Niebuhr did a great service to Christianity in the 1950s. He provided categories with which to think critically about a Christian engagement with culture. Though these categories remain within contemporary discussions, their usefulness is relative to the degree to which they have been distorted by countless theologians over the past fifty years. First, there are no clear definitions of what or who Christ and Culture are. Does Christ refer to the historical Jesus or to the risen, exalted Christ? Since Niebuhr wrote in the 1950s, another possibility would be the body of Christ, the Church—which seems to be the most common interpretation. And what of culture? Is this art and music? Should we understand culture as the customs and familial units that inconspicuously govern our lives? Paul De Neui argues that the missio Dei is already at work in the various cultures of the world. He writes that “culture is the arena of the missio Dei and it is within this cultural arena of mission that theology is given birth, context, meaning, and life practice. Culture is a human product that cannot be separated from humans and God is not ashamed to enter incarnationally into culture fully and completely.” If we cannot separate ourselves from the human culture that we inhabit and have been created by, how then are we to be against it, or above it, or be anything other than of it? Conversely, maybe culture is to be understood as the society in which we inhabit; the world of business and finance, government and politics, the social strata, moral norms and the general make-up of society. If we thought of culture in this way, then it could at least become something much more tangible—something that we can feel, reflect back on and react to—unlike the proverbial fish in water.
The second complaint with the continual use of Niebuhr’s categories is incidental, but nonetheless important. He published his treatise in 1951. In the last fifty years, we have seen a great shift in the strata of life, not only in the West, but throughout the world. Since the “Christianization” of the
The word “different” is significant, in comparison to other words that could have been used. I hesitate to use the word “new” because this is not the first time that the church has found itself on the bottom of society. Before 313, the church was the bottom of society. Persecution was expected. The concepts of suffering and persecution are used throughout the New Testament epistles. And while we in the States are not under the same kind of persecution as the First and Second Century believers were, it is startling to hear that more Christians died on account of their faith in the twentieth century than in the centuries that have preceded. It would seem appropriate, then, to look at how 1 Peter speaks to the interaction between the Church and a society that was outside of Christendom.