Four Views on Christians and Culture
It doesn’t seem to be straightforward. I’ve read Kuyper, Niebuhr and Yoder, VanDrunen and Carson, Hauerwas, Hays, Horton, Hunter and even Hosier, but I’ve never found a way of framing the issues that doesn’t provoke all sorts of ‘yeah, but’s from those who disagree with the writer, let alone one that synthesises the best of all the approaches. Taxonomies, I find, often result in exasperatingly overlapping categories. I have despaired of ever understanding what people are really arguing about, and how to think about culture myself, even after some fairly in-depth discussions about the “Everything” mandate a few years ago. It has been, at times, very frustrating.
Part of that stems from a nagging feeling I have had for a while: that all the major approaches have substantial strengths and weaknesses. I love the optimism and positive cultural engagement of the neo-Calvinists, and my heart resonates with the Kuyperian insistence on the Lordship of Christ over all things - but although I find their desire to transform culture through constructive engagement inspiring, I also think it can easily become very middle-class and even a bit silly in some cases (no doubt there is such a thing as Christian film-making or journalism, but it’s not clear to me what Christian dustbin-emptying or litter-picking might look like). Conversely, while the Two Kingdoms view makes sense of vocation, and preserves a distinction between the role of the church and the role of the Christian, it leans towards passivity in response to the state, separates out everyday work from the kingdom of God, and is far more comfortable with Christian participation in acts of violence than I would want to be. Then again, I’m drawn to Anabaptism for their clear and uncompromising ecclesiology, their pacifism and their vision of the church as an alternative to worldly powers, but their approach often results in disengagement from the common good, a needless disparagement of wealth-creation, and in what Charles Matthewes calls a “passive-aggressive ecclesiology.” I want a strong emphasis on evangelism and discipleship, as well as a strong emphasis on justice and the common good; I want a high view of the church, as well as a high view of the dignity of “secular” employment. I broadly agree with the Religious Right about family and abortion, agree with the Religious Left about poverty and violence, and disagree with both about the way Christians should engage in political discourse. And all that leaves my head in a spin. Who will rescue me from this body of politics?
The answer, in my case, is Tim Keller. Keller, as I’ve pointed out before, has a uncanny knack of appearing in the exact middle of every Christian spectrum, which makes it look suspiciously like the spectrums have been shaped with him in mind. But I love his insights, and he appears to be completely self-aware about this habit; his recent book on church leadership and contextualisation, Center Church, makes a virtue out of it. His take on Christians and culture, in chapters 15-18, is a case in point, and I found it immeasurably helpful on this whole topic. He summarises the four main camps like this.
Transformationists include Kuyperian neo-Calvinists, reconstructionists and theonomists, the Religious Right, and some in the more activist Religious Left: in my terms, everybody from Abraham Kuyper to James Dobson, and from Doug Wilson to Jim Wallis. All of these individuals, with their very different theologies and practices, seek to transform culture by living out the Christian worldview in their various vocations. Positively, Keller says, they view “secular” work as an important kingdom activity, celebrate Christians’ involvement in politics, economics, the arts, media and the academy, and critique the notion that the secular public square is at all neutral. Negatively, they may see worldview too cognitively, undervalue the church, tend towards triumphalism, overemphasise politics, and underemphasise the dangers of power. Broadly speaking, the group of churches I’m a part of has, in the last few years, emphasised this approach to culture above the others.
The Relevance model is also enormously broad, encompassing seeker-sensitive churches, liberal mainline denominations, emergents, and even liberation theologians and activists: everybody from Bill Hybels and Rick Warren to Rob Bell and Brian Maclaren and beyond (in my terms, if you see someone quote Gandhi in a Christian context, they are probably in this category.) The defining feature of this group is the idea that God’s Spirit is in the world to do good, so Christians should join what he is doing, adapt to new realities, and learn from the culture. This leads people to feel optimistic about secular culture (whether marketing methods, capitalism, psychology, environmentalism, fighting poverty, or whatever), place a strong emphasis on justice and the common good, and often critique the church more than the culture. Problematically, it may also make them victims of rapidly shifting cultural preferences, sceptical or even openly critical of Christian doctrine, ineffective or apathetic evangelists (since the kingdom comes through painting and campaigning as much as through preaching), and indistinct from secular do-gooders (since the church is not much different from any other large charity).
Counterculturalists are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They see the church not as one of many groups within the culture that can learn from it and adapt to it, but as a radically different organism altogether, whose purpose is to challenge the powers of the day simply by being the church. This is the Anabaptist framework, represented by Yoder, Hauerwas and Hays (theologically) and people like Shane Claiborne (practically): the church got into trouble when it was in cahoots with the state - Constantine is usually the villain here - and it serves best as the agent of the kingdom when it is separate from the state, and provides a prophetic challenge to the state (particularly on the issue of violence). Positively, this approach preserves the important distinctiveness of the church, critiques other models for putting too much hope in politics, encourages members to identify with the marginalised, and (I would add) promotes a robust and biblical pacifism. Negatively, though, it can be excessively pessimistic about worldly culture and common grace (witness the Amish), harshly critical of things like banking and government which can themselves be used for the common good, doctrinally fluffy when it comes to the violent parts of Scripture (the reliability of the Old Testament, propitiation at the cross, and so on), and vague on the central importance of preaching the gospel.
Finally, there is the Two Kingdoms model. Tracing its origins back to Martin Luther and, many argue, John Calvin, the framework here is that God rules creation in two different ways: he rules the earthly or “common” kingdom (all humans) by common grace and natural revelation, and he rules the heavenly or “redemptive” kingdom (only believers) through saving grace and special revelation. Consequently, liberals who reinvent the gospel and neo-Calvinists who seek to transform culture are both making category errors. All humans are called to do their work well for the common good, but this is not in itself redemptive; the distinctive role of the Christian, and the only truly redemptive work there is, revolves around the word and the sacraments. Michael Horton, David VanDrunen and the Escondido theologians represent this approach, and it is also close to the view represented in Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book What is the Mission of the Church? Positively, they have a high view of vocation, they avoid the apparent absurdity of telling people everything is redemptive, or urging them to form Reformed goat-breeding societies or unblock drains in a uniquely Christian way, they embrace the state as a God-ordained means of restraining evil and are happy to work with and for it, and they remain cautious about the possibility of Christians “changing the world” if they are only Christian and zealous enough. On the other hand, they can overemphasise common grace, give credit to natural revelation for things that actually resulted from special revelation (like the Christian view of human worth, for instance), imply that life can be lived neutrally, and put such a wedge between the church and the state that passivity can set in when the state acts wrongly - most notoriously, and tragically, in Nazi Germany.
So there you have it: Tim Keller’s description of the cultural-political landscape amongst Christians. We’ll take a look at his way forward - and mine - on Wednesday. In the meantime, though, a few questions: How do you assess the four views sketched above? Which one do you find most familiar? Most compelling? Most troubling? And why?
Andrew is now on Twitter as @AJWTheology