Review: Christ & Culture

christandculturebookAuthor: H. Richard Niebuhr
Publisher: New York: Harper & Row, 1951.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Amazon Price: $10.37

Bottom Line

Throughout the book, Niebuhr brilliantly describes five types of how Christians attempt to solve “the enduring problem”: reconciling Christ with culture. Each type seeks to solve the Christ and culture dilemma by endeavouring to answer the question: How involved should Christians be in culture?

The Five Types

The first type is “Christ against culture.” Here, the Christian endeavours to be completely separated from culture, some extremes of which include the Anabaptists, or today’s Amish. The problem with this type is that in attempting to separate themselves from culture, they form their own culture instead. In their attempt to be anti-culture, they inevitably create a different type of culture, therefore failing to escape culture. To them, Christ and culture are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled. And so, they fail in bringing Christ to the people.

The second type is “Christ of culture.” Here, the Christian says that “Christ belongs in culture, because culture itself… becomes sterile and corrupt (93). These Christians attempt to domesticate Christ within the features of whatever culture they happen to find themselves in. For example, gay marriage proponents would fit into this category by stressing Christ’s teaching on love while neglecting what the rest of Scripture says against it, and thus Christ’s other teachings on repentance. In other words, “Christ of culture” Christians bring culture up to Christ rather than bringing Christ down to culture. That is, instead of seeing what Christ has to say about culture and how one ought to respond, they see what culture has to say about Christ and respond to culture’s demands instead.

The third type is “Christ above culture.” These Christians believe Christ and culture are partially reconcilable, but Christ is transcendent of culture. In this view, Christians recognise God has instituted culture, so man is to include himself in it, but since Christ transcends culture, our ultimate loyalty should be to Him alone. This view becomes extreme when Christians attack secular businesses for failing to be Christian, which is absurd because Christians should not expect secular businesses to be Christlike; that’s why they’re secular in the first place.

The fourth type is “Christ and culture in paradox,” which Niebuhr specifically attributes to Lutheranism. Here, Christ and culture are opposed, but man must necessarily live in both realms. This essentially comes from Luther’s two kingdom theology—God reigns in both. The right kingdom is exclusively for Christians, where God deals with the Church and forgives sins. The left kingdom is where God keeps the world in order through physics, government, and vocations. The Christian participates in both kingdoms; this is essentially where Niebuhr gets “Christ and culture in paradox” from. This type of Christian reconciles God’s Law with His grace, and God’s divine wrath with His mercy.

The fifth type is “Christ the transformer of culture.” Niebuhr calls this the conversionist model, which posits that Christ can transform culture. In describing this type, Niebuhr says that although God has called Christians to election, that does not mean these elect are to sever themselves from secular culture and be a society of a “new humanity.” We are saved, yes, but we are not to save salvation only for ourselves. How would we fulfil Christ’s Great Commission to the whole world if we segregate ourselves from all society? Therefore, the Christian must seek to transform culture into Christ.

Critique

Niebuhr commits two faults. First, Niebuhr misrepresents Lutheran doctrine. It is true that Luther favoured paradoxes, but he misunderstands Luther’s doctrine by comparing it to dualism. Dualism comes from Gnosticism, which posits that matter and spiritual realms are opposed and matter is therefore evil. Niebuhr compares Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms to dualism in that yes, culture is opposed to Christ, but Luther never calls culture evil. Culture is opposed to Christ because as culture is part of the world, and the world is in sin, culture thus naturally opposes Christ just as the individual does in his sin; and culture is composed of these sinful individuals. Niebuhr completely ignores Luther’s doctrine on vocation, which posits that Christians must be a part of their culture in order to bring Christ into the world. Culture is not inherently evil; it is man who makes it evil. Therefore, Christians must fulfil their vocations to bring God’s light into the world. Thus, Lutheranism is not dualistic as Niebuhr would like to think, but rather is inclusive of culture, and in fact encourages Christians to participate in culture.

Niebuhr wrote this book in 1951, which was during the aftermath of World War II. Considering the German roots of Lutheranism and the Lutheran quietism during Hitler’s reign, Niebuhr can’t help but be biased and speak negatively of Lutheranism and misunderstand Lutheran doctrine. (He blames Lutheranism despite all Protestants’ involvement in the Confessing Church, which opposed Hitler, as well as other Protestants and Catholics who originally supported Hitler. Lutheran churches also participated in the Confessing Church to assassinate Hitler, one such prominent Lutheran figure being Dietrich Bonhoeffer.) Niebuhr fails to exclude his bias against Lutheranism from examining its doctrine to give a proper and fair account of it.

Secondly, he commits bias towards the conversionist view. In describing every type, he follows a common pattern: he explains the theology of the type, the proponents for each type, additional miscellaneous information about the type, and then the virtues and vices of the type. He fails, however, to mention any vices of the conversionist view. He has nothing negative to say about it. It becomes clear, then, which view he believes all Christians should undertake. His book wasn’t so much an explanation of all types of answers in which Christians attempt to reconcile Christ and culture, but more of why the last one, “Christ the transformer of culture,” is the correct and superior view in spite of all the others discussed. That is, according to his bias.

I agree with Niebuhr that the types “Christ against culture” and “Christ of culture” are inadequate, but he fails to give a fair account on the Lutheran perspective and doesn’t even endeavour to list any shortcomings of the type he favours.

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