Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3 of D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited is titled, “Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism.” In the chapter, he does just that. First, Carson addresses four questions targeted at his approach of comparing a biblical portrait of Christ to culture. Then, he speaks at length about postmodernism, responding to James K.A. Smith’s book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Smith’s book was in part a response to Carson’s books, The Gagging of God and Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.)

The first question Carson addresses is whether sweeping questions about “culture” are appropriate, given the diversity of cultures and their overlapping nature. Carson answers that while indeed, individuals inevitably belong to a number of cultures, one can still speak of generalities in culture. Breaking culture down to the minimums would mean that everyone is his or her own culture, something that contradicts the definition of the word itself.

Second, Carson addresses the question of whether it is appropriate to speak of one culture as superior to another. While we should be aware of our propensity to elevate our culture over others, Carson asks the question of whether or not is appropriate to label the Nazi culture as more “evil” than other cultures since they committed genocide. His point is that in many ways we can compare a culture’s relative adherence to the biblical narrative to evaluate how “good” or “bad” it is. Otherwise, we approve of the Holocaust.

Third, Carson addresses the point that Christians inevitably constitute a part of the culture so that “Christ and Culture” becomes a false dichotomy. Carson says, “They are distinguishable entities, but not mutually exclusive entities, in the same way that Hispanic-American culture is distinguishable from the broader American culture yet an integral part of it” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 75).

Fourth, Carson answers the question about whether the diversity of opinion about “Christ” nullifies anyone’s attempt to talk about “Christ and Culture.” Here Carson says that there are certain truth’s about Christ taught in the Scriptures and the degree to which one’s “Christ” corresponds to the biblical witness determines the degree to which one can appropriately talk about “Christ and culture.”

After answering four major objections to his method, Carson moves to what I think is a non-sequitur in a discussion about postmodernism. He responds to the work of James K.A. Smith. Essentially, he says that his “postmodern” critics caricaturize him as holding positions that he does not hold. Just because he is not a postmodernist does not make him a Cartesian. Carson concludes that maybe hardcore postmodernists and hardcore modernists are both wrong and that they need to learn from each other. To the modernists he says, “We are all perspectivalists, even if perspectivalists can be divided into those who admit it and those who don’t” (90). To the postmodernists, he says, “We see through a glass darkly. Nevertheless, we do see” (94). He writes:

“It does no good to camp out with those moderns who demonize postmodernism, for in fact, whether we like it or not, we are all perspectivalists; equally, it does no good to camp out with those postmodernists who demonize modernism, for in fact, within the limitations of what it means to be finite creature touched by grace, we can know and proclaim the truth” (113).

Carson has some good stuff in chapter 3. First, while I disagree to the extent to which he has narrowly defined Christianity, I agree that there are boundaries to what is orthodox and what is unorthodox. Therefore, it is possible to speak of Christian and non-Christian cultures, and the dialogue between Christ and culture is a real one. Also, however strange it was to see the postmodern discussion in this book, it is comforting to see that Carson is not as hard of a modernist as his critics make him out to be. He is right in saying that the “chastened modernists” and the “soft postmodernists” are saying largely the same thing.

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