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

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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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.

Introduction

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).

Assessment

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.

Footnotes

[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 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

References

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

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Continue Reading

Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture

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

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture, helped define the conversation around the sweeping changes in society that have occurred over the past generation. It is helpful to review Niebuhr’s writing before diving into the new world that we find ourselves in. Niebuhr lived from 1894 to 1962. He taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School during his career.

Ethics

The study of ethics concerns itself with how to apply basic principles to life’s problems. Schools of thought are important in studying ethics because decisions must be made against competing objectives and placing differing priorities on the basic principles. For example, in deciding how to spent our nights and weekends, we frequently must make a tradeoff between parental duties (a deontological criteria) and future income (a teleological criteria). The tradeoff over how to spend this time accordingly poses an ethical problem.

Classification of Relationships between Church and Culture

Niebuhr’s contribution to the debate over the relationship of the church to culture in the United States in the 1950s was to develop a classification schema (or typological framework) of 5 conceptually possible relationships. In his introduction, he reviews different alternatives on which to base a classification schema, including: Psychological, churches and sects, mystics, social-economic, and philosophical methods (xxxix-xl). He prefers a theological basis to classify divided into 5 types (xli-lv)

1. Christ against culture (new law);
2. Christ of culture (natural law);
3. Christ above culture (synthetic or architectonic);
4. Christi and culture in paradox (dualistic or oscillatory); and
5. Christ transforming culture (conversionist).

Defining Culture

In his first chapter, he retains this classification schema going on to discuss his definitions of Christ and culture. He starts out saying: “A Christian is ordinarily defined as ‘one who believes in Jesus Christ’ or as ‘a follower of Jesus Christ’” (11). He then goes on to reflect on the diversity within the Christian community . In defining culture, Niebuhr notes a parallel problem of diversity (that is, comparing two heterogeneous categories). He sees culture having 4 primary attributes:

1. It is social;
2. It includes human achievement;
3. It is a world of values; and
4. It is pluralistic (29-41).

Organization of Book

Niebuhr structures Christ and Culture into 7 chapters, including:

1. The Enduring Problem (1-44);
2. Christ Against Culture (45-83);
3. The Christ of Culture (83-115);
4. Christ Above Culture (116-148);
5. Christ and Culture in Paradox (149-189);
6. Christ the Transformer of Culture (190-229); and
7. A Concluding Unscientific Postscript (230-256).

These chapters are preceded by numerous front matter sections (notes, acknowledgments, Foreword, Preface, and Introduction) and followed by an index. Clearly the focus of the book is on applying Niebuhr’s classification schema, not its justification.

Review of the Possible Relationships

Let me turn then to review Niebuhr’s 5 classifications.

Christ Against Culture.

Niebuhr writes that this classification: “affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45). He then writes: “Every phase of culture falls under indictment. Through state, church, and property system are the citadels of evil, philosophy and science and arts also come under condemnation” (60). Niebuhr notes many advocates of this position. It is more normally today associated with the Anabaptists denominations, such as the Mennonites and some Pentecostals. God’s sovereignty is over both church and state.

The Christ of Culture.

Niebuhr writes that these groups: “understand Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (83). Christ is viewed as the great educator (84). Participation in the culture poses no particular problem (87). Liberal and fundamentalist can both join in this classification (91), but the offense of Christ to culture appears lost in the accommodation (108).

Christ Above Culture.

Niebuhr sees “the great majority in Christianity” who “refused to take either the position of the anti-cultural radicals [Christ Against Culture] or that the accommodation of Christ to culture [Christ of Culture]…For the fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world…but between God and man” (117). He further divides the great majority into “synthesists, dualists, and conversionists” (116). These make up his last 3 classes. The Christ Above Culture class is “the synthesis [who] affirms both Christ and culture” (120). Saint Thomas Aquinas is the arch-type for this class.

Christ and Culture in Paradox.

Niebuhr’s dualist “divides the world…into realms of light and darkness, of kingdoms of God and Satan” (149). Niebuhr sees the Apostle Paul as a dualist (166).

Christ the Transformer of Culture.

Niebuhr says “The conversionist…does not live so much in expectation of a final ending of the world of creation and culture as in awareness of the power of the Lord to transform all things by lifting them up to himself” (195). He sees Calvin falling into this category (217).

Apples and Oranges

Clearly, Niebuhr offered a starting point for discussing the relationship of Christ and culture. The economist in me is, however, confused by this classification schema not only because it compares apples and oranges (Christ as a kind of arch-type and culture largely undefined), but because it distinguishes attributes of every Christian’s journey of faith as separate classes. For example, while Niebuhr sees the Apostle Paul as a dualist, Paul is also the great articulator of conversion. How else could we classify the Paul of Romans 12:1-2? Is Paul to be thought theologically inconsistent or schizophrenic? My expectation (as an economist) is an apples-to-apples comparison of Christian and pagan culture.

Influences

Niebuhr implicitly presumes that both pagans outside the church and Christians inside the church are in some measure influenced by Christ. The ideas of competing religious influences or of cultural influences on Christ have relatively little influence on Niebuhr’s schema as he focuses on Christ’s influence on culture. While this emphasis may have been helpful in 1951, today it is clearly incomplete. The fastest growing religion in the United States is Islam. This is because of immigration, but how does that fit in Niebuhr’s classification? Our post-Christian culture is clearly no longer captive to Christian influence, if it ever was.

Church Syncretism

More to the point, the biggest challenge in the church today is syncretism. Syncretism is a cultural influence, not from Christ to the culture, but from an increasingly secular culture to the church. This challenge raises serious issues for Niebuhr’s classification. While Christ is not changed by syncretism, our interpretation of Christ may be. The church, which was established by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, clearly is also influenced. Appeals then to Niebuhr’s classification accordingly appear anachronistic—an appeal to glories no longer evident. Worse, the classifications invite Christians to define their journey of faith in a particular classification rather than live out the entire Gospel witness. Consequently, if we are to classify relationships, Christian and pagan cultures need to be more precisely defined.

Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Continue Reading