Monday, June 16, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 1)

In chapter 1 of Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson introduces "Christ" and "culture" and how they interact. We find ourselves in a multi-cultural context in which many voices compete to be "heard" in the culture at large. The relationship between Christ and culture is a sensitive one because any claim that Christians make to be relevant to culture implies that their voice is in one way or another superior to the other voices. Thus, "Christianity can be tolerated, provided it is entirely private: Christian belief that intrudes itself into the public square, especially if it is trying to influence public policy, is most often taken, without examination, as prima facie evidence for bigotry and intolerance" (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 6).

At the same time, the world is by and large becoming "more religious," so the question of Christ's relationship to culture is unavoidable. This brings Carson to the most significant investigation of Christ and culture in the English speaking world, H. Richard Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture.

Niebuhr sees five general ways in which Christians have viewed Christ's relationship to culture:

1. Christ against culture. The claims of Christ are necessarily against that of "the world." The task of the Chistian is to retreat into the Christian ghetto to avoid pollution from the negative influence of "the world." The problem with this view is that the Christian can never escape from culture. Everything we do, from the language we speak to the way we make money to the laws that we obey or disobey, is culturally bound.

2. Christ of culture. The claims of Christ represent what is best in culture. Jesus' message was simple--love your neighbor, be at peace with everyone, work for harmony. These same claims are the claims made by the culture at large. Thus, Christ is indistinguishable from culture. The problem with this view is that it does not account for evil in culture.

3. Christ above culture. The claims of Christ are above culture. All truth is God's truth, even when it comes from a non-believer. The "truth" of culture that is really "true" is that which lines up with Christ. If we perfectly understood Christ and perfectly understood culture, we would see that they are the same. The problem with this view is that it is a little too neat in theory and it doesn't always work out in reality.

4. Christ and culture in paradox. Since God's ways are not man's ways, Christ and culture will always be opposed to each other. The Christian is at the same time a citizen of the world and a citizen of heaven. Thus the Christian is always living a life in paradox. The problem with this view is that its adherents often get comfortable with the sins of the culture and don't push for change. (For example, someone is able to justify being a Christian and yet owning slaves at the same time, since they are a citizen of two worlds.)

5. Christ the transformer of culture. Christ and culture are often in opposition, and Christ is always seeking to conform the culture to his ways. Thus there is much in culture that needs to be redeemed. Carson notes that since Niebuhr does not offer negative criticism of this view, that this was probably the one that he supported (28–29).

When I read Niebuhr's book a few months ago, I took a survey that put me in the "Christ above culture" camp. I stick to that still. Where do you fall? Or do you want to wait until Carson shows that the correct answer is "6: None of the above," "7: All of the above in different contexts," or "8: Wrong question"?

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