Craig Carter: Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006
By Stuart Murray williams
This thoughtful, challenging and accessible book makes an excellent addition to the growing literature exploring issues of faith and discipleship from the perspective of post-Christendom. Indeed, the title is explicit in its recognition of the perspective from which it is written. Craig Carter not only quotes with appreciation from Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World, but his book would fit very well into the Anabaptist Network’s ‘After Christendom’ series.
Carter, an associate professor in Toronto, offers here a trenchant critique of one of the most influential texts on social ethics in the 20th century, H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (published in 1951). Acknowledging the popularity and longevity of this book in academic and more popular circles, Carter nevertheless argues that Niebuhr’s approach is fundamentally flawed by the assumed but unacknowledged Christendom framework that pervades his work.
Niebuhr presented a typology of five approaches to the relationship between Christ and culture: Christ of culture, Christ against culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. The first four are examined and criticised for inadequacies, with reference to historical examples of groups adopting each stance; the fifth is presented uncritically so that most assume this to have been Niebuhr’s preferred option.
Carter elucidates Niebuhr’s argument and the subjects it to criticism before explaining at length (and with gratitude to John Howard Yoder’s writings) why Christendom was a bad idea and why social ethics today needs to reject the assumptions of that era. But he then goes on to offer a new paradigm, continuing to draw on Niebuhr’s typological approach but with new categories and operating from a post-Christendom perspective. At the heart of his critique and alternative proposal is the conviction that non-violence is the crucial theological and methodological issue involved in social ethics.
Carter offers six types, divided into two categories – Christendom types where violent coercion is accepted and non-Christendom types were violent coercion is rejected. For each type he offers historical examples, indicates where biblical support is sought and investigates links with the person and teaching of Jesus and the view of Christ implied or taught within this approach to social ethics. His three Christendom types are Christ legitimizing culture, Christ humanizing culture and Christ transforming culture; the non-Christendom types are Christ separating from culture, Christ humanizing culture and Christ transforming culture. There are thus significant areas of overlap between these approaches, such that two of the descriptions appear twice, but these pairs differ over the issue of violence in order to achieve their goals.
Niebuhr’s typology has been subjected to critique before, not least for his choice of examples that prejudiced the types he criticised, for assuming a monolithic view of ‘culture’ and for implying that the church is somehow separate from this culture. But Carter’s critique here is devastating, leading one reviewer (Mark Thiessen Nation, formerly director of the London Mennonite Centre) to suggest that it ‘should bring the curtains down on the more than fifty-year reign of Niebuhr’s typology.’ And his new paradigm offers a helpful typology for post-Christendom Christians wrestling with the challenges of social ethics in a world that is very different from the one Niebuhr lived in or assumed he still lived in.
Carter has written a provocative and timely book that deserves to be widely read and to stimulate continuing discussion. Two questions on which I would welcome further reflection are whether this new paradigm escapes the criticism levelled at Niebuhr’s that treating culture in a monolithic way is inevitably misleading, and whether it is helpful to retain the ‘Christ/culture’ polarity rather than working with a ‘church/culture’ (which Carter considers but rejects).