Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Published almost 60 years ago, Niebuhr’s classic is still the standard by which all others reference and interact concerning the issue of how Christians are to relate to the world around them. It takes Niebuhr ten pages to define culture and when he is done the reader is still not sure what he means and those who critique his work believe he is inconsistent in application. Nevertheless, the essence of the book and its value is in attempting to summarize Christian responses to culture around five approaches. A chapter is devoted to each of these approaches:

1. Christ against culture.

Niebuhr sees this as a radical reaction in which all loyalty is given to Christ and all claims to loyalty by culture is rejected. This appears to be the position of the first Christians (p. 49) as well as those involved in monasticism and individuals such as Tolstoy (pp. 56-76).

2. The Christ of culture.

The opposite extreme sees engagement in social good as the best way to be an example of Christ (p. 97). Its formula is “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man” (p. 101) and is represented by Schleiermacher and theological liberalism. The great work of Christianity, accordingly, is the reformation of culture (pp. 106-107).

3. Christ above culture.

This is the first of the three moderate positions and portrays Christ as the “fulfillment of cultural aspiration and the restorer of the institutions of true society” (p. 42). Yet Christ remains above culture. Thomas Aquinas is this approach’s greatest champion.

4. Christ and culture in paradox.

While those who adhere to this view see culture as godless and sick, nevertheless they belong to culture and do not seek to escape it or conform to it.

5. Christ the transformer of culture.

This final approach, best represented by Augustine in The City of God, recognized that man’s nature is corrupt but culture can, and must, be transformed. Christ is the converter of man in his culture and society. A new heaven and earth awaits the coming of Christ, who cannot come until a cultural conversion is brought about by believers. While never stated, this appears to be Niebuhr’s personal view, as this is the only approach which escapes criticism.

While somewhat dated Christ and Culture still offers much to consider as we ponder our dual roles as citizens of both heaven and earth.

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