Christ and Culture


At the time of the exile in Babylon the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter of encouragement from Jerusalem to the Jewish exiles. He said: "Build houses and settle down: plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters . . . . Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you . . . pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." Like the exiles, we as Christians often struggle over our relationship to the culture around us, even if we are not strangers within it.

What should be the connection between Christ and culture?

Should we be suspicious of everything secular? Is culture dangerous?

The news recently was dominated by the story of a couple who tragically felt they were obeying God when they let their baby die of vitamin B12 deficiency. And the arguments they used to justify this were quite common. In the long run, when Jesus comes back, we will be together, they said. What happens now doesn't matter in comparison.

The unspoken subtext was that all of what we take for granted as good in our culture, including science, is deeply flawed and misguided; even common sense is a snare for the unprepared.

Leaving aside all discussion about the place of this Adventist sect in the Christian church, we can observe that less extreme forms of suspicion of culture and of mainstream society are common among Christians: Christians withdraw their children to school them at home away from the secular influences of mainstream New Zealand life; they live in a Christian sub-culture, rarely interacting outside its boundaries.

Christians build cognitive boundaries to separate those who are saved from those who are not. Christians don't care what is happening to the planet, because there will one day be a 'new heavens and a new earth'. Christians ignore the facts of an old earth and teach creationism in defiance of science.

Would Jeremiah agree? Are we meant to be opposed to culture, and hostile to the common sense and values of the society we live in?

We don't have to look far in history to realize that the 'Christ against Culture' stance was what kept the Christian community surviving during early periods of persecution, and at times of persecution today. Sometimes we need to dismiss the world in order to keep alive a transcendent hope for the future. And there is a deeply 'Christ against Culture' strand of the biblical story - Abraham taking his son to be sacrificed, the scandal of the cross, Jesus' demand that the rich young ruler leave everything and follow him.

At the other extreme is President Bush who sees very little difference between his culture and his religion. He is fighting a holy war, a war in the name of God and America. And there are many proponents of this position too.

What response should we have to the culture around us? Do we have to join in with the flow, and assume that we in the West are as good as Christian just by being citizens, or would we be doing better to withdraw from society which is hopelessly flawed and deceptive?

These are often portrayed as the only options. Fifty years ago, however, The American/German theologian H Richard Niebuhr wrote a book Christ and Culture, at another vexed time in human history. There he outlined five different options: 1) 'Christ against Culture', 2) 'Christ of Culture' in which culture is assumed to be to all intents Christian; 3) 'Christ and Culture in paradox' where the claim is that we live in a complex in-between time of allegiance in two different legitimate directions; 4) 'Christ above Culture', the stance of the medieval theologian Aquinas who thought that Aristotle could get us quite far to truth, and needed only to be complemented by Christian revelation.

There is some truth in all the models. The first pits Christians against society, and options two to four are more or less tolerant of it. But the last model (and Niebuhr's favourite) was that of 'Christ transforming Culture'. Christians in this category believe that by being the salt and light of the world we can participate in the bringing of the Kingdom of God, and transform the structures and institutions in which we live.

'Christ transforming Culture' certainly provides a way of approaching our 'in-but-not-of the world' state. It acknowledges both the goodness of culture and the need for redemption, the tragic and the wholesome elements within society. With transformation in mind we can lose our fear of culture. Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, we not only can, but should, enter politics, plant gardens and pray for the future of the society in which we live.