Sunday, May 25, 2008

Carson on Niebuhr: Christ Against Culture

In D.A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited, the author seeks to bring some biblical-theological insights to bear upon H. Richard Niebuhr's famous work, Christ and Culture. The project sounds welcome enough, but I'm not far enough in to the volume to really see what Carson is attempting to do just yet.

The first of Niebuhr's five options for understanding the relationship of Christ and culture with which Carson interacts is Christ Against Culture. Citing Tertullian as an advocate of this approach (Christians are a "third race" distinct from Jews and Gentiles), Carson sums up Niebuhr on this point thus: "... for the Christian, political life must be shunned, and so also military service, philosophy, and the arts." Included within this group would be certain Mennonite groups, the early Quakers, Leo Tolstoy, and, Carson adds, Stanley Hauerwas.

This position is inadequate, Niebuhr argues, since escape from one's culture is an impossibility. At the end of the day, Tertullian is a Roman and Tolstoy a Russian, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Among the various theological problems with this approach is the subtle assumption that while sin abounds "out there" (in the culture), it is largely absent "in here" (in the believer).

It seems to me that the root of many evangelical myths and misunderstandings about "the world" is seen at this very point. The world is almost purely demonic while the Christian bubble is virtually divine, when in point of fact, common grace makes the culture much better, and spiritual pride makes the church much worse, than most evangelicals want to admit.

For my own part, I see the doctrine of the two kingdoms as providing the necessary basis for the kind of cultural engagement during which one need not cross his fingers or grope for the underlying redemptive significance of the Lakers losing game three to the Spurs Sunday night.

In a word, the culture must not be made into a false idol, but it need not become a false devil either.