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.