Christ and Culture Revisited
by D. A. Carson
Eerdmans, April 2008
243 pp., $24.00

It's ironic that a book by a liberal theologian has so thoroughly suffused contemporary evangelical self-understanding. Yet 50 years after its publication, H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture remains a classic in the evangelical canon. But this standard has recently faced strong challenges from within the fold, including Craig Carter's incisive Rethinking Christ and Culture, and now D. A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited. Carson rightly seeks to revisit Niebuhr's categories by holding their feet to the biblical fire. As a biblical theologian, Carson is concerned that Niebuhr's categories have taken on a life of their own — that Christians now take up his models without considering how (or whether) they grow out of biblical wisdom.

Carson follows a strategy displayed in recent discussion of the Atonement, in which some scholars have countered the settled understanding that models of the Atonement are mutually exclusive. Just as the New Testament celebrates complementary understandings of Christ's work on the cross, so too, Carson suggests, with models of Christ and culture. We should stop thinking that it's a matter of picking and choosing and consider a bigger picture that integrates different approaches.

Carson is also rightly concerned to detach accounts of "Christ and culture" from American and European provincialism. 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." Thus, Carson considers sectors of the majority world where Christians face persecution and political environments that are a long way from Western democracy, hinting at a more global consideration of Christ and culture.

But I want to focus on Carson's core project: rooting a Christian understanding of cultural engagement in the narrative of Scripture. His persistent point is that Christian thinking about culture must be explicitly and positively informed by "the great turning points in salvation history." This approach highlights the fact that Jesus makes remarkably few appearances in Christian understandings of culture; instead, we mostly 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 little relation to the Bible." Indeed, are we really dealing with a Christian account of culture if the Cross never shows up? In the name of "Christian" approaches to culture, Carson notes, we get a lot of creational models, but very few cruciform approaches.

This desire to root Christian thinking about culture in the grand narrative of Scripture is laudable. Unfortunately, I think it's also where the book falters because Carson's summary of the biblical story is, frankly, incomplete. For instance, while he emphasizes the doctrine of creation and that "God made everything," he nowhere discusses what has commonly been described as the "cultural mandate" (Gen 1:27-29) — humanity's creational call to cultivate the possibilities latent within creation through ongoing cultural work. This task of human making is precisely how we image God in the world (as "sub-creators" in Tolkien's words). Instead, Carson tends to treat culture as a given and fails to offer a theology of culture that shows how the work of human making is rooted in creation itself. 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 human beings: this is "salvation history." Because Carson understands sin narrowly as personal moral transgression and idolatry, he understands redemption in equally narrow terms as the salvation of human persons. Because institutions, systems, and structures are absent from Carson's account of creation, they also don't show up on the radar of fallenness or redemption. It is "we" who are fallen and "we" who are saved.

So it's no surprise that we see the same 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." 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 equip the saints for evangelism. (We also find the early church engaging in the redistribution of wealth, but in any case. …) Carson is clear that the central Christian obligation is ministry and evangelism: when Christians make ministries of compassion and justice central, "they marginalize 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 cultural 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."

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Thus, Carson concludes that "the only human organization that continues into eternity is the church." 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" (Rev. 20-22). For Carson the current relations between Christ and culture "have no final status; they must be evaluated in the light of eternity." One gets the sense 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" (though it's not clear just what the church will be doing since, according to Carson, "the church lives and dies by the Great Commission"). Such a flattened vision of our redeemed future is the correlate of a stunted understanding of creation.

Carson's laudable project of redirecting conversations about "Christ and culture" to the riches of the biblical narrative is a missed opportunity. Starting from a selective and narrow understanding of creation, he misses the opportunity to articulate a biblical theology of culture as a creational task, and his ensuing accounts of sin, redemption, and the final destiny of the world are similarly circumscribed.

Indeed, what Carson misses is an opportunity to finally undo our bad habit of disconnecting the cultural mandate and the Great Commission. Even those who affirm both too often see them as unrelated, failing to discern their intimate connection. Yet what is the gospel but God's call and invitation to be restored and renewed as proper image bearers of God — who bear his image by unfolding creation's potential in rightly ordered culture? Being God's image bearers is a calling, a vocation, and a task, not a static property of being human (I refer the reader to Richard Middleton's brilliant account of this in The Liberating Image). And Christ, as the Second Adam, has shown us what it looks like to do this: in a fallen and broken world, the shape of such a vocation is cruciform; being cultural agents of the crucified God is not a project of triumphal transformation, but suffering witness.

James K. A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College. His new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, will appear next year from Baker Academic.

Related Elsewhere:

Christ and Culture Revisited is available at and other book retailers.

In a smaller review published earlier this year, John Wilson gave Christ and Culture Revisited four stars.

Earlier articles on Niebuhr's Christ and Culture include:

"In the World, but … " | Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture is 50 years old—and still has something wise to say to evangelicals. By John G. Stackhouse Jr. (April 22, 2002)
Post-Christendom Christianity | A short review of Craig Carter's Rethinking Christ and Culture. (May 17, 2007)
Christ, Culture, and History | Is the main character in the church's story God, transforming faith, or an inspired yet wayward community? (April 1, 2002)
Is It Wrong-Headed to Translate the Gospel for Culture? | Christian History Corner takes on the Christ and culture debate. by Chris Armstrong (Oct. 28, 2005)