Theology & Culture (2): Alternative Views

Over the course of my 36 year life, I’ve embraced several markedly different views of the relationship between Christianity and culture. In fact, I switched views more often than Madonna® and Prince® change public profiles. Early on, I was a cultural anorexic which soon gave way to a reaction that was something like cultural gluttony, which has now given way to what I hope is a view more resonant with the teaching of Christian Scripture.

The most influential mapping of historical models for understanding Christianity and culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ & Culture. The book is a minor theological classic, having influenced several generations of theologians with its five-fold typology. I’ll give a very brief description of his definition of culture and his typology, after which I will provide an alternative which differs from the five he mentions.

Niebuhr begins by marking out the notion of culture. He writes, “What we have in view when we deal with Christ and culture is that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity to which now the name culture, now the name civilization, is applied in common speech. Culture is the ‘artificial, secondary environment’ which man superimposes on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values. This ‘social heritage,’ this ‘reality sui generis,’ which the New Testament writers frequently had in mind when they spoke of ‘the world,’ which is represented in many forms but to which Christians like other men are inevitably subject, is what we mean when we speak of culture.“*

After having defined culture he proceeds to list five ways of viewing the relationship between Christ and culture. First, he writes of the Christ against Culture model (he lists Tertullian, the Anabaptists, Tolstoy, etc., as historical proponents of this model), in which Christians are “against” culture or attempt to withdraw from the surrounding culture. Second, he describes the Christ of Culture model (Gnostics, Abelard, Locke, Schleiermacher, etc.), in which the proponents are very much at home in their cultural context, even to the point of compromising Christian essentials.

The next three models fall broadly under the rubric of “Christ above Culture,” but he keeps them in separate categories. The third model is Christ above Culture (Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, etc.), which Niebuhr describes as an attempt to synthesize Christianity and culture into a neat system. The fourth model is Christ and Culture in Paradox (Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, etc.), a dualist position which recognizes the corrupt nature of human culture and pronounces it to be godless, but realizes that we cannot remove ourselves from it. The fifth model is Christ the Transformer of Culture (Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, etc.), which is similar to the previous two positions but differs in that they have a more positive view toward culture, seeking to transform it rather than reject it, assimilate to it, or hold it in tension.

Niebuhr’s typology has been helpful in stimulating Christian thinking on this topic and providing some categories of discussion over the years. However, its helpfulness is limited by many factors, several of which are: (1) as Craig Carter** has pointed out, Niebuhr’s “Christ” is mystical and eternal to the extent that he is hardly incarnate; (2) as Kuyper and others would point out, he has a severely deficient view of creation and its relation to culture; (3) Niebuhr has a weak view of the church, which kept him from seeing the robust manner in which God’s redeemed community can bear witness to him on this earth; (4) Niebuhr failed to take into account that Christians probably should deal with culture in different manners depending upon our cultural contexts. It is difficult to imagine Abraham Kuyper or Richard John Neuhaus doing what they did if they lived in Tora Bora or Baghdad; and (5) as D. A. Carson*** points out, Niebuhr’s account of culture is insufficiently Christological.

If I were forced to pick one of Niebuhr’s models, I would probably choose the fifth option. But as I am not forced to do so, I will make up my own category (although it is not stated in nearly as snappy a manner as Niebuhr’s). For the purposes of this blog series, I will not talk about Christ in relation to culture, but Christians in relation to culture. As I see it, we as Christians should live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the midst of the cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. Our Christian communities should live in such a way as to be a foretaste of the fully realized Kingdom, a foreshadowing of our life together on a New Heavens and Earth (which itself will be a very cultural existence, replete with a city, beautiful art, embodied souls, etc.).

Does Scripture bear out such a view? Further, what would it mean to live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in relation to a cultural context? In the next installment, I will try to make a brief biblical case for the view I just articulated, and in the remaining installments, I will try to give a glimpse of what it might look like to live in such a manner.

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*H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ & Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1951), 32.

** Craig Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 64-66.

***D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 44.