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:
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.
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.
Those familiar with the theological debates regarding Christ and Culture will, no doubt, be familiar with Richard Niebuhr’s classic work Christ and Culture. Largely developed through reflection on historical patterns of and postures toward cultural engagement, Christ and Culture offered an insightful synthesis as well as a new typology. Niebuhr constructed a five-fold approach to Christian engagement with culture. Unfortunately, these five approaches (Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ against culture, Christ transformer of culture, Christ above culture) have not made their way into common Christian parlance or practice (though Christians typically embrace one of the positions).
Most scholars have recognized that, instead of selecting just one posture towards culture, a more complex approach is necessary, requiring that we employ a combination of the views presented by Niebuhr. Simply put, there are things in our cultures that Christ is against, others he is for, and still more that he wants to transform.
I have eagerly been anticipating D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, which is hitting bookstores soon. Carson revisits Niebuhr’s classic work, applauding it for its many strengths. However, he also brings a much needed perspective to the discussion of Christ and Culture, that of biblical theology. Advocating reliance upon biblical paradigms for cultural engagement, Carson draws upon the rich resources of biblical theology for an alternative typology. In addition, he seeks to apply this typology to some contemporary cultural issues.
Click here to preview the preface and table of contents.