Christ and Culture: The Enduring Problem, Part 1

Cover of "Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)...
Cover of Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)

By Scott Fowler

 

H. Richard Niebuhr set the bar for modern conversations about Christ and culture and, more particularly, what is to be done about what he called “the enduring problem” of human culture. This series is an attempt to facilitate dialogue about the enduring problem using Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as a foundation. The reader is invited to read Niebuhr’s book and join this conversation.

 In the paragraphs and series installments to follow, I will attempt to capture the essence of what Niebuhr is saying and in the process add my own insights. I will make every effort to clearly delineate between Niebuhr’s voice and my far less significant one.

 

I. The Problem

 The Many-Sided, Complex Debate (Pages 1-2)

The debate over “the relations of Christianity and civilization” is many-sided and complex, even counterintuitive at times. This was Niebuhr’s take in 1950 and the “debate” has morphed into a civil war with many fronts in our times. In fact, the lines of battle can be found between the Church and the culture, the evangelical church and the so-called “nominal” or “main-line” denominations, and now between increasingly entrenched factions within the evangelical church. Contrary to Niebuhr’s assessment, I’m less certain that the Church is bewildered about these things and more concerned that it is awash in the same postmodern diseases that afflict the culture and even in heresy. 1

The “question of Christianity and civilization” is not new and has not been approached by the Church with any unanimous consent. Niebuhr reminds us that “Christ’s answer to the problem of human culture is one thing, Christian answers are another.” It was his assessment that the Christian centuries have witnessed various approaches to the problem and that Christ is “answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion that transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.” In other words, somehow God is using, piecemeal, the best of all the Church’s efforts over the centuries.

It is precisely at this point that I feel Niebuhr is misunderstood by some of his critics. Some seem to read Niebuhr too prescriptively as though he is vouching for and recommending all of the five approaches. By his own account he is setting forth “typical Christian answers” in an effort to “contribute to the mutual understanding of variant and often conflicting Christian groups.” That Niebuhr considers that Christ is “answering the question” and employing various elements found in the Church’s efforts over the centuries may give rise to the idea that there is a universalistic bent to Niebuhr’s optimism (something that we will have to consider in earnest when Niebuhr commends to the reader the work of F. D. Maurice beginning on page 218), but for now it seems innocuous enough to suggest that perhaps all sincere attempts at answering this question have perhaps had some merit in their approaches.

The Bottom Line: Jesus Imperils Culture (Pages 2-4)

Next, in an effort to illustrate just how long the enduring problem has endured, Niebuhr enlists the commentary of Rabbi Joseph Klausner who defends the “repudiation of the Nazarene on the grounds that [Jesus] imperiled Jewish civilization.”2 Klausner’s complaint is that Jesus, thoroughly Jewish, endangered Jewish civilization by “abstracting religion and ethics from the rest of social life”3 and essentially by ignoring the culture instead of reforming it. Klausner, from a typical “bottom-up” perspective, produces a long litany of ways in which Jesus snubbed the Jewish nation. Klausner’s conclusion is that “Jesus ignored everything concerned with material civilization: [and] in this sense he does not belong to civilization.” Klausner goes on to say that the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people has been vindicated by “two thousand years of non-Jewish Christianity.”

If Niebuhr is a faithful interpreter, Klausner is saying that the Jews were right to reject Jesus because he ignored the daily ins and outs of Jewish national life and failed to bring reforms that would have been useful or meaningful to the nation as He found it. Instead, Jesus’ mind was too much on heaven and became of no earthly use. Jesus was a threat to Jewish culture. To Klausner, the preservation and betterment of Jewish culture would have been far more important than any of the “pie-in-the-sky” spirituality that Jesus had to offer.

The demand that Jesus, or the Church for that matter, pay homage to the culture—any culture—is to blatantly suggest that the priorities people have embraced and the culture they have created is far more important than any agenda God might have for the culture. It is to say that people come first. But, in truth, Jesus imperils culture! He comes with His agenda. It is not His interest to appease humanity, leaving undisturbed its petty interests! This kind of discussion always reminds me of a quote from Miroslav Volf:

The question is also whether all those unappreciated small and great van Goghs in various fields of human activity would not draw inspiration and strength from the belief that their noble efforts are not lost, that everything good, true and beautiful they create is appreciated by God and will be appreciated by human beings in the new creation.4

Imagine the idea that God’s priority would be us and our work and our efforts! Surely this is one of the bloody battlefields in the struggle to address the problem of human culture pitting human interest against God’s desire that His “Kingdom come and His will be done.”

NEXT: The common arguments in defense of culture against the gospel.

FOOTNOTES

1 Deep, irreconcilable lines of division can be seen between conservatives and liberals in the political arena, and between liberal Christians and conservative ones. Within evangelicalism the battle lines have been drawn between theistic evolutionists and six-day creationists with Intelligent Design proponents in the middle, and between supporters of gay Christianity and evangelicals who still hold to the values of home and family found in Scripture. Adding to this mix is a revival of a bottom-up, social gospel energized by something called emergence Christianity whose chief proponent, Phyllis Tickle, calls for an end to sola scriptura, among other things. The concept of evangelical seems all but lost at the present moment.

Klausner’s comments come from his book, Jesus of Nazareth.

Niebuhr’s reflections on Klausner.

4 Miroslav Volf, “On Loving with Hope: Eschatology and Social Responsibility,” Transformation, July/September 1990, 30.

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/

The Christ and Culture Initiative

By Scott Fowler

Christ and Culture

Last year I read H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic text, Christ and Culture. For years I had been meaning to read it but, truthfully, it is not the easiest read. But last year, it came alive! Not so much because of Niebuhr’s insights1 but because it so eloquently raises the question: What is to be done about the problem of Christ and culture?2 The question is profoundly important and constantly addressed—either consciously or subconsciously—by Christians and non-Christians alike; by religious and non-religious persons alike; by pop stars and prominent atheists, by actors and professors, by scientists and, of course, preachers of every ilk. My concern for the believing Church and an American culture increasingly hostile towards it,3 prompts my entry into this fray.

And so, for some time now, my question has been, Who do we look to for solutions to the complexities that arise where Christ and culture intersect? It is not hard to anticipate some of the potential answers to that question. For example, someone might suggest that we look to the Holy Spirit for our answers—sort of the “you do not need anyone to teach you” approach from 1 John 2:27. A respectable answer as long as that text is balanced with other texts. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11, we see that God has appointed and gifted some to be teachers. So, as we balance these texts with one another we can clearly see that we have an anointing from the Holy Spirit that enables us to discern between falsehood and truth and even to discern the content that would come from teachers. But we don’t observe a prescribed ethos of individualism that sees all Christians simply listening to their own voices.

Another response to the above question of Who do we look to? Might be, We look to our pastors! And so we do. But not every is pastor equipped and gifted at surveying the spiritual/cultural landscape and helping the Church and the culture at large to know what it should do, though we should expect to find that some are. But what happens when insightful pastors are not widely known or are simply not as good at communicating their insights as those are who tend toward heresy? Similarly, we might also expect that the professors in our Christian universities and seminaries would help in this area, and of course many have, but not all of them. In fact, some of the most egregious attacks against the believing Church are coming from inside evangelicalism.4

Wanted: Men of Issachar

In 1 Chronicles 12:32 we learn about the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Who are the modern “men of Issachar”? Chuck Colson, who died last year, was one of those men. He cultivated an awareness of the relevant issues where Christ intersects with culture, did his due diligence at researching and thinking through the issues from all sides, and fostered meaningful dialogue within and between the Church and the culture in an effort to help them know what they should do. Surely there are many men and women whom God can use in this perilous hour to fill this need for modern men and women of Issachar?!

Sadly, there are many inside the Church who are leading the believing Church astray. Men and women whom we have otherwise trusted are calling for the end of Scripture as the Church’s final authority and the end of an orthodox view of the atonement, calling it a “bloody sacrifice” that “no longer plays.”5 They are leading an assault on the Church’s understanding of Genesis 1-3, even removing our confidence in Adam and Eve and humanity as God’s special creation, bringing into question what we believe about original sin, the fall, and the need for the sacrificial death of Jesus.6 Some are saying that the Church might as well accept same-sex marriage and homosexuality as normal and open its arms to gay Christianity, saying the Church will simply “get over it.”7

The Christ and Culture Initiative is an effort to call together qualified men and women “of Issachar,” either through electronic means such as this blog or in actual convocation, who have been gifted and anointed by God to think through the complex issues that arise where Christ and culture intersect, to dialogue with one another and even with opposing voices through interviews and print concerning these issues, and to thoughtfully, lovingly, yet truthfully and firmly, inspire and challenge the Church and the culture through response.

1 I don’t agree with all of his conclusions but he does offer some important insights; I think the text is frequently misunderstood by modern readers.

2 Niebuhr calls this the enduring problem.

3 I actually mean two things here. I am concerned that the American culture is growing in its hostility toward the believing Church, but I am also concerned for American culture.

4 The believing Church must now of necessity begin to see itself as post-evangelical due to the marring of its true meaning by those who are peddling heresy from inside the Church and due to a media that either cannot or will not make the distinction between what used to be genuine evangelicalism and what now is not.

5 See Bart Gingerich’s coverage of the National Conversation on Emergence Christianity, in Emergence Christianity Comes to Memphis, http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/01/18/emergence-christianity-comes-to-memphis/ quoting Phyllis tickle. When I wrote Ms. Tickle, asking for transcripts, recordings, or video of the event, she replied: “There was no video taken . . . there was an audio which was taken for archival purposes only and will not be released. These decisions were made, I believe, in the interest of being sure that all who wished to speak or make comments or explore issues within the conversation could do so without concern for any post-conference continuations out of context.” See also Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, pages 98-101.

6 See the many articles found on the biologos.org website. See also Gingerich’s article.

7 Watch a 2009 Andrew Marin interview with Phyllis Tickle where Tickle says, “The truth of it is we’re going to get over this.” Andrew Marin, by the way, is the founder of The Marin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to build bridges between the LGBT community and, among other groups, the Church. Google the “I’m sorry campaign.”

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/