Magazine article The Christian Century

A Contested Classic: Critics Ask: Whose Christ? Which Culture?

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Contested Classic: Critics Ask: Whose Christ? Which Culture?

Article excerpt

A BOOK THAT one can barely escape reading on the way to earning a seminary degree is Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr. Published in 1951, the book quickly became a classic. Its categories--such as "Christ against culture" and "Christ of culture"--have ever since been familiar reference points in the field of Christian ethics and in debates about how Christians and the church should engage matters of politics, society and culture.

The book has also had its vigorous detractors, however--especially of late. Critics argue that though Niebuhr presents with apparent neutrality a typology of five ways that Christians have related to culture, he subtly asserts his own liberal Protestant bias.

A sign of the polemical status of the book these days is James Gustafson's preface to the 50th-anniversary edition (published by HarperSanFrancisco). Gustafson, a leading Christian ethicist and former student of Niebuhr's at Yale, uses the occasion to scathingly attack those who have found Niebuhr's typology flawed or dangerously misleading. Drawing Gustafson's ire are theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, church historian George Marsden, and the late Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder.

Yoder laid out the fundamental critique of Niebuhr in an unpublished essay of 1958 which circulated for years as a sort of underground document. (It was finally published in 1996 in Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture, edited by Glen Stassen et al.) Hauer was, Willimon and Marsden all draw upon Yoder's critique. Gustafson, for his part, says Yoder's essay "is laced with more ad hominem arguments and fortified with more gratuitous footnotes than anything I ever read by scholars in the field of Christian ethics."

Gustafson and other supporters of the book claim that Niebuhr's description of five types of Christian ethics elucidates various approaches to the "enduring problem" of how Christians relate their loyalty to Christ to their other loyalties. In this view, Christ and Culture provides a straightforward introduction to the various approaches to Christian ethics and theological sources.

Niebuhr leads readers through the vastness of Christian history and theology by sketching five types that are compared in terms of consistency of theology and practice. Drawing on various representative people or churches, Niebuhr examines each type's approach to Christology, reason and revelation, evil and sin, law and love, church and state, and views of history. The first two types are the two extremes. Those who adopt the "Christ against culture" position reject culture as fallen, and see separation from it as necessary in order to give absolute loyalty to Christ. This type stands in sharp contrast to the culture. The "Christ of culture" type finds in Christ an affirmation of all that is good in culture. This type sees little or no difference between loyalty to Christ and the best a particular culture has to offer.

The next three types Niebuhr calls "the church of the middle." Of these, the "Christ above culture" type seeks a synthesis of culture with Christ so that grace perfects or builds upon culture. This type sees that the good in culture needs to be and can be properly ordered and completed by Christ. The "Christ and culture in paradox" type finds less continuity between culture and the Christian life. It keeps a critical distance from culture, and yet sees it as useful in the Christian life if kept within its appropriate bounds. This type sees a duality in which culture has a legitimate place in Christian life, but that place is not the Christian's heart or church; in those places Christ must rule.

Niebuhr's final type, "Christ transforming culture," remains critical of culture yet also enters into alliance with what it finds in culture that is capable of becoming part of ongoing work toward the kingdom of God. This type sees culture as the raw material that can be shaped by Christians according to the Christian vision of human life. …

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