Thinking Biblically About Culture

There is a subtle irony in the fact
that a book by a liberal theologian has so thoroughly suffused
contemporary evangelical selfunderstand ng. H. Richard
Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has
achieved the status of a classic
not because it has been particularly influential amongst
his mainline confreres, but
because his taxonomy of various
Christian understandings
of “culture” has become a template
for evangelical introspection. Wittingly or unwittingly,
the spate of recent books that
articulate the evangelical mission
of “transforming culture”
are working with the lexicon of
a neo-orthodox theologian.

Its status as a veritable evangelical classic has also generated critique,
including Craig Carter’s incisive Rethinking
Christ and Culture
2007), and here D. A . Carson’s Christ
and Culture Revisited
. Carson rightly
seeks to revisit Niebuhr’s categories;
more specifically, refusing to take
them as a given, Carson holds their
feet to the biblical fire.
Christ and Culture
As a biblical theologian, he is concerned that
Niebuhr’s categories have taken on a
life of their own, achieving such independent
status that Christians now
take up his models without considering how (or whether) they grow out of biblical wisdom. Carson also suggests
that Niebuhr’s strategy is a bit like recent
discussions of the atonement: for
too long, various models of the atonement
were considered to be mutually
exclusive, whereas the richness of the
biblical vision might best be honored
by embracing hem as complementary understandings of Christ’s work
on the cross. So, too, with models of
Christ and culture, Carson suggests.
Perhaps we should stop feeling compelled to pick and choose among them
and instead consider a bigger picture
that integrates these different approaches
together (61- 62, 206).

Carson is also rightly concerned
to detach accounts of “Christ and culture”
from the American provincialism
that often attends such ana yses. As
he wryly puts it, “If Abraham Kuyper
had grown up under the conditions
of the killing fields of Cambodia, one
suspects his view of the relationship
between Christianity and culture would have been significantly modified” (ix-x).
Thus Carson brings up
other contexts where Christians must
wrestle with these questions, such as
France and other Europen environs,
but also sectors of the majority world
where Christians face persecution
and political environments that are a
long way from western democracy. As
such, he hints toward a more global
consideration of the question.

His core project, however, is to root
a Christian understanding of culture
and cultural engagement in the narrative of Scripture. Carson’s persistent
point is that Christian thinking about
culture must be explicitly and positively informed by “the great turning
points in salvation history” (67). In a
way, this approach highlights the fact
that Jesus makes remarkably few appearances in Christian understandings
of culture; instead, we get significant appeals to creation, justice,
and so forth. As Carson notes, “however
loyal one judges oneself to be to
Jesus, it is difficult to see how such
loyalty is a mark of Christian thought
if the Jesus so invoked is so domesticated and selectively constructed
that he bears litt le relation to the
Bible” (44). Carson invites us to ask:
are we really dealing with a Christian
account of culture if the cross never
shows up? In the name of “Christian” approaches to culture, we get a
lot of creational models, but very few
cruciform approaches. On this score,
I think Carson and Carter might be

Unfortunately, it is precisely in its
Scriptural aspirations that the book
falters. For one, Carson’s “overview ”
of the biblical narrative is remarkably
piecemeal and selective, and ignores
some significant biblical passages
that seem crucial for such ananalysis,
such as 1 Peter 2:9, Acts 2:4 4-46
and 4:32-37, and Old Testament passages
such as Jeremiah 7 and 21. In
addition, his tendency to make one
pronouncement of Jesus (“Give back
to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” ) a veritable canon within the canon undercuts
the very canonical emphasis
that motivates his project. But it is
Carson’s theology that lies at the root
of the problem.

Given the riches of biblic l wisdom
across its canonical sweep, Carson’s
plot summary of the story is puzzling.
While he emphasizes the doctrine of
creation–that “God made everything”
(45)–he nowhere attends to what has
commonly been described as the “cultural mandate,” the call embedded n
creation for humans to cultivate the
earth (Gen. 1:27-29): to unfurl and
unfold the possibilities latent within
creation through cultural work. Instead,
Carson tends to treat “culture”
as some sort of given, failing to offer
a theology of culture which sees the
work of human making as rooted in
creation itself. I don’t think one can
just chalk this up to lacking space
to deal with all the details. Rather,
it indicates a particular take on the
“turning points” of redemptive history.
A wea k theology of creation will lack
a clear theology of culture as a task
given to humanity as image bearers of
God. This perhaps explains why, for
Carson, “culture” always seems to be
a noun (something “out there”) rather
than a verb (something we do).

It also becomes clear in Carson’s
survey of redemptive history that
what is being redeemed are persons:
this is “salvation history” (67) and
it is “we”–that is, we humans–who
are being saved. Because sin is understood
narrowly as personal moral
transgression and idolatry (46 -48),
redemption is conceived in equally
narrow terms as the salvation of human persons (50, 64, 215 n.24, 217).
Because institutions, systems, and
structures are absent from Carson’s
account of creation, they also tend
not to show up on the radar of fallenness
and redemption. It is “we” who
are fallen and “we” who are saved.

It thus comes as no surprise to
see an old familiar bifurcation between redemption and cultural labor
in Carson’s understanding of the
church’s mission–or, as he puts it,
“what the church as church is mandated
to do” (172). And what is that?
Well, it’s churchy stuff: “When the
church meets together in the New Testament,” he observes, it is to praise
and sing, to teach and learn, to observe the ordinances of baptism and
the Lord’s supper, and to exercise discipline–all with a view to equipping
the saints for evangelism (150 -151). (I
seem to notice the early church also
engaging in the redistribution of resources
and self-consciously constituting itse f as a distinct political
community, but never mind.) Carson
is clear that the central Christian obligation is ministry and evangelism:
when Christians make ministries
of compassion and justice central,
“they m rginalize their responsibilities as members of the church of Jesus
Christ, the church that lives and
dies by the great commission.” While
Christians might engage in a little
culture engagement on the side, they
are called “first and foremost” to be
“gospel Christians, deeply engaged in
their local churches, extraordinarily
disciplined in their own Bible reading
and evangelism” (152-153).

Carson concludes that “the only
human organization that continues
into eternity is the church” (217).
This confirms the narrow eschatology hinted at earlier in the book when
he claims that “what must be feared
and avoided at all costs is the second
death (Revelation 20-22). This means
that the current relations between
Christ and culture have no final status.
These must instead be evaluated
in the light of eternity” (58-59). One
senses that Carson’s “eternity” lacks
cultural institutions–an eternity
without commerce or politics, art or
athletics. (While he occasionally tips
his hat to other areas, Carson’s analysis
pretty much reduces culture to
“politics.” ) All that will remain is “the
church,” although it is not clear just
what the church will be doing s nce,
according to Carson, “the church lives
and dies by the great commission”
(152). Such a flattened vision of our
redeemed future is the correlate of a
stunted understanding of creation.

In sum, Carson’s laudable project
of pushing conversations about
“Christ and culture” to the riches of
the biblical narrative is a missed opportunity–a missed opportuni y to
articulate a biblical theology of culture
as a creational task, and so also
a missed opportunity to finally undo
the old bifurcation between the cultural mandate and the great commission.
Even those who affirm both
too often see them as distinct and
fail to discern their intimate connection. For what is the Gospel but God’s
call and invitation to be restored and
renewed as image-bearers of God?
Being God’s image-bearers is not a
static “property” of being human but
a calling, a vocation, and a task, as
Richard Middleton has brilliantly laid
out in The Liberating Image (Brazos,
2005). Christ, as the second Adam, is
the Son who has imaged for us what
it means to be God’s vice-regents: he
has shown us what it looks like to do
this. Christ’s death and resurrection
have made it possible for us to once
again take up our creational calling
to be culture-makers, re-equipped
for the task given to humanity at the
start. And Christ has also shown us
that, in a fallen and broken world, the
shape of that vocation is cruciform:
being cultural agents of the crucified God is not a project of triumphal
transformation but of suffering witness.
The church will be the church
when it sees its commitment to the
great commission as a matter of extending God’s invitation to redemption and renewal, which is precisely
an invitation to once again become
what we were made to be: God’s subcreators.

James K.A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College
in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His new book, Desiring
the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Education
as Cultural Formation
, will appear this summer from
Baker Academic.