Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 2

Smith_review_02032015James K. A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique, “there is nothing outside the text.” (36), because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (54-58).

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a metanarrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the metanarrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology (62-64).  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of metanarratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Rather, Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of metanarratives—science is itself a metanarrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone (64-65). Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” (68). Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (65, 72).  Accordingly, Smith says that the postmodern church needs to abandon modernistic claims to truth (e.g., give up the “scientific” approach to apologetics) and, instead, to value story (narrative), aesthetic experiences, and symbols, such as the sacraments (77).  In this way, Smith takes Lyotard to church.

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description (96).  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (96-99).  Smith writes:

What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process (102).

Smith sees Foucault offering 3 lessons to the church:

  1. To see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”;
  2. To identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and
  3. To “enact countermeasures, counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (105-106).

It is worth asking in this context:  when exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?  Smith sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution (107) as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.

Smith gets it.  Smith is unique in seriously reflecting on how to apply the lessons he sees in Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  He asks:  “…is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world?” (109)  He opines:

A more persistent postmodern [church]… will issue not in a thinned-out, sanctified version of religious skepticism (a “religion without religion”) offered in the name of humility and compassion but rather should be the ground for the proclamation and adoption of “thick” confessional identities. (116-117)

Smith sees radical orthodoxy as admitting that we do not know the truth, but confessing a mysterious and sometimes ambiguous faith (116-118).  He writes:

A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinant confession and its institutions:  dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church (122).

This radical orthodoxy involves “affirmation of liturgy and the arts and a commitment to place and local communities.” (127).

Having just published a devotional book which reviews the traditional teaching of the church [1], I find much to like in Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism! Perhaps the only real caveat that I would offer up is that the pluriform and variegated phenomena of postmodernism (26) will likely involve a range of responses, not just radical orthodoxy [2].   Some will work; many will fail.  Re-imaged, will the old wine poured into new wine-skins yield  a church able to experience both the immanent and transcendent attributes of God?  Likewise, will the exclusivity of Christ be lost in a church claiming only the right of private beliefs?  It seems likely that for now radical orthodoxy is likely to pose an interesting postmodern experiment, one of many.


[1] A Christian Guide to Spirituality (

[2] .  Elements of postmodern, modern, and traditional cultures appear to coexist in tension with one another even in small organizations and most certainly in society more generally.  See a serious of articles online:  Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?  For example: (

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Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 1

Smith, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?

Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 1

James K.A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard to underestimate the importance of philosophical changes in our lifetime. The movement from modernism to postmodernism has been abrupt and has eroded the foundations of most modern institutions [1].  Yet, the indirect way that philosophical influences affect daily life masks their impact to those unaccustomed to taking philosophy into account[2].  Most of us take note of the culture wars, but have trouble understanding why the heated debate. “Why can’t we all just get along?[3]


In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena (26), an historical period after (post) modernism (19), heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault (21).  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these 3 postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible (22-23).  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (epistemology; 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnational focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (127).  Are you intrigued yet?


Smith writes in 5 chapters.  Basically, an introduction and conclusion wrapped around 3 chapters focused on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  The 5 chapters are:

  1. Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church,
  2. Nothing outside the Text? Derrida, Deconstructionism, and Scripture,
  3. Where Have All the Metanarratives Gone? Lyotard, Postmodernism, and the Christian Story,
  4. Power/Knowledge/Discipline: Foucault and the Possibilities of the Postmodern Church,
  5. Applied Radical Orthodoxy: A Proposal for the Emerging Church (7).

Two prefaces precede these 5 chapters and an Annotated Bibliography follows them.

Philosophy Explained through Film

In explaining the details of these philosophers and other points that he makes, Smith starts 4 of his chapters with a lengthy description of a recent movie.  For Derrida, the movie is Memento (31) which features a man with a really poor memory who wanders through his day taking notes about what he needs to remember.  In the case of Lyotard, the movie is:  O Brother, Where Art Thou which is a redo of Homer’s Odyssey (59).  For Foucault, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (81) exemplifies his philosophy in the story of a small-time con man who pleads insanity to his crime and ends up in a psyche ward.  His final chapter begins with a telling of the movie:  Whale Rider (109).

Philosophers have been Misunderstood

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation[4]. While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone[5], Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community (38-40)—which implies that there is no such thing as objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (43).

Objective Truth

Smith’s point about objective truth poses a problem for professionals, including pastors, schooled in modern methods of interpretation. The search for objective truth is the goal of modern research, a fundamental principle in democracy, and a principal of management. If one, objective truth exists, then we can all work together and with enough time and effort figure it out or at least come closer to it.  If truth is fundamentally contextual, then there is your truth and my truth, inasmuch as our histories differ, making collective action intrinsically more difficult.  For this reason, many professions view Derrida with suspicion.


Smith’s writing is provocative and timely. It is also accessible. In part 2, I will examine in more depth his treatment of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism is well worth the time to understand and ponder.


Preconditions Matter

[1] A precondition for modern institutions is the idea that collective action enhances the search for objective truth.  If no objective truth exists, the benefit from discovering it disappears.  If only my truth and your truth exist, then we do not both benefit from working together.  Collective action is simply a power game.  This perspective motivates, for example, deconstructionists to focus almost exclusively on winning power games.  If this is the dominate philosophy, democratic institutions fare poorly because losers in a democratic vote have no reason to support the outcome of the vote.  Rather, they simply continue to argue their position and attempt to undermine decisions rendered.  This makes collective action more costly, slows down decision making, and leads to general unhappiness.

Office Introduction

[2] My introduction to the term, postmodern, dates back to the late 1990s. A staff member in my office offended a senior manager who then all-day training as a team-building exercise. After several hours of this pointless training, a colleague from New York City, who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian, reached his limit and began a long rant that included both the words postmodern and deconstruction.  The trainer later filed abuse charges against him.  Curious why she had taken offense, I looked up both words in a dictionary…my colleague aptly described our re-education experience.  Our punitive training was much like the training (re-education) offered by the communists of Vietnam to prisoners in their concentration camps after the war.

[3] Quote attributed to Rodney King (

[4] In statistics, we are taught that correlation cannot be interpreted as causality.  The analyst must have a theory to infer causality.  For example, sunspots may correlate with crop failures, but it does not imply that crops failed because of sunspots.  A theory must be introduced to show the linkage or causality.  The data by themselves cannot “speak”.  Derrida is making basically the same observation, but only with texts.

[5] This idea is called perspicuity of scripture (

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Prayer Day 15: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Holy Spirit. We praise you for creating and re-creating our world. Bless the church with the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence and spiritual gifts that we may minister with power and grace to a fallen world. And in all circumstances grant us peace. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Padre Todopoderoso, Amado Hijo, Espíritu Santo. Te alabamos por crear y re-crear nuestro mundo. Bendice la iglesia con la presencia continua y los dones espirituales del Espíritu Santo que podemos servir con poder y gracia en un mundo caído. Y en todas circunstancias da nos paz. En el precioso nombre de Jesús oramos, Amén.

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Tension Within Ourselves

Life_in_Tension_web“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We are the best fed generation of all time and most pampered people on the face of the earth. Yet, suicide has reached epidemic proportions among both our young people and senior citizens. Author Max Lucado (2012, 5) observed: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.”

Why? One answer is that we are isolated from ourselves. Henri Nouwen (2010, 89) writes: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.”  We are strangers to ourselves and the person that God created us to be.

Psychiatrists talk about rumination. Psychiatric patients obsess about traumatic events in their past. Such obsessions can be about the slightest little thing, real or imaged. Rumination becomes a problem because of repetition—daily or even hourly obsession with this memory. Because psychiatric patients have trouble distinguishing reality and illusion, each repetition is remembered as a separate, very real event. A single occurrence of parental discipline at age 8 could be remembered as a daily or evenly constant beating by age 20 and evoke rage when remembered.

Magnified in this way, normal relationships become strained. Time and emotional energy focused on this rumination displaces and slows normal emotional development because the patient was busy ruminating and has not devoted that energy to other, more pressing life issues like being fully present at school and in relationships. The ruminator becomes isolated from those around them and from themselves.

The thing of it is, we all ruminate. We all daydream; we all isolate ourselves from other people; and we all do it substantially more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the game program played every waking hour, and the work we never set aside all function to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads having the same effect as rumination [1]. We are distracted every waking hour from processing our thoughts and from dealing with our emotions. Much like addicts, we never reflect on our condition. We become anxious and annoyed when we must actually are forced to tune into our own lives—a kind of escalation [3].  Rumination, stress addiction, and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful even to be alone [2].

Jesus understands. He said:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness all work to break rumination by encouraging us to reflect on our past, present, and future in Christ and by refusing to let sin hold our relationships with God and our neighbors hostage.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus addresses disciples and says that we will be blessed in at least 3 ways:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 (Matt 5:3-5 ESV)

Jesus reframes threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity by offering promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth.  But we must accept the yoke of discipleship; these promises are not extended to spectators [4].

We are not alone—God is with us and we can be part of God’s community on earth—the church.  This community focus is obvious in the Beatitudes  because Jesus addresses his disciples in the plural [5].  Through our faith and our participation in the church, we can also be at peace with ourselves (John 14:27) even when we are alone.


[1] Technology connects yes, but it more often isolates us from one another.  A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend.  Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations.

[2] Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination.  Blackaby (2014, 47 ) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.

[3] Escalation is another term from psychiatry which describes the tendency of psychiatric patients to amply rather than dissipate any tension in conversation.  Even polite disagreement with such patients will quickly evoke an increasingly hostile response from such patients.   Even in normal people, escalation is a flag for personal instability.

[4] The yoke (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus describes is a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work.  Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not.  This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples.  This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says:  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV)

[5] In verse 3, for example, the Greek reads: “Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” (Matt 5:3 BNT)  Both πτωχοὶ (those poor) and and αὐτῶν (theirs–genitive plural).


Blackaby, Richard . 2012. The Seasons of God:  How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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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.


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].


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


[1] My own review is at:   Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (

[2] Part 1 is:  Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I (

[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 (

[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 (


 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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Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

Christ and Culture RevisitedD.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For about my first 3 years of college, I never went to church voluntarily. In my senior year of high school, the session had let our youth director go and I felt betrayed and angry. Instead of enjoying my senior year in youth group, the group disappeared overnight and I graduated a fairly isolated and lonely teen. Later, I learned that the youth director had been discovered to be lesbian; another prominent member of the congregation (who I also knew well) was charged with pediphia about the same time. Membership plunged after that point. The church building was sold in 2014. After journeying through some dark times, I able to make peace with God after I realized that the people around me, not God, had been responsible for my pain—evidence that we live in a toxic culture.


In his book, Christ & Culture Revisited, Carson (viii) starts his preface observing that: “even since Pentecost Christians have had to think through the nature of their relationships with others.” His other three reasons for writing have a more professional focus—the need for an international perspective on culture, Niebuhr was the focus of his seminary discussion group, and an invitation to lecture in Paris [1] on the subject (ix-x). Still, the preface to his paperback edition provides more insight into his motivation. He writes (vi): “The famous Niebuhr typology…drives us toward mutually exclusive choices we should not be making”. Ideas matter. I tell my kids—if you want others to take you seriously, first take yourself seriously. Carson is a serious thinker and a serious writer.

Background and Organization

D.A. Carson is a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield just outside Chicago in Illinois. His book cover is a painting, The Last Supper by Conrad Romyn. He writes in 6 chapters:

1. How to Thinking about Culture: Reminding Ourselves of Niebuhr;
2. Niebuhr Revised: The Impact of Biblical Theology;
3. Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism;
4. Secularism, Democracy, Freedom, and Power;
5. Church and State; and
6. On Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias, and Ongoing Tensions (v).

An important observation from this list of chapter titles is that Carson focuses on Niebuhr primarily in the first two chapters. Throughout the remainder of the book, he looks beyond Niebuhr to take a fresh look at the relationship of Christ and culture.

Carson’s Interpretation of Niebuhr

Carson starts his analysis of Niebuhr with the observation that: “If he [Niebuhr] is going to talk about ‘Christ and culture’, Niebuhr must provide reasonably clear definitions of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’” (9). This task proves harder than initially meets the eye because of a clear diversity of opinion about the information content of both terms.

In discussing Niebuhr’s definition of “Christ”, Carson cites Niebuhr saying: “If we cannot say anything adequately, we can say some things inadequately” and cannot “limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture” (10). Hmm.

As Carson observes, Niebuhr’s definition of culture proves no more easily defined as “Niebuhr wants to avoid the technical debates of anthropologists.” (11) Carson then opines that “Niebuhr’s definition of culture embraces ‘ideas’ and ‘beliefs’ as well as customs, inherited artifacts, and the life.” (12)

Having demonstrated that Niebuhr’s definitions of both “Christ” and “culture” are oblique, offers an insightful interpretation: “Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within the culture.” (12)[2] Christ as an authority competes with other authorities in society today and in the past who define culture. This interpretation is interesting because it is at least coherent offering an apples-to-apples comparison [3].

Because Carson’s interpretation of Niebuhr hangs on competing authorities, he needs a concrete set of ideas to characterize Christ’s role in interacting with culture. This he finds in the great turning points in salvation history (67) which then, in turn, define Christ’s contribution. In this latter respect, Carson focuses on Jesus’ words: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25 ESV)[4] Carson notes that God as creator of the heaven and earth abides no competitors [5] so Jesus is clearly asserting authority over culture (56-57).


A complete review of Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited would require almost as much study and ink as his review of Niebuhr. For this reason, I have broken this review into 2 parts.  In part 1, I note that Carson’s careful review of Niebuhr’s pays homage to Niebuhr even while making the limitations of his classification scheme (typology) painfully clear [6]. In part 2, I examine Carson’s exploration after Niebuhr.  Carson is a good read and worthy of detailed study. I learned a lot—perhaps you will too.


[1] This interpretation is insightful because truly innovative thinkers, like Niebuhr, do not have the benefit of refined thinking when they express themselves—they define entirely new thought patterns—and their expressions are invariably enigmatic. While they know what they mean, their words only partially express their underlying thinking.

[2] I find it the height of irony that Carson should lecture in Paris in French on a book about culture both proclaiming the obsolescence of postmodernism (vi-vii) and an end to the “high culture” critique implicit in Niebuhr (1-2).  I wish that I could have been there!

[3] The other apples-to-apples comparison option would be to compare Christian and pagan cultures—a perilous task.

[4] Also Matt 22:21 and Mark 12:17.

[5] See Gen 1:1 and Exod 20:3-5. Culture is a perfectly good idol for many people which has direct bearing on Jesus’ words when he points to a coin with a picture of Caesar (Luke 20:24). A good Jew in Jesus’ day would refuse to carry a denarius which is why, for example, Jesus had to ask for one.

[6] My own review is at: Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (


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

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

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Prayer Day 14: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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Almighty Father. Judge of the living and the dead. Compassionate Spirit. May we follow your example and passionately pursue truth and justice. Help us to open our hearts and sharpen our minds. In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us compassionate hearts for those in need. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Padre Todopoderoso. Juicio de los vivos y los muertos. Espíritu de compasión. Que podamos seguir tu ejemplo y apasionadamente perseguir la verdad y justicia. Ayuda nos abrir nuestros corazones y agudizar nuestras mentes. En el poder de tu Espíritu Santo, da nos los corazones compasivos para los necesitados. En el preciosos nombre de Jesús, Amén.

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