Christ and Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture in 1951. Fifty-five years later, we are still wrestling with its ideas. (FYI: I don’t agree with Niebuhr; his ‘argument’ is a little too Christless for my taste.) Niebuhr identified five ways for Christ (or his followers) to interact with culture.

  • Christ Against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
  • Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the spirit’s encounter with nature.
  • Christ Above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
  • Christ and culture in paradox. For the dualist , history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
  • Christ transforming culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and man’s response to them. He lives some what less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do his various brothers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conserversion of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption. (from Wikipedia)

The fifth approach, I think, might be altered to: Christ subordinated to Culture. I’m not an alarmist, but a growing number of churches and church leaders in America seem intent not on transforming or redeeming culture but in appropriating it for some “righteous” ends. Participating in culture, being part of a culture, as Christ undoubtedly was, does not mean immersing oneself in that culture under the guise of transforming it.

To me, it seems a little like dressing Ken in Barbie’s clothes so he and Barbie can understand each other better.

Jesus’ command that the disciples not operate according to the principles of human government (“It shall not be so among you…”) makes that kind of approach wrong. It’s not just that we don’t do what they do the way they do it (a question of operations or motivation) but that we don’t do what they do, period (a question of practices). I’m not pretending to have all the answers, but I’m pretty sure that popularizing Christian knock-offs of whatever phenomenon is the flavor of the month is not the answer. (In music, for example, metal in the late 80s [remember Intense Records?], punk/ska in the mid-90s, emo/screamo in the ’00s).

These days, the conversation has gotten more complicated. While postmodernism is a place-holder, some of its ideals still present a challenge to the lordship of Christ. The evangelical movement has invested a great deal in Western culture, particularly in the success of the American experiment. It’s both child of and parent to modern American culture. So what do Christians (and especially evangelical Christians) do now that the entropy evangelists have a little more ammunition?

As Leonard Sweet notes in the book The Church in Emerging Culture, the church is still asking, “Is the ‘lived culture’ of Christian faith shaped by criteria intrinsic to itself or in mutual exchange with the culture?” Or to make the question a bit more accessible, we ask a question familiar to 80s pop music junkies, “Where do we go from here? Which is the way that’s clear?”

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