There is a great need in these days for followers of Christ to think more deeply about how to effectively engage culture as we join God in the renewal of all things. Richard Neibhur was arguably the most important Christian theological-ethicist in the 20th Century. For several decades he taught at Yale Divinity School and in 1951 he wrote his classic work, “Christ and Culture”- which is still used today to help frame the Christian’s cultural engagement.
Neibhur’s five typologies (or categories) offer a helpful framework as we consider how followers of Christ relate to culture at large. Below is a (far too simplified, but perhaps helpful) explanation of how Neibhur’s categories allow us think more deeply about our role in culture. One way to understand and apply his categories is to think of a more widely known principle: Christians are to be “in the world but not of the world” (actually based on Jesus’ words in the High Priestly Prayer of John 17). Each of the five approaches is essentially a variation on the application of that often-referenced phrase. Here they are:
- Christ against Culture – This is the “exclusive Christian” who sees history as the story of a rising church up against a dying pagan civilization. This approach, ultimately leads to an “us against them” approach- it’s the Church against the world.
- Christ of Culture – This is the “cultural Christian” who sees history as the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature and culture. Taken too far this could be described as “in the world and of the world” where there is no real distinction between the believer and the non-believer.
- Christ above Culture – This approach might lead some to think we are to be in the world and over the world. That is, us over culture. This approach would say, “We better get our man in the White House or we’re doomed (God is not going to know what to do) and the Gospel will cease to advance.” History proves otherwise.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox – This is “the dualist” approach in which history is a struggle between church and culture and the constant tension that will only be lifted when Christ comes again. Taken to extremes this approach can lead to disinterest and apathy regarding cultural renewal, believing that God will make all things right in the end. The tendency is to disengage- to not be in the world.
- Christ Transforming Culture – This is “the conversionist” who says, history is the story of God’s work in the world and humanity’s response to Him. Conversionists live more in the divine “now” than the followers listed above. This approach focuses more on the presence of God in time and would say it is Christ in us- in the world but not of the world. Christ brings about the transformation of culture through us, as we live as a “faithful presence” in our particular sphere of influence. This is the belief that there is a divine possibility of a present renewal, while at the same time, we prepare for what will take place in a final redemption and restoration of all creation.
Niebuhr doesn’t “land” on any one approach- as his work is more descriptive than prescriptive. I believe that Scripture (and experience) points us to the last one: Christ transforming culture through His followers as we live incarnational lives in every domain of culture. Is this God’s plan to change the world? If so, are you allowing his Spirit to live in and through you in your particular domain or sphere of influence? Are you practicing the faithful presence of Jesus in your life? What do you think?