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Thinking Biblically About Culture

By February 1, 2009 No Comments

There is a subtle irony in the fact that a book by a liberal theologian has so thoroughly suffused contemporary evangelical selfunderstand ng. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has achieved the status of a classic not because it has been particularly influential amongst his mainline confreres, but because his taxonomy of various Christian understandings of “culture” has become a template for evangelical introspection. Wittingly or unwittingly, the spate of recent books that articulate the evangelical mission of “transforming culture” are working with the lexicon of a neo-orthodox theologian.

Its status as a veritable evangelical classic has also generated critique, including Craig Carter’s incisive Rethinking Christ and Culture (Brazos, 2007), and here D. A . Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited. Carson rightly seeks to revisit Niebuhr’s categories; more specifically, refusing to take them as a given, Carson holds their feet to the biblical fire.
Christ and Culture
As a biblical theologian, he is concerned that Niebuhr’s categories have taken on a life of their own, achieving such independent status that Christians now take up his models without considering how (or whether) they grow out of biblical wisdom. Carson also suggests that Niebuhr’s strategy is a bit like recent discussions of the atonement: for too long, various models of the atonement were considered to be mutually exclusive, whereas the richness of the biblical vision might best be honored by embracing hem as complementary understandings of Christ’s work on the cross. So, too, with models of Christ and culture, Carson suggests. Perhaps we should stop feeling compelled to pick and choose among them and instead consider a bigger picture that integrates these different approaches together (61- 62, 206).

Carson is also rightly concerned to detach accounts of “Christ and culture” from the American provincialism that often attends such ana yses. As he wryly puts it, “If Abraham Kuyper had grown up under the conditions of the killing fields of Cambodia, one suspects his view of the relationship between Christianity and culture would have been significantly modified” (ix-x). Thus Carson brings up other contexts where Christians must wrestle with these questions, such as France and other Europen environs, but also sectors of the majority world where Christians face persecution and political environments that are a long way from western democracy. As such, he hints toward a more global consideration of the question.

His core project, however, is to root a Christian understanding of culture and cultural engagement in the narrative of Scripture. Carson’s persistent point is that Christian thinking about culture must be explicitly and positively informed by “the great turning points in salvation history” (67). In a way, this approach highlights the fact
that Jesus makes remarkably few appearances in Christian understandings of culture; instead, we get significant appeals to creation, justice, and so forth. As Carson notes, “however loyal one judges oneself to be to Jesus, it is difficult to see how such loyalty is a mark of Christian thought if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed that he bears little relation to the Bible” (44). Carson invites us to ask: are we really dealing with a Christian account of culture if the cross never shows up? In the name of “Christian” approaches to culture, we get a lot of creational models, but very few cruciform approaches. On this score, I think Carson and Carter might be agreed.

Unfortunately, it is precisely in its Scriptural aspirations that the book falters. For one, Carson’s “overview ” of the biblical narrative is remarkably piecemeal and selective, and ignores some significant biblical passages that seem crucial for such ananalysis, such as 1 Peter 2:9, Acts 2:4 4-46 and 4:32-37, and Old Testament passages such as Jeremiah 7 and 21. In addition, his tendency to make one pronouncement of Jesus (“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” ) a veritable canon within the canon undercuts the very canonical emphasis that motivates his project. But it is Carson’s theology that lies at the root of the problem.

Given the riches of biblic l wisdom across its canonical sweep, Carson’s plot summary of the story is puzzling. While he emphasizes the doctrine of creation–that “God made everything” (45)–he nowhere attends to what has commonly been described as the “cultural mandate,” the call embedded n creation for humans to cultivate the earth (Gen. 1:27-29): to unfurl and unfold the possibilities latent within creation through cultural work. Instead, Carson tends to treat “culture” as some sort of given, failing to offer a theology of culture which sees the work of human making as rooted in creation itself. I don’t think one can just chalk this up to lacking space to deal with all the details. Rather, it indicates a particular take on the “turning points” of redemptive history. A week theology of creation will lack a clear theology of culture as a task given to humanity as image bearers of God. This perhaps explains why, for Carson, “culture” always seems to be a noun (something “out there”) rather than a verb (something we do).

It also becomes clear in Carson’s survey of redemptive history that what is being redeemed are persons: this is “salvation history” (67) and it is “we”–that is, we humans–who are being saved. Because sin is understood narrowly as personal moral transgression and idolatry (46 -48), redemption is conceived in equally narrow terms as the salvation of human persons (50, 64, 215 n.24, 217). Because institutions, systems, and structures are absent from Carson’s account of creation, they also tend not to show up on the radar of fallenness and redemption. It is “we” who are fallen and “we” who are saved.

It thus comes as no surprise to see an old familiar bifurcation between redemption and cultural labor in Carson’s understanding of the church’s mission–or, as he puts it, “what the church as church is mandated to do” (172). And what is that? Well, it’s churchy stuff: “When the church meets together in the New Testament,” he observes, it is to praise and sing, to teach and learn, to observe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and to exercise discipline–all with a view to equipping the saints for evangelism (150 -151). (I seem to notice the early church also engaging in the redistribution of resources and self-consciously constituting itself as a distinct political community, but never mind.) Carson is clear that the central Christian obligation is ministry and evangelism: when Christians make ministries of compassion and justice central, “they marginalize their responsibilities as members of the church of Jesus Christ, the church that lives and dies by the great commission.” While Christians might engage in a little culture engagement on the side, they are called “first and foremost” to be “gospel Christians, deeply engaged in their local churches, extraordinarily disciplined in their own Bible reading and evangelism” (152-153).

Carson concludes that “the only human organization that continues into eternity is the church” (217). This confirms the narrow eschatology hinted at earlier in the book when he claims that “what must be feared and avoided at all costs is the second death (Revelation 20-22). This means that the current relations between Christ and culture have no final status. These must instead be evaluated in the light of eternity” (58-59). One senses that Carson’s “eternity” lacks cultural institutions–an eternity without commerce or politics, art or athletics. (While he occasionally tips his hat to other areas, Carson’s analysis pretty much reduces culture to “politics.” ) All that will remain is “the church,” although it is not clear just what the church will be doing since, according to Carson, “the church lives and dies by the great commission” (152). Such a flattened vision of our redeemed future is the correlate of a stunted understanding of creation.

In sum, Carson’s laudable project of pushing conversations about “Christ and culture” to the riches of the biblical narrative is a missed opportunity–a missed opportunity to articulate a biblical theology of culture as a creational task, and so also a missed opportunity to finally undo the old bifurcation between the cultural mandate and the great commission. Even those who affirm both too often see them as distinct and fail to discern their intimate connection. For what is the Gospel but God’s call and invitation to be restored and renewed as image-bearers of God? Being God’s image-bearers is not a static “property” of being human but a calling, a vocation, and a task, as Richard Middleton has brilliantly laid out in The Liberating Image (Brazos, 2005). Christ, as the second Adam, is the Son who has imaged for us what it means to be God’s vice-regents: he has shown us what it looks like to do this. Christ’s death and resurrection have made it possible for us to once again take up our creational calling to be culture-makers, re-equipped for the task given to humanity at the start. And Christ has also shown us that, in a fallen and broken world, the shape of that vocation is cruciform: being cultural agents of the crucified God is not a project of triumphal transformation but of suffering witness. The church will be the church when it sees its commitment to the great commission as a matter of extending God’s invitation to redemption and renewal, which is precisely an invitation to once again become what we were made to be: God’s subcreators.

James K.A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Education as Cultural Formation, will appear this summer from Baker Academic.