Review: Christ and Culture Revisited

by Dec 28, 2013Books, ChurchLife, Culture, Mission, Theology3 comments

Christ and Culture RevisitedChrist and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carson serves up reminder after reminder that the question of context is all-important both in the interpretation of scripture and in its application to our current situation(s). Where Niebuhr is a reductionist, the Bible calls for—at different times and in different situations, not least in different “dispensations” or redemptive-historical eras—cultural transformation, participation, or opposition as appropriate.

I love Carson, but I do feel that this book meandered a bit. He seemed to be incisively critiquing everyone hither and yon, and reading an astonishing number of books on every conceivably related topic, but he did not offer much of a positive vision. That’s the only reason I gave him three stars. I expected more from Carson.

If there were two things that he did contribute positively to my understanding, they were 1) the shoring up of the idea that one must understand the Bible redemptive-historically in order to apply it properly, and 2) the simple reminder that Christians in Malaysia or Botswana or Hungary might legitimately develop a different theological apparatus for dealing with issues of Christ and culture.

This is a book packed with individual insights that do not add up to a sum greater than those parts. But perhaps that’s Carson’s point: we are not to expect a solution to the cultural and political “tensions” in which God has placed us, not until he has put all things under Christ’s feet—”no political structure is a permanent ‘solution’ to the tension” (207). The very last words in the book are these:

We will live in the tension of claiming every square inch for King Jesus [as Abraham Kuyper said], even while we know full well that the consummation is not yet, that we walk by faith and not by sight, and that the weapons with which we fight are not the weapons of the world (2 Corinthians 10:4). (228)

As an addendum, here’s a quote I want to type out for my own benefit:

It is unwise to speak of “redeeming culture”: if we lose the unique significance bound up with the redemption secured by Christ in his death and resurrection, we lose the ongoing tension between Christ and culture that must subsist until the end. ¶ Yet it is possible so to focus on the rescue and regeneration of individuals that we fail to see the temporally good things we can do to improve and transform some social structures. One does not abolish slavery by doing nothing more than helping individual slaves. Christian educational and academic structures may help countless thousands develop a countercultural way of looking at all reality under the Lordship of Christ. Sometimes a disease can be knocked out; sometimes sex traffic can be considerably reduced; sometimes slavery can be abolished in a region; sometimes more equitable laws can foster justice and reduce corruption; sometimes engagement in the arts can produce wonderful work that inspires a new generation. When such things become part of an inherited set of assumptions passed on to the next generation, they have become part of the culture; they have effected some cultural change. Of course, none of these good things is guaranteed to be enduring; none brings in the consummated kingdom. Yet in these and countless other ways cultural change is possible. More importantly, doing good to the city [Jer. 29], doing good to all people (even if we have special responsibility for the household of faith), is part of our responsibility as God’s redeemed people in this time of tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” (217–218)

If Carson doesn’t want to call those acts in that list “redemptive,” perhaps it’s not a big deal—but I’m not sure what other term I’d use. If in fact most people (in my experience) who talk explicitly about “redeeming the culture” are triumphalistic, naive about the effects of the fall, or are sloganeering bandwagon jumpers (or all three), then perhaps care is called for in the use of “redemption” with an object like “culture.” But perhaps we could stop short of an outright ban?

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  1. Brian

    This is another quotation worth keeping:
    “Yet once Kuyper achieved political power, his thinking underwent a subtle shift in emphasis. Eventually three major problems developed //—embedded to some extent in his own thought, and occasionally notorious in the thought of his followers. (a) The antithesis between belief and unbelief, between redeeming grace and common grace, waned. A Kuyper scholar like James Bratt applauds the development; with more discernment, Klaas Schilder bemoans the development. Schilder’s rather dense little book, Christ and Culture, makes the point powerfully. When Kuyper puts disproportionate emphasis on creation at the expense of redemption, on common grace at the expense of redeeming grace, Schilder asserts, he is moving away from Reformed orthodoxy. . . . In any case it seems pretty clear that the second half of Kuyper’ career sees him gently moving away from what is central in the driving force of the Bible’s story line. (b) A second element that contributed, after Kuyper’s // departure from the scene, to the extraordinarily rapid decline of Christian influence in the government and culture of the Netherlands was the heavy emphasis within Kuyperianism on presumptive regeneration. This is not to argue that dramatic, still less traumatic, conversion of children reared in Christian homes is necessary; nor is there a biblically mandated need for certainty about the moment of one’s conversion. Rather, it is to assert that theologically and biblically, presumptive regeneration is not well grounded, and pragmatically, it has led, in the Netherlands and South Africa (where the doctrine has most frequently been defended), to churches with very substantial numbers of unregenerate people (however culturally conservative they are) whose children then simply walked away from the faith. (c) Not entirely unrelated to the previous two points is a third: Kuyperianism is most attractive when Kuyper’s personal piety is in play (in exactly the same way that the reforming zeal of Wilberforce is attractive because of his commitment to the gospel and his transparent evangelical piety). When Kuyperianism, a branch of European Reformed theology, becomes the intellectual structure on which we ground our attempts to influence the culture, yet cuts itself loose from, say, the piety of the Heidelberg Confession, the price is sudden death.”

    Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 214-16.

  2. Brian

    And this one:
    “Consider, for example, the oft-repeated advice that if we wish to influence the broader culture through the media and in the corridors of power we must translate our Christian values and priorities into secular categories. Is this good advice? Yes and no. Clearly, the advice reflects pragmatic wisdom. On issues from race to abortion to poverty to homosexuality, we are likely to appeal to a broader range of people if our arguments are not couched in Christian categories and if we manage to form ‘co-belligerencies’ on some strategic issues. Yet we would be naïve not to perceive that that is precisely where the danger lies. If all // of our energy is devoted to making our stances acceptably popular by appealing to goals that are broadly secular, it is a short step to enabling those secular values to take precedence over a Christian frame of reference that bows in principle to the Lordship of Christ. In other words, we ourselves may come to put such stock in our clever adaptions that they mean more to us than the biblical frame of reference that generated the stances in the first place. Moreover, because politics is regularly a pretty vicious form of interchange, our opponents are likely to sniff out our Christian beliefs anyway, and then they will blast us for hiding them and trying to appear secular when we are in reality religious wolves in secular sheep’s clothing. Then we will be damned not only for our views but also for our dissembling. ¶Worse still, our form of discourse may be signaling that we think the secularists are right: we ought to avoid making any appeal to our ‘religious’ convictions because we support the separation of church and state. That public stance gives subtle advantage to the extraordinary dangerous view that ‘the wall of separation’ prohibits Christians—or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or animists—from participating in the shaping of public policy, instead of defending the view that the wall of separation prohibits entangling the government with the establishment of the church as church. If Christians are not allowed to argue in the public arena as Christians, then implicitly we are supporting the contentions of Pete Singer and Richard Dawkins and their friends, to the effect that atheistic secularists are the only people who are arguing their case from a ‘neutral’ position.”
    Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 196-97.

  3. mlward

    Agreed. Excellent stuff.