Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 4)
In chapter 4 of Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson investigates four dominant forces in Western culture—secularism, democracy, freedom, and power.
The first force that dominates Western culture is secularism. The term “secular” is not bad in and of itself—it simply refers to that which is not explicitly religious or superstitious. Secularism as a philosophy, on the other hand, is the desire to squeeze all things religious out of the public sphere. Thus when we speak of “Christ and culture,” Christ will necessarily be against a “secularist” culture because his claims are both religious and public.
Another force that dominates Western culture is democracy. While Carson argues that democracy is a good thing, it is not necessarily a “Christian” thing. Democracy can lead to all sorts of evil if the people choose to take it in that direction. For instance, he relates a story from a Slovakian pastor who noted that he had never seen pornography sold on the streets of his country until it became a democracy. Therefore, Carson notes that democracy is good in that it prevents tyranny, but it by no means goes hand-in-hand with Christ.
In addition to secularism and democracy, the desire for freedom is also a driving force in Western culture. But there is a difference between being free “from” something and being free “toward” something. Which of these do we mean when we talk about our desire to be free? For instance, a government ban on firearms might at the same time infringe upon someone’s freedom toward owning a gun and preserve someone else’s freedom toward safety. What do we mean when we say we value freedom? As it relates to Western culture, Carson writes:
“The democratic tradition in the West has fostered a great deal of freedom from Scripture, God, tradition, and assorted moral constraints; it encourages freedom toward doing your own thing, hedonism, self-centeredness, and consumerism. By contrast, the Bible encourages freedom from self-centeredness, idolatry, greed, and all sin and freedom toward living our lives as those who bear God’s image and who have been transformed by his grace, such that our greatest joy becomes doing his will.” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 138.)
Finally, Carson tackles the driving force of power. While power is not a bad thing (Carson notes that we like it when the police show some power when rescuing us from a mugging or a rape), it can be abused (much like the police sometimes abuse their power). The biblical view of power is that all power is God’s power, and all earthly power, therefore, is derived power.
I am struck by how different Carson’s book is than Niebuhr’s. From the title of the book, I expected it to be an updated version of it or at least a reaction to it. While Carson does interact with Niebuhr in the early chapters, the book seems to be headed in a direction in which Carson is going to explain how his theology should be worked out in his culture. It’s almost should have been titled Carson’s Plan for America. While Niebuhr’s book introduced a paradigm for making deducing the relationship between Christ and culture, Carson’s book just gives you the answer from his perspective (or at least that is where I anticipate he is going).
That being said, Carson has a gift for pointing out what is wrong with the world. Americans idolize secularization, democracy, freedom, and power, and Carson’s rebuke is well-placed. If Christ were to comment on our culture, I think He would agree with Carson.
I’m afraid that Carson isn’t going to answer the question that is on everyone’s mind when we talk about “Christ and culture.” My faith looks very different than that of the early church. Much of that difference is because they were first-century Roman citizens and I am a twenty-first century American. Part of the Gospel is that there is “no longer Jew nor Greek,” and so inherent to it is the question of where you draw the line between Christ and culture. I’m afraid Carson isn’t going to offer anything helpful to those who don’t live in a culture exactly like his and don’t hold to a theology exactly like his.
Hopefully he’ll prove me wrong. He’s got two chapters.