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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 110–12 

Book Review

Artists, Citizens, Philosophers

Duane K. Friesen. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2000. 349 pages.

Reviewed by David S. Faber

The classic account of the relation between Christianity and culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture in which the Anabaptist tradition is categorized as being against culture. Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas) Bible and Religion professor Duane Friesen’s Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City is a successful, {111} though flawed, articulation of a more nuanced account of the relationship between an Anabaptist understanding of Christianity and the larger cultural context in which we live.

The book is divided into two sections. The first—“Orienting Ourselves: Being the Church”—is Friesen’s theological justification for an Anabaptist engagement with the larger culture. He makes a valuable contribution by recognizing that North American Christians (and North American Anabaptists, in particular) can best view themselves as aliens or exiles in the midst of an imperialistic culture. This is a distinctively Anabaptist point of view that has more recently been recognized by many Christians outside of the Anabaptist tradition. Given this recognition, Friesen looks to the exile tradition in the Bible for an understanding of the Church’s relation to culture. He uses the prophetic word from Jeremiah 29:7 to “seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (NRSV) as the guiding wisdom for a Christian response to the world. The notion of an exile seeking the shalom of the city allows Friesen to acknowledge that there is not a monolithic response that Christians will give to the non-Christian culture. At some points Christians will cooperate with the culture and at other points Christians will challenge the existing culture. The teleological character of Friesen’s proposal—seeking the goal of God’s shalom—provides a fertile ground for Christian engagement with culture.

The first section of the book is, however, marred by Friesen’s use of the theology of Gordon Kaufman to ground his account. Kaufman takes a Kantian approach to theology: a person can have no direct awareness of God but only human perceptions of God. We cannot have knowledge of ultimate reality. In chapter 3, “Bread and Meaning,” Friesen clearly identifies himself with Kaufman in such claims as “I am aware that all views of God are human constructions” (65) and “ ‘God’ is that symbol in terms of which everything is to be understood and interpreted” (69). On this account, God is not a person but a symbol that human beings have constructed. Fortunately, it seems that much of what Friesen says could be grounded in a realist view of God.

The second section of the book—“Engaging Culture: Seeking the Peace of the City”—discusses three areas in which Christians can seek shalom for the culture in which they find themselves: the arts, social involvement, and the quest for wisdom. Friesen intends these areas to be suggestive of how to carry out the project discussed in the first part of the book without being exhaustive. As with the first section, part two is a mixture of helpful insight and less helpful commentary. For instance, {112} in chapter 6, “Artistic Imagination and the Life of the Spirit,” Friesen provides a helpful overview of various aesthetic theories. He seems to end up endorsing a modification of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s view which identifies three criteria for aesthetic excellence: unity and coherence, richness and intensity, and the fittingness of a work. Friesen writes, “In addition to Wolterstorff’s standards, I would like to add the term integrity” (188). This is an interesting proposal; however, later in the chapter, when Friesen discusses specific works of art, he does not make use of the criteria that he has endorsed. In fact, he reverts to an expressionist understanding of aesthetic excellence.

Friesen has begun a more concrete discussion of Anabaptist engagement with culture. He has provided a very helpful framework for pursuing that discussion, namely the idea of seeking the shalom of the culture in which we live. Although the flaws in the book will limit its usefulness, one hopes that it will generate significant further discussion.

David S. Faber
Assoc. Prof. of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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