Archive for January 7, 2019

Christ, Culture, and Witness

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A perennial question of Christianity asks:  How should a Christian relate to and interact with broader culture?  In his classic work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines what has become the premier taxonomy of the relationship between the two as he explores five different ways that, historically, Christ and culture have corresponded:

  • Christ against culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are incompatible and Christianity will inevitably be at odds with and should retreat from the rest of the world.
  • Christ of culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are well suited for each other, and Jesus becomes the fulfiller of society’s hopes and dreams.
  • Christ above culture: In this view, broader culture is not bad per se, but it needs to be augmented and perfected by biblical revelation and the Church, with Christ as the head.
  • Christ and culture in paradox: In this view, culture is not all bad because it is, after all, created by God, but it has been corrupted by sin.  Therefore, there will always be a tension between the potential of culture and its reality as well as between the brokenness of culture and the perfection of Christ.
  • Christ the transformer of culture: In this view, because Christ desires to ultimately redeem culture, Christians should work to transform culture.

The categories Niebuhr outlines and the tensions he teases out in his taxonomy are just as salient today as they were when he first posed them in 1951.  Indeed, they are perhaps even more so as America slides into what many have christened a “post-Christian age.”

In my view, the first two categories won’t do.  To pit Christ against culture, as the first view tries to do, overlooks the fact that there is much good in culture.  It can also easily lead Christians into a self-righteousness that spends so much time trying to fight culture that it forgets that Christians are part of the problem in culture, for they too are sinners.

Conversely, to team Christ with culture and to use Christ to endorse your zeitgeist of choice also will not do.  As Ross Douthat explains, when this happens:

Traditional churches are supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs. These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left.

Though I would take issue with Douthat’s characterization of Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen as torchbearers for Christian orthodoxy, his broader point about what happens when Christ is made to mindlessly cater to culture is absolutely true.  Culture, it turns out, is a much better line dancer than it is a two-stepper.  It likes to dance alone and will humor Christ only as long as it needs to until it can find a way to leave Him behind and strike out on its own.

In my view, Niebuhr’s category of “Christ and culture in paradox” best explains the difficult realities of the Church’s interaction with culture and the biblical understanding of how to relate to culture.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul opens by writing:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

The Corinthians prided themselves on being enlightened and educated.  Paul sardonically jibes the Corinthians for their arrogance, teasing, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  To a church that prided itself in being intellectually and socially elitist, rather than engaging in rhetorical and philosophical acrobatics to impress the Corinthians when he proclaimed the gospel to them, Paul came to them with the rather unimpressive, as he put it, “foolish” message of Christ and Him crucified.  Paul cut against the culture of Corinth.

And yet, at the same time he cut against the culture of Corinth, he also declared his love for broader culture and even embedded himself into broader culture in an effort to proclaim the gospel:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul was not afraid to appropriate culture in service to the declaration and proclamation of the gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved.

So there you have it.  Paul eschews cultural sensibilities at the same time he employs them.  Because Paul knows that Christ and culture live in paradox with one another.

We would do well to follow in Paul’s footsteps.  As Christians, we must not be afraid to cut against culture’s sinfulness and brokenness.  But at the same time, we must also not be afraid to embrace culture’s creativity and respect its sensibilities as often as we possibly can.  And we must have the wisdom to know when to do what.  Otherwise, we will only wind up losing the truth to culture or losing the opportunity to share the truth with culture.  And we can afford to lose neither.

Let us pray that we would faithfully keep both in 2019.

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January 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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