In contemporary theological conversation, H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is both loved and hated, adored and despised. Admirers will tell you it is a theological “classic” that deserves a reading by each successive generation, while detractors will (and I’ve seen them do it!) spew venom and the mere mention of the title. For those unfamiliar, in this work Niebuhr gives a typology of Christian responses to culture. Thus, he argues, throughout the course of time, the ship of the church has navigated its way through the world with 5 identifiable responses/reactions to its surrounding 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 humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers 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 conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.
Props to Wikipedia for the descriptions above. In the ensuing decades since the publication (1951) of his book, Niebuhr has been the subject of sustained critique for various reasons. Some claim that his vision of “culture”, always a nebulous term, is undefined and unhelpful in the Yale professor’s telling. Others say that it was an insidious work because it obviously favored the last model, ‘Transformation’, to the detriment of the others. Thus, Yoder writes, “Behind this posture of humble nonnormative objectivity, it will become clear to any careful reader that Niebuhr has so organized his presentation as to indicate a definite preference for ‘transformation.’. . . ‘Transformation’ takes into itself all the values of its predecessor types and corrects most of their shortcomings.”
But there, I think, is the rub. Many of Niebuhr’s critics, in my view, are those whose views have been most marginalized (or exposed by?) his work. Thus, those usually raising the loudest ruckus against Christ and Culture are those who feel dismissed by it. These would include Yoder, his protege’ Hauerwas, and all of their theological fanboys (of which there are many, at least in the blogosphere). A more reasoned and helpful reading of Christ & Culture recognizes its shortcomings but still finds value in the discussion. This, I think, is supplied by Geoffrey Wainwright in the opening chapter of his massive co-edited volume The Oxford History of Christian Worship. His background in ecumenical discussion and interest in liturgy and missiology shines through brilliantly here:
“Rather than taking [Niebuhr’s] five “typical” attitudes as fixed and divergent stances of the Christian faith toward all human culture, it may be more appropriate to see them as indicating the possibility of, and need for, a discriminating attention on the part of Christians toward every human culture at all times and in all places. Whereas a particular cultural configuration may appear as predominantly positive or negative in relation to the saving purposes of God, it is likely that most cultures will contain some elements to be affirmed; some to negated, resisted, and even fought; some to be purified and elevated; some to be held provisionally in tension; and some to be transformed. The liturgy can function not only to sift but also to inspire a surrounding public culture.” (The Oxford History of Christian Worship [Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006], 17)
Such a nuanced take on Niebuhr’s work is, unfortunately, rather novel these days. Those who critique it have good reason, on occasion; unfortunately, just as frequently as they have cause to critique it, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and seek to make it anathema for contemporary readers. This is a shame. Wainwright has given us a measured and helpful response that will hopefully keep Christ & Culture part of our discourse for decades to come.
Note: The Yoder quote comes from Gathje’s article found at: