In 1951 an American theologian named H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a really important book titled Christ and Culture. At the time, he was teaching Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT. In his work, Niebuhr reflected on the challenges that modern science presented to religion. He identified three basic ways that Christ and Culture relate. I picked up his classic work off my seminary bookshelf to reread it and found it really engaging and helpful for gaining a deeper understanding of faith and life today. Over the next three days of devotionals, I will share some of the book’s insights - in simplified form - in order to have us think theologically about how church engages culture today.
I begin with Niebuhr’s first position: “Christ Against Culture.” This answer we see in evidence by Mennonites, Quakers, or the Desert Fathers of the Monastic movements of the early centuries. But it is a position many take. For example, a devout man said recently to me “I don’t watch TV or listen to secular radio.” Those who believe Jesus and culture are at odds with one another see a basic dualism in the universe: good vs. evil, temporal vs. eternal, light vs. dark, truth vs. falsehood, spirit vs. flesh. Such a view sees the Christ/culture question as a competition for power or control. I recall a Baptist Church in NC that built a new downtown building with no windows or doors to the main street! This is the “church vs. the world” position which holds a clear line between them.
Niebuhr writes, “This answer (position) affirms the sole authority of Christ (“Jesus is Lord”) over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims of loyalty. Various New Testament (early church) writings evidence this attitude. Examples are 1 John or Revelation with their radical rejection of the world.” Niebuhr goes on to say that in this position “loyalty to Christ” requires “the rejection of cultural society.” This view sees the world as the realm of “evil, lies, hatred, lust and murder.”
Such an answer to the question of “how should Christ and culture relate?” has inspired martyrs who died for their faith and a deep sincerity of believers which is to be admired. Indeed, such a radical position is inevitable, Niebuhr says, “when people despair about their civilization.” He concedes that it is a position that “every Christian must often feel himself or herself claimed by the Lord to reject the world and its kingdoms.” But the position is inadequate, Niebuhr writes, because no one can fully separate themselves from culture. It is impossible, he says, to be solely dependent on Christ to the exclusion of culture. We all use and are filled with culture, philosophy and science. We live immersed within culture. It is impossible to separate ourselves fully from the world even though many who hold this position claim that they have. Such a position also fails to embrace what it means to say God is creator of a good world that is sustained by God’s love and grace.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the second of his five positions. It is one which he titled “Christ of Culture.” Until then, let us pray: