened postmodernism extends its claims toward raw relativism and denies the possibility of knowing the big picture, it is not only idolatrous and anti–Christian but borders on the self–refuting and the silly” (p. 94). He notes that “A worldview is comprehensive only in the sense that it tries to view the whole” and, of course, no worldview does. However, some of the holistic parameters it must include are questions of deity, origin, significance, evil, salvation and telos (why we are here).
Chapter four speaks to the cultural forces of secularism, democracy, freedom, and power. All of these tend to squeeze the religious out of life, yet all are considered “progress” and form their own set of ethics. Carson provides examples of how the mystiques of democracy and freedom have failed us–with wars, injustices, manipulative politics, foreign policy, pornography, and so on. This is not surprising, given that “theological considerations cannot be admitted into the reasonings of any voters” (p. 131) because religion is supposed to be private while secular values are not. Examining the notion of power Carson associates “rampant consumerism” (p. 141) in particular with a lust for self–promotion and wealth.
Church and state is the theme in Chapter five, tracing the development of the concepts through history to the present day great divide established in the U.S. Carson provides some Biblical priorities for the relationship between church and state (as well as the Constitution), focusing on “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17) and obeying government authorities from Romans 13. Carson discusses both, which leads to some understanding on what Christian’s can expect–opposition and persecution. Following Christ will lead to restricted confrontation because secular interests have marginalized Christ in our culture. In his “Concluding Reflections” on the chapter, Carson differentiates the relationship between Christians and the state on the one hand and religion and the state on the other. As he says, we are often “snookered into confusing the kingdom of God with our own government or party” (p. 196). Carson quotes Richard John Neuhaus by concluding that “Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all: every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ” (p. 203).
The final chapter is a summary of what went on the previous chapters, so it can (perhaps should) be read first. It also includes a survey of the “common treatments of Christ and culture” (p. 207), investigating fundamentalists, Luther and his heirs, Abraham Kuyper, as well as “post–Christian perspectives” (p. 2i8). In the latter case, Christ is legitimized, humanized, or transforms culture. Carson fittingly sums up the problem by quoting C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity), where, in the final sentence Lewis says “You cannot have good men by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.” (p. 235).
I have only sampled what Carson has to say. He gives philosophical discussion and detail about church and state, democracy, epistemology (mostly postmodernism), freedom of religion, eschatology, modernism, pacifism, social improvement, the sovereignty of God, and worldview. Each topic deserves considerably more study that I have given them. However, I hope have presented enough from his book to show not only that a serious reading of Niebuhr is compulsory to follow Carson’s arguments in any detail, but an understanding of theological history is also necessary. His observations on culture and anthropology are helpful and missionaries should be able to follow them with ease.
Karl Franklin, May 2009