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Review of Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited

May 19, 2008

Anyone interested in the theological intersection of Christ and culture should be familiar with Richard Niebuhr’s 50’s classic, Christ and Culture, which bequeathed the familiar Christ and Culture typology to Christians of the Western world. In a follow up work, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson recently published Christ and Culture Revisited, a deliberate reassessment of Niebuhr’s work.

Carson’s work is thoughtful, well-reasoned and, at times, compelling. The relationship between Christ, culture, and the church are of uppermost personal interest. I recently wrote a practical article that focused on equipping the church to think critically and redemptively about culture. However, I am equally interested in the more theological foundations for cultural engagement. All that to say, I can’t resist reviewing Carson’s book! So here goes chapter one:

Defining Culture

In chapter one, Carson appropriately launches his book by establishing a working definition of culture. After citing various sources (Geertz not the least), he settles into a definition of culture that recognizes both the ideological and the material aspects of culture, e.g. “the shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact” (Redfield). Culture deals in ideas and materials, beliefs and behaviors. With the meaning of culture established, Carson makes plain that his intent is to: “focus on how we should be thinking about the relations between Christ and culture now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” He then lists six factors that guide his line of inquiry. In summary, they include: the work of Niebuhr, multiculturalism, and cultural relativity.

Pressing into Niebuhr, Carson takes the high ground by meeting Niebuhr on his own authorial turf, citing Christ and Culture extensively. He summarizes the five positions offered by Niebuhr (Christ vs. Culture, of Culture, above Culture, and Culture, transformer of Culture). These summaries are indeed summaries, which may be unclear to readers who are not familiar with Niebuhr’s work. Though I have read Niebuhr, I found Carson’s review of the Christ of Culture position especially fuzzy (16-20). Carson then turns to critique Niebuhr’s definition of culture because it includes beliefs and religion (12). In other words, Carson finds Niebuhr’s definition contradictory because he is calling for a Christocentric perspective on culture, when culture includes Christianity by definition. I could be misreading Carson, but I do not detect a contradiction here. There are many “Christianities” but there is only one Christ. Carson seems to assume that there is a monolithic, un-enculturated Christian faith but that is impossible. Every expression of the gospel of Christ is expressed in and through cultural forms, which is one of the greatest strengths of the Christian faith over and against other major religions, like Islam, which subdues its target culture, imposing Islamic culture and belief wherever it has historically gone.

Positively, Carson levels a solid critique on Niebuhr’s christology: “…the interpretations of “Christ” that he embraces is doubtless too broad, if one is trying to limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture.” In my next post, I will consider Carson’s contribution of the impact of biblical theology on the issues of Christ and culture.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2008 12:01 am

    I guess you are also familiar with Christ and Culture, by Graham Ward (Blackwell, 2005).

  2. May 22, 2008 12:03 am

    ps. even Islam is not monolithic (contra. to what you suggested about Islam). In India, Islam is very different (in fact, extremely different) from the Islam you get in the Middle East (and I mean it even when Islam in India is a dominant part of a community (like Uttar Pradesh), not just in minority). Just a thought.

  3. May 22, 2008 12:29 pm

    Thanks, NAyK. Yes, familiar but chose not read it given it’s particularly political focus. Should I read it anyway?

    Perhaps I should have qualified my comments about Islam. What I had in mind was the consistent forms of no translation of the Koran, fairly consistent dress codes, fairly consistent mosque architecture, etc. Am I incorrect on this? I have not been to India and for that country I am leaning on what I have read through the Trimingham vs. Humphries debate.

    Please share!

  4. May 22, 2008 8:36 pm

    to jdodson.

    About Islam… well… you said

    >>>I had in mind was the consistent forms of no translation of the Koran, fairly consistent dress codes, fairly consistent mosque architecture, etc.<<<

    My main point is that we should avoid making that particular comparison that Christianity is diverse and Islam monolithic. For instance, on the very points that you mentioned… there are many Christian communities (in India) that only follow one translation, are fairly consistent in dress code (some wear only white) and are pretty consistent in pretty much everything else.

    Now inversely… there are many communities in India where Muslim women do not need to wear a burkha or even cover their heads. These people don’t know Arabic and usually converse in Urdu… and are pretty flexible about many other things. They also feel they are unique from other Muslims around the world because their culture is different.

    Now we may argue that the Christians I mentioned above are just the very example of Christian diversity. Similarly, the Muslims I mentioned above are the examples of Muslim diversity.

    Regarding commonality… both Christian and Muslims are strong on commonality about a lot of issues such as the importance of scripture, some creeds etc.

    Hinduism (which is actually my interest) is more diverse and to them, both Islam and Christianity are pretty monolithic, simply because they have common creeds or one God etc.

    Whatever the implications of the above, I would hesitate from making any comparison between Islam and Christianity about diversity and monolithic culture.

    My view is that usually the leaders of the community, like Islamic mullahs or Papal priests (Catholic traditions), or even Pastors of the Assemblies of God, think their traditions are pretty sturdy and non-diverse… but once you study deeper you will find huge diversity within the practitioners…

    In effect… EVERYTHING… is diverse… whether people think they are or aren’t. Even the Christian faith… where we believe that Jesus is the only saviour… is believed in unique ways around the world.

    OK… enough rambling. Nice blog, btw. :)


  1. Christ & Culture Revisited « Church Planting Novice
  2. Reviewing Christ & Culture Revisited (Chp 2) « Creation Project
  3. Should We “Redeem” Culture? « Church Planting Novice
  4. Culture: To Redeem or Not to Redeem? « Theological

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