Postmodern Review of Niebuhrs Christ and Culture

Topics: Jesus, Christianity, Christ Pages: 6 (2384 words) Published: February 13, 2008
Christ and Culture, authored by H. Richard Niebuhr in 1951, is a book which discusses how a Church or a Christian is to interact with ones culture. Niebuhr systematically answers this question by placing the church into the following five categories they have utilized through history to answer this question: "Christ against culture," "the Christ of culture," "Christ above culture (Christ synthesizing with culture)," "Christ and culture in paradox," and "Christ the transformer of culture." Reading this book more that fifty years since it was penned, I believe Christ and Culture to somewhat dated, yet still highly relevant today. This review will discuss Niebuhr's five categories, his strengths, weaknesses, and what I see as a missing element for contemporary culture. Niebuhr begins his book with the problem and question of how Christianity is to relate to culture. He indicates that Christ's answer to the problem does not always coincide with Christian answers (Niebuhr 1951, 2). This critique is valuable as it cuts through Christian hermeneutical idolatry in which people believe their understanding of the interaction of Christ and culture are systematically locked in to only one absolute definition. Niebuhr shows that following Christ can threaten culture for numerous reasons (6). While elaborating on the problem and defining his five categorical answers he does not believe that one person or a community can completely conform to only one type, which indicates to me that people can freely belong to multiple categories (43-44). The first chapter also defines the terms ‘Christ' and ‘culture'. As thousands upon thousands of pages have been written in defining and understanding Christ for over two millennium, I did not think his definition was needed. His exposition of culture provided a broad perspective, and I think one his definitions of culture which stated, "Culture is a social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle …," provided a valuable contrast for Christ against culture (37). Niebuhr's first answer to the question of Christ and culture looks at Christ against culture. Adherents to this philosophy believe that "the counterpart of loyalty to Christ … is the rejection of cultural society; [where] a clear line of separation is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world" (47-48). He shows that these Christians condemn culture. This type of framework of worldview consists of people that believe all non-Christians and everything that is in the world is corrupt. Here, Christians must take numerous steps to remain pure from the sinfulness of the world. This form of Christianity tends to embody isolationist behavior in which Christians follow the holy road or as Niebuhr says it, "the way of life," while all others follow the secular path or road to death (50). Niebuhr exemplifies Tertullian as a model for "the epitome of the ‘Christ-against-culture' position" because he was against military service and believed that Greek culture was completely inferior to Christianity (54-55). Niebuhr also utilized 9 pages illustrating Leo Tolstoy as another exemplar of ‘Christ against Culture'. He also briefly utilizes modern Mennonites as believers of ‘Christ against Culture'. Since Niebuhr utilized time, space, and energy to proclaim the problems with ‘Christ against culture,' while not sacrificing much effort to explaining value of these believers, I believe he is biased against this community. Although he briefly discussed Mennonites, he could have discussed the community centric nature of the Amish and Mennonites, provided a balanced emphasis on their Christian inspired pacifism / nonresistance or discussed the Mennonite emphasis on conflict resolution. Next Niebuhr discussed the ‘Christ of culture' and states that these people "are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community...
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