Discussion of “Christ and Culture” by Niebuhr

Here is my first brief paper discussion on Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”. There were also a lot of good things that I didn’t think of that were brought up in discussion. I would definitely recommend this book to others, but it will take a while to get through. This is not an essay and therefore is not written in essay for and not always in complete sentences, deal with it :)

Matt Jones
Regent College
Theology of Culture
John Stackhouse
Word Count: 1077

Christ and Culture Discussion Paper

1. What is “the enduring problem,” and why does it “endure”?

The enduring problem with discussion of Christ and Culture is that there are many ways to view how Christ relates to culture. The Bible can support multiple theories of how we should relate to culture. It is not explicit about one particular way we are supposed to interact with culture. Jesus makes many statements that can give credible support to the five types of interaction that Niebuhr outlines. Also, many strong and influential Christians throughout the ages have been “members” of each of these types suggesting that belief of one type or the other does not make a person a better or worse Christian.

2. Briefly define each of Niebuhr’s five types

Christ against culture: Christ is here to claim authority over the earth and therefore throws out all ideas of culture. Culture is bad and sin is transmitted through it. This type “affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty.” Typically seen as “either-or”. This group is essentially separatist in belief that culture should be rejected. All forms of activity in culture (military, political, etc…) should not occur. The monastic tradition is one representative of this type.

Christ of culture: Christ defines what culture is. He is a “guide of men in all their labor.” Problem that arises with this is that what that culture is is looked at through a particular culture and is often ascribe those values. “Christianity itself needed to be regarded as an ellipse with two foci, rather than as a circle with one center. One focus was justification or the forgiveness of sins; the other, ethical striving for the attainment of the perfect society.” This Christ also give man power over nature. Often looked at as being two-minded: having a loyalty to both Christ and civilization. Wants society to be peaceful and co-operative which will achieve these things by moral training. Jesus as a great enlightener is a common them. Gnostic tradition takes the enlightener theme especially. Kant and Leibnitz are two of the main proponents of this type. Jesus as hero.

Christ above culture: This group is similar to the second group in that it sees Christ as “the fulfillment of cultural aspirations and the restorer of the institutions of true society.” The difference is that their view of Christ incorporates aspects of Christ that are not part of, nor belong to, culture. Christ uses culture to point to himself as savior but the other characteristics are what actually save man. He gives capabilities that humans could not conceive of. Thomas Aquinas is seen as a major representative.

Christ and culture in paradox: This group is similar to the Christ against culture type in that the see Christ at opposition to culture but differ in that they do not feel removal from society should happen. “Obedience to God requires obedience to the institutions of society and loyalty to its members as well as obedience to a Christ who sits in judgment on that society.” Luther is seen as the greatest representative of this type.

Christ the transformer of culture: Also called the “conversionist” type. Similar to first and fourth group in that they see that culture has been perverted and is fallen but differ in that this group see Christ as a person who is the “converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and not turning of men from self and idols to God save in society.” This means that, while culture is the transmitter of sin, Christ still uses culture to save and redeem man. John Calvin and Augustine are two of the key figures of this type.

3. Is there a difference (for Niebuhr? For you?) between “Christ and Culture” and “Church and Culture”?

I do believe that Niebuhr sees a difference between Christ/Culture and Church/Culture. The Church must evaluate the culture that it is in and respond to it in an appropriate manner. Christ did the same thing except that Christ was only responsible to God. The Church is responsible not only to God but also its members. The Church’s members are also part of culture and will relate the Christ differently and therefore the church will have to take that into consideration.

I would say that there, at the heart, is not a difference between how Christ relates to culture and how the church SHOULD relate to culture. Christ looked at the culture He was in a told stories, talked to people, challenged people, in a way that would make sense in that culture. If He had come today, in our culture, he would have done things differently. He still would have looked at the culture and told stories, talked to people, and challenged people, but he would have done in it a way that was relevant to our culture. Some things would look the same, some things would look drastically different.

4. What is one thing that impressed you positively, and one thing that impressed you negatively, about this book?

One thing that impressed me positively about this book is that Niebuhr did a wonderful job of outlining five ways of thinking about the relationship between Christ and culture. He goes on to say that there are many ways of dealing with this topic but I would imagine that it would be a very strenuous task to delve into the many possibilities on our own. Niebuhr did us a great service of bringing out the most important types of relation and giving us a deep understanding of what those types are as well as why they have been thought.

One thing that impressed me negatively about this book was its style or tone. To me it was somewhat difficult to read. I found it similar, in my mind, to reading the King James version of the Bible: the content is there and wonderful but because of how it was written it made it somewhat of a slow read. I felt that at some places passages were overly difficult but only so because of his style of writing. It is definitely an academic book and should be read as such and part of it is me needed to change, or at least prepare, for different ways to get across information.

A good point that was brought up in discussion was that Niebuhr says that we should not pass judgement on the different types of relation, but I would disagree with that. Some views of relation are supported only when viewing particular Bible passages out of context and that should definitely be judged. Otherwise you get the idea that you can make the Bible what you want of it and truth becomes relative.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is from a previous blog so the original comments no longer exist.

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