Craig Carter's Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective is as important and prophetic as it is frustrating.
Carter's central thesis is that H. Richard Neibuhr's canonical Christ and Culture presents a warped typology of Christian cultural engagement. Neibuhr presented five types of Christian cultural engagement: "Christ Against Culture"; "The Christ of Culture"; "Christ Above Culture": "Christ and Culture in Paradox"; and "Christ Transforming Culture." Although Neibuhr claimed each type had merit, he clearly favored the "Christ Tranforming Culture" model, and that model was at least implicitly adopted by both liberal mainline Protestantism and the neo-evangelicalism that emerged from fundamentalism in the 1940's.
The problem with Neibuhr's typology, Carter argues, is that each of Neibuhr's types arises from a "Christendom" perspective. That is, Neibuhr's typology assumes that Church and State are partners - whether they are sparring partners as in the "Christ Against Culture" type, or senior and junior partners as in the "Christ Transforming Culture" type - in the process of cultural construction. The "Christendom" mentality, Carter claims, dates back to the Western Church's alliance with political power forged at the time of the Emperor Constantine.
Carter suggests that the "Christendom" perspective is misguided, even idolatrous, because it causes the Church to participate in violence. Drawing on Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, Carter proclaims that instead the Church should "be the Church." True to these Anabaptist and pacifist roots, Carter argues that violence is the antithesis of Christian faith. The Church should reject alliances with secular powers, maintain the separation of Church and State, refuse to fight in wars, renounce natural theology and civil religion, and challenge governmental and other abuses of power through nonviolent protest and exemplary moral behavior. Carter proposes a new typology in response to Neibuhr's, which includes an axis of violence versus non-violence.
Evangelical readers such as myself who are weary of the Religious Right will appreciate much that Carter has to say. Carter notes that
"my fellow evangelical Christians have been persuaded by Niebuhr (and others) that they need to compromise with violent coercion as a means to the end of gaining cultural influence . . . just substitute some adherent of Adam Smith for F.D. Maurice in the last couple of pages [of Christ and Culture] and there you have it. Let us not forget that capitalism and socialism are both secular ideologies born in the enlightenment."
Because evangelicals have identified so closely with Neibuhr's "Christ Transforming Culture" Christendom perspective, Carter suggests, "[w]hat we mean by gospel is pretty much summed up by liberal, democratic capitalism. When you say it like that, it sounds so ridiculous that one is tempted to think that no one would believe that. But millions do." If more evangelical thinkers and leaders were willing to acknowledge and repent of our compromises with "conservative" politics, we would indeed move closer towards constituting the sort of community Jesus desires us to become - one that transforms the world through the cruciform power of love, patience, gentleness, and self-control, rather than through the worldly weapons of power.
But for all its prophetic punch, Carter's analysis is also deeply frustrating. His dogged adherence to a"fall" thesis of Christian history often is gratingly reductionistic. For example, Carter states that "'[b]etween the fall of Rome in 410 and the sixteenth-century Reformation, Christendom became an `oppressive, a totalitarian religious system, in which the Church became phenomenally wealthy and seriously corrupt.'" Carter cites some compelling examples of the Church's abuse of its power during this period, including efforts to force conversion and suppress religious liberty, forced tithes, and the Crusades. These and other examples Carter provides are indeed horrible.
Carter ignores, however, the many, many positive expressions of genuine Christian faith during this period. Take, for example, the evangelistic and cultural achievements of Irish monks in the sixth century; the founding of Benedictine communities also starting in the sixth century; Thomas Aquinas' magisterial systematization in the thirteenth century; or the work of the Franciscans also starting in the thirteenth century. Or, consider the spiritual and cultural influences that fed into great Medieval works of literature and art, such as, say, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dante's Divine Comedy, or Hans Memling's evocative and moving triptychs. And so on, and so on. And all of this, of course, leaves untold the stories of countless ordinary Christians during these times who undoubtedly tried, within the limitations of their circumstances, to live faithful lives.
The problem here is that Carter's Anabaptist glasses filter out any positive aspects of Medieval Roman Catholic faith in support of the mythos of a pure Anabaptistic remnant stretching back like a crimson thread to the Apostles. The complex tapestry of Christian history, with its often overlapping scenes of beauty and ugliness, is reduced to this one strand. History just isn't that simple.
Carter also fails to engage in any robust fashion with the eschatological implications of his views. Early in the book, Carter suggests that "the mission of the church is to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which means that the transformation of the wider culture in which the church lives will always be a secondary by-product of the church's main mission rather than its primary goal in this age" (emphasis added). This sounds like old-school dispensationalism, in which any effort to reform society was viewed as an illegitimate expression of the "social gospel." In his concluding chapter, however, Carter sounds a seemingly different note: although the kingdom of God "is not present in its fullness and will not be until the unveiling (apocalypse) and appearing (parousia) of Jesus Christ at the end of the age," even today "Jesus reigns, and the kingdom is present wherever his reign is confessed."
The "already-not-yet" perspective on the Kingdom of God, however, seems to suggest a more active role for the Church "in this age" than merely that of a witness to the gospel. Unfortunately, many streams of Christian political engagement that draw from this more robust understanding of the Kingdom, including the neo-Calvinism that fuels much of the Religious Right, have become snagged in the quest for political power. But why can't a Reformed Kuyperian / Dooyeweerdian eschatological sense of redeeming culture mesh with Carter's Anabaptistic focus on non-violence? And why can't these perspectives then blend with a chastened natural theology, which takes Barth's critique to heart but which nevertheless recognizes, with Aquinas, Augustine, and contemporary Catholic social theory, that faith seeks understanding, an understanding that can be communicated at least in some degree to anyone possessing the image of God? Perhaps then we could more closely approach a thoroughly Biblical ethic of cultural engagement, which draws from all the riches of scripture and the diverse Christian tradition, including Jesus' teachings about power and violence.