Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Christ and Culture

I am reading H. Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture, right now. Wow. I should have read this a long time ago. The book has had a dramatic effect on the way people view Christ and culture, so I have heard a lot of Niebuhr's conclusions second-hand before. But still, he said it better than anyone else since.

I am reading through his models (admittedly, I am only in chapter 1) and I can clearly see where different traditions fit on his scale of Christ against, of, above, in paradox with, and the transformer of culture. I was raised in the "Christ against culture" paradigm--part of the General Association of Regular Baptists. In this system "the World" was out to get us and we needed to withdraw into our little holy huddle where we were safe. I think this model is alive and well in the Christian music scene. If U2 sings a song it's "worldly," but if a Christian band covers it, it is suddeny "safe." (Why do we need Christian music?)

Somewhere along the line I left the Christ against culture model, but I don't know where I have landed. I like a lot of the "Christ and culture in paradox" model because it closely resembles the thought of a lot of the New Testament writers. When you read the Gospel of John, Jesus has come "from above," His kingdom is "not of this world," and he refuses to pray for the world. I think there has to be serious merit given to the idea that there is a "two kingdoms" (of Satan and of God) motif in the New Testament. However, I disagree with Luther's conclusions that Christians are forever simultaneously a saint and a sinner. I don't think he gives enough weight to the change in nature that occurs when someone is redeemed by God. Paul says, "He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and caused us to stand in the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:13-14). It seems like our citizenship has changed.

So, that brings up Niebuhr's "Christ the transformer of culture" model, similar to the thought of Augustine and John Calvin. I haven't read this chapter yet, but I think I know where he is going. This is the realized eschatology, the kingdom is now, amilennial view of history. Again, I think there is a lot of merit to this view. Certainly, there was a drastic change in history when Jesus was raised from the dead, and the kingdom of God has been inaugurated. But does this mean that the world is God's kingdom and that we should militantly try to conform culture to the will of Christ? Yes and no.

Christ and culture was written in 1951, and I wonder if it needs updated. While previous New Testament scholarship settled either for a "fully realized eschatology" or a "fully future eschatology," most scholars today look at the kingdom of God in an already/not yet way. Certainly, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, but the kingdom of Satan is still alive and well. The kingdom of God will not be consummated until the future, when Christ returns. We will always live in tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world until the consummation of history.

So, I want to combine the "Christ in paradox with culture" model and the "Christ the transformer of culture" models. There are two kingdoms on earth--the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan/this world. Satan has already been defeated and he is on the way out. God is transforming our world, and he has invited us to be a part of it.

What is "the kingdom of God"? The kingdom of God is the church to the extent that it models God's rule on earth. (The church is not synonymous with the kingdom of God, it only equals the kingdom of God to the extent that it models God's rule.) I think God is building his kingdom through the church. That's where the transformation happens. People don't change until they have become a part of the kingdom of God. So, we need to be careful not to force the kingdom culture on people who have not joined it. At the same time, we need to be in constant dialogue with cultue of "the World," redeeming it for the kingdom of God.

Maybe that's where Christian music comes in. It's music that has been redeemed. (But please stop marketing it as "safe for the whole family.")


David said...

Nick- take a look at my blog which has a survey you can take in order to place you into one of Niebuhr's categories. I am especially interested in your thoughts as someone who grew up in one perspective but is wondering where he fits now.

Matt said...

I tried to take the survey but the link said it was "currently unavailable." I'll try later. I'm kind of nervous--I'm afraid that I haven't drifted as far from my roots as I claimed I have. We'll see.

Matt said...

So I took the survey and came out "Christ above Culture." Surprising to me . . .