Tag: Christ and culture

Spending for our Worth

Everyone knows that American culture has become a consumer culture. There’s certainly more to American culture, but one of our greatest contributions to the world has been consumerism. Instead of supplying our markets with oil and food, the U.S. has become a net importer of gas and food.[1] What are we then exporting? All kinds of products. Coca-Cola serves a billion people a day worldwide and Hollywood produces 9 out of 10 most watched movies in the world.[2] Domestic markets are saturated with products. We are bombarded with commercials and marketing from cell phones to elevators. And with the help of competitive prices, Craig’s List, and Ebay, we can determine our lifestyle and image—rich and luxurious, hip and urban, or whatever.

With a seemingly infinite array of consumer options, many of us have come to believe that what we buy is what we are worth. Now, we would never say that out loud or put it on our T-shirt but we have come to subtly believe the lie that what we own determines our identity. Many of us live as if acquiring stuff makes us more significant. We spend for our worth, thousands and thousands of dollars on stuff—cars, clothes, gadgets—because we have believed the lie that what we have is determines our worth.

Now, we don’t think this: “If I go buy a new car, even if it’s not the best use of my money, I will be worth more.” But we silently believe it. We believe that the image that the new car, outfit, haircut, or computer creates will give us more meaning, more social acceptance, more individual and cultural worth. In a m word, more “image”. Sure, sometimes it’s just honest shopping. But many times its not. Many of us believe this lie so much that we are willing to rack up ridiculous debt on our credit cards in order to maintain a certain lifestyle and image based on what we own. Ahh, then people around us will look on and accept us…as we continue to spend for our worth.

(quotations taken from David Wells recent ETS journal article)

[1] Clyde Prestowitz, Three Billion New Capitalists, 150-63.

[2] Hunter and Yates, “In the Vanguard of Globalization,” The World of American Globalizers, 324.

Reviewing Christ & Culture Revisited (Chp 2)

My review of the first chapter of Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited is here. Onto the second chapter…

A Biblical-theological Critique?

I have anticipated this chapter for some time. It is close to 40 pages long, so I will review it in two different posts. The second chapter of CCR explores the promise and critique of Biblical Theology as it pertains to Niebuhr’s Christ and culture paradigm. Carson commends Niebuhr for using Scripture to support his paradigm but also critiques him on the basis of Biblical theology. Carson notes that Niebuhr tends to identify and universalize certain Christ and Culture positions with certain biblical authors. For instance, the Gospel of John and the incarnation become paradigmatic for Christ Transformer of culture (John 1). However, as Carson points out, John’s gospel also advocates other paradigms, such as the Christ against culture (i.e., Jesus as judge of the world). Carson claims that Niebuhr too easily makes biblical authors synonymous with certain Christ and culture positions (41). This claim should be qualified. Niebuhr plainly states that John advocates both Christ transformer and Christ against culture positions in his writings. Niebuhr writes:

They (conversionist motifs) are suggested in the First Letter of John; but are accompanied there by so many references to the darkness, transitoriness, and lovelessness of the world on the one hand, and to the distinction of the new community from the old on the other, that the tendency of this document seems to be toward exclusive Christianity. (196)

When referring to conversionist elements in the gospel of John he calls them “motifs,” which indicates that he is not reducing John’s gospel to a “Christ Transformer of Culture” position. Commenting on the gospel of John he writes: “…it is accompanied there also by a separatist note.” In other words, Niebuhr has room for “conflicting” Christ and culture positions within a single author and single book of the Bible. He is not so “anti-biblical theology” as Carson makes him out to be. Nevertheless, the biblical theology critique will bear more fruit.

And yet here is a real concern. Many who read Carson will not have read Niebuhr nor will they read him, and if you are reading this, read Niebuhr! 🙂 Carson’s summaries and critiques are good but not gold. They fall short and are unfounded in some places. Don’t take my word, Carson’s or Niebuhr’s word; do the hard work of thinking this all through for yourself because your posture towards culture has everything to do with Christ and following Jesus.

Review of Carson's Christ & Culture Revisited

Anyone interested in the theological intersection of Christ and culture should be familiar with Richard Niebuhr’s 50’s classic, Christ and Culture, which bequeathed the familiar Christ and Culture typology to Christians of the Western world. In a follow up work, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson recently published Christ and Culture Revisited, a deliberate reassessment of Niebuhr’s work.

Carson’s work is thoughtful, well-reasoned and, at times, compelling. The relationship between Christ, culture, and the church are of uppermost personal interest. I recently wrote a practical article that focused on equipping the church to think critically and redemptively about culture. However, I am equally interested in the more theological foundations for cultural engagement. All that to say, I can’t resist reviewing Carson’s book! So here goes chapter one:

Defining Culture

In chapter one, Carson appropriately launches his book by establishing a working definition of culture. After citing various sources (Geertz not the least), he settles into a definition of culture that recognizes both the ideological and the material aspects of culture, e.g. “the shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact” (Redfield). Culture deals in ideas and materials, beliefs and behaviors. With the meaning of culture established, Carson makes plain that his intent is to: “focus on how we should be thinking about the relations between Christ and culture now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” He then lists six factors that guide his line of inquiry. In summary, they include: the work of Niebuhr, multiculturalism, and cultural relativity.

Pressing into Niebuhr, Carson takes the high ground by meeting Niebuhr on his own authorial turf, citing Christ and Culture extensively. He summarizes the five positions offered by Niebuhr (Christ vs. Culture, of Culture, above Culture, and Culture, transformer of Culture). These summaries are indeed summaries, which may be unclear to readers who are not familiar with Niebuhr’s work. Though I have read Niebuhr, I found Carson’s review of the Christ of Culture position especially fuzzy (16-20).

Carson then turns to critique Niebuhr’s definition of culture because it includes beliefs and religion (12). In other words, Carson finds Niebuhr’s definition contradictory because he is calling for a Christocentric perspective on culture, when culture includes Christianity by definition. I could be misreading Carson, but I do not detect a contradiction here. There are many Christianities but there is only one Christ. Carson seems to assume that there is a monolithic, un-enculturated Christian faith but that is impossible. Every expression of the gospel of Christ is expressed in and through cultural forms, which is one of the greatest strengths of the Christian faith over and against other major religions, like Islam, which subdues its target culture, imposing Islamic culture and belief wherever it has historically gone.

Niebuhr’s Christology

Positively, Carson levels a solid critique on Niebuhr’s christology: “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.” In my next post, I will consider Carson’s contribution of the impact of biblical theology on the issues of Christ and culture.