Book Thoughts: Christ and Culture Revisited- D.A. Carson

A new series for this blog in 2017 will be Book Thoughts. A while back a friend and I began sharing the best quotes and thoughts we had from our personal reading. The idea was to give one another greater access to books without having to read as many. If I read a book, my friend could benefit from reading the quotes I pulled out and any thoughts I shared. For 2017, when ever I read a book I’ll share quotes I like, as well as any major thoughts I have about the book.

The first book is Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson. In 1951 Richard Niebuhr wrote what has become a Christian classic, Christ and Culture. The book plotted 5 different viewpoints on how Christianity relates to the world (culture). Carson gives Niebuhr an update and advances Niebuhr’s original thought, slightly.

The greatest contribution I took from this book was Carson’s admonition to balance my view of the relationship of Christ and Culture across the great turning points of salvation history (Creation, the Fall, Call of Abraham, the Exile, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Church Age, Second Coming and Restoration/Consummation). For example, a view that focuses too heavily on the Fall without also focusing on the Resurrection will tend to hate the world as an evil/irredeemable annoyance. This results in isolationist Christians.

Two other insights I found helpful are these:

  • The church can be so involved in the political process that it ceases to be a prophetic voice challenging the process.
  • Pastors must work hard to distinguish between the mission of the church and the individual commands given to Christians who are citizens of human cities/nations.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within culture.
First, an evaluation of a culture depends on a set of values— even as that set of values is in turn shaped by the culture that informs the evaluation… Second, from a Christian perspective, everything that is detached from the sheer centrality of God is an evil… But third, equally from a Christian perspective, God in his “common grace” pours out countless good things on all people everywhere… Fourth, as Christian revelation certainly insists that there are degrees of punishment meted out by a good God, we must assume that some cultural stances are more reprehensible than others.
The worst abuses of Christians against the broader culture have taken place when Christians have enjoyed too much power.
that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determined turning points in the history of redemption.
Romans 13 does not so much tell believers how to govern well as how to be governed.
As for democracy, if we promote it, we do so not because we take it to be an absolute good, still less as the solution to all political problems, and not even because it is an ideal form of government, but because, granted that the world is fallen and all of us are prone to the most grotesque evils, it appears to be the least objectionable option.
It would be more realistic to acknowledge that the founding of the nation was borne along by adherence to some Christian principles and not others. 
Let me know if you’ve read the book, or Niebuhr’s original. I’d love to discuss the topic in the comments.

Blog Link: Are Recent Restroom Laws the Same as Jim Crow Laws?

Andrew Walker raises both questions and brings clarity to what may be the hottest topic in American culture. In a post for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention entitled Are restroom laws that respect privacy the equivalent of Jim Crow laws? Walker writes the following:

Jim Crow laws made arbitrary distinctions based on skin color. For example, the color of a person’s skin matters nothing to their hunger or ability to purchase food, but Jim Crow laws prohibited African Americans from entering certain restaurants. There’s no rational purpose to deny a person access to a particular restaurant because of an arbitrary factor like skin color. Those laws were senseless and irrational. HB 2, however, makes rational distinctions based on the very real differences between men and women.

Therein lies the rub. Are there “very real differences” between the sexes? Walker’s post hangs on that sentence. Astonishingly, one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves today is, “Is gender something?” While so many people fight over definitions of gender this question precedes all other questions. Is gender something? Or, is it nothing?

We should ask the same question about marriage. Is marriage something? Or, is it nothing? We can argue until we’re blue in the face over what marriage is and isn’t, when we should be asking, “Is marriage something, rather than nothing?”

This is the center of the debate. Our nation is dividing over this question. Part of our population agrees with the statement, “Gender is something.” Part of our population agrees with the statement, “Gender is not something.” As it relates to Jim Crow laws almost no one is arguing over whether race is something or not.

I believe the Scriptures teach that both gender and marriage have objective definitions. They are something. They can be defined. Notice, I haven’t defined them yet. I’ve just said they can be defined. I also believe the Scriptures account for a wide range of human experience, human sin, and divine mercy and patience for both me and those I disagree with on public policy. I believe asking the question of the possibility of objective definition can help Christians clarify their understanding of exactly what’s at stake.

My hope and prayer is that Christians learn how to be both unwavering in their commitment to the authority of Scripture and patient and loving and winsome to surrounding culture.

I highly recommend following the ERLC and its President Russell Moore as they model what I believe is a Biblically faithful witness to culture.

Christians and Politics

I hate, hate, hate commenting on politics.download  But, as a pastor who gets asked a lot of questions about how our faith intersects with the political realm I do feel the need to share some thoughts. I won’t address any candidates here. My goal is the help you understand how I think about politics and in doing so, perhaps, help you think more deeply and critically as well.

Chances are you have Christian friends who obsess over politics. Their social media feeds flash every 15 minutes with a new video, article or advertisement for a candidate. On the other hand you have Christian friends who may not even vote. They have no hope in politics, and don’t believe Christians should engage in the systems of the world. “Our job,” they say, “is to evangelize the word, not try to make it better.” How do you account for those extremes? Both friends love Jesus. They both profess their own personal need for grace. Yet, they live by seemingly opposite motivations, fears, and hopes.

Tim Keller (yes, I know I quote him a lot) says that you can better understand this spectrum of the relationship to Christians and culture/politics by asking two questions:

Should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility of cultural change?

Is the current culture redeemable and good, or fundamentally fallen?

Ask yourself those questions. Ask those questions about your two friends. With those two questions Keller has given us a coordinate plane that looks like this:

Cultral Change

These two axes represent the spectrum of answers to Keller’s questions. Someone who believes the world is full of God’s common grace, and that nonbelievers can understand and live by God’s natural revelation would be at the top of the graph. They also believe that God is heavily at work in the culture of the world. Those who believe the world and it’s systems are fundamentally evil, that non-believers can know little of God through natural revelation, and that God is working only in the church (not in the culture) fall to the bottom of the spectrum. As you move to the left you become less engaged culturally/politically. Move to the right and engagement increases.

Now, let me put some names on the graph. I admit that this is an over-simplification. Forgive me.

  • The Moral Majority/Religious Right would occupy the lower right quadrant. They believe the world is fundamentally fallen, but are optimistic that through political endeavor they can change culture.
  • Mainline liberal Christians occupy the top right. They’re just as active in politics as the Religious Right, but they have a more positive view of the world.
  • Martin Luther and churches that hold to a Two Kingdoms doctrine represent the top left quadrant. Because they believe the world is full of common grace they focus on doing their personal work excellently and humbly before the Lord. Because they hold a strong discontinuity between the church and the culture they are typically pessimistic/indifferent to cultural change.
  • Anabaptists and Amish groups fill in the bottom left. This quadrant is the most isolationist. There is little common grace in the world, and zero desire to change culture, therefore they establish their own, separate community over and against culture.

So what does all this mean, and how does it apply to you? Let’s draw out some simple applications:

  • At different times in your life you will likely move between these poles. At times you will feel more optimistic politically; at times more pessimistic. This means that at times you will feel guilt over being overly engaged in culture/politics. It also means that at times you’ll feel guilt over being disengaged.
  • Ask yourself why. Why am I currently obsessing over the political/cultural? Am I obsessing because I feel the threat of change to the way of life I agree with? Am I obsessing because I feel oppressed and believe that change will make me happier?
  • Try to discern your heart. If things change for the worse will I be despondent? Why is my mental/emotional state so heavily anchored to the preservation/adaptation of society and not in the perfect grace of Christ? If he really has delivered me out of darkness into his marvelous light why am I afraid?
  • Seek to learn from the other views. Seek to move more towards the center of the graph. Balance pessimism with the hope that Christ is making all things new. Balance optimism with the knowledge of a yet future Kingdom where justice and righteousness reigns. Look around for signs of God’s common grace so that you don’t isolate yourself from culture. Acknowledge the evil and atrocity in the world so that you maintain realism and avoid superficial sentimentality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, where you think you sit on the plane and why.

If you want to read Keller (I recommend it) here’s the book I’m citing:

Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.