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Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)
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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
What do I mean by dated . . . but . . . foundational?
DATED
Christ and Culture has been around for over half a century now. When first penned it attempted to describe all the various ways in which Christians interact with culture, and make sense of it. The book was profound, for its time period. However, a lot of theology has been written since 1951 and culture has changed even more. At first glance the reader might find himself or herself toying with several ideas that are more recent than Niebur's.
FOUNDATIONAL
This book made such a splash that some Christian colleges adopted similar classes. This was the prevailing text. Therefore, most of the ideas on this subject that churn in the modern Christian reader's mind were formed in reaction to this book, even if the reader is unaware of it. Therefore, if the reader of today can grasp the concepts of this work, that reader will have a deeper understanding of his or her own beliefs.
RECOMMENDATION
This book is dated, but not outdated. Read it and compare it with newer works for a broader grasp of the subject. By the way, this is one of the most important subjects that today's Christian can wrestle with. Too many of our Christians react to culture with limited understanding of what they are doing or why they are doing it. We Protestants, of which I am one, are horribly weak in our understanding of what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ in a fallen world.
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55 of 61 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 14, 2001
H. Richard Niebuhr writes as a Christian, but this work has meaning beyond the scope of the Christian faith. Here, he analyzes how the sacred can relate to the profane, the spiritual to the mundane.
After defining "Christ" (Mediator, involving double movement, from God toward man & from men toward God) and "Culture" (the artificial, secondary environment that man imposes on the natural), he dedicates a chapter to each of the five ways he sees the sacred & profane relating.
The first of these, "Christ against Culture," focuses on the opposition of the sacred to the profane. He examines the ekklesia, or "calling out" inherent in the sacred (that which is set apart, beyond the horizon). He critiques this approach by showing how ultimately it leads to an otherworldly Christianity which can have minimal, if any impact on the world.
Opposed to this is "The Christ of Culture." From this viewpoint, the sacred is discovered in culture. That which is most Christlike in culture is celebrated, the spiritual teachings which bring man into community, which find meaning in the "ordinary" take precedence. The danger of this approach, is that belief will merge with society, and the sacred will be, eventually, completely lost.
Adherents to the "Christ above Culture" motif compartmentalize the sacred and the profane. Christ is for church and bed-time prayers, culture is the realm of business. At best, spiritually informed morals guide behavior in culture. By compartmentalizing the sacred as separate from the profane, this approach de-vitalizes the profane and disempowers the sacred.
The "Christ in Paradox with Culture" approach sees man as sinful and grounded in culture. Man cannot escape the profane--this is part of his nature. Christ, on the other hand, calls man into the sacred. This is the paradox--called to the sacred, a part of the profane. The only resolution is seen as God's redeeming grace.
His final approach considers "Christ the Transformer of Culture." He presents the permeation of all life by the immanent presence of divinity. This lays a geis upon the believer to manifest the Divine within culture, leading to both spiritual and practical, political and social action.
He concludes by stating that we must make our decisions in faith, that not one of these five approaches can lay claim to being the "One True" Christian approach.
I find it interesting that he takes nearly an entire book to develop the "Christ the Transformer of Culture" idea. This is one which more modern Christian theologians (ie Matthew Fox) develop rapidly as a basis for further discussion. Starhawk, the noted author of Goddess thealogy, starts by assuming an immanent Divine presence, both sanctifying all of the "profane" and demanding that situations of injustice be confronted.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2003
Niebuhr's views, historical, cultural and religious, were solidly based in the context and culture of the late 40's and early 50's. He wrote as an ethicist who, in 1950, fully comprehended the cataclysmic failure of the German National Church. Now, over fifty years later, with the republishing of Niebuhr's book, his inquiry into the relationship of the Church and the contemporary culture remain valid, though the world and the church have dramatically changed.
In "Christ & Culture" Niebuhr describes five models of how the sacred & secular can interact. Ultimately he seeks to give insight into the question of "how shall we, as Christians, live?" I will not go into the five types, but of the five types, Niebuhr favors most the "Christ transforming Culture".
Faith, in Christ, Niebuhr believed, needs to go beyond separation, accommodation, adoration or polarization and engage dynamically the culture with the values of life that Christ espoused. Faith in Christ, through presence and social action, will transform the world. Thus, for Niebuhr, if Christ identified with the poor, we should too. If Christ took in the orphans and widows, we should too. If Christ healed the sick, we should too. Jesus is God-with-us, not to rescue us out of "all of this," but to redeem, transform, restore us and all of this. God's work of redemption is not at odds with God's work of creation. We live in the world, we create the world and we, through faith, are involved in bringing God's "kingdom come, here on earth as it is in heaven."
This is a must read for any student of Christianity. This is a serious read and it can be a bit dense and daunting at times, but it is non-the-less a Christian Classic that every pastor and thinking Christian should have in their library. Strongly recommended.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2001
Christ and Culture is one of those books that will forever change the way a person of faith understands their relationship to God and those around him. In part, Niebuhr is able to make this book so impactful because he himself avoids most value judgments about the merits of the perspectives he looks at; while he does (persuasively, I would add) advocate the fifth position, his discussion of each of the five categories is fair and even-handed. Indeed, his typology is consistant with his view that there is no single answer to this "enduring dilemma". No matter which of the categories you most feel compelled by, this method of even handed analysis is sure to build your appreciation of other Christian answers to the problem, and it forces you to examine your own view of this critical question.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 1996
Drawing on the history of Christian relationships with culture, Niebuhr
adapts the work of Ernst Troeltsch to create a typology of how Christians
through the ages have interacted with culture. Strongly biased towards the final
one of his five suggestions, Niebuhr influenced a generation of liberal
Christians to seek to transform society in the name of Christ. The work
is a classic in the field, but has been challenged as inextricably bound up
with an obsolete commitment to a "Christendom"-based social ethic.
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33 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2001
I'm somewhat split on this one--perhaps not surprising, given the topic of the book!<g>
The scope of the book involves Niebuhr's attempts at identifying and categorizing five typologies of 'followers of Christ', with respect to their views concerning what it means to 'follow Christ' and what it means to live in the world. It's an ambitious project, and one which Niebuhr, more often than not, manages to carry off with aplomb, perception and wit.
After explaining why he thinks the topic should be addressed, Niebuhr proceeds by attempting to define 'Christ' and 'culture' in ways which--theoretically--any of his typology groups would accept. This leads to his first problem, for Niebuhr's definition of Christ ends up carrying quite a lot of 'high christology' weight. Not that this bothers _me_ (being a conservative Christian), but when I read it I thought--hmmm, there are some people who try to follow Christ who aren't going to accept that sort of definition. Not surprisingly, when Niebuhr reached the second typology (the 'cultural protestants', i.e. the generally liberal revisionists whom even Niebuhr admits feel free to redefine Christ in terms of whatever they think is most popular in culture at the moment), the people whom he mentions as being part of that group would have either denied Niebuhr's definition of 'Christ', or else would have used the form of that definition while self-consciously and explicitly relegating the form to a nebulous cypher: 'insert your own meaning as you see fit'.
This leads to the second major problem of the book. Niebuhr pretty obviously (and maybe even with a proper sense of charity) wants to grant some real and useful credit to the second typology group as being valid 'witnesses for Christ'. However, even Niebuhr can see (and admits) that they are not witnessing for Christ so much as importing and reshaping the figure of Christ as an authority to validate whatever the cultural focus-de-jour is. This disparity between Niebuhr's purpose and his data leads to numerous contradictions in that section.
For instance, Niebuhr describes Albrecht Ritschl on one page as staying closer to the New Testament Christ than Kant; and then two pages later, Niebuhr explicitly admits that Ritschl's theology was Kantian, and describes it in such terms. Or, relatedly, Ritschl is described as staying closer to the NT than Jefferson and Kant; within the very same paragraph where Niebuhr describes Jefferson and Kant (and Schleirmacher) as 'religion within the limits of reason'--as distinct from Hegel, Emerson and Ritschl who (Niebuhr says) represent the movement toward 'the religion of humanity'. Ritschl is put into some strikingly odd groups for someone whom Niebuhr wants to present as staying particularly close to the NT accounts.
The disparities of the second section (and there are many), culminate when Niebuhr quietly turns away from the pure subjectivity of the 'culture-prot' Christians, and presents them as if they were another type altogether: a type which really is seeking a true unity in "the tradition of culture", not artificially importing it in; a type which may actually be trying to use definitive characteristics of Jesus (whatever those are proposed--and cogently defended!--to be) to "discern" this "unity", rather than tossing away any definitive characteristics which happen not to fit the schema of the particular tradition of the particular culture in question. Niebuhr tacitly turns back to a typology which might possibly have real strength, and which really might accomplish something other than the instigation of an illusionary tautology. By Niebuhr's own admission (and by the tacit admission of the actual evidence he allows to be presented as to means and ends), the 'culture-prot' Christians cannot do this; so, to grant them some credit, Niebuhr must identify them purely by taxonomic convenience (so to speak) with the other culture-positive typologies, who _might_ really accomplish the goal of using "the aid of the knowledge of Christ... to discriminate between the spirits of the times and the Spirit which is from God."
For certainly, the 'culture-prot' Christians, by holding the shape of the target culture as being the final standard for acceptance or rejection (or manufacture!) of data concerning Jesus, are by definition of their own methodology not discriminating between any kinds of spirits--except insofar as they discriminate between spirits of one time and another. If the 1st century Christians could manufacture a "wonderworking supernatural hero", then we can manufacture whatever kind of Jesus _we_ want. Right?
No. We _can_ perhaps do that; but we should not. I have more respect for those "cultured despisers of religion" who have concluded that the early Christians were fairy-tale mongers, and consequently refuse to consider _any_ statement concerning Jesus as being more than a wish-fulfillment gloss (even modern apostate statements); than for those revisionists whose strategy is a conscious embracement of wish-fulfillment illusion. One of these groups might not be blaspheming, in the end, against the Holy Spirit; but one of them definitely is, even if the shape of Jesus they end up with seems to speak in favor of the Son of Man.
However, despite the deep problems with Niebuhr's attempt to make his second typology work within his thesis, I do think that he manages to say some internally consistent things about the other four groups (though he verges close on the edge of useless parody in his discussion of the exclusivists). His mis-analysis of the second typology is so out-of-place with the rest of his book, that it sticks out in my mind like a tumor on a generally healthy nose. Or, to put it another way: the rest of his book may not be perfect, but compared to that section on his second typology group, it looks like a masterwork.
At any rate, despite the severe intrinsic weaknesses of that one section, I do recommend the book as an otherwise balanced and comparative look at strengths and weaknesses among artificially (but somewhat usefully) distinguished classes of Christians and our attempts to deal both with Christ and the cultures around us.
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22 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2002
Niebuhr's book has been seen as a classic for nearly half a century now, and to be honest, when I first read it I too was captivated by his typology: Christ Against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture.
There are several nit-picky complaints about it-- for example, his desciption of the Mennonite Church as Christ Against Culture is not accurate. He probably meant the Old Order Amish. Second, culture seems to shift during his exposition, so that by the time you get to the end of the account you forget how he defined it. Third, and sorry if I am giving anything away, he fails to critique the fifth option (transformer) to the same extent as he does the first four. It is a bit of intellectual cheating that this position is his position of preference-- a quasi-calvinistic reformist view that wants desperately to keep Christianity relevant to the society in which it finds itself. Not to the extent of his brother, Reinhold, but certainly more than enough.
This book is more a theological treatise than an accurate historical account. The trouble is that the examples then become straw men for the theological or polemical point instead of being able to stand on their own merits.
Typologies are dangerous because they do not allow for a lot of barrier-transcending. Calling a group "Christ Against Culture" fails to consider that it too may be triving for some sort of "transformation". It may be one that is much more overtly Christian, which is considerably different from a perspective that sees the Church as the moral conscience of the secular state.
Finally, some revisions are necessary today for the diferent movements that have come up more recently. Christ the Liberator of Culture, for example.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2012
This is a well organized argument presenting five sides to a critical problem between Christ and culture. Niebuhr argues Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and finally Christ transforming culture. Although his postscript to these arguments is inconclusive, he does call for a decision, not from the community of faith but from the individual to decide. He begins with an impasse that Christ is sinless but culture is sinful overlaying this with veneers of scripture that seem to contradict. For instance, we are called out of the world but are also sent into the world. Throughout each argument Christ is presented as central but the application to culture swings from rejecting homes, property and the protecting hand of government, seen in the life of Tolstoy, to a harmony of Christ and culture. The latter has a danger of interpreting culture through Christ, but also Christ through culture.

Although each of the five arguments is persuasive, Christ and the transformation of culture appear to be stronger theologically. Niebuhr calls the Christian with this view a `conversionist.' The argument is that God is our Creator and that his creation was `good'. The work of the Christian is to bring Christ into culture transforming it for our `good'. Culture itself is something God made and cannot be the source of sin. Therefore culture is neither good nor bad. The Christian who lives for Christ by keeping their focus on him in a positive and productive manner will bring a Christ-centeredness into culture. Virtues of hope, love and peace become part of everyday life.

My disagreement is not with the various arguments presented but an agreement where there is no conclusion. Christ against culture has probably done more harm in creating separatists not only between Christ and culture but within the Body of Christ. Niebuhr correctly notes that very little has been accomplished in this view of Christ against culture within any point of history. Sin does not find its origin in culture although it finds a place there. Therefore culture must not be opposed and rejected escaping the community Christ came to serve. The first chapter of John's Gospel ratifies that Christ `became one of us' along with Philippians chapter three. Christ was born under Roman rule in occupied Judea (two cultures colliding together) yet He influenced both.

Niebuhr's work still touches on the obvious debate among Christian leaders today of Christ and culture. It is strong in presentation but weak in current application of a postmodern culture. It leaves too much for the reader to interpret for themselves, even in Niebuhr's call for decision in his final chapter. Written near the end of a modern culture the examples are more historical. If this can be overcome by the reader it is vital material for arguing intellectually with a postmodern culture and presents five different perspectives. Unlike material that wants to make a `statement', Niebuhr crosses a difficult bridge that can appear dismantling of the church and its fundamental belief in Christ. He does not challenge the doctrine of Christ (eternal, incarnate, became man, died, buried, resurrected and ascended) but the commission given to the church concerning all that Christ has done. His tone is subtle avoiding all political overtones making the material relevant for our day fifty years after it was written.

If each chapter could have a short journalistic story, from any time in history, explaining how a culture was impacted through Christ against, of, above, as a paradox and transformation of culture, it would attract far more attention in a postmodern culture of today.

By Andrew Fox author of Change Through Challnge
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2014
This is one of the most significant books I have read to help the reader understand different Christian denominations and their approaches to culture. The last chapter has significant implications for so-called "Non-denominational churches" regarding their relationship to other Christians past and present.
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on January 29, 2015
I didn't know anything about Niebuhr. I learned about him one day from a material maintaining that to shape your spirit you should start with a classic language (Latin or Greek); also for getting a large religious perspective, beyond any dogmatic seclusion, any parochial confinement, you should read Niebuhr.

Actually there were two brothers Niebuhr; both of them were great theologians. They lived in the US and belonged to the Protestant Church. Reinhold Niebuhr was the most famous; but I started by buying a book of the other, H. Richard Niebuhr, for a very cheap reason (as I was completely ignorant on both brothers, I bought the cheapest book I found). It was a very small book, annotated on almost all pages. The annotations were in Chinese: the guy who had read the book before me was a Chinese. The book was Christ and Culture. I think it is one of the most important theology books I have read.

Christ and Culture - you can think also at it as Faith and Culture: what is the relationship between them.

Niebuhr considers five different types of Christ-Culture relationships (of course, nobody could be strictly framed in one type or another):

1. Faith against Culture (Tolstoi) - faith denies culture, you should make the choice - the risk is that denying the culture can lead to denying the world, it means denying God's Creation - also denying culture is actually a cultural fact, which leads to paradox

2. Faith framed in Culture (Jefferson, Renan) - faith is a cultural phenomenon, explained through cultural facts - it means that faith is rationalized - which leads to keeping from faith only the rational

3. Faith and Culture in sync (St. Thomas Aquinas) - faith and culture do not deny one another (as it was in the first case) - they live in agreement - the elements of faith that cannot be explained rationally belong to the realm of Revelation

4. Faith and Culture in paradox (Luther, Kierkegaard) - though faith and culture do not deny one another (as it was in the first case) they do not live in agreement (as it was in case 3) - any act beyond faith (it means any cultural act, even keeping God's commandments, even good deeds) is alien to faith, alien to God, because it fatally belongs to this world, so it is idolatry - the faithful has to realize this tragic paradox; there is no escape from culture as we have to live in this world - keeping faith is the only way to salvation (while living in the world)

5. Faith transforming Culture (Calvin) - the faith should be used as a driving force in transforming the culture (the society), leading it towards Divinity

Let me quote here a little bit from the foreword (written by Martin E. Marty): Augustine left us The Two Cities, Pascal left us the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Kierkegaard brought us the Either/Or - they polished the archetypes; we have in the twentieth century I and Thou (Martin Buber), The Nature and Destiny of Man (Reinhold Niebuhr) and Christ and Culture (H. Richard Niebuhr).

I tried to read The Nature and Destiny of Man, but I was not in the mood - I should take it sometime later. I also started to read I and Thou, several times, I was too lazy. But Christ and Culture, I read it breathlessly.

It's not my first theology book. I have read some books of the great Christian Orthodox theologians of the Twentieth century (Schmemann, Lossky, among others) and I could talk days in a row about them - about their rigor, about the beauty of Eastern Christianity, that I belong to. The book of Niebuhr is different, and maybe one should start with it, to read then Tillich, to continue then in his own ways, while free of any parochial closeness.
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