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Nathan Pitchford's Review of The Road From Eden

By pitchford | June 17, 2009


What precisely did God mean when he told Adam to fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion over it, and to cultivate and keep the Garden? What significance does that command retain after the Fall? What meaning does it have for Christians living on the earth today, after the resurrection of Christ? In a word, what exactly is the “Dominion Mandate” or (“Cultural Mandate”) and how is the Church to obey it? The question is nuanced and complex; but John Barber’s landmark study in Christianity and culture, The Road from Eden, is well adapted to make sense of the “culture wars,” not just of today, but of the past two thousand years, by uncovering the real issues, placing the development of questions and perspectives squarely within the broad flow of Church history, and supporting a particular opinion from a trinitarian framework of theology. For all serious students of the relationship between the Church and culture, whether sympathetic to Barber’s perspective or not, this masterly study requires careful interaction and genuine consideration.

Whether you happen to be a novice or a scholar in the contemporary discussion surrounding Christ and the culture, The Road from Eden, if you have not yet read it, should be foremost on your list. If the topic is relatively new to you, you will not find a better overview of what all it entails, how it has been addressed throughout two thousand years of Church history, and what specific elements come into play in answering the pertinent questions. And if a scholar, you will find a well-documented and thoroughly-researched advance upon the scholarly discussion, capably arguing for a specific perspective, and firmly rooted in the history of the Church and a biblical-theological perspective of the scriptures. Whether or not you agree with Barber, you will be forced to rigorous thought and consideration which cannot fail to help you nuance your own opinion more carefully, at least, and perhaps even change it drastically. It will at least provide you with much germane material for thought and further discussion.

The bulk of Barber’s work is a vast, sweeping overview of the cultural development of the Church and the societies in which she has existed from the time of the apostles. Emphasizing architecture, sculpture, and painting, but taking into consideration other elements such as poetry and philosophy as well, Barber capably guides the reader down the corridors of time, giving his interpretation not just of many significant cultural achievements, but also of the underlying shifts in worldview and perspective that bind together the similar outlook of different times and places in a more or less coherent whole. But more to the point, this history lesson is secondary to the primary purpose of demonstrating just what all this cultural achievement means for the essential question of the relationship between the Church and culture, a question that has just as much dramatic import for Christians today as it ever had.

The second part of the work, much shorter but every bit as important, is Barber’s own opinion on the malaise of the Church in Western culture today, and what we need to be doing if we would take God’s Dominion Mandate seriously. His understanding is constructed on a trinitarian basis, giving insightful thoughts on what it means to be functioning as a redeemed humanity shaped in the image of God, specifically in the elements of loving (as the Father loved us), working (as the Son worked for our redemption), and keeping (as the Spirit guards and causes to continue and flourish the Son’s redemptive accomplishment). But beyond just the trinitarian undergirding, he sees a redemptive-historical, “big-picture” point of view as having a necessary shaping influence on our task in the culture. The “secular” Dominion Mandate and the “spiritual” Great Commission are not two essentially different commandments that we engage in simultaneously – in fact, even thinking in those terms is to capitulate to some extent to a problem that has existed in the Church throughout her history, and has come to the surface again and again in such specific manifestations as dualism, gnosticism, neo-platonism, Aristotelian-flavored Thomism, etc. On the contrary the Dominion Mandate has grown into the Great Commission in the same way that all of the shadowy beginnings of God’s redemptive plan have come into the full daylight after the incarnation of Christ. Barber ends his study with what this concept means for our engagement with the culture, in a present that has massive and necessary eschatological intentions.

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