Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Live With Eternity Not Far Away"

Book Review: Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2008)

D.A. Carson's point of departure for this book is H.Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, published some fifty years ago and still regarded in some circles as a classic. One need not have read the Niebuhr volume to appreciate Carson's work since he provides a summary of it and a fairly extensive critique of what he sees as the weaknesses of Niebuhr's position. In Christ and Culture Niebuhr proposed a typology of ways of understanding the relationship between Christianity and culture: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, the Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture.
Much has happened since Niebuhr. Not only is there now a vast literature on what culture is but there is now much uncertainty as to what Christianity is and, finally, whether truth exists. Carson finds Niebuhr's work now completely outdated because it is too simplistic. For Carson, Niebuhr's typology is too neat and does not recognize the fact that in relating to culture the Church will find herself making use of all of Niebuhr's types simultaneously. Carson's fundamental criticism of Niebuhr, however, is that he is insufficiently informed by the full range of biblical theology and therefore tends to be weak on the "Christ" aspect of "Christ and culture". Carson's case is well made drawing as he does on his own substantial work in the area of New Testament studies.
But Carson is not simply interested in correcting Niebuhr; he is quite clear about the fact that no scholar will ever write the one book which will forever settle the issue simply because our culture is changing so rapidly. The chief interest here is to begin thinking about how the Church should relate to the culture shaped by democratic capitalism with its incessant technological innovation and increasing relativism.
Carson's position is not easily summarized because he ranges over a large area and interacts with a vast body of literature. But his concerns are fairly clear. He is concerned that unless the Church is committed to the basic narrative of Scripture, she will end up simply being overcome by culture and effecting little or no change. For him, the basic narrative of Scripture involves the reality of creation, fall into sin, providence, Jesus' atoning death on the cross and resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and the final victory of God. These both individually and collectively provide the Church with a point of reference. Of particular importance is the fact that no culture, political system, economic system or society can be considered to be perfect or even fully Christian simply because the Church looks for her completion in the consummation of God's work. What this means for Christians is that they will always live in tension with the world around them, finding some elements of their culture valuable while other elements simply must be resisted. Since our destination is the City of God and not the city of New York (or Paris or London or...) we will never be fully at home in the city of the world.
As Carson makes clear, in order to navigate whatever culture they happen to live in, Christians will need to have developed theological skills to interpret the biblical narrative so as to interpret their culture. While this effort will look different in different locations, Carson thinks it will have a certain shape: "Christian communities honestly seeking to live under the Word of God will inevitably generate cultures that, to say the least, will in some sense counter or confront the values of the dominant culture. But to say the least is not enough. Christians thus shaped by Scripture envision a church that not only counters alternative cultures but also seeks sacrificially to serve the good of others--the city, the nation, common humanity, not least the poor" (p. 143).
One of the most helpful features of this book is Carson's discussion of what he sees as the four most powerful features shaping our culture today: secularism, democracy, freedom and power. Each of these forces is neither wholly good nor bad and so with respect to each much discernment is required; much depends on which aspect of each is being emphasized. If secularism means, as it now does for many, the liberation of man from God and the establishment of human mastery over creation and the human person, then secularism and Christianity can not be reconciled. While there is much to admire in democracy, Carson reminds us that for Christians democracy is not the cure for all the world's ills nor can it be said that the goal of the Church is to promote it as if this were the Church's ultimate purpose. While Christians are called to be good citizens, contributing to the common good, the state (even if democratically elected) has no ultimate authority over us. While there is much value in freedom, much depends upon how this is understood. Is freedom simply the freedom to exercise our autonomous wills? For Christianity this is more sin than it is something to be desired. Those of us who do live in democracies can not see democratic freedom as being our ultimate goal, because our "ultimate hope...can never rest in the freedoms that democracy seeks to institutionalize" (p. 136). Just because a culture is democratic does not mean that it is Christian. Finally, Carson sees our consumer society driven by the notion of personal power--each purchase is promoted as an exercise of power and display of self-importance. As Christians, we will always have our desire for personal power limited by the doctrine of God: "The doctrine of God reminds us that we are not ultimate: God is. The doctrine of creation tells us we are not our own: we are responsible to the One who made us" (p. 143).
While the question of relating to culture in the proper way is a vexing one, Carson reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus has immediate relevance for all our decisions: it reminds us that we "live with eternity not far away" (p. 223). For Christians, our interaction with culture is a serious business because for us all that we do is supposed to about our service to King Jesus who is sovereign over everything, including politics, economics and culture. This certainly helps bring things into focus.
Michael Petty+

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