Carson’s great strength in this book is avoiding the temptation of offering a ‘totalising’ model of how Christians (whether as individuals or as a ‘church’) ought to relate to the wider culture. As the title suggests, he begins this book by engaging with Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Christ and Culture,’ especially in considering the five models that Niebuhr identifies.
I haven’t read Niebuhr’s work, but I found Carson’s treatment of Niebuhr’s work refreshingly even-handed. In today’s political climate which is extremely polarised, it’s nice to read a measured voice, even kind and gracious at times, which does not demean those with differing opinions.
Carson is characteristically careful in his usage of terminology, so he does spend time unpacking terms like ‘culture,’ the possible pictures people envisage when using the expression ‘separation of Church and State’ and many more. Hence, this is more of a survey, a review of the various voices that have contributed to this debate, rather than Carson’s own proposal.
Readers looking for a definitive answer to ‘how’ Christians and the church will be disappointed. This is because Carson is consistent. Chapter 2 is titled ‘Niebuhr Revised: The Impact of Biblical Theology.’ At first, I wasn’t sure why Carson chose to centre his argument in the biblical theological method/approach. But as I reached the conclusion and found that Carson did not espouse any single ‘model’ as the way Christians and the church should relate to the broader culture, I began to see the implications of his biblical theological approach.
A quote from p.45 is helpful:
it is the commitment to think about all of them (Niebuhr’s five models) at the same time that preserves us from forging very different patterns of the relationships between Christ and culture, and commends one complex reality that can nevertheless be worked out in highly different contexts.
An important component of good biblical theology is that it affirms both Scripture’s unity, as well as diversity. Different strands of biblical theology might emphasise unity or diversity more, but Carson has tried to find a middle ground, focusing on the Bible’s story line.
The problem with many views on how managing relations between Christ and culture is that it’s reductionistic, in a ‘modern’ way. One lesson post-modernity has taught us is that life is complex. So, Carson’s proposal is that ‘we must insist that they are not alternative models that we may choose to accept or reject. Rather, we shall ask in what sense they are grounded in the Scriptures and ponder their interrelations within the Scriptures, and how and when they should be emphasised under different circumstances exemplified in the Scriptures’ (62).
In essence, there is no single way for all Christians in every country in all times to relate to ‘culture.’ The Bible clearly gives us principles and examples - and perhaps more importantly it tells us of God’s big story of creation, redemption and new creation - in it’s many twists and turns, characters, circumstances and events.
Carson ends his book quoting Jean Elshtain:
Avoiding these extremes, we must see Christ against and for, agonistic and affirming, arguing and embracing. This is complex but, then, Christianity is no stranger to complexity. (227)
p.s. While agreeing with Carson’s overall approach, living in Malaysia has seen me lean towards Darryl G. Hart’s position. Here’s Carson’s exposition:
He [Hart] strongly supports the view that one must make a distinction between what the church_as church_has to say and the way Christians may be involved in the broader culture, including the state. But he goes further and insists that even_Christians_(as opposed to the church) should not make their political and cultural appeals on_Christian_grounds. In other words, although they should certainly be involved in doing good in and even to the city, Hart is not happy for the good that they do to be identified as a distinctively Christian product or stance. (179)