Don Carson Talks About Culture

Derek Thomas Articles
On the eve of the publication of Don Carson's new and important book, Christ and Culture Revisited, Derek Thomas caught up with him in an airport somewhere in the far East....

DT:  Congratulations of the publication of Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans, 2008). It obviously bears some link to the classic treatment by H. Richard Niebuhr, a volume I was asked to read at seminary thirty years ago, though it was published more than fifty years ago. Why did you feel it necessary to "Revisit" this book and its theme in 2008?
DC:  Thank You. At one level, the tension between Christ and culture is perennial, and every generation must thoughtfully engage in the discussion. Moreover, the world has become much less North-Atlantic-centered than it was in Niebuhr's day, especially the Christian world -- and these changes require serious reflection. Would Kuyper have developed his gentle version of sphere sovereignty if he has been born in China under Mao? Why are the French and the American versions of the separation of church and state so radically different? Where is the place of suffering in our thinking? Alternatively, in precisely what ways does the Christian have a responsibility to serve as salt and light in a world that is corrupt and dark? What does the Bible say on these and related matters?

As for Niebuhr's seminal work: the five well-known typologies he advanced (and that have been the basis for discussion in the Anglo-Saxon world for the last half-century) are insufficiently grounded in Scripture. One of the five has little biblical warrant at all. Insofar as the other four have biblical warrant, then if they are treated as alternative models from which one may choose, one is saying that the Bible does not speak univocally on the subject, and one can pick and choose among the assorted "case models" that the Bible offers. It is much more faithful to Scripture to say that behind Niebuhr's typologies stands a still more comprehensive vision of the relations between Christ and culture that is grounded in a rich biblical theology. That is what I have tried to tease out.

DT:  Mark Dever says in a blurb on the cover of the book that "Carson exposes and explodes 'egregious reductionisms'. It's one of those phrases which I feel is now going to become part of our vocabulary, but what exactly did he mean when he said this?
DC: Mark, bless his heart, is gently poking fun at my inadequate vocabulary (note his quotation marks!). Point taken. Since he is the one who fastened on this expression, perhaps you should ask him which reductionisms (egregious or otherwise) he felt were best exploded in the book. For better or worse, I suppose I am commonly tempted to question arguments positions that can apparently claim a verse or two for support, or that simply relies on inherited tradition, without wrestling with the massive biblical themes that are relevant to the discussion. In other words, the position itself depends on some sort of "reductionism": the voice of Scripture is "reduced" to a handful of prooftexts that in fact get the balance of things wrong. Few topics are more susceptible to this sort of error than the tension between Christ and culture, not least because the issues are complicated. I'm sure I've tumbled into a few of my own errors in this book, and equally sure that they will be pointed out to me.

DT: You mention several key issues which force us re-evaluate Christ's role in culture (secularization, democracy, freedom and power). In short compass, can you explain what you mean by this and how this helps us to understand our own (postmodern) culture?
DC: Inevitably, we in the West, not least in America, tend to adopt a host of "givens" that are part of growing up here. Most of us think freedom is a good thing. But is it always a good thing? A friend in Slovakia once told me that only three weeks after the Berlin wall came down, for the first time in his life he saw pornography sold in the street. Was the enhanced freedom an unmitigated "good" thing? I'm not denying it was good in many ways, but some of us have given "freedom" such an iconic value that we fail to see how, in the name of freedom, we may become slaves to sin. Most of us are thankful to God that we live in a democracy. But I have met Christians who live in parts of the world under one form or another of tyranny who are much less daunted by the violent "beast out of the sea" that they face than by the "beast out of the earth," the danger of deceptive teaching and materialism, that we face in the West: they pray for us that we will escape the tyranny of the seduction of easy, triumphalism, and materialism. Certainly what Paul wrote about the government of his day being appointed by God, he did not have a democracy in mind: what bearing do such differences in the structure of power have on our responsibility as citizens -- as citizens of the US, and as citizens of the new Jerusalem?

DT: Why don't you like the terminology of "redeeming the culture"?
DC:  Redemption terminology in the NT is so bound up with Christ's work for and in the church that to extend it to whatever good we do in the broader world risks a shift in focus. Not for a moment do I want to deny that we are to serve as salt and light, that exiles may be called to do good in the pagan cities where Providence has appointed them to live (Jer 29), that every square foot of this world is under Christ's universal reign (even though that reign is still being contested), that the nations of the world will bring their "goods" into the Jerusalem that comes down from above. But many of those who speak easily and fluently of redeeming the culture soon focus all their energy shaping fiscal and political policies and the like, and merely assume the gospel. A gospel that is merely assumed, that does no more than perk away in the background while the focus of our attention is on the "redemption" of the culture in which we find ourselves, is lost within a generation or two. At the same time, I worry about Christians who focus their attention so narrowly on getting people "saved" that they care little about doing good to all people, even if especially to the household of God. Getting this right is not easy, and inevitably priorities will shift a little in various parts of the world, under various regimes. Part of the complexity of the discussion, I think, is bound up with what the church as church is responsible for, and what Christians as Christians are responsible for: I have argued that failure to make this distinction tends to lead toward sad conclusions.

DT: What are some key things for young pastors to keep in mind when they are urged to "engage the culture"?
DC:  Know what the gospel is first, comprehensively, accurately, faithfully. Work out from there. Learn to preach to your own people, not to the aggregates set out in books by Barna and Wuthnow (though much can be learned from such books). Whether the "engagement" is part of how you engage people evangelistically, or part of how Christians in your church do good in your own community, keep thinking through what the Bible itself says -- and then try, like the men of Issachar, to understand your own times.

DT: Thank you.

Donald Carson is an Alliance Council member and a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL where he has taught since 1978.