Christ & Culture: Five Views
This problem has challenged the Church during her entire existence: How are Christians to engage and relate to the surrounding culture? How should we then live? What does it look like to be in the world but not of it?
H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture, has influenced or at least informed this discussion, notably among Western evangelicals, since it was published in 1951. Niebuhr proposed five models, which he labelled as 1) Christ against culture; 2) Christ of culture; 3) Christ above culture; 4) Christ and culture in paradox; and 5) Christ the transformer of culture.
1. Christ against culture Christ against culture occupies one extreme of the continuum. All expressions of culture outside the Church are viewed with a high degree of suspicion and as irreparably corrupted by sin. They are to be withdrawn from and avoided as much as possible. Traditional ascetic communities as well as various sectarian and fundamentalist groups would hold to some version of this view.
2. Christ of culture Christ of culture sits at the polar opposite from the previous one. Cultural expressions as a whole are accepted uncritically and celebrated as a good thing. In theory, little or no conflict is seen between culture and Christian truth. In practice, the latter is compromised to accommodate the former. This is the view espoused by classic Gnosticism and liberal Protestantism.
3. Christ above culture Christ above culture, a medial position between the first two, regards cultural expressions as basically good, as far as they go. However, they need to be augmented and perfected by Christian revelation and the work of the Church, with Christ supreme over both. This view was expounded by Thomas Aquinas, and has been a predominant position among Roman Catholics since.
4. Christ and culture in paradox Christ and culture in paradox is another medial option between the extremes. It sees human culture as a good creation that’s been tainted by sin. As a result, there’s a tension in the Christian’s relationship to culture, simultaneously embracing and rejecting certain aspects of it. Augustine (in part) as well as Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard are representative of this view.