Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part 2

Carson_01282015D.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. [1] (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra [2]

Carson’s own exploration of culture begins with defining what it means to be Christian, or deeply Christian, as he describes it. This definition hangs on the great turning points in salvation history (67). These turning points are:

  • The creation,
  • The fall,
  • The call of Abraham,
  • The exodus and giving of the law,
  • The rise of the monarchy and the prophets,
  • The exile,
  • The incarnation, and
  • The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (81).

Carson observes that to deviate from these turning points introduces “massive distortions into one’s understanding of cultures and therefore of how to interact with them” (81). In this definition we hear an echo of Niebuhr’s most famous indictment of liberal theology:

“[They preach] A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (Niebuhr 1959. 193)

The turning points in salvation history explain, for example, why the atonement (Christ died for our sins) is a fundamental Christian confession (1 Cor 15:3-5). In effect, the atonement of Christ reverses the fall and advances salvation history to demonstrate God’s new relationship with humanity through Christ’s death and resurrection (61-62). Salvation history is an old idea and is, for example, why western countries date the years from the birth of Christ.  Attempts to downplay or deny these great turning points in salvation history dilute the distinctiveness of the Christian message leaving it vulnerable to to syncreticism and making transformation of wayward souls difficult or impossible [3].  The church’s voice in defining culture is thereby muted.

Metanarrative

Postmodern critics of Christianity, like Francois Lyotard (87), actively dispute the idea of salvation history labeling it a meta-narrative. The term, meta-narrative, which means “above the narrative or grand narrative” is an apt description because it implicitly recognizes the dichotomy between a physical and a spiritual reality. As a meta-narrative, salvation history outlines the Bible itself and shows why prophesies of Christ’s coming are recognizable from the very beginning (e.g. Gen 3:15). By adopted salvation history as the defining idea of Christian culture, Carson is effectively using fire to fight fire in confronting postmodern philosophers.

Cultural Factors

Moving from a definition of Christianity, Carson turns his attention to the cultural landscape. Here he describes 4 “huge cultural forces”:

1. The seduction of secularism,
2. The mystique of democracy,
3. The worship of freedom, and
4. The lust for power (115).

Christianity collides with secular culture because: “Christianity does not claim to convey merely religious truth, but truth about all reality.” (120) Attempts to make Christianity a mere preference or to privaticize Christianity deny this fundamental point and form the core of the secular agenda—creating a world where the creator God is ignored, denied, and vilified.

Church and State

Carson rightly focuses a lot of attention on the issue of church and state. The privaticization of Christianity (131) necessarily creates a vacuum into which the secular state eagerly pours. We entered the 20th century believing that morality was the domain of the church and exited the 20th century believing that morality is an individual matter subject to legally imposed sanctions—in other words, who needs morality? [4] This shrinking of the role of the church relative to the state is reflected the 20th century confessions [5]. This transition was ushered in by the secular state.

Carson writes:

“Where countries have become deeply Christianized, Christianity itself becomes far less questing and far more conserving: in other words, it begins to think of itself as a ‘religion’ in the older, obsolete, pagan sense” (146).

Here pagan religion can be thought of as a religion that focuses on divine bribery. The focus of cultic activity is to appease the gods. The idea of the church as the community of those “called out” by God and that our spirituality begins with God (not us) distinguishes authentic Christianity. Carson’s notion of “deeply Christian” (81) based on salvation history and on being “authentically Christian” (formed on the historical confessions) both rely on the fundamental presumption that God acts sovereignly to call out his people and form his church in an historical context (Acts 2)—an inherently public activity. The defining pagan idea, by contrast, is that a physical or metaphorical tower can be built to heaven (Gen 11:1-9) to appease, bribe, manipulate, or force the gods to do our bidding—an inherently private activity because private benefits are sought. Paganism, not Christianity, is at the core of the modern and postmodern worldviews inasmuch as the authority of Christ is set aside and the cultural focus is on shaping the physical and social world in an image of our own making.

Common Treatments

Carson ends his discussion with “a handful of common treatments of Christ and culture” (208) but endorses none–each has its own limitation.

Anne Graham Lotz (2009, 1-2) recounts a conversation that her mother, Ruth Graham, had with the head of Scotland Yard. When her mother remarked that he must spend a lot of time studying counterfeit money, he responded: “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spend all my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I [see] a counterfeit, I [can] immediately detect it.” In the same way, knowing what true community looks like, as Christians, we know can recognize the dysfunctions of culture that we encounter every day and we can live with the tension that those dysfunctions create [6].

Assessment

In Christ & Culture Revisited Carson has done a splendid job of  making the counterfeit dysfunctions of postmodern culture more obvious.

Footnotes

[1] My own review is at:   Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

[2] Part 1 is:  Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-PZ).

[3] This point is easily observed.  While the mainline denominations spent the 20th century debating anthropology and lost half their members, the Pentecostal movement evangelized the world.  Ironically, the Azusa Street rivalry of 1906 started out more open to the participation of women and minorities than mainline denominations are even today (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azusa_Street_Revival).

[4] Replacing Christian virtues and moral teaching with law is inherently biased against the poor and poor communities where funding for public services is woefully inadequate.  Even in the wealthiest of communities, the police cannot replace individual initiatives to be righteous.  In poor communities the police are under-paid, under-trained, under-equipped, and over-worked.  Is it any wonder that bad things happen?  The secular substitution of law for morality works to make freedom a reality only for those wealthy enough to enjoy the benefits.

[5] The 20th century confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA, for example,  are the Theological Declaration of Barman, the Confession of 1967, and the [1973] Brief Confession of Faith.  The Barman confession resists the incursion of the Nazi state into the German church; the 1967 confession codifies the civil rights legislation that proceeded it; the Brief Confession talks about unmasking idolatries in both the church and culture.  None of these confessions are a complete articulation of faith (like the reformation confessions); all of them highlight the influence of the state on the church suggesting the that the state, not the church, is defining (and should define) the agenda.

[6] These tensions are highlighted in my recent Friday posts, such as:  Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

REFERENCES

 Lotz, Anne Graham. 2009. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1959. The Kingdom of God in America (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part 2

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