CHRIST AND CULTURE A SERMON FOR OUR TIME
MAY 13, 2018
In 1949, H. Richard Niebuhr delivered a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, deep in the heart of Texas. That series of lectures were published in 1951 as a book entitled Christ and Culture.
Richard Niebuhr proposed five models for the way the church historically and presently relates to the world around it. Nearly 70 years later, his work still forms a framework for theological and sociological discussion. It informs us as to how the church should and could interact with the culture in which the church must either survive or perish.
Niebuhr’s models were Opposition, Agreement, Christ Above Culture, Tension, and Reformation.
The first two models are the extremes: Opposition means that the Christian opposes all cultural changes and artifacts as “worldly” and rejects them. A motto for this model might be “God calls Christians to come out from the world and be separate.” Benedictine monasticism, the Quakers, the Shakers, the Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites, fit this model. Using the computer as an example, in this view the Christian would see the computer as just one more instance of depravity, as an example of how sin infects everything we do, and no one in one of these groups would be allowed a computer, or maybe even a cell phone.
Agreement, the other extreme, would see the computer as simply an extension of God’s good creation.
In this view, Christ and Culture are in harmony, and there is little or no conflict between loyalty to Christ and what contemporary culture has to offer. The Gnostics of New Testament times, 18th century rationalists like Jonathan Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson, and a host of liberal theologians of today are examples.
But in between these extremes of totally withdrawing from modern life and totally embracing modern life, there are three more moderate ways to look at Christ and Culture, which really form the way that most 21st century Christians look at the world around them.
The least common, is Christ above culture. This was best advocated by Saint Thomas Aquinas. He would look at the computer and see it as a fine product of culture, but nowhere near the sublime beauty of Christ. Christ is Lord of both this world and the other, and the two cannot be entirely separated, and the complexity of Christ as both fully human and fully divine is analogous to the complexity within culture, a realm of the holy and the sinful Folks who ascribe to this perspective are often described as “so heavenly minded they do no earthly good.”
Christ and Culture in tension, or in paradox, finds less common ground between Christ and culture, and instead sees them as in conflict. The church is at war with culture. Yet the church is in the world and not of it. We must not estrange ourselves from the world, but at the same time, we must not let it overwhelm us. Martin Luther is the best example, and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” the rallying hymn. In this perspective, the computer may be used but with care not to indulge too deeply.
The final option is Christ Transforming Culture, or Reformation. This is the perspective of John Calvin. But he really learned it from studying Saint Augustine. Calvin believed the appropriate relationship between Christianity and culture was transformational, that the church is not always constantly reforming itself but the world around it.
There are three great truths to be learned. The first: culture, the world around us, is a manifestation of God’s good creation. Second is that sin deeply infects and corrupts every part of creation, that old doctrine of total depravity. But third and best: culture, the world, all of us, can be redeemed in the name of Jesus Christ. This redemption is a transformation of culture by seeking, enhancing, and celebrating the good, while indentifying the effects of sin, and working to reduce sin and its effects. Calvin would see the computer as a wonderful gift of God to be used to God’s glory, while avoiding the corruption which is possible by and through it. The rallying hymn of Christ transforming culture might well be John Calvin’s own I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art.
We are called as Christians to transform the world, culture, ourselves, in the name of Jesus Christ.
But sadly, I believe in the last half century, rather than the church transforming the world, the church has allowed the world to transform it.
In Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Discerning the will of God, what is acceptable and good and perfect is not always easy. And sometimes when we think we have done the will of God, something acceptable and good and perfect, it backfires.
Take Prohibition: variously referred to a “The Great Experiment” or “The Noble Experiment.” Prohibition grew out of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Originally aimed at doing away with both tobacco and alcohol, the focus became “demon rum” and so from1920-1933, the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was against Federal law. As a result, the greatest criminal empire in the history of the world arose; the law made sinners and hypocrites out of millions of Americans, and probably increased the number of alcoholics nationwide. It was an attempt to transform or reform that failed.
A century earlier, there was a movement that came out of an attempt to transform or reform the world that worked. It was called the Abolition Movement. And it led to the abolition of slavery. But it did so at great cost of lives and the division of the nation in the Civil War, all the wounds of which are not yet healed.
The Civil Rights movement and the Peace Movement of the sixties started in the churches of people who wanted to transform or reform the culture of that era. And both had their successes and their failures. The Right to Life Movement, Prison Reform, Death Penalty Repeal, are more recent attempts to transform and reform and all with mixed results.
The world is still a sinful place. But it is still God’s creation. Along with Martin Luther we struggle with that paradox. But with John Calvin, and the prophet Isaiah, we want this world to be the kingdom of our God and of His Christ, where He shall reign forever and ever.
We yearn to transform and reform culture, and instead, we see the church transformed by culture. We find the church being conformed more and more to the world.
But thus was it ever. Martin Luther himself took the pagan symbol of the evergreen tree, and transformed it into the Christmas tree. But he was following in the footsteps of the church from the most ancient of times.
The early church took the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, the festival of the re-birth of the Eternal Sun, and transformed it into Christmas, the Celebration of the Birth of the Son of God. These early Christians took the name of a fertility goddess, and applied it to the holiest day of the year, the day of resurrection, which we call to this day Easter. We have taken secular styles of music and adopted and adapted and baptized and incorporated them into our worship services. I remember when Jazz services and folk music services were edgy and controversial, and now visiting some churches one would think one was attending a rock and roll concert, with drums and keyboards and electric guitars. Certainly not all influences of culture on the church are bad. But we must test them as we test the Spirits, to see if they are of God.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying Native American spirituality. I’ve learned primarily about the Navaho, the Arapaho, and the Shoshone. I’ve attended their pow-wows, and been privy to some of the rituals that few non-Natives have witnessed. One of the things I have learned is that most of the people who practice the tribal rituals are also devout Christians. They may be Roman Catholics or Pentecostals or Presbyterians but they see no conflict between practicing their native culture and practicing their Christian faith. For some, they are separate parts of their lives. For others, they are integral parts of their relationship with the Deity. The Navaho were quick to become Presbyterians, because they readily grasped government by elders, since their trial culture had done that for centuries.
I have friends who are nominally Jewish, culturally Jewish, but who accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. And I once visited the home of a Hindu swami, where his panoply of expressions of the “Divine” was centered by a classic portrait of Christ. I once had a physician who was a practitioner of the Baha’i faith tell me he wanted to join the Presbyterian church because it did so much good in the world and it would be good for his business.
The hardest task we have as the church, as Christians, in the 21st century may not be reforming or transforming the world. It may be keeping the world from transforming us.
The issues which have troubled and divided our Presbyterian denomination, and indeed all of Christendom, for the last forty years have deal with homosexuality. How to treat people, who to ordain to church office, who can get married in the church. And we have seen positions held fast and positions change. We have seen people leave the church, but not many added, as a result of this controversy.
Often, it appears that the world is transforming the church that the church is conforming to the world.
But our goal must be to transform the world into the place where at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
He was Lord in the Beginning. He will be Lord until the End. Even now He is Lord.