Today we revisit the famous (for some, infamous) five part typology from Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture as summarized in John Stackhouse’s Making the Best of It. Niebuhr claims that any of the following types can be appropriate in certain circumstances. They are presented in the order they appear in Niebuhr’s book:
Christ Against Culture – Christ is in opposition to culture and calls us into radical opposition. Anabaptists, as well as some fundamentalists and Pentecostal groups, are examples we might typically associate with this type.
Christ of Culture – Christ and his followers embrace culture because the culture has substantially embraced him. Stackhouse suggests that Puritan New England may have approximated this posture.
Stackhouse points that these first two types recognize no tension between Christ and culture. It is either total opposition or complete embrace. The remaining three recognize some tension between the two.
Christ Above Culture – Christ comes to Culture, which is a mixture of good and bad, to instruct and improve it through his church. Thomas Aquinas was an exemplar of this model.
Christ in Paradox with Culture – Christ calls us to be citizens of two worlds. Contradictions are resolved according to some type of qualification, which Niebuhr never articulates. Stackhouse believes this to be the least developed of the types. This is often identified with Lutheran theology.
Christ Transforming Culture – Christ calls us to redeem the world by bearing witness to him and work for the transformation of individuals and institutions. Stackhouse identifies three modes of this.
- Converting individuals, who then will act Christianly in all things, infiltrating and influencing all sectors of society and converting others in turn, thus leading to a cumulative transformation of culture. (29) (Billy Graham)
- Constructing Christian institutions (whether schools, labor unions, news media, or political parties) as wholesome alternatives to the current options offered by other groups, in hope that they will become sufficiently attractive and influential that successive sectors of society will be transformed by their influence. (29) (Dutch neo-Calvinism)
- Conquering existing institutions with legitimate power, such as taking over businesses by buying stock, taking over legislatures by winning elections, taking over media by producing superior creative products, and so on. (29) (Liberal Protestants, liberation theologians, the new religious right, Christian socialist, to name a few)
Stackhouse also notes that Christians who may be thoroughly against culture can either respond with separation or attempts to take over. Thus, the seeming slide, back and forth, between Christ Against and Christ Transforming by some fundamentalist groups.
Lessons from the Critics
Stackhouse identifies four criticisms that are usually leveled at the typology.
1. Category Confusion – Some say when Niebuhr used “Christ,” he really meant “Christianity” or “the church.” “Culture” meant “the world” or “the dominant powers and ethos of society.” The terms need to be changed. Stackhouse writes:
I’m not sure they do, as long as we realize what Niebuhr is attempting with these categories. Niebuhr is discussing a kind of fundamental tension for the church: the tension between its fidelity to Christ (the ideal of Christian faith) and its posture toward the society from which the church is drawn and in which it must make its way. How, then, does the church best construe the relationship between those two elements? (31)
Related to this is the critique is the criticism that the Church cannot be conceived of apart from the culture. To which Stackhouse essentially responds, “well of course.” And Niebuhr, as a disciple of sociologist-theologian Ernst Troeltsch, certainly was aware of this. None of that seriously impacts the purpose for which the typology was employed; to highlight the ways we might resolve the Christ and culture tension.
2. Taxonomy doesn’t account for all possible hybrid types or nuances within types – Niebuhr did not create a taxonomy but a typology. There is an important difference. “A taxonomy is a classification of things as they are in all their specificity.” (32) A typology, in the social sciences, “… is a kind of pure intellectual construct, a setting out of logical possibilities in a situation.” (32) Each of these five is an ideal type … not “ideal” in the sense of desirability but in the sense of a pure idea that probably does not exist in reality. These pure types can be useful types in analyzing a real world variable(s) (i. e., tension between Christ and Culture) but they are not intended to be a taxonomy. Regrettably, some scholars (including sociologists who should know better) have not understood the difference.
3. Misapplication by Niebuhr of his own typology - Stackhouse suggests that Niebuhr actually slips into a taxonomical mode in his criticism of the Anabaptist, under the Christ Against Culture discussion, criticizing them for not being consistent with their opposition to culture. According to a typology, no one likely would fit a pure type. He criticizes no other examples in this way when discussing other types. Yet, in other places, Niebuhr notes that when you leave the realm of the hypothetical typology probably no individual or group corresponds perfectly with any one type.
4. Niebuhr sets up Christ Transforming Culture as normative – Stackhouse says that Niebuhr offers the least criticism of this option. It is the last type treated and many have noted how the book seems to build toward the conclusion that it is normative type. Possibly so, but this does not in itself negate the usefulness of the typology.
Stackhouse makes two more important observations. He notes that Niebuhr held that “different cultures can require different stances.” (38) But beyond that, Stackhouse writes:
“… not only can it be appropriate for Christians to take different stances on different aspects of the same culture, but it typically is appropriate. (38) For example, war is never God’s ideal, but within some Christian ethical traditions it may be justifiable. Possibly, one way the church gives witness is that some Christians participate in the war while the pacifist serves as an uneasy reminder that war is never God’s ideal.
Finally, Stackhouse says that his position, which he will lay out in the last half of the book, is probably best characterized as a hybrid of the Christ in Paradox and Christ Transforming.
There you have it. We begin Part 2 next week. What thoughts do you have?