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Christ and Culture Revisited Hardcover – April 1, 2008
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— Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington D.C.
"Don Carson here writes clearly, carefully, and helpfully about the timely topic of how Christians should engage culture. Well-suited to write such a volume, Carson exposes and explodes ‘egregious reductionisms' which he says too often afflict Christians. We can't reduce the relationship of Christ and culture to one model (Niebuhrian or otherwise). Reading this book has sharpened my own understanding. So buy the book you're holding. Read it. Pass it along to folks in your congregation. And reduce ‘egregious reductionisms'!“"
— Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City
"There is no more crucial issue facing us today than the relationship of the church and the gospel to contemporary culture. Don Carson's treatment of this issue is the most balanced one out there. Rather than grinding an ax or pushing his own paradigm, he listens carefully to the Scripture and brings us in the end to a sophisticated simplicity about these matters. I highly recommend this book.“"
"Make room on the shelf for this penetrating book by Carson. . . Carson engages with a stunning range of writers and texts. (Five Stars). "
Equip to Disciple
“A valuable resource to help us think and live more consistently with God’s will.”
“This work is a cogently argued exploration of an evangelical Christian approach to the relationship of church and U.S. society. . . . A valuable contribution to the national discussion in the United States of ‘public theology’.”
“A fine overview and criticism of contemporary Protestant efforts to get the Christ-culture connection right.”
About the Author
D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He has written nearly fifty other books, including The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism and How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil.
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Top Customer Reviews
Christ against Culture,
Christ of Culture,
Christ above Culture,
Christ and Culture in Paradox, and
Christ the Transformer of Culture.
D.A. Carson's, "Christ and Culture Revisited," critiques Niebuhr, and offers a more thoughtful and orthodox path forward. It is an excellent bird's eye view of a contentious topic, painted with broad but well-researched strokes. In this review I describe its six chapters, draw out the, "takeaway," ideas, insert a few notes, and give my overall thoughts.
Chapter 1 explains and reviews Niebuhr's, "Christ and Culture." Niebuhr's categories cast a fairly wide net, and Carson's analysis begins to narrow it. He argues that at least one category (Christ of Culture) necessitates a heretical view of Christianity, and as such is not acceptable as a category.
Chapter 2 continues critiquing Niebuhr by applying biblical theology. Carson evaluates Niebuhr's strengths and weaknesses, handling of Scripture, assignment of historical figures, and understanding of canon. He also makes a key argument; to suggest that there are multiple views of Christ and Culture and that individual groups can rightly choose just one is incorrect. This limiting of oneself to a single theme of Scripture (such as, say, appreciating God as Creator but not as Redeemer) is an affront to the wholesale acceptance of the historical-Biblical perspective. It is akin to saying you are eating a Caesar salad when really you are just eating lettuce (my metaphor).
Carson then shows that a true paradigm for understanding Christ and Culture must necessarily accept a "bundle" of clear Scriptural perspectives. This bundle includes;
Creation and Fall,
Israel and the Law,
Christ and New Covenant, and
Heaven and Hell.
Any paradigm that does not include or proportionally mishandles these perspectives is inherently flawed and inconsistent with orthodox Christianity.
Chapter 3 will be familiar to those who follow Carson's work, but frustrating to those who do not. As in many of his other lectures and writings, he spends considerable time interacting with his critics. This chapter could easily be skipped by the curious layman, because it is mostly technical discussion of the definitions for culture and postmodernism. However, it is a good chapter for those who want to understand the technical issues caught up with this type of critique, and have strong background in the debates surrounding these terms.
Chapter 4 discusses four major forces that impact and at times bend or challenge our understanding of Christ's role in culture. These four forces are the lure of secularization, the mystique of democracy, the worship of freedom, and the lust for power. The chapter seems primarily designed to be thoughtful about the many problems at work in designing a universally helpful understanding of Christ and Culture.
Chapter 5 tries to deal with one of the largest issues in the Christ and Culture issue; that of church and state. Once again, it seems to be a whirlwind tour of the major concepts that are tossed around when Christians try to plunge into this issue.
The first section deals with the disclarity regarding the terms, "religion," "church," and, "state." The second section then describes some biblical priorities for relationships between Church and State. It discusses Opposition and Persecution, Restricted Confrontation, Differing Fundamental Allegiances, Different Styles of Government and Reign, Transformation of Life and Therefore Social and Governmental Institutions, and In the End Jesus Wins.
Chapter 6 closes the discussion with three steps. First, he summarizes the argument of the book as a whole. Second, he discusses some of the disappointed agendas and frustrated utopias of various Christian groups. This includes The Fundamentalist Option, Luther and His Heirs, Abraham Kuyper, Minimalist Expectations, Post-Christendom Perspectives, and Persecution. The third and final step is the Conclusion.
The Conclusion, though short, ties all the themes and discussions together with his central thesis, alluded to throughout the book. To correctly discern the relationship between Christ and Culture, Christians must, "...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..." (p. 227) Carson's desire for fidelity to Scripture and willingness to reform to that end is very apparent.
There are three helpful concepts that can be drawn from this book.
First, Niebuhr's five views of Christ and Culture cast too wide a net. They allow for disproportional and even heretical views of Christianity. A truly biblical view of the relationship between Christ and Culture cannot allow paradigms that are unfaithful to the Biblical witness.
Second, a view of Christ and Culture must be flexible enough to fit and interact with a massive variety of contextual problems and situations. In other words, if the Gospel is true, then a right view of Christ and Culture must give right guidance both to the rich American and the poor African, the persecuted Chinese and the free South Korean.
Third, right understanding of the Christ and Culture interaction in a local context is promoted by a commitment to biblical theology. In other words, Christians rightly handle the Christ and Culture problem when their actions in local context flow directly from a healthy and proportional acceptance of the key claims of Scripture.
This book is terrific, and its conclusions are enormously helpful. That said, it is fast and furious- Carson does not go out of his way to explain the wide-ranging theological, philosophical, and political topics he interacts with. He gives plenty of books to consider for those interested, but this is not a detailed analysis so much as a call to a more Scriptural framework for analyzing Christ and Culture in local context. I would recommend the book primarily for pastors, educators, and those with interest in political philosophy. A background in history, theology, law, or political science would be especially helpful.
Ultimately, Carson's book calls for Biblical faithfulness when we make choices. Should we be more or less involved in culture? Can a Christian go into politics? Should we try to transform culture with Christian art or withdraw by homeschooling our kids? What are the duties of the local church in regards to poverty? To government?
Carson leaves these choices to those in individual context, but challenges them to make sure their choices align correctly with a proportional, faithful exposition of the implications of Scripture's Truth. It is a worthwhile challenge.
The result was his famous fivefold reply: Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox; and Christ the Transformer of Culture. Each of these models he describes in detail, and he notes both strengths and weaknesses to the five options. He suggests that believers will have to make up their own minds as to which is the preferred option.
In Carson's new volume he seeks to carry on from where Niebuhr left off. He begins by assessing his work and the five models. He rightly notes that for Niebuhr the real issue is not so much how Christianity relates to culture, but "two sources of authority as they compete within society, namely Christ ... and every other source of authority divested of Christ". And Niebuhr is especially thinking of secular or civil authority here, Carson reminds us.
Carson also notes some weaknesses in Niebuhr's important volume. He did a good job of aligning various historical figures with the five models, but sometimes the fit is far from precise. For example, while Augustine or Calvin may well fit in the transformationist model, they do so only partially. And Tertullian cannot consistently be seen as fitting in the opposition ("against") model. And so on.
Carson then discusses the biblical plotline, and what are some nonnegotiable elements of the biblical worldview. He rightly notes that we do very much have a responsibility to our surrounding culture. Believers have a relationship with God "in the context of embodied existence". Indeed, as image bearers of God, we have "responsibilities toward the rest of the created order - responsibilities of governance and care".
He discusses the fall and sin, and the call of Israel. But he notes that with the arrival of Christ, something new entered human affairs: "up to that point in history, religion and state were everywhere intertwined". This was just as true of Israel as with the surrounding pagan nations.
But when Jesus announced that we should "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" he initiated a whole new paradigm. Prior to Jesus there were no genuinely secular states. All nations were involved with gods. Jesus was the first to highlight that there are two separate and distinct realms here. They of course overlap, but are not identical.
Thus there has always being - even if imperfectly - church-state divisions within Christendom. Islam of course has never known this dichotomy, nor does it want to. And Carson reminds us that in the words of Jesus we have real differentiation between Caesar and God. However, Jesus intended that God should have the pre-eminence.
Of course how all that fleshes itself out in the daily life of both individuals and nations is the big question - the sort of question that Niebuhr sought to address. And that is what Carson seeks to further explore in this book.
Other theological givens must inform our thinking on this issue. For example, the now commonly accepted understanding of believers "living between the times" comes into play here. We live between the inauguration of Christ's kingdom, and its consummation. Thus we live in both the old age and the new age, and tensions abound.
In the light of this biblical truth, believers should neither expect utopia on earth, nor settle for corrupt and unjust rule. We can fight for justice, although realising that perfection can never be achieved in a fallen world. Our ideals must be tempered by realism.
Carson examines other issues, such as the postmodern understanding of culture. In contrast to the cultural relativism that characterises postmodern thought, Carson argues that biblical motifs regarding culture must be adhered to. These include the awareness that there is a mixture of good and evil in every culture, and that all cultures ultimately stand under the judgment of God.
Of course the biblical belief in, and understanding of, absolute and universal moral truth makes it possible for us to evaluate and assess every culture. We can determine, albeit imperfectly, how close to, or how far away from, a culture is in relation to God's moral standards.
Carson also devotes substantial chapters to the concepts of freedom, democracy, secularism, church and state relationships, and power. Democracy, for example, is a great good, but it is not the Kingdom of God, and is limited in many ways. A healthy democracy depends upon a shared set of values and beliefs. But when this unity is frayed, then democracies tend to unravel. And as democracies disintegrate, stronger and more intrusive state powers are needed to hold things together.
With the West quickly abandoning its Judeo-Christian roots, there seems to be little on the horizon to takes its place in terms of holding a nation together with a common core of beliefs and values. As people in a democracy increasingly disagree on what is the good or what it means to be free, the state steps in more and more, and people become less free.
The only real check to unrestrained statism and state power is the biblical notion that God alone is the ultimate authority, and no man-made authority should overstep it bounds. "The doctrine of God reminds us that we are not ultimate: God is" says Carson. And the "doctrine of creation tells us that we are not our own: we are responsible to the One who made us".
In the end, says Carson, Christianity cannot be reduced to merely privatised religion, and we have obligations to both the state and the surrounding culture. But a Christian's ultimate loyalties are with God, and he must be preeminent in everything.
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