Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. Carson

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More than fifty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture (see my review) which became the definitive work on how Christians are to interact with their culture. Niebuhr offered five options, illustrating each with individual leaders from church history, and, where possible, from Scripture. D. A. Carson has decided to revisit Niebuhr’s conclusions with less than a sanguine evaluation. To Carson, one of Niebuhr’s categories is unbiblical while each of the other four can be found, to some degree, in Scripture (pp. 60, 200, 206). To camp on any one of Niebuhr’s possibilities, to the exclusion of the other three biblical alternatives, would be pure reductionism, something Carson carefully wants to avoid (pp. 82, 145, 225-226).

Carson meanders in his examination, chasing down definitions of culture (pp. 1-2, 68-85), postmodernism (pp. 87-94), secularization (p. 116), and authentic Christianity (p. 121), and interacting with key cultural leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Kuyper, as well as a number of philosophers (p. 99ff). He challenges our thinking and common misconceptions about modernism (pp. 10, 108), Jesus (pp. 19, 39), our foundation for belief (pp. 106-112), democracy (pp. 138-139), servant leadership (p. 168), and separation of church and state (pp 174-194). When he is done, the reader is not left with a tidy formula but with a wide range of approaches which at least fall within the shadow of Scripture. He writes,

What this potted survey ought to tell us is that none of the powerfully advanced theories commonly put forward to explain the relationships between Christ and culture or to implement an improved dynamic is very compelling as a total explanation or an unambiguous mandate…. Above all, we must grasp that even the most intellectually robust theory of how things work, or ought to work, falters in practice within a generation or two, because human beings falter (p.224).

Still, Carson is at his best when he demonstrates that, while the Scriptures repeatedly call us to “do good, to show mercy, to care for the poor, to be concerned with matters of justice,” these are not the responsibilities given to the church as an institution. Instead we find in the New Testament “…the initial leaders, the apostles were careful to carve out for themselves the primacy of teaching the Word of God and prayers (Acts 6:2). [Later] “when the distinctive duties of pastors/elders/bishops are canvassed the priority of the ministry of the Word and prayer is paramount” (p. 151). It is certainly the obligation of individual Christians to bless the society in which they live, but the mandate to the church, as the church, lies in the Word and discipleship (pp. 151-152). The balanced Christian will both fulfill the role as good citizen of this earth and as good citizen of the kingdom of God. Carson then puts a face on this dual citizenship through illustrations drawn from the Evangelical Awakening, Abraham Kipper and a couple of unnamed contemporary churches (pp. 152-154). While much of the rest of the book is informative, this reviewer would rather that Carson spent more time exploring these biblical instructions and examples.

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