Christ and culture re-thought

For the last 50 years or so, H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has dominated most Christian thinking on the relationship between Christ and culture. Scott Newling examines two books which seek to break away from this paradigm.

Culture Matters: A Call for Consensus on Christian Cultural Engagement

TM Moore

Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2007, 176 pp.


Christ and Culture Revisited

DA Carson

Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008, 255 pp.

Available from Moore Books


Before introducing you to two recent books on the relationship between Christ and culture, it may be helpful to take a couple of steps back and provide you with some context for their writing: H Richard Niebuhr and the search for ‘Grand Unified Theories’. If you haven’t heard of the former and don’t understand the relevance of the latter, please let me explain!

Anyone who has read a book on Christ and culture in the last 50 years will know that Niebuhr’s own book, Christ and Culture, has become the paradigmatic work and starting point for nearly all thinking on the subject.1 This holds true even for those books who wish to ‘break free’ of the mould he established: both volumes I review are, to varying extents, representative of this attempt to leave Niebuhr behind.

Written in 1951, Christ and Culture traced five typologies of how Christians have dealt with this topic. Niebuhr sought general trends, associations and recurring themes of how Christians through history (including different New Testament people) have treated this subject, consciously aware that no one type can fully explain an individual’s response, and nor is any one individual perfectly representative of a particular type. Niebuhr’s goal was not prescription, but description to aid self-understanding. (He was an avowed and remarkably consistent cultural relativist.)

Here is not the place to go into the details of his five types. (There is a good summary of them in Chapter 1 of Carson’s book and on page 14 of this issue.) Since Niebuhr, Christians have typically done one of three things: either they have accepted his typological model and operated within it; they have adopted it prescriptively (seeking to classify themselves or others according to one type, and then placing a value judgement on that—even though Niebuhr never intended this); or else they have tried to leave it behind (in which case they have inevitably ended up speaking of him anyway, even if only to dismantle the paradigm).

But what about Grand Unified Theories (GUTs)? In the scientific world, the search has been underway for a GUT to cover what appears to be great diversity. While some persist, optimistic that such a theory may be discovered, others (e.g. Stephen Hawking) have abandoned the enterprise altogether. The topic of Christ and culture is a little like this: while some have given up hope that a unified approach to something so diverse, changing and nebulous as ‘culture’ is possible, others continue to seek for a consistent approach on the issue—a GUT of Christ and culture. Again, both books reviewed here reflect this endeavour.

Culture matters

Let us now take a closer look at these two books. The title of Moore’s work reflects what I’ve just been saying: its aim is to provide a “viable, consensual approach to culture matters that can unite Christians in common cultural endeavour” (p. 15). This is not an end in itself; Moore hopes that, once a common approach can be found, it will “provide us a platform for pursuing the progress of Christ’s kingdom in all areas of life” (p. 15). Standing within the evangelical fold, this progress of the Kingdom is a gospel proclamation activity.

Moore is not naive about this: he neither implicitly condones culture nor eschews it. Instead, his task to find a consensual approach seeks enough generality to deal with the diversity inherent in culture:

Some aspects of culture will present obstacles to the pursuit of the Kingdom of God, while other aspects can be useful in expressing and furthering that enterprise. The challenge to those called to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness is to be able to determine which is which, and to evaluate and employ culture in ways consistent with our callings as followers of the Lord. (pp. 20-21)

Moore’s impetus is his observations of the disparate way in which he has seen Christians approach culture—both from his own experience and from his experience of church history. His introduction, therefore, provides a very brief six-fold typology of this diversity in attitude towards culture: indifference, aversion, trivialization, accommodation, separation, triumphalism.

This sounds very Niebuhrian—and it is, although it’s not until the conclusion that Moore makes this explicit (pp. 143-46). But rather than perpetuate this state of affairs, Moore’s aim is to move on—to provide a common set of parameters by which Christians may “realize a common voice and stance toward the making and use of culture in all its forms” (p. 146).

The five chapters which make up the body of the book follow a common pattern. Firstly, Moore examines a particular individual or group from church history to observe what they have to say about how to relate to culture. He examines Augustine and his City of God, Celtic Christian art, John Calvin and Genevan education, Abraham Kuyper, and Czeslaw Milosz (a 20th-century Polish Roman Catholic poet). Secondly, he makes some extrapolations to form principles we ought to adopt, before, finally, seeking a contemporary exemplar of these principles.

There is a lot of helpful advice in this book that lays down general principles by which to approach culture. Nevertheless, I find it hard to recommend on its own terms for a variety of reasons. Firstly, although Moore has left Niebuhr’s typology behind, he has continued within Niebuhr’s methodology: he still operates within the paradigm of observing and describing, and taking a smattering of approaches from church history. But what drives this selection? Why these people and not others? That is, what theology of culture did Moore already have in place before he chose these people?

I acknowledge this is a little unfair. Culture Matters has the definite feel of a series of anecdotes drawn from whatever Moore’s own experience has led him to know about (especially his contemporary examples, and his knowledge of Celtic Art). This is fine; you can’t ask someone to speak beyond their knowledge. Nevertheless, one can’t help but feel that his approach towards Christ and culture would be considerably different if he had chosen Athanasius’s Life of Antony (an early church desert monk) and Martin Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ model, rather than Augustine’s City of God and John Calvin.

Secondly, at times, one can’t help but wonder the extent to which Moore has read back his own views into the people he discusses, especially since, at one point, he acknowledges this explicitly (p. 82). For instance, the seven observations he makes about Augustine are useful: Augustine certainly did those things. But by the end of the chapter, he speaks of them as the criteria Augustine employed to relate to culture, which says too much for Augustine. Or again, Moore speaks of the Celtic Christians as creating a new culture of art out of the remnants of pagan art, yet without compromising through idolatry. The trouble with this is that we know from literary evidence that some art was explicitly syncretistic, since that was a stated missionary policy to the Isles in the early Middle Ages. This, again, begs the question, where do Moore’s observations come from?

Third, despite the oft-repeated purpose of the book, as I read through Culture Matters, I was unconvinced that Moore was giving me a GUT of how to approach culture. It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that I began to piece together my dissatisfaction, since it’s there that some of Moore’s theological chickens come home to roost. As I read through his chapter on Czeslaw Milosz as an exemplar for Christian thinking on culture, I couldn’t help but ask: why was a Roman Catholic whose theological convictions and view of the kingdom of God are so different to mine being held up as someone worthy to follow? What consensus could we possibly have that doesn’t jettison the fundamentals of what we believe?

This was confirmed in the final chapter where Moore’s ecumenical endeavours—particularly his esteem for Evangelicals and Catholics Together—becomes apparent. In other words, Moore offers an approach towards culture which he hopes that Christians of all persuasions can hold to. But this forces him to reduce the ‘Christ’ side of things to those who hold some form of ‘commitment’ to Christ, and his methodology is, of necessity, Bible informed, but not Bible-based. But these are exactly the two things Niebuhr maintained. The result is that Moore is left with a collection of wisdom which people of different theological persuasions could adopt, and therefore still treat culture differently, even while using his model. In other words, his attempt at a GUT of Christ and culture fails because it lacks proper theological foundation.

Christ and Culture Revisited

There are four primary concerns which drive Carson’s book. Firstly, as his title suggests, Carson’s subject revolves around revisiting Niebuhr’s paradigm—not so much to re-engage it as a model for thinking about culture, but to critique it and move on from it. Chapter 1 provides a helpful interpretative overview of Christ and Culture (especially if you come to Carson’s book ignorant of Niebuhr); Chapter 2 then critiques Niebuhr’s position.

Carson’s criticisms revolve primarily around Niebuhr’s broad understanding of Christ and his handling of Scripture (pp. 31-42). He questions why Niebuhr was happy to include as Christian those who have only the loosest commitments to Christ (for example, those who deny the resurrection), and then use them as a model for how Christians may sometimes relate to culture. He also asks why Niebuhr was happy to find alternative models in Scripture for how to approach culture, rather than seek a unified account.

To be fair to Niebuhr, both of Carson’s criticisms were things Niebuhr readily acknowledged about himself. In the context of Niebuhr’s ethics more generally, when challenged by others about whether he was actually a Christian, his response was that he was Christian in the sense that he had a commitment to the historical Christ and what he stood for.2 He refused to limit Christ’s reconciling activity in this world to any one particular theology. Furthermore, his claim for his ethics was that it was not “Bible-centred”, but “Bible-informed”.3 But here lies the problem with the model of Christ and culture that has dominated the West for 50 years: the foundation has been an historical typology of those who have some claim to the name ‘Christ’, rather than Scripture as the starting point, which then moves on to create a model for how we ought to relate to the world.

And so Carson’s second aim is to redress this issue by arguing that the only way to approach culture is through a robust biblical theology in which the great turning points of redemption history aren’t compromised, but held together in tension (Chapter 2). To be sure, both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’ are always in danger of being reduced to their lowest common denominator, thus ensuring simplistic and damaging approaches to culture (egregious reductionisms!). But when held in all its fullness, biblical theology provides a model that is both general enough to accommodate the diversity of culture and specific enough that different elements may be emphasized according to individual situations in order to provide a suitable answer to any given quandary.

Carson’s third aim is to defend a metanarrative—a GUT of Christ and culture—against those who object to this possibility. Chapter 3 provides a defence of the role of biblical theology as a valid worldview by which we may approach the world, particularly in response to postmodern trends.

The fourth aim is to set the discussion of Christ and culture within our context: globalization and current cultural forces in the West. Carson is very conscious that, as Christians seek to work out a valid approach to culture, non-Christian forces in the world are also seeking to set the parameters and acceptable bounds for such interaction (pp. 6-7). In Chapters 4 and 5, Carson therefore addresses four such contemporary realities: secularism, democracy, freedom, and power and the state.

Christ and Culture Revisited is well worth reading. However, one’s theological, educational and cultural backgrounds will contribute greatly to the reading experience. While those who have good grounding in Niebuhr’s typology and/or biblical theology will still find many parts of Chapters 1 and 2 helpful, those parts are more designed for beginners. Yet unless one has at the least a passing familiarity with (post-) foundationalism and the ‘big names’ in postmodern discourse (Christian and non-Christian), Chapter 3 will be pretty hard going. Carson acknowledges this and even recommends judicious “skipping of pages” (p. 99). Chapters 4 and 5 are different again. Concerned as they are with assessing various western cultural trends as typified in the United States and France, some outside of those contexts may find this alienating. Never­theless, this isn’t a significant problem, and Carson’s analysis still provides useful ways of thinking by which to address other western situations.

However, the thing that commends Carson’s book above all books on culture I’ve read is that he seeks to start with an approach that is faithful to the Christ of Scripture, and faithful to the worldview that Scripture imparts to us: salvation history. It is a breath of fresh air in a field grown stale on Niebuhr’s relativist methodology.

I can’t help but wonder about the future of the Christ and culture issue. Two things are worth observing. Firstly, is it time we put Niebuhr’s paradigm to rest altogether, instead of feeling the need to continue our discussions with reference to it? Carson’s book certainly leads us well in that direction.

Secondly, as I read through both books, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ve lost the biblical category of wisdom. As cultures differ, change and intersect with one another, our application of a biblical theological approach will keep adapting to the situation. My humble suggestion is that we need to train our congregations to be wise to know how to do that. That takes time and modelling—identifying wise approaches and showing the error of foolish ones. As the information streams which our congregations have access to continue to multiply, we need to regain the book of Proverb’s love of discernment, insight and prudence. In this light, if one can get past the flaws of Moore’s book, Culture Matters actually has quite a lot of helpful insights on how to go about interacting with culture. We need to encourage more of this kind of activity in light of Scripture.


1. H Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, HarperCollins, New York, 2001 (1951).

2. H Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy, Harper & Row, New York, 1963, pp. 43-44.

3. H Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, p. 46.

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