D. A. Carson has done it again. He has written another masterpiece; a book that causes us to think about what it means to be in the world but not of the world. Knowing what culture is, how to relate to the culture, and how to think about it as it relates to the church and kingdom are crucial questions. So much of contemporary Christianity has gone to the opposite extremes, some in partial reaction to a fundamentalist withdrawal attitude about the church. This is happening to such an extent that we must ask who is determining the church’s agenda or who is driving the ship, culture or Scripture?
Today, we find Christians attempting to divorce themselves from culture, though it is actually impossible; simply going with the flow of culture and not questioning it; or caught in the middle wanting to know how to understand, interact, and live within culture.
Carson approaches this topic by using the classic typology of H, Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, which poses five different approaches to the question of Christ, Christians, and culture and how they are related or interact. (Some of us studied Niebuhr’s book in seminary and have found it to be a reference point for discussions on culture.) Carson’s theology enables him to take the five options of Niebuhr and suggest that they are actually not separate approaches but should be parts of the whole. He does this in a manner that helps us to see how we can live in the world and relate to the culture in a way that helps us focus on a biblical worldview that enables us to know our role and calling.
If there is one thing that we can be certain of, especially in this age of communications and a shrinking global village. it is that we do not live in a monolithic culture. Actually it is quite diverse, not only globally but right in our own backyards. We need to know how to relate to the culture in a Christ honoring and serving way. Withdrawing is certainly not an option, even if it were impossible, and allowing the culture to determine our worldview and lifestyle is also not the answer. While there is some validity to seeing the culture as relative because of its diversity, there are some things that transcend the diversity that should unite Christians globally and help us to better understand what it means to be a part of a kingdom that is not of this world. As Carson says, some want to by-pass this discussion for various reasons in a way that allows them to focus on evangelism and church planting. Others living by a dualistic philosophy simply do not try, or know how, to connect their Sunday church life with the rest of the week.
The truth is that if we are to be kingdom disciples and live with a kingdom world and life view perspective. we cannot afford not to think seriously about culture, even if the tension requires us to do some serious thinking or rethinking. It is all connected to what God would have us to do, and we cannot afford to neglect that.
While the entire book is a valuable resource to help us think and live more consistently with God’s will, chapters one and five are well worth the price of the book. Chapter one is an analysis of the Niebuhr five models and subsequent chapters deal with defining and relining those concepts. Chapter five is the best text I have read on church and state relations. Religion and politics are frequently the topics of conversation but much understanding is often missing in those discussions, especially in using terms like church, religion, spirituality, etc., as though they were synonymous. Defining terms in our postmodern day is extremely important, as Carson demonstrates. I think Carson’s case could be made even clearer and stronger by being more specific about the relationship between the church and the kingdom; nevertheless, you will find much food for thought and application.
When we look at both of God’s commissions, the first in Genesis I :28 and the second in Matthew 28: 18-19, Carson’s challenge is clear. He says, “To pursue with a passion the robust and nourishing wholeness of biblical theology as the controlling matrix for our reflection on the relations between Christ and culture will, ironically, help us to be far more flexible than the inflexible grids that are often made to stand in the Bible’s place. Scripture will mandate that we think holistically and subtly, wisely, and penetratingly, under the Lordship of Christ-utterly dissatisfied with the anesthetic of culture.” His last statement is right on, “Instead, we will live in the tension of claiming every square inch for King Jesus, even while we know full well that the consummation is not yet. that we walk by faith and not by sight, and that the weapons with which we fight are not the weapons of the world (2 Corinthians I0:4).”