Posts tagged ‘Christ and Culture’

Christianity, Culture, and Comparison

ChurchThere can be little doubt that Christianity is losing its place of primacy in American culture.  According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming increasingly less religious and less willing to affiliate themselves with any particular religious tradition.  As The Washington Post reports:

The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in “nothing in particular.” Of those who are unaffiliated, 31 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up six points from 2007.[1]

A six-point increase of the religiously unaffiliated in eight years is not only statistically significant, it is an irreligious coup d’état.  Consider this, also from The Washington Post: “There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent) than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent).”

Even among those who self-identify as religious, identifying as a faith does not necessarily correlate to the practice of that faith.  One of the most striking demographic factoids of this presidential election cycle has been how evangelicals who attend church more frequently differ substantially in their candidate preferences from those who attend church less frequently.

Clearly, the religious terrain of America is experiencing tectonic shifts.  What was once America’s so-called “moral majority” is now an apprehensive minority.  So what is the way forward?

Myriads of options have been proposed and tried.  Some people want to fight the secularizing spiral of American culture while others are more amicable to bargaining with and even capitulating to it.  Still others, such as Rod Dreher, argue for a limited withdrawal from American culture, eschewing what they see as the culture’s inherently dangerous facets and foci.  In many ways, these tensions and postures toward the broader culture are nothing new, as a read through H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book, Christ and Culture, will reveal.

As worthy of discussion as all of these options may be, in this post, I would propose that it is just as important that we look at what we should not do as it is that we look at what we should do.  Here’s why.

At the root of our anxiety over shrinking Christian cultural influence is our penchant to compare.  We look at the political arena and we notice that we don’t wield the power we once did.  And we compare the influence we had to the power we have.  Or we look at demographic studies and we begin to notice that non-believers are on the increase while we’re on the decrease. And we compare the assembly of the despisers to the flock of the convinced.

Martin Luther has some great guidance when we are tempted toward comparison:

They surpass us by so many thousands, and all that we have seems to recede into nothing. But do not compare yourselves with them. No, compare yourselves with your Lord, and it will be wonderful to see how superior you will be … They would easily overcome us, but they cannot overcome that Christ who is in us.[2]

Comparing ourselves with the world as a starting place for responding to the world is dangerous business.  It can lead us to an arrogant triumphalism if the world seems to be persuaded to our side.  But it can also lead to an angry despair if the world rejects us.  It is little wonder that the apostle Paul once wrote, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves” (2 Corinthians 10:12).  If we are to compare ourselves with anyone or anything, it should be with the One who reminds us that even if we are a “little flock” in this age (Luke 12:32) – with little power, little influence, and little prestige – we are a “multitude that one one can count” (Revelation 7:9) in the next.

What strikes me about so many of our responses to Christianity’s diminishing cultural influence is not that they are wrong per se, but that they flow from the wrong place – they flow from anxious comparisons that grumble over Christianity’s diminishing cultural capital rather than from faith in Christ’s commandments and promises.

Perhaps it’s time to work less out of fear and more out of faith.  Perhaps it’s time to stop comparing and start trusting – not because the decline of Christianity isn’t sad, but because the victory of Christ is certain.

_________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 30 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 289

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

ABC Extra – Christ and Culture

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we wrapped up our series, “Unresolved,” looking at how we, as Christians, are called to relate to our world.  This question of how a Christian interacts with the world is a longstanding quandry, and was perhaps most famously addressed in 1951, by Yale theology professor H. Richard Niebuhr in what would become the defining work of his career, Christ and Culture.  In this seminal work, Niebuhr outlines five ways in which Christianity has responded to culture, or the world:

  • Christ against culture.  Niebuhr summarizes this response as one which “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45).[1]  Thus, this response to culture eschews most encounters with culture.  For instance, “political life is to be shunned…Military service is to be avoided because it involves participation in pagan religious rites and the swearing of an oath to Caesar” (54).  This way of thinking, then, takes a stance of deep suspicion and antagonism toward things of the world.
  • The Christ of culture.  People who adhere to this system of theologizing “feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress.  On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with His work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, electing from His teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about Him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (83).  Thus, this response is liberal and affectionate to the zeitgeist of a culture.
  • Christ above culture.   This, historically, has been a majority position in the Church, and posits that “the ‘world’ as culture [cannot] be simply regarded as the realm of godlessness; since it is at least founded on the ‘world’ as nature, and cannot exist save as it is upheld by the Creator and Governor of nature” (117-118).  In other words, though Christ is not opposed to culture inherently because He in some sense created it, He nevertheless reigns above it and is certainly grieved by the sin that has crept into it.  As Niebuhr writes, “The fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world, important as that issue is, but between God and man” (117), for man is sinful.
  • Christ and culture in paradox.  Like the response of Christ above culture, this view sees the fundamental issue as one between God and man:  “The issue lies between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self.  On the one side are we with all of our activities, our states and our churches, our pagan and our Christian works; on the other side is God in Christ and Christ in God…It is not a question about Christians and pagans, but a question about God and man” (150).  How does Christ deal with men who are against Him?  By means of His law and His gospel.  Niebuhr says this is the position of great theological luminaries such as Augustine and Luther.
  • Christ the transformer of culture.  This response “is most closely akin to dualism [i.e., Christ and culture in paradox], but…what distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture…[Conversionists have] a view of history that holds that to God all things are possible in a history that is fundamentally not a course of merely human events but always a dramatic interaction between God and men” (190-191, 194).

Although Niebuhr never explicitly endorses any of these five views, he offers no criticism of the fifth view.  Many scholars, then, believe that this is the view to which Niebuhr gives his tacit approval.

So which view is correct?  On the one hand, save the second response, all of these views have something valuable to offer to orthodox Christians.  On the other hand, to simple accept each view as equally valid quickly degenerates into an anachronistic and individualistic pluralism.  That is, accepting each view indiscriminately enables each individual Christians to respond anachronistically to different situations in their lives using whichever model they arbitrarily deem best at the time.  This will not do.  The question we must ask, then, is, “Which of these five views is normative for the other four?”  The Lutheran response would be, “Christ and culture in paradox.”  Why?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, this view understands the root of our problem, which is not culture per se, but us.  The reason there is even any discussion concerning how Christ relates to culture is because the people of culture are sinful and depraved, hostile to God.  Second, because this view is realistic about human sinfulness, it does not fall into self-righteousness, for it understands that “all of us are in the same boat,” as it were, and therefore encourages us to love our neighbor and serve in our respective vocations, just as Christ commands.  Thus, we, as Christians, in our life’s stations, are called to proclaim the  “gospel of faith in Christ working by love in the world of culture” (179).  This understanding, in turn, frees us up to decry the evil not only of culture, but of ourselves, as does the view of Christ against culture. Yet, it does not fall into separatism.  It allows us to herald the transcendent gospel as the solution to this world’s problems as does the view of Christ above culture.  Yet, it does not fall into dualism or even a soft Deism.  And it allows us to serve in our vocations for the good of our neighbors, transforming culture, as does the view of Christ the transformer of culture.  Yet, it still realizes that we, as culture is transformed, are by no means able or responsible for creating a utopian society.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the view that Christ and culture are in paradox is simply this:  it acknowledges and allows the tension between Christ and culture.  And it admits that we can never remove this tension or relegate it to a non-issue.  This, in turn, empowers us, as Christians, to engage our world thoughtfully and humbly, for we, like the rest of the world, are sinners, but we are also joyfully and freely redeemed by Christ.

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[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York:  Harper & Row, 1951).

February 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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