13 July 2009

Review: Theology and Culture

I just finished a relatively new book by D. Stephen Long entitled Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion. It’s part of a series that Wipf & Stock is publishing on its Cascade imprint. The “Cascade Companions” series endeavors to make accessible to non-Ph.D. level readers the richness of our ecclesial and theological traditions. They’ve already published primers on Augustine and the Desert Fathers (both by Jason Byasee) and a really great overview of Paul’s letters by Michael Gorman. The forthcoming volumes look equally worthwhile.

I really love the idea of this series. I like to think that I’m the kind of person the publisher has in mind. It’s a common experience for me to encounter articles or books that seem provocative and interesting, yet they are difficult to comprehend because they are participating in a conversation with which I am unfamiliar. To identify and read all the prior texts necessary to bring myself up to speed would be an immense task—a graduate degree in itself. But a short, accessible primer on the subject would suit my needs much better.

That’s what I hoped would be the case when I bought Long’s book on theology and culture, and I was mostly satisfied by his effort. Whenever people start using the word “culture,” I tend to shut down, because I don’t know what they mean and I am suspicious that neither do they. Long identifies this ambiguity as one of the fundamental reasons why relating culture and theology is such a difficult project.

Like many Duke students, I have been pretty heavily influenced by Prof. Hauerwas’ criticisms of H. Richard Niebuhr, but I have never read Niebuhr and don’t actually know much about him. While Long is definitely also a critic of Niebuhr, he at least is willing to back the truck up and give an account of what Niebuhr’s arguments were (alongside those of his predecessor Troeltsch and his successor Tillich). This discussion helped me to understand that the critique of Niebuhr (and modern liberalism more broadly) stems not only from modernism’s focus on the individual actor, but also from its assumption that the church’s chief task is to relate itself to the present moment:

“It is a peculiar feature of our modern culture that we are so driven to find characterizations of it and then claim we must be relevant to those characterizations. This may be indebted to H. Richard Niebuhr’s and Paul Tillich’s emphases on ‘culture’ as one of the correlates theology must address if it is to speak to modern people” (62).

It is at this point that Long seems to come closest to addressing the theology/culture conversation that gives me the most trouble. The real reason I wanted to read this group was so that I could feel a little less bewildered when I hear or read someone from the Relevant Magazine/Emergent Village/hip Christianity circles. (I recognize it’s incredibly unfair to lump so many people together. I'm doing so here because they all talk about something called 'culture', whereas I like to pretend no such thing exists.) He doesn’t really bring them in directly, and I’m not sure why. But knowing more about Niebuhr and Tillich helps me to understand a bit more where they might be coming from, so I’m glad for that.

I also really appreciate that Steve Long is the first person I’ve encountered who is willing to venture a definition of “postmodernism”. I hate hearing about postmodernity, because it seems even more slippery than “culture”. He writes, “Postmodern culture is not anything but the recognition that we can now see what ‘modern culture’ was and is, and can begin to recognize its limits, even if in so doing we cannot completely transcend those limits” (87). (As I look at that quotation by itself, it doesn’t look very meaty, but in the book it comes at the end of a lengthy effort at describing and questioning modern culture, so it is actually a pretty satisfying answer.)

My biggest issue with this book is rather trivial, and I imagine has more to do with the publisher than with the author: this book is full of typos. In 112 pages, I found eight such errors: errant or absent punctuation marks, confused homonyms, and outright misspellings. You see that kind of thing from time to time in other books, but never with such frequency that you start marking each one in the margins in order to tally them up and blog about it later.

But, let’s not end on that note. All in all, this is a very helpful book that sets out with modest goals and hits them. If you want to become more able to understand theological engagements with culture, it’s well worth your time to read this short volume. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

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