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Dual Citizens, Pt. 3

Dual Citizens

Part 2

Part 3

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.”[1] 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 Roman Empire in 313—or at least the tolerance of Christians—Christendom has reigned. The Church of Rome had complete control for 1200 years, playing a key role in the movement and structure of Europe. In 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, the power moved to the hands of national governments that were tied to national churches. When the dissenters in England decided they needed their own land to express their particular strand of Christianity, they moved to the New World. In what would become the United States, the plurality of denominations led the writers of the Constitution to separate Church from State. Since this point in history, the Church has been perpetually loosing its place of prominence in society. Metzger recognizes this: “We no longer live under Christendom or in a utopian Christian society, though many Christians still long for it and lobby on Capitol Hill to take it back.”[2] For the Church to think that it can return to its place on top of society is folly and its efforts futile. As unfortunate as this is, the Church in charge has not demonstrated itself to be equipped to rule in a manner that exemplifies Christ. Need the Crusades be mentioned? We now live in a post-Christendom world, so the need for a different understanding of the Church’s engagement with culture is needed.

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.

[1] Paul De Neui, “Christian Communitas in the Missio Dei: Living Faithfully in the Tension Between Cultural Osmosis and Alienation,” Ex Auditu 23 (2007): 6.

[2] Metzger, 27.

Dual Citizens, Pt. 2

I'm continuing my posts on Dual Citizenship.

Niebuhr's Christ and Culture

This conversation has been most notable influenced by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book Christ and Culture. In it, Niebuhr describes five positions the Church can take with culture. The first two he labels the extreme positions: “Christ against Culture” and “Christ of Culture.” In these positions, the Christian has two options, the complete rejection of his surrounding culture or the complete acceptance of his culture. The other three fall in between these two opposites. “Christ above Culture” tries to synthesize the two; “Christ and Culture in Paradox” emphasizes the conflict between the two; and “Christ transforming Culture” seeks cultural renewal.[1] Niebuhr himself concedes that all are sometimes appropriate, none of them basically correct, and it is impossible to find one correct answer. However, while Niebuhr is not without his critics, these five paradigms have been the predominate language used over the last fifty-six years since its publication.

Most recently, Paul Metzger, professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and presenter at Ex Auditu, used Niebuhr’s typology to describe the church as “a cultural community that is shaped by the surrounding culture and prophetically confronts that culture for the latter’s own ultimate transformation.”[2] He states that he is not using Niebuhr in a “slavish manner,” but that “each type serves a useful purpose, and has a role to play as part of the church’s overarching framework for engaging other cultures.”[3] He goes on to say:

Positively framed, Jesus exemplifies each of the five types: Jesus is of culture as its protagonist, against culture as its antagonist, God’s “yes” and “no” to culture as the divine and human dualist, above culture as the great synthesist, and the one who ultimately transforms culture as the ultimate transformationalist. [4]

Metzger claims that his is no simplistic form of engagement and throughout his paper exemplifies his claims through the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer and by what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. In the end he calls the Church to be a Christ-centered, cruciform and ecclesially framed.[5] But in the continual use of Niebuhr’s typologies, which Niebuhr himself concedes are sometimes all appropriate, none of them basically correct, impossible to find one correct answer, Metzger leaves us no further enlightened than Niebuhr.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).

[2] Paul Metzger, “Christ, Culture and the Sermon on the Mount Community,” Ex Auditu 23 (2007): 2. Note: the page number in this and in De Neui refer to their printed page numbers.

[3] Metzger, 2.

[4] Metzger, 2-3.

[5] Metzger, 28.