Book Review: Christ & Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Niebuhr attempts to understand and evaluate the various ways in which Christians throughout history and today have understood the relationship between Christ and culture. These he divides into five types:

1. “Christ Against Culture” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.

2. “Christ of Culture” — Those who attempt to domesticate Christ within the confines of whatever culture they happen to find themselves in already.

3. “Christ Above Culture” — Those who believe Christ to be reconcilable to culture, in some sense, yet apart from and transcendent of it.

4. “Christ and Culture in Paradox” — Those who posit that Christ and culture are opposed, yet man must necessarily live within both realms, whether simultaneously or intermittently.

5. “Christ the Transformer of Culture” — The conversionist model, as he calls it, posits that culture can be transformed through Christ.

Niebuhr does an excellent job a number of fronts. Perhaps most importantly, in a work like this, he allows each of these positions to speak for itself. He refuses to caricature and he does not offer criticism of a given position until he has allowed that position to explain itself fully. When he does criticize, his criticisms are consistently fair and incisive.

Niebuhr’s approach allows him to admit each of these positions into the mainstream of the heritage of Christianity and so into the collective Christian consciousness. The end result is one that explains and critiques without being weighed down by judgment and agenda. I recommend this work to anyone interested in the relationship between the Christian faith and the various culture contexts in which it has found itself as well as the new cultural contexts in which it finds itself today, both as it spreads to lands where it has not previously reached and as the traditionally Christian societies of the West experience numerous and rapid shifts in culture and mores.

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4 comments

  1. Does he deal with the the concept of Christ as a component of Christian culture ? Religious beliefs are part a culture. It does not matter what religion or what culture you look at they are intertwined.

    1. Yes, he does. I’ll add to your comment here that I think religion is the very basis of culture, that aspect of it that is the key creative element and which is the seed of all else.

      1. This may be a quibble, but I see religion as a cultural artifact. Religion is a social institution built around a set of spiritual beliefs and practises. Spiritual beliefs and practises revolve around an interpretation of humanity’s role/purpose/place in the universe/reality. It incorporates an attempt to understand existence beyond the limits of finite linear experience.

        The beliefs and practises become cultural manifestations as complex social structures rise up to maintain and promote these beliefs & practises. There is a build up of social order (government & laws), visual art, literature, music, performing arts, and architecture as a means of fulfilling the job of maintenance & promotion.

        I guess you could say I am looking at the phenomena of religion from a sociological and anthropological perspective. No different than looking at other types of human behaviour to see how society evolves and incorporates them into the whole gestalt of human interaction. 🙂

      2. I agree to a good extent. I should perhaps rephrase my earlier comment to say that mystical experience forms the foundation of culture in that it forms the foundation for religion, which, in turn, is the basis for culture.

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