Christ & Culture Richard Niebuhr Review


Propositions concerning interactions, particularly those proposals that are concerned with divisive issues, can become tedious to examine.  Examining the Postmodern angst that has surfaced in the philosophical debates of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a compelling study, particularly when the origination of the field is considered.  Christ and Culture, by Richard Niebuhr, attempts to draw the reader into a meaningful dialogue concerning a vast array of information that at times appears to exist in a place of conflict.  Utilizing the classic format of literary tension, Niebuhr allows Christ and culture to intermingle.  At times, Christ appears in the guise of the protagonist, at times Christ assumes the role of the antagonist.  Culture is likewise viewed as a shifting entity, transposing itself in identity as either friend or foe, depending on the particular viewpoint that is being addressed.  Most importantly, Niebuhr may actually be the source of origin for the modern deconstructionist movement, as Niebuhr articulates the social neurosis of a philosopher whose views were displaced by a swift influx of realism.

This Quixotic dilemma causes those who want to truly understand Jesus place in the midst of human experience to pause and consider crucial questions about Christ and the various cultural expressions that the church exists within.  Further complications arise, and interest should be titillated, when Niebuhr views Christ as neither for or against culture exclusively.  This can be witnessed in Niebuhr’s treatment of Christ as He who exists above culture and as He who silently moves within the confinement of culture with the express intent of creating a metamorphosis:  transforming culture for expressly divine purposes.

Although there is a slight betrayal against neutrality, with Niebuhr siding in the classic Augustinian/Calvinistic Transformational camp, Niebuhr diligently pursues objectivity in the field of representational dialogue.  Niebuhr’s personal proclivities are exposed during his presentation of the conversionist vantage point when he maintains that: “in connection with this interest in creation, the conversionist tends to develop a phase of Christology neglected by the dualist.  On the one hand he emphasizes the participation of the Word…in creation…On the other hand he is concerned with the redemptive work of God in the incarnation of the Son (p. 192).”  Viewed as the subtle interactor, Jesus becomes both Savior of the individual and concerned deity who expresses His will within culture.

At times, Niebuhr’s use of the word “culture” can become trite and trivialized.  This is due to the broad expanse that Niebuhr attempts to navigate in his approach to the subject of culture.  Once, Niebuhr claims that:  “culture is social tradition…” (p. 37), “culture is a world of values…” (p. 34), “culture is human achievement…” (p. 33), “the essence of culture is…the organization of human beings into permanent groups…” (p. 33), among the many other designations pertaining to culture, Christ, and the interaction between the two.  Niebuhr identifies this as “The Enduring Problem” (p. 1-44).  The difficulties of narrowing cultural considerations and definitions as presented in Christ and Culture cannot be ignored.

Nor can the problems that are associated with “religion, state and culture” (p.31) be underestimated either.  Niebuhr probably is at his greatest place of insight when he declares speech to be the basis of culture (p. 31).  Communications restrictions of mobility and freedom to interact cause a paradoxical equation to be created when culture is examined.  Added to the complexity is Aquinas’ views of “both and with Christ…far above culture” (p. 129) that is contrasted against Schleirmacher, Hegel, etc., religion within the limits of reason…Christ of culture” view (p. 94), highlights the gamut of divergent approaches to the subject at hand.  This is addressed even further when Niebuhr’s personal prejudices against the Christ against Culture (pp. 44-82) are exposed in his statements:  “Man not only speaks but thinks with the aid of the language of culture…He (man) cannot rid himself of political beliefs and economic customs by rejecting the more or less external institutions” (p. 69).  These statements appear to be gross over simplifications of the opposing views, which do not delve into the causal conditions that created those particular places of thought.  Although this may be perceived as a potential flaw in the work, there are greater contributions that need to be evaluated.

Niebuhr’s time period in writing Christ and Culture should be examined in the greater equation when evaluating Niebuhr’s work and what it may have prophetically espoused circa 1951.  The angst that is apparent throughout the book can be seen as a residual, effective process that followed WWII.  Mankind, rather than advancing toward a Utopian existence, delved into the depths of depravity and inhumane experiences throughout the 20th century Christ and Culture exquisitely captures the capsizing of the enlightenments hopes and dreams.  Mankind, rather than progressing through knowledge and industrialization, proved the infinite possibilities of injustice, brutality and homicidal intent that lurk within mankind, the creator of social networks and societies rife with depravities corruption.

The social inadequacies were exposed and society was found wanting.  The net result:  a postmodern outlook.  Society influx is an institution that cannot hope to resolve the dilemma of sin.  Liberalism as a practical expression of Christian thought was exposed to the truth of its downward spiral.  If anything, humanity was devolving as opposed to evolving culturally, anthropologically, morally and ethically.  Niebuhr’s treatment of the varied ways Christ is seen interacting with culture reflects these pivotal changes in social outlook and behavior.


Christ against culture’s abject denial of any intrinsic good or noteworthy merit in society: Christ of cultures selective assimilation of cultures most noble and proper expressions: Christ above culture’s assumptions pertaining to culture’s perfection through divine manipulation; Christ and cultures paradoxical interaction of dual authorities tension; Christ as cultures transformational benefactor who redeems culture for divine purposes:  all reflect the tension of a time period that witnessed an implosion of hope for social transformation through the betterment of mankind.

This failure of culture to express meaningful potential is further damaged through Niebuhr’s analytical approach.  Niebuhr pits the divergent Christian expressions against one another.  Hesselgrave astutely points out in Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally that:  “The main problem with Niebuhr is that he puts Bible authors and authors at odds with one another” (p. 116).  Hesselgrave continues by attributing value to Christ against culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ as Transformer of culture and possibly Christ above culture (p. 116).

Herein lays the crux of the issue:  is the problematic approach of a nihilistic Postmodern world best served by a church that is hopelessly divided along philosophical lines, or is the value of the church in unity the best vehicle for effective interaction with society?  Can the church indeed touch the needs of fallen humanity and impart God’s grace and hope in the midst of sociological turmoil.  The genius of Niebuhr’s work may be found in the myriad complex questions that are raised, forcing the observant to deal with the complexities of church and cultures tenuous relationship.  Niebuhr’s work is a classic that sheds light on the dynamic tensors that are applying pressure to the church in its current setting.

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