CULTURE & An Overview of Richard Niebuhr & Charles Kraft’s 4 Views of “Christ & Culture”

by Bob Whitesel, excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2006, pp. 55-57).

Since modern culture is constantly adjusting and metamorphosing, the task of translating the Good News without surrendering its truth or disfiguring it is paramount and ongoing. This arduous task begins with thorough and careful examination of a culture. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert described culture as, “an integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.”(1) Scrutiny of such an elaborate system is not for an immature Christian, since it requires investigating and evaluating a culture without being tainted by its more sordid elements.

There is a tension between Christ and culture that must be examined. Richard Niebuhr in his classic treatise Christ and Culture suggested that there are several ways to look at Christ’s interaction with culture.(3)

Christ … Against culture.

One is “Christ against culture” a view embraced by the early church father Tertullian. In this view culture is seen as evil, thus requiring Christians to withdraw and insulate themselves, resulting in a monastic response. Charles Kraft exposes three fallacies in this view, demonstrating it is not in keeping Paul’s view that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).(4)

Christ … Above Culture (in Synthesis or in Paradox)

Another view Niebuhr called “Christ Above Culture” which he divided into sub-categories.(5)

  • Christ Above Culture in Synthesis” was held by Thomas Aquinas and views Jesus as the restorer of institutions of true society. This view believes that Christianity will one day totally transform culture, perhaps into a millennial peace. In another sub-category,
  • Christ Above Culture in Paradox,” Christ is seen above but in such tension with culture that a messy, muddled relationship results. Martin Luther grappled with this perspective, as did modern writer Mike Yaconelli who called this “messy spirituality.”(6)

Christ … Above but Transformer of Culture

However, a more valid sub-category may be “Christ Above but Transformer of Culture.” Embraced by Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley this view sees culture as corrupt but convertible.(7)

Christ … Above but Working Through Culture

Kraft built upon this his position called “Christ above but working through culture,” explaining that “God chooses the cultural milieu in which humans are immersed as the arena of his interaction with people.”(8) Eddie Gibbs further elaborates that “such an approach represents a deliberate self-limiting on the part of God in order to speak in understandable terms and with perceived relevance on the part of the hearer. He acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”(9)

If the “Christ above but working through culture” truly defines the tension and nexus between Christ and culture, then the job of the Christian communicator becomes challenging if not precarious. Therefore, our strategy must not conclude simply with step 1, investigating and examining culture, but also must continue through step 2, sifting and judging its elements. Here the prudent communicator must make qualitative judgments based upon Scripture, ethics, personal belief and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

…The end result of this examination or sifting, must be a rejection of elements in conflict with Christ, but also an affirmation of those elements that are not so. I found that leaders of the organic church usually sift carefully through the movies, television shows, music, games, online resources and literature of young people. And they routinely explain in their sermons how God judges some aspects of postmodern culture, accepts other elements such as an emphasis on helping the needy, and has as a goal the transformation of the whole.(10)

The Christian communicator wishing to make the Good News relevant today must carefully examine the media barrage engulfing young people, understand its messages, while at the same time sifting elements that are opposed to Christ and identifying touchstones that can make connections with unchurched peopled.

Footnotes:

1. Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1983), p. 25.
2. Bob Whitesel, Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, op. cit., p. 26.
3. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). A second view is beyond the scope of our discussion. Labeled by Niebuhr “Christ of culture,” it was embraced by early Gnostic heretics. They interpreted Christ through cultural trends, rejecting any claims of Christ that conflicted with their culture. Counter to this, Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, or our ways his ways.
4. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 105-106.
5. Kraft, ibid., pp. 108-115 sees five subdivisions of the “Christ Above Culture” position. However, for this discussion only three are required. The reader seeking more exhaustive insights will benefit from a careful exploration of Kraft’s work.
6. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002). Yaconelli’s viewpoint has been popular among postmodern Christians, And, before his untimely death, Yaconelli was in demand as a lecturer. Young people often saw in his perspective one more in keeping with their untidy journey towards discipleship. To understand the angst and anxiety many young people sense today between their Christian understanding and their vacillating demeanor, see Yaconelli’s insightful volume.
7. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 113.
8. ibid., p. 114.
9. Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.
10. In my travels through the organic church, I found it’s leaders usually approached the rejection or affirmation of cultural elements in a circumspect and serious manner. Whether it was the “discothèque clubbers” of England who had to decide at what point youthful fashions became lewd, or the film clips that Freeway employed to illustrate a point; young organic leaders typically see the rejection of base elements of culture as not only required, but judicious.

DYSFUNCTIONAL PEOPLE & Mystery People Revealed: A True Story of Microsoft’s Cultural Clash with IBM! (A leadership exercise continued)

by Bob Whitesel Ph.D.

In an earlier posting titled DYSFUNCTIONAL PEOPLE & Would Your Church Use These People? I shared a picture of the founders of the Microsoft Corporation in 1978. They were a unconventional, counterculture bunch … but they came to influenced modern culture greatly. I asked my students to tell me how young people from such an alternative culture might be welcomed as part of their ministry “team.” And most felt not very well.

Some of my students knew the answer, others were perplexed, and some appeared to wonder why we would want to grow so much hair in the ‘70s! 🙂

Here is a picture of them today:

http://www.businessinsider.com/microsoft-1978-photo-2011-1?op=1#ixzz2fBcUlcmm

Just think of how you might feel if these people actually came in and sat in the front pew of your church. I know all of us would want to be courteous and demonstrate the love of Christ to them. But really ask yourself … deep down, wouldn’t you be just a little tempted to dismiss any potential for your team from this seeming rabble?

One student asked her kids and what she found was insightful. Here is her primary research (yes, this qualifies as primary research 🙂 in her own words: “I decided to ask my 11 year old daughter and 13 year old son what they would do if this ‘family’ showed up in church.  The look they both gave was priceless.  I told them it was OK to be honest because I wanted to hear what they would say.  Our church is diverse- so we do see different ethnic groups but they both responded…‘They’re dressed funny- and we would be puzzled and wonder why they came to church.’ I said, ‘So people have to be dressed a certain way?’  Again, puzzled looks.  I said, ‘Would God accept them?’  Both- after hesitation: ‘Yes. He accepts all people.’  I said, ‘So if they came to church and I invited them to dinner?’  More puzzled looks……… I think personally if they walked through the doors of my church they’d be embraced. May get a few stares from people who just know no better- but we are used to diversity and many of the leaders would be embracing and welcoming.”

That’s the point I’m trying to make. Most of our ministries would probably welcome them, but because most of us are not prepared to reach across cultural gaps, we also can make them feel a bit uncomfortable.

In the 1970s a Jesus Movement swept across America, and many young people (erstwhile Hippies) started attending church. Much to the chagrin of some churchgoers they seemed culturally separated, and many received less than a warm welcome. But in some churches they were welcomed and incorporated into teams; even with bare feet, blue jeans and beards. And, as a result of these Christ-like actions of acceptance many became devoted followers of Christ (this professor included).

So the next time the disenfranchised, the poor, the unseemly, the indecorous enter our church or volunteer for our ministry team, let’s look deep down inside … not at them, but at ourselves.

And who are these mystery people? If you weren’t comfortable with them then, you would appreciate them now 😉 Some of my students correctly guessed that is the Microsoft Corporation in 1978.

Here is how the photo came about: “Early employee Bob Greenberg, pictured in the middle, won the free portrait after calling in a radio show and guessing the name of an assassinated president. The gang reluctantly gathered together in some of their finest attire, and American business legend was made.” (retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/microsoft-1978-photo-2011-1?op=1#ixzz2fBcUlcmm)

Bill Gates is the “kid” at the bottom left, and the guy with the pocket protector and the beard is actually a fraternity brother of mine, and today one of the richest men in the world, Paul Allen.

They were a new culture of technocrats, and when the white-shirted and blue-tied employees at IBM got a look at them they dismissed them. IBM did not realize what was happening was not slothfulness, idiocy or insolence. It was simply another culture emerging. The leaders pictured wanted to join IBM’s team, and to bring their ideas to Big Blue! Unfortunately, Microsoft thought little of them and made them feel uncomfortable and unwanted. This new culture of technocrats then went out on their own to create the most powerful organization in the world.

Herein lies the lesson for Christians and our ministry leadership.

Many similarly-clad young Boomers came to our churches in the 1970s after conversions to Christ, and in our response we confused culture with theology. Thus, many of our churches either dismissed these young people and/or required them to adopt church culture (in dress style, language, etc. etc.). The result was that denominations that rejected these young Boomers faltered, but those that welcomed this culture grew (the Assemblies of God, some Nazarenes, Calvary Chapels and Vineyards). Today these denominations are stronger because of this because of their ability to distinguish between Christ and culture.

My students have heard me talk much in this class (and in my book, Inside the Organic Church) about the importance of knowing the dynamics between Christ and culture. Once we have been in the church culture so long, we cease to notice it and we unconsciously adhere to it. But, to those outside the church it is readily apparent, as was the rejection by IBM of the future leaders of Microsoft.

The lesson here is to help your leaders distinguish between culture and Christ, and as a missionary would, to sift through elements of a culture to separate the ungodly from the Godly. It is an arduous task, but necessary if the Church is to grow and impact the world in a united manner.

I hope you enjoyed participating in this little exercise. I hope it brought a smile to your face (e.g. the decoded picture and many of your humorous answers). It bought a grin (and a reminder) to me!