January 29, 2007

Richard Niebuhr: The Culture War Isn't New

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 pm

Over the years I’ve tried to occasionally tackle some of the theology classics, such as Mere Christianity and Miracles by C.S. Lewis, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be. (Yes, I am a total nerd — reading theology for fun.) So now I’m reading Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr (the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, another author on my list). Having blogged for several years about the current conflicts between religion (both left and right) and culture (left and right) in the U.S., I always felt we have been experiencing a unique dynamic in a unique cultural context. Then I read the opening words of Chapter 1 in Niebuhr’s book, written 56 years ago:

Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)

A many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity and civilization is being carried on in our time. Historians and theologians, statesmen and churchmen, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and anti-Christians participate in it. It is carried on publicly by opposing parties and privately in the conflicts of conscience. Sometimes it is concentrated on special issues, such as those of the place of Christain faith in general education or of Christian ethics in economic life. Sometimes it deals with broad questions of the church’s responsibility for social order or of the need for a new separation of Christ’s followers from the world.

The debate is as confused as it is many-sided. When it seems that the issue has been clearly defined as lying between the exponents of a Christian civilization and the non-Christian defenders of a wholly secularized society, new perplexitiies arise as devoted believers seem to make common cause with secularists, calling, for instance, for the elimination of religions from public education, or for the Christian support of apparently anti-Christian political movements. So many voices are heard, so many confident but diverse assertions about the Christian answer to the social problem are being made, so many issues are raised, that bewilderment and uncertainty beset many Christians.

In this situation it is helpful to remember that the question of Christianity and civilization is by no means a new one; that Christian perplexity in this area has been perennial, and that the problem has been an enduring one through all the Christian centuries.

He goes on to describe just how the conflict between Christianity and the civilization in which it finds itself has reappeared repeatedly throughout history, beginning even during the life of Jesus. And it continues today.

This reminds me of why we read the classics: so that we don’t reinvent the wheel out of our narcissistic belief that our experiences are unique.


  1. (Yes, I am a total nerd — reading theology for fun.)

    I guess I’m a total nerd, too. I read Christ and Culture a couple years ago, and noticed the same thing. The hot-button issues may change, but Christians from every culture have had to wrestle with how to be faithful to our calling as Christians and how to relate our faith to our cultural context.

    One idea from this book (I think it was this book) that really grabbed me was that God has a place, even a need, for monastic types who completely reject the larger culture. Their single-minded focus can serve as a call to the rest of us to be more faithful within the culture.

    Comment by BruceA — January 30, 2007 @ 7:15 am

  2. Same thing with “worship wars.” The arguments about what is appropriate and inappropriate worship music, practice, liturgy has been going on since the beginning. It’s amazing to read the preface to some of the late 19th century “young people’s” hymnals from the Norwegian and Swedish Lutheran synods on the role of Christian music is in the education of our young people. Sounds like they could have been written last week.
    Life Together also has some interesting corallaries to today’s various debates as well.

    Comment by Becky — January 30, 2007 @ 8:41 am

  3. Christ and Culture is actually on an admittedly growing pile of books that are waiting to be read.

    Comment by Richard — January 30, 2007 @ 1:32 pm

  4. You’re exactly right when you state that Christians needn’t reinvent the wheel. I often wonder how much influence comes from eschatology in how Christians understand their place in the universe. Just as Americans saw the new nation as a “city upon a hill,” so many are inclined to keep it that way… in spite of the fact that doing so goes against American values and only reinforces an all too literal interpretation of the Bible…

    Comment by Josh — January 30, 2007 @ 7:48 pm

  5. After 40 years in the ministry, I regard H. Richard’s book as one of the 5 most influencial texts I’ve read. Why? Because it provided me some “handles” to explain what was going on in the world and how the church and myself would/should/could respond. Not that any one of the 5 modalities is absolutely right. All have Biblical support and shining light examples. In reality, I am more sympathetic to Christ transforming culture or the Christ and culture paradox model (Lutherans always suffer from spiritual hernias). But it has always been an eye-opening experience for folk I’ve taught and shared this book’s material.

    Comment by Pr. Pete — January 31, 2007 @ 8:38 am

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