Culture, Philosophy

Book Review

Somewhat a product of a spiritual formation group on the campus of Trinity International University hosted with Scott Manetsch, D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited seeks to offer a contemporary evangelical response to the increasingly pronounced cabal that Christianity ought to conform to the needs and desires of the culture. In this project, Carson applies three steps to his process. First, he reviews and critiques H. Richard Niebuhr’s ostensibly seminal work on the subject in question. Second , he updates the discussion by offering a mild chastening critique to modernity, a more severe chastening critique toward postmodernity, and less severe critique of evangelicals who claim to embrace postmodernity (emergents, emergings, and other sundry culture hacks). In this last movement of his second step, Carson takes the time to respond to criticism of his views expressed on the “emerging” church movement. Third, he then reprocesses conceptions about church and culture in attempt to divest it of some evangelical capitulations to modernity as well as striving to clear up muddled and uneven thinking in this relationship.

While certainly a reasonable critique of what is happening in much of Christendom today and a reasonable attempt to forestall much of the eliding between Christianity and culture, Carson’s critique seems to get most of the diagnosis right, but falls short in the regimen he prescribes for recovery. This fault may be mitigated by the fact that his eschatology does not allow him to attempt a usher in the Kingdom. Indeed, Carson seems to recognize the importance of eschatology in the discussion.

Carson begins by reviewing Niebuhr. In preparation, this reviewer reread that classic and found most of his critique to be “spot on.” Carson focuses on about four distinct deficiencies and misconceptions that Niebuhr promulgates. Being evangelical, Carson is quick to point out that Niebuhr inconsistently grants or withholds the name “Christian” from specific groups. For instance, Niebuhr is willing to grant Gnostics a place within Christianity under the “Christ of Culture” motif, but he is unwilling to let Mormons and other Arians to be considered Christians. Carson also correctly observes that Niebuhr uses Scripture unevenly which seems to match Niebuhr’s view of the canon. Niebuhr, he points out, does not see an inherent unity in the canon, but merely an assortment of individual teachings and accounts in Scripture. In this way, Scripture amounts to a highly stylized catalog of religious suggestion devoid of distinctive theological proposition. Methodologically, Carson rightly criticizes the bases of Niebuhr’s whole enterprise. When no motifs can be said to be exemplified within any individual or movement within Christianity with any consistency, the merits of the whole study fall into question. Carson suggests that a misunderstanding of what Christianity and culture entail may reside at the root of this problem.

To help alleviate the aforementioned problems, Carson prescribes several “non-negotiables of biblical theology.” What is on the list ought to comprise the minimum of any Christian response to these issues, but what is perhaps most obvious is what is not on the list. Carson’s list includes creation and fall, distinctions between Old Testament and New Testament, and a real eschatology. While biblical authority is implied, inerrency is never demanded. This would seem to portend failure due to unjustifiable use of half-measures. With these non-negotiables, Carson believes that we can avoid the pitfalls of (post)modernity and answer the issues that the Christ vs. culture conflict raises. The middle non-negotiable raises some questions, but it provides a clue to Carson’s main interest which will become more evident in the last third of the book. Carson is not so much interested in the interface or conflict between Christ and culture so much as he is interested in the relationship of the Christian religion to the State. While Carson readily acknowledges the “bric-a-brac” of competing and overlapping cultures, he seems to myopically concentrate on this issue of the jurisdictions for Church and State. In his final analysis of Niebuhr, Carson does pick up on Niebuhr’s unwillingness to engage the Scriptures seriously regarding their authority over this dilemma. Niebuhr specifically finds Augustine puzzlingly in error because he sees this universal kingdom, but Augustine does not accept the implication of soteriological universalism. Niebuhr, gushing over F. D. Maurice, cannot understand how Augustine came so close but stopped short of this seemingly obvious conclusion. Niebuhr can only attribute this lack of follow through to Augustine’s perception that universalism would be inconsistent with other portions of Scripture. Carson rightfully marks this as a strength in Augustine, not a weakness. Augustine was willing to let Scripture judge his system; he would not allow his system to stand in judgment over Scripture.

In his second section, Carson attempts a definition of Christ and culture. Much of this provides an answer and correction to some of his critics. Carson seems determined to set the record right – that he is somewhat of a chastened modernist not lover of all things Enlightenment. This is where Carson begins to woefully follow a compromised path between Enlightenment modernism and postmodernity. First, he dismisses rather out of hand the concept of “high culture.” He does not care for T. S. Eliot’s idea that culture is something that can be achieved, yet he uses one of Eliot’s concepts for its heuristic value. Carson cannot accept the idea of high culture or low culture, only different cultures. The only consolation in all of this is that he stops just short of cultural relativism by admitting that some cultures are better others. Now, this reviewer realizes that failing to distinguish between high culture and low culture does not necessarily preempt the valuing of cultures, but it does bring up the question of how the former distinction is not valid, but the latter is.

Carson’s thesis for the book may be found in this second section. At the bottom of page 82, Carson states that his argument for the remainder of the book may be summed up as an explanation of “how a robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against the most egregious reductionisms.” A couple pages later, Carson clarifies this by stating that a “stance” can be considered more Christian if it takes into account the three biblical non-negotiables he listed in the previous chapter. This reviewer will return to this later.

What follows the discussion on cultures and what views on culture may understood as Christian is a discussion on postmodernism. Carson begins by pointing to its transient nature as evidenced in its rather passe* status in Europe. His critique of postmodernity is somewhat withering even if his description of what should replace it is not very imaginative. He returns to his distinction between “hard” and “soft” postmodernism, and equates the latter with a “chastened modernism” (90). He accuses “unchastened postmodernism” of tracking in the direction of relativism, and he reserves his harshest judgment for this philosophical category calling it “not only idolatrous and anti-Christian but border[ing] on the self-refuting and the silly.” (94). He takes the time to answer and critique James K. A. Smith’s version of christianized “hard” postmodernity a la Radical Orthodoxy. Although Carson is clear to commend what he finds commendable in this movement, he also dismisses its rather cavalier attitude toward Scripture. Admittedly, Smith’s attempts to save Christianity from Lyotard’s criticism of metanarratives seems a bit thin. Indeed, this criticism was leveled at Smith’s version of Radical Orthodoxy by R. R. Reno in the February 2000 issue of First Things ( Carson’s response to the lack of certainty in this Christian form of “hard” postmodernity is to question its starting point. He consistently points back to a biblical worldview and seems to claim that this worldview provides the Sache for a Christian understanding of the world.

In his third and final section, Carson takes all of the aforementioned subject material and concentrates it on the relationship of the Christian to the state. Beginning with the Enlightenment’s trend toward secularization he traces the failures of some modern democracies. He notes that the modernistic impulse of current secular democracies has led to their decline. He admits that the secular allure of modernity has lead to the demise of moral authority. He discusses the relationships between church and state particularly in light of other religious claims to authority by such religions as Islam. To be quite honest, this last section is the most disappointing of the book. After developing a description of current trends in post modern epistemology, Carson narrows his discussion to just one facet of that larger discussion. Nothing here is very new. Nothing here advances the discussion and seems rather more muddled than the earlier two sections. Indeed, his research seems to be lacking, and he seems to be offering up ad hoc advice. His insistence on a recognition of an already – not yet understanding of kingdom as a means of navigating these difficult waters of living as redeemed citizens in a fallen world provides the only promising glimmer in this discussion.

By way of critique, this reviewer finds a few difficulties; some of which have been alluded to earlier. First, the unity of the work is questionable. The connection of his review of Christ and Culture to the remainder of the work is tenuous at best. It focuses in on a very narrow cross-section of this interface. Carson’s work speaks to the popular level, but it also seems to lack unity. It promises to deliver more than it actually does. We need a more robust discussion of this subject at this time. We need something more substantial and serious. An update to his Gagging of God would have been nice. Second, while many of his criticisms of “hard” postmodernity, in particular those directed toward the Christian variety, are on the mark; he does not engage their ethos completely. Carson merely points them back to Scripture and, in particular, certain “non-negotiables” found in Scripture. This in itself would not exhibit poor methodology except for the fact that he never fully demonstrates how this “hard” Christian postmodernity fails to really interact with Scripture. The fact is, Smith’s postmodern Christianity merely uses Scripture as a buffet of truths; some of which they desire and place on their tray, and some of which they do not desire and will not take. The same may also be said of postmodernity’s use of tradition. The problem is not necessarily that they place tradition on an equal footing with Scripture as much as the fact that they treat tradition just as they do Scripture. There is more that could be said here, but this is a review not a monograph. Also, Carson seems to be proposing yet another reductionism of Christianity with his three “non-negotiables.” For all those negative feelings people display toward fundamentalists, he proposes yet another set of fundamentals. The wisdom of this might be questioned, for the problem with fundamentalism is not the fundamentals but the implicit truncation of orthodoxy to the fundamentals. Finally, the overall direction of the book was disappointing. This reviewer believes that more people might be interested in understanding how Christianity interfaces with the broader culture (all that “bric-a-brac”), not just the Christian’s relationship to the state. What could have helped with Carson’s argument would have been the retaining and explaining of the pilgrim motif in Scripture and tradition. Instead the reader is treated to this rather hip already – not yet eschatological language.

Perhaps the passage of time and the further labors of Carson will give the church a more exhaustive and well constructed statement on the dilemma of Christ and culture. While the first two thirds of this volume show considerable promise, its narrow focus in the last third seems to miss some of the points the post-evangelicals like Smith are making. This reviewer is unaware of what publications are forthcoming, and it may well be that Carson intends to provide a more extended application of the whole Christ and culture dilemma. He does indeed seem to recognize that culture is more broad than church and state for this is the line of argument he mounts against Niebuhr. This provides a helpful introduction to the problem of Christ and culture, but is by no means definitive.

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