It is the 3rd of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
It was on this, the 3rd of September in 1894 that Helmut Richard Niebuhr was born. He and his elder brother Reinhold would become two of the most influential American theologians of the 20th century.
Richard received his Ph.D. in Religion from Yale when that wasn’t a standard degree (if you wanted to do theology you went to Yale Divinity School). Niebuhr would spend most of his life teaching at Yale where he specialized in Christian Ethics and American church history.
He is most famous for his 1951 book “Christ and Culture” wherein he distinguishes 5 different approaches that Christians and the church have taken towards culture (perhaps we might say “dominant popular culture”).
On today’s show let’s break down the 5 positions and ask what kind of use they might have for us.
First, you have the two extremes: the Christ Against Culture and the Christ of Culture.
For Christ Against Culture you might think of the monastic communities, the radical separatists, the Amish, etc…
The Christ of Culture would cover those radical accommodationists that you might see as cultural syncretists wherein their faith and the dominant culture can be indistinguishable. You might think of the country club church for the wealthy to network and not have their consciences troubled. You might think of the 1950s God and country language that made being a good Christian and a good American almost synonymous.
You then have the three mediating positions.
Christ above Culture sees “culture” as almost irrelevant for the life of faith. In these groups, it might be common to scoff at the circuses amongst the unwashed masses. There might not be any fierce condemnation, but the church is seen as hovering above the fray.
Christ and Culture in Paradox can be seen, in part, in Augustine’s City of God and City of Man and Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” which places the Christian in the center of a Venn diagram where they have legitimate roles to play in both cultures and the church- perhaps simultaneously.
Finally, Christ Transforming Culture is that paradigm that sees the Christian as using the levers of the state to conform it (the state) to the mission of the church. You can see this amongst Christian reconstructionists and Theonomists.
This was the dominant scheme taught for half a century in American colleges and seminaries and for that reason is historically significant. I think the categories are interesting and have historical precedents but the scheme is fit for America in 1951 (the year it was published). An analysis of the church and society 70 years ago might need an update and many have rushed to offer their thoughts.
Consider the Myers Briggs test (or its cooler little brother, the “Enneagram”). Of course, they aren’t “true” in any sense. They are a means of categorizing and explaining. But if you said “I’m an INFJ” or “8” because of the model and then made your decisions going forward based on that… well… you might be doing it wrong. In the same way, Niebuhr’s categories can paint a picture and help us think about the ways in which Christians can engage culture, but it isn’t prescribing a way forward nor does it demand that you embrace just one. As for the question, “what does he mean by culture?” Oooh boy, that might be the million-dollar question.
Nevertheless, Richard Niebuhr was a giant in the western theological world in the 20th century and taught generations of students how to think through Christianity and what that has meant, and could mean, for our engagement with the dominant culture. We remember H. Richard Niebuhr on the 127th anniversary of this birth on this day in 1894.
The last word for today comes from Romans 12:
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by noted IPFT and Enneagram 9 with an 8 wing, he is also choleric and may have an excess of black bile. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man whose personality test came back negative. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.