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Christ and Culture Revisited
By D. A. CARSON
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2008 D. A. Carson
All right reserved.
Chapter One How to Think about Culture: Reminding Ourselves of Niebuhr
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Before plunging into this subject, we had better find some agreement as to what we mean by "culture."
Not very long ago, "culture" commonly referred to what is now meant by "high culture." For instance, we might have said, "She has such a cultured voice." If a person read Shakespeare, Goethe, Gore Vidal, Voltaire, and Flaubert, and listened to Bach and Mozart while reading a slender volume of poetry, all the while drinking a mild Chardonnay, he was cultured; if he read cheap whodunits, Asterix, and Eric Ambler — or, better yet, did not read at all — while drinking a beer or a Coke, all the while listening to ska or heavy metal and paying attention to the X-Box screen with the latest violent video game, he was uncultured. But this understanding of "culture" must, sooner or later, be challenged by those who think of "high" culture as a species of elitism, as something intrinsically arrogant or condescending. For them, the opposite of "high culture" is not "low culture" but "popular culture," with its distinct appeal to democratic values. But even the appeal to "popular culture" is not very helpful for our purposes, because it appeals to only one part of "culture": presumably there are various forms of "unpopular culture" out there too.
Today, "culture" has become a fairly plastic concept that means something like "the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population." That's not bad, but doubtless the definition could be improved by a bit of tightening. Probably the most important seminal definition, arising from the fields of intellectual history and cultural anthropology, is that of A. L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn:
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand as conditioning elements of further action.
Not a few other definitions say something similar. Brief and to the point is the one-liner definition of Robert Redfield: "shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact." The widely cited definition offered by Clifford Geertz combines succinctness and clarity: "[T]he culture concept ... denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life."
Doubtless the details of these definitions could be debated and refined; indeed, a significant minority of anthropologists and others are suspicious of the entire concept of culture. The primary reason has to do with confusion between what "culture" means and what "metanarrative" means. The critics offer two dominant arguments. First, they insist, we simply must reject the pretension that a metanarrative is possible: there is no big explanatory story that makes sense of all the little stories. And if we reject the notion of metanarrative, we cannot continue to talk about culture, since culture is bound up with universal or even transcendental assumptions. Second, all such discussions presuppose that we who are discussing culture somehow stand outside it, and that is impossible. For instance, any discussion between Christ (and thus Christianity) and culture is incoherent, since all forms of Christianity are inherently and unavoidably embedded in cultural expression. How can there be a dialogue with only one partner?
Some of these challenges I will attempt to address in the third chapter. This is not (yet) the place to probe the matter in any detail. It is enough for the moment to point out that my own use of "culture" will nestle comfortably in the domain of the definitions I've already provided, in particular the contribution of Geertz. These definitions presuppose that there are many cultures and make no pretensions about assigning transcendental value to any of them. That all exemplifications of faith, Christian and otherwise, are necessarily expressed within forms that are cultural cannot reasonably be denied. What that means for the dialogue is still to be worked out.
That brings me to the nub of the issue I want to address.
The Contemporary Challenge
In the move from the old covenant to the new, the locus of the covenant people passed from the covenant-nation to the international covenant-people. That inevitably raised questions about the relationships this people should have with the people around them who were not part of the new covenant. In political terms, Christians had to work through the relationship between the church and the state, between the kingdom of God and the Roman Empire. Somewhat different answers were called up by different circumstances: contrast, for instance, Romans 13 and Revelation 19. But the issues the church faced by being an international community claiming ultimate allegiance to a kingdom not of this world were much more than governmental. They also had to do with whether Christians should participate in socially expected customs when those customs had religious overtones (e.g., 1 Corinthians 8), with styles of governance (e.g., Matthew 20:20-28), with an array of relational expectations (e.g., Philemon; 1 Peter 2:13–3:16), with the challenge of persecution (e.g., Matthew 5:10-12; John 15:18–16:4; Revelation 6), and much more.
All of these dynamics changed with the Constantinian settlement, of course—but that does not mean that from the beginning of the fourth century, the tensions were all resolved and the debates silenced. The challenge of how to respond to official persecution obviously declined in the Empire after the accession of Constantine, but other questions had to be thought through. For instance, just war theory, articulated in pagan form by Cicero, took on distinctively Christian forms once believers faced increasing responsibilities of political leadership. "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," the Master had said (Mark 12:17), and unpacking that utterance, in the context of the entire corpus of New Testament documents, was unlikely to achieve stable resolution in a generation or two. In the political arena alone, Christians produced masses of literature as they attempted to work out appropriate relations between Christ and culture.
Yet it is not my intention to treat the history of these debates, except to note in passing that we must never fall into the trap of supposing that we are the first generation of Christians to think about these things. My focus is on how we should be thinking about the relations between Christ and culture now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We have the same biblical texts that earlier generations of Christians thought their way through, of course, but our reflections are shaped by six unique factors.
(1) Especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, discussion of these matters cannot ignore the programmatic analysis of H. Richard Niebuhr. I shall return to him in a moment.
(2) We live at a time when diverse voices are clamoring for the right to dictate what the relationships between Christ and culture ought to be.
(3) Owing to modern communication technology and to immigration patterns that have made many megalopolises around the world into extraordinary centers of multiculturalism, debates rage regarding what is "cultural" in "multicultural." (4) This in turn has precipitated debates over the relative merits of one culture over another, or, alternatively put, over whether one ever has the right to affirm the superiority of one culture over another. That in turn, of course, feeds into debates over religious claims, since religions, too, under the definition of "culture" already given, are necessarily forms of cultural expression. What gives a religion, any religion, the right to claim its own superiority or even uniqueness? (5) In much of the Western world, though not, by and large, elsewhere, confessional Christianity is in serious decline. That means the inherited status quo in most Western countries cannot continue unquestioned. We are forced to think through, yet again, what the relationship between Christ and culture ought to be.
(6) The actual history of tensions between church and state varies enormously from state to state in the Western world and beyond, making it difficult to make generalizations, or even discuss examples, without numerous caveats. For instance, the nowproverbial "wall of separation" between church and state colors all debates in the United States, yet there is no similar wall, though there are similar freedoms, in the United Kingdom. In France, the "laïcité française" is in part a function of a deeply rooted historical anticlericalism that finds no parallel, until very recently, in, say, the Scandinavian countries or the United States.
Most of these points will be explored later, but it is worth expanding a few of them here, so as to clarify the challenges we face. We must not overlook the sheer diversity of the voices that constitute this challenge. In much of the Western world, despite the fact that Christianity was one of the forces that shaped what the West became (along with the Enlightenment, and a host of less dominant powers), culture is not only moving away from Christianity, it is frequently openly hostile toward it. Christianity can be tolerated, provided it is entirely private: Christian belief that intrudes itself into the public square, especially if it is trying to influence public policy, is most often taken, without examination, as prima facie evidence for bigotry and intolerance. In most of the Western world, this sneering condescension has become dominant in many public organs only within the last quarter-century or so — though obviously it advanced farther, faster, and earlier in deeply anti-clerical countries like France and in distinctly secular countries like Australia than in countries with a once-strong national church like England or with a pronounced Bible belt like America. Even in the latter two cases, the strength of the assault depends on both geography and social location: it is strong in the north of England, the Pacific Northwest, and the New England states of the United States, and in segments of the culture such as the media and the institutions of tertiary education.
Meanwhile, in some ways the world has become more furiously religious. In the Western world, more so in Europe than in North America, this is experienced in terms of rising numbers of Muslims — a trend that is bound to continue, granted the fact that the birth rate of the more traditional European population is not sufficiently high to maintain itself in a single European country. And, of course, all of us who live in large urban centers necessarily interact nowadays with Hindus, Sikhs, and even animists, as well as with secularists. As the new slogan puts it, "Nobody is leaving anyone else alone and isn't ever again going to." The multiplicity of religious claims is here to stay, and governments are going to have to get used to it. The urgency of thinking afresh about Christ and culture is becoming more acute.
Inevitably, Christians respond in various ways. Some advocate one form or another of withdrawal. Others want to gain more access to the media. Still others put forth valiant efforts to influence government and pass appropriate legislation. Some, whether consciously or unconsciously, develop a two-tier mentality, one for Christians and church functions, and one for the broader cultural encounters that take up most of the rest of the week. Still others think little about these matters but simply want to get on with evangelism and church planting.
Both the rising hostility in the West toward Christianity and the responses Christians offer make certain assumptions as to what the relationship between Christ and culture ought to be. So also do the competing voices of other religions. For instance, if we are to adapt the labeling approach of Niebuhr, we might call the strongest hostility "Culture over Christ." Alternatively, where strong voices insist that religion, including the Christian religion, ought to be restricted to purely private matters, then what is being said, of course, is that Christ and culture belong in separate spheres, the former private and the latter public. When some Christian voices hold up the model of Abraham Kuyper, whom we shall think about later, they have clearly moved into the "Christ above culture" paradigm (what Niebuhr further specifies to be the "conversionist" model). Richard Bauckham sees two opposing dangers. On the one hand, some Christians attempt to embed their faith in the culture, and run the risk "of dissipating Christianity into something indistinguishable from other options In Western culture." On the other hand, some retreat so far from engagement with the world that they scarcely engage directly with it, creating for themselves an alternative rationality, largely defensive in posture, which Bauckham identifies with "fundamentalism."
Even when no theoretical position is formally adopted, a theoretical position is usually presupposed. When practical advice is given to Christians by firm voices that articulate one heritage or another, some sort of relationship between Christ and culture is invariably assumed. Whether anyone in that tradition has systematically thought about this larger relationship is another matter. To take some examples: (1) Nancy Pearcey claims that when the "total truth" of the gospel is articulated and defended, Christianity is liberated from its cultural captivity, which in this case is predominantly tied to American forms of postmodernism. (2) Stassen and Gushee advocate a form of kingdom pacifism. (3) Another work, a collection of essays preserving diverse points of view, worries over the impact of globalization, and the diverse ways in which America rules over an "empire." Meanwhile, (4) Gorringe's "theology of culture" is essentially an attempt to ground a fairly left-wing socialism in Christian theology.
At the moment, I am neither criticizing nor defending any of these stances. I am merely pointing out that every one of them presupposes some sort of relationship between Christ and culture, even though that relationship is usually not directly addressed.
That brings us, then, to the place where we must remind ourselves of Niebuhr's useful taxonomy of the possibilities. I shall try to describe the options he lays out for us as carefully as I can. I will attempt a little evaluation as I proceed, but most of the evaluation will await the next two chapters.
H. Richard Niebuhr
Niebuhr offers us five options, each option taking up a chapter, the five being enveloped by a lengthy introduction and a "concluding unscientific postscript." The purpose of the book, Niebuhr writes,
is to set forth typical Christian answers to the problem of Christ and culture and so to contribute to the mutual understanding of variant and often conflicting Christian groups. The belief which lies back of this effort, however, is the conviction that Christ as living Lord is answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion which transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.
The problem is not new. Christians had to confront it during the days of the Roman Empire. In certain important respects, the Empire was tolerant: the vast array of religions and customs were not only tolerated but encouraged. Christianity's insistence that Jesus alone is Lord (however nonpolitical Christians were at the beginning of the Christian era) was simultaneously despised and seen as a threat. As then, so today: strong voices assert that "all consideration of the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign" (9).
Excerpted from Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. CARSON Copyright © 2008 by D. A. Carson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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