Christ and Culture

Richard Niebuhr is one of the most influential modern reformed theologians. He is considered an authority on ethics and church in the Western culture and writes that the authenticity of the Christian faith is based on its realization in a counterpart world setting.

Christ and Culture presents an observation of the ways the church realizes its place in the surrounding world. The central idea of the book is that the church wrestles with both its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives. In such context, the relevancy of the church’s message to the opposing party remains the central as well. Four models of how the Christian and contemporary realities can interact to seek the answer to how Christian life should be lived are discussed.

Niebuhr approaches culture in general, from a reformed point of view with a definite accent on the present (now) covenant and not so much with apprehension of the eschatological future of the church. His views are based on a mid-twentieth century church operating in a modern Western context. His discussion of the relationship of church and contemporary culture, however, give an opinion much beyond this time making this research valid today.
Niebuhr, believed that the life which Christ commanded from his followers contain values that are essential for the formation of culture and are much needed by the secular world. Christian faith, however, needs to be brought beyond self-separation in order to engage culture with the values of the Christian life. Faith then acts more as a social presence and action which become a transforming factor for society. In a typical reformed manner, the text proposes the church’s involvement in bringing the Kingdom on earth.

The author then uses the four models to examine the variations of the place in culture given to Christ and examines the different effects on society and the church. These models are: (1) Christ against, (2) Christ of, (3) Christ above and (4) Christ transforming culture. They form a literal gradation in the book and serves as the author’s supporting evidence. Christ against culture is a rather “postmodern” approach through which the church rejects modern culture. Such process is in parallel with the life of Christ who not only taught the values of faith but also lived them. Thus, as the church opposes the world, Christian values must become personal acts rather than theoretical descriptive qualifications.

Niebuhr explains that Christ’s rejection of culture was not a result of eschatological expectations, but a result of Him being the Son of God. The realization of Christ’s sonship, then is also the way through which the church should minister in the world. In other words, the church and the life of the Christian must demonstrate Christ’s sonship.
Niebuhr outlines several theological problems in the Christ against culture model as follows (1) reason and revelation, (2) nature and prevalence of sin, (3) relationship of law and grace and (4) the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Creator of nature and Governor of history.
Christ of culture is the second approach which Niebuhr observes. This is another historical overview which speaks much of the Enlightenment. The text discusses several of the thinkers of the day, who attempt to identify Christ with culture. This model shifts the focus from revelation and reason to Christ and culture, as shown in the discussion about Rischl.

The difficulty with cultural Christianity is that it has always been widely rejected. As far as discipleship is concerned, such approach is not more effective than Christian radicalism. The reason for this is that Gnostics and cultural Protestants which Niebuhr describes as lead representatives of this approach create a new mystical image of Christ. When paralleled with the actual Christian story, such images cannot bear the witness of true Christianity and are rejected by both the Scripture and Church.

Christ above culture is the next model which Niebuhr examines, treating medieval representations of a practical synthesis. This synthesis was full of tensions as both sides of the church were corrupt. Regardless of the damages, they both served as means for each other transformation, thus reforming each other. Such synthesis could not be a present day paradigm except if its prerequisites, protesting Christianity and religious institutions, are present in the context of a cultural church able to accommodate such relationship.

The final proposal is the one of the culture-transforming Christ. Unfortunately, this chapter is not as comprehensive as the rest of the observations, perhaps leaving some space for new research and answers. The author spends a great deal of time examining the conversion motif from the fourth Gospel as a model for this culture-transferring Christianity. He then relates it to the theology of Augustine and Maurice and their views of culture transformed by Christ.

In conclusion of this reflection, it must be pointed out that while precise in a great deal of historical facts, Niebuhr is not accurate in the description of the Mennonite Church (Christ Against Culture), perhaps he meant Amish. Also, the definition of culture seems to change through the presentation of different models. Finally, he approaches the relationship of culture and Christianity from a Calvinistic point of view, leaving very little expression of other paradigms outside reformed theology.

Mission Applications
The Fall of the Berlin Wall opened the door toward Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics. Since millions of Eastern Europeans coming out of the Communist Regime could relate to the Pentecostal faith, the numbers of saved and baptized with the Holy Spirit grew by the millions. The result was a multitude of revival fires from the Prague to Vladivostok which unavoidably began changing the local culture.

In the midst of the Pentecostal Eastern European revival, the underground and semi-underground Pentecostal churches coming out of the communist persecution quickly found themselves insufficient to accommodate the need of the new converts for a Pentecostal community. Having had minimal opportunities for education and training under Communism, the only hope was in the supernatural. I In such times, lack of spiritual dependency was replaced by human leadership, self-confidence and wrongful ambitions. Ministers, churches and whole denominations made mistakes which resulted in thousands of new converts being lost for the harvest. Adding clearly Western theological views, church practices and management models were only temporary patches. Like its context of origin, they lasted only enough for the problems to grow and come back in a hunt to destroy human lives. Intense opposition from the schismatic Eastern Orthodox Church, severe economical crises, the lack of political direction, rapidly changing governments and laws were only a few details present as we entered Postmodernity. All of a sudden theologies brought from he west made no sense in the Eastern European context and a sudden need for a new, contextualized Pentecostal paradigm for ministry emerged.

The main question which such paradigm must answer is how a post-persecuted and post-communist church ministers to a postmodern world. In Chrsit-cultural terms, this same question may sound like, “How does a church which has been rejected by Community culture for decades now overcome this rejection and minister to the post-Communist culture.” The answers are many, but the right one must emerge form the identity of the church through a realization that even before there ever was a post-Communist culture in Bulgaria, through rejection of the Communist culture, the church itself was operating within a post-Communist reality. Such paradigm is not strange to the Bible, as the Early Church rejected the Roman reality and operated, similar to a post-Roman reality. The problem with the Bulgarian Protestant church, however, is a very oxymoronic one. This comes from the fact that while outsiders would consider Bulgarian post-Communist culture as a postmodern one, in fact the present Bulgarian culture is pre-modern or at best modern. Since the relationship between postcommunist and postmodern culture is still a new issue, the correct paradigm within such culture must make a decision if the post-Communist culture is pre-modern, modern or postmodern. Such paradigm for ministry will act as a paradigm of cultural transformation.