Created and Creating: A biblical theology of culture
IVP £14.99 (978-1-78359-548-8)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
THE term “culture” has a long provenance from agricultural cultivation, but from the 18th century it came to be associated with the development of the human mind, and the improvement of the human race. One of Jane Austen’s characters possessed “every advantage of discipline and culture”.
The first part of this book, by a professor at Westminster Theology Seminary, Pennsylvania, in the United States, presents an interesting and wide-ranging survey of the concept of culture. Culture has tended to replace religion and transcendence, as a purely this-worldly phenomenon, and in Matthew Arnold one sees the tension and debate, as religion succumbs to secularity: the “long, withdrawing roar” of an ebbing tide.
T. S. Eliot represents an attempt to interpret culture as a central Christian concept, whereas C. S. Lewis, for all that he actually contributed to a re-envisioning of Christian culture, was suspicious of the increasingly hegemonic claims of modern culture. Anthropologists were emphasising the inherent diversity of cultures, with a consequent challenge to more traditional Christian theology.
The remainder of the book represents a plea for Christians to engage more deeply with their cultural setting, and recognise that God’s call is to establish, as far as is possible in a fallen world, a truly Christian culture. Every aspect of life is claimed by God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” From his Reformed tradition he refers to this as the “cultural mandate” that God sets before us.
As such, this would provide a response to the widespread sense of meaninglessness in modern culture, from which William Edgar traces its counterpoint in various manifestations of fanaticism.
Various short exegetical discussions are interspersed in the text. These are of variable quality, partly because of their brevity. A great deal of scholarly attention has been given, for example, to the Johannine understanding of the cosmos, or world, or to the sacrifice of Isaac, and the discussions here need more depth. For all the description in St John’s Gospel of the world as a dark place, it is also the object of God’s sacrificial love.
Part of the problem, for this reviewer, is the rather traditional Reformed framework of a sequence of creation, fall, and redemption which Edgar maintains. He asserts, without discussion, that Adam and Eve’s fall was a unique historical event “when our first parents sinned”, without acknowledging the established scientific consensus that the human race does not have a single ancestor.
Others may find more fruitful the consequential discussion of how the common grace and special grace of God relate to Christian culture. Anglicans have tended not to embrace this conceptuality, preferring a more unitary concept of grace, such as the one that underlies
T. S. Eliot’s important writings on Christian culture.
The purpose of creating a provisional culture in this life is to prepare us for the next life, and the final chapter presents a positive, and somewhat entertaining, vision of what is promised to God’s elect. There will be all kinds of “fruit-bearing and culture making”. It reminded me of Leibniz’s 18th-century presentation of why this is the best of all possible worlds.
This is a vision of “making the world great again” — for Christians, at least.
Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.