Christ & Culture Revisited

by D.A. Carson

What is the Christian’s cultural task in this world?  How should we respond to the terrible reality of abortion in Australia?  What should we be doing with our Western prosperity to help the millions of people throughout the world who are living below the poverty line?  As Christians, we ought to think through these questions, and Carson’s book is therefore a necessary addition to your bookshelf.  Go and buy one (they are available at Pro-Ecclesia Bookshop).  Every Sunday you confess:  “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”    You have to consider how to relate to the world in which you live, for the only alternative is to imagine that the Christian faith has nothing to do with created reality.
Donald Carson is a New Testament professor at a conservative evangelical seminary in the United States, an author of many books on biblical topics.  The title of Carson’s book will probably remind many readers of another book – Christ and Culture, written by K. Schilder (Winnipeg:  Premier Printing, 1977).   Although Carson is familiar with Schilder’s book and warmly appreciative of it, the title of his own book Christ and Culture Revisited is a reference to another book more familiar in the English speaking world, Christ and Culture by H. R. Niebuhr (New York:  Harper & Row, 1951).
You do not need to have read Niebuhr’s book to benefit from Carson – Carson helpfully summarises Niebuhr.   Niebuhr has identified five ways in which Christians have viewed their relationship to culture – namely, Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture.  While Niebuhr presents these as alternatives, Carson argues that these different ways should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.  Different situations call for the relationship between Christians and their cultural context to be worked out in different ways – for example, Christians living under persecution in a Muslim country will for the most part experience that following Christ sets them at odds with the surrounding culture, whereas in a free Western country, Christians can be quite a formative influence on society – think of the positive work that the Reformed Abraham Kuyper did as Prime Minister of Holland.
Carson gives tools by which to determine what is a Scriptural view of the relationship between Christ and culture in a particular setting.  He argues that  “that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determined turning points in the history of redemption: creation, fall, the call of Abraham, the exodus and the giving of the law, ...” and so on, up to “the return of Christ and the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth.” (p. 81)  This is exactly what Schilder has done in his book.  He begins with creation and moves through to the end of time.  An evangelical scholar like Carson shows the riches that we reformed people have in our heritage.
One of the criticisms that I have heard about Schilder’s book is that while it makes sense to write in a positive way about the Christian’s task in the surrounding culture, when that culture is at least nominally Christian, it seems harder to apply his message to an African country where Christians suffer terrible persecution.  Although the criticism might be unjustified, it is true that Schilder does not explicitly consider this question. Carson’s book does, and so makes a useful companion to Schilder’s book.
On top of this, Carson deals with a number of topics that you need to think about as you bring into practice the Christian’s calling to serve God in this world.  His discussion of the relationship between Church and state is very helpful, as is his analysis of four cultural forces – secularisation, democracy, the worship of freedom and the lust for power.
A major difference between Carson and Schilder is that Carson defines culture as a noun, something out there that Christians interact with, whereas Schilder defines it as a verb – an activity that Christians engage in.  This allows Schilder’s definition to be far more normative – this is what culture should be!
There is need for discernment in reading this book, but the discerning reader will greatly profit from it.  Carson gets you thinking very concretely about what we can do: “Sometimes a disease can be knocked out; sometimes sex traffic can be considerably reduced; .... sometimes more equitable laws can foster justice and reduce corruption; sometimes engagement in the arts can produce wonderful work that inspires a new generation.” (p.218)   This book does not give all the answers, but the tools you need to come to those answers.
We have freedom, we have good education opportunities, we have lived through a time of unprecedented economic growth.  How much are we talking and writing about how to use our opportunities and wealth to promote the well-being of the city in which we live (Jer. 29:7) and to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10)?  Has the CPSA been asphyxiated by a poisonous lack of interest on our part in “cultural”, political and social issues? Reading Christ and Culture Revisited leaves you with the conviction that we have more work to do as Christians.  We are office-bearers, prophets, priests and kings, with a task to do in home, church and world.

Review by Rev. C. Vermeulen