For more than fifty years now, H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work Christ and Culture has influenced the evangelical understanding of how to relate the Christian faith to the cultures we live in. D.A. Carson’s new book, Christ and Culture Revisited takes a critical look at Niebuhr’s work. He summarizes Niebuhr’s book, offers a timely critique, and then uses the book as a springboard into contemporary issues.
Carson’s book is as much a new Christ and Culture as it is a critique of Niebuhr’s work. By studying the dominant cultural forces of our time and speaking to the debates about “culture” and “postmodernism,” Carson updates, changes, and arguably replaces Neibuhr’s work, at least in terms of its contemporary relevance.
In chapter 1, Carson lays out Niebuhr’s five paradigms for understanding the relationship between Christ and culture: Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, and Christ above Culture (a paradigm which includes the last two as subsets: Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture).
In chapter 2, Carson critiques Niebuhr’s proposal, mainly by showing how those in the Christ of Culture paradigm (Gnostics, Classic Liberals, etc.) have largely abandoned Christianity altogether. He also critiques Niebuhr’s handling of Scripture, specifically – his defense of the Christ the Transformer of Culture paradigm. Carson argues against a “one size fits all” mentality, and instead believes that the Scriptures may advocate some elements in one situation and other elements in another. But Carson does not merely critique Niebuhr. He lays out the major historical moments that form the heart of the Christian understanding of the world, arguing that these are non-negotiables of biblical theology.
In chapter 3, Carson defines “culture” and then refines our understanding of “postmodernism.” Towards the end of the chapter, the gloves come off. In discussing epistemology, Carson debates vigorously against the epistemology of James Smith that is now surfacing in the Emerging Church.
Chapters 4 and 5 deal with contemporary issues in today’s society. What are Christians to make of secularization? Why is it important that we not equate our democratic government with the Kingdom? Why is freedom dangerous? Carson devotes an entire chapter to issues of church and state, managing to appreciate and still strongly criticize our Western ideals of freedom and prosperity, all from a biblical perspective.
In the final chapter, Carson lays out some of specific models of thinking through issues of Christ and culture. He calls these models “options,” while appreciating and warning against certain aspects of each.
Christ and Culture Revisited is a worthy addition to the thoughtful pastor’s library. Carson helpfully summarizes and critiques Niebuhr’s work. But more than that, he offers solid counsel on navigating the murky waters of a fading cultural Christianity in the West.