What is the relationship between Christianity and culture? This question has always been an important one in the history of the church. In Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr summarizes the various answers given throughout the history of the church to this vital relationship. The content of the book was originally in the form of a series of lectures which Niebuhr gave at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in January, 1949 (ix). Niebuhr’s experience teaching Christian ethics at the Divinity School of Yale University provided him with the opportunity to explore the history and types of Christian ethics which are foundational for this work (xi).
As you might expect, Christ and Culture, surveys the topic of culture and its relationship to the lordship of Christ. The book consists of seven chapters in which, along with opening and concluding chapters (chapters 1 and 7 respectively), five different views of the relationship between the Christian and culture is explored (chapters 2-6). In chapter one, Niebuhr defines what he means by the terms “Christ” and “culture.” In chapter two, the view of Christ Against Culture is surveyed. In chapter three, the view labeled The Christ of Culture is explored. In chapter four, the view called Christ Above Culture is examined. In chapter five, the view designated Christ and Culture in Paradox is explained. In chapter six, the view identified as Christ the Transformer of Culture is described. Finally, in chapter seven, Niebuhr closes with A “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.”
In chapter one, Niebuhr defines what he means by the terms “Christ” and “culture.” “Christ” is defined in light of both his relationship to his Father and mankind. “Because he is the moral Son of God . . . in the presence of God, therefore he is the moral mediator of the Father’s will toward men” (28). By “culture” is meant “the total process of human activity and that total result of such activity” (32). Niebuhr then concludes the first chapter with a survey of the five typical answers given in church history to the relationship between the church and culture. Each of these answers serve as the subject of the five chapters which immediately follow.
Chapter two surveys the view of Christ Against Culture. According to this view, individuals are faced with a choice of allegiance to either Christ or culture. There is no middle ground. This view “affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45).
Chapter three explores the view labeled The Christ of Culture. This view goes to the opposite extreme of previous view. According to this view, there is no distinction between Christ and culture. Those who hold this view both “interpret culture through Christ” and “understand Christ through culture” (83).
Chapter four examines the view called Christ Above Culture. Those who hold this view “reject both of the extreme positions” stated previously (119). Their view attempts to “synthesize” Christ and culture. They would state that we can say neither “Either Christ or culture” or “Both Christ and culture” (122).
Chapter five explains the view designated Christ and Culture in Paradox. Adherents of this view agree with the previous view that Christians must “answer the Christ and culture question with a ‘both-and’” (149). However, they disagree as to the ability to synthesize the two. Instead, the requirement of Christians to both Christ and culture is regarded as a paradox.
Chapter six describes the view identified as Christ the Transformer of Culture. This view is similar to the previous with the following distinction. These views are distinguished by the latter’s “more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture” (191). Those who hold this final view live “in awareness of the power of the Lord to transform all things by lifting them up to himself” (195).
In the final chapter, A “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” Niebuhr does not attempt to resolve which of the proposed answers is the correct one. Instead, he proposes a kind of ethical response which is comprised of relative individual decisions (234). “Each believer reach his own ‘final’ conclusion” (233).
Over fifty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book which is still the foundational text on the topic today. In this book, Niebuhr set out to describe in summary fashion the various views of the relationship between the church and culture. I cannot imagine another book summarizing as concisely and clearly nineteen hundred years of church history on the topic. In the following, I will outline three strengths and three weaknesses of this book according to my perspective.
One obvious strength of Niebuhr’s work is the way in which he summarizes in five broad categories all of the churches’ attempts throughout history to answer the question of her relationship to culture. Each view is set in its historical context with its main proponents allowed to defend their position. No other book provides the intellectual history of the relationship between Christ and culture in two hundred and fifty-nine pages.
Another strength of Christ and Culture are the definitive categories which Niebuhr has brought to the discussion of the topic. It is now virtually impossible to talk about the relationship between Christ and culture without using Niebuhr’s categories. Each category is supported both historically and biblically. These provide helpful summaries of Christians’ response to the issue throughout history.
A final strength of Christ and Culture is the way in which it deals with possible dangers associated with each view. With the exception of the final view, Christ the Transformer of Culture, Niebuhr provides helpful critiques and warnings of possible dangers of each view. Because of the historical nature of the book, Niebuhr is able to trace the implications of some of the views which have manifest themselves to subsequent generations. This is obviously helpful, even if one adopts a particular view, to be prepared for potential abuses of the view.
One possible weakness is related to an above mentioned strength. The strength is the definitive categories which Niebuhr has brought to the discussion. However, a possible weakness is that Niebuhr may have reduced the question of a Christian’s relationship to culture to multiple choice. This may preclude the opportunity for thoughtful discussion on certain gray areas which require careful deliberation.
Another possible weakness is that, in the end, no ultimate answer is given. Instead, the strengths of each position is affirmed and the decision left to the individual. Although, Niebuhr says he is not being “relativistic” (234), the end result is a relativistic approach which sounds very similar to “situation ethics.” Each individual is left to determine which approach works best in any given situation. This may be the correct approach, but it is very disappointing if you read the book looking for the definitive answer to how Christians should relate to culture.
A final possible weakness is related to the above weakness. While no final answer is proposed, all answers are regarded as equally valid depending upon the circumstances. However, no guidelines are proposed to determine when a particular approach be used. Again, this may be for the best, but it leaves the reader disappointed. On the other hand, maybe “the reader” is lazy and wants someone to provide all the answers so that he will not have to think through the tough issues for himself.
Given the above summary and critical analysis, I believe that Christ and Culture is must reading for anyone interested in the topic of a Christians involvement in culture. Regardless of whether you are a “strict separationist,” an “accommodationist,” or somewhere in between; there is much to be learned by examining the categories proposed by Niebuhr. Written over fifty years ago, Christ and Culture provides the categories which have framed the debate ever since. Any person who wants to meaningful discuss the issues related to a Christians involvement with culture must consider Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture “must reading.”