On Church and Culture: Look East image

On Church and Culture: Look East

Brad East has written one of the essays of the year so far, on the subject of church and culture for Mere Orthodoxy. He summarises and critiques some of the ways that modern Christians have understood the relationship between church and culture, and then proposes an alternative.

In the 1950s, Richard Niebuhr described five ways in which the church engaged with the culture, and clearly favoured the fifth one:

1. Christ Against Culture (Anabaptists, radical sects)
2. Christ Of Culture (German Protestant liberals, Clement of Alexandria, Abelard)
3. Christ Above Culture (Thomas Aquinas, theorists of Christendom)
4. Christ and Culture in Paradox (Luther, Kierkegaard, Troeltsch, early Barth)
5. Christ the Transformer of Culture (Paul [!], Augustine, Calvin)

James Davison Hunter’s much more recent overview (remember To Change the World?) was somewhat different, and was deliberately offered as an alternative and corrective to Niebuhr’s. Cultural engagement in American Christianity, for Hunter, can emphasise:

1. Defensive Against (conservative populist activism)
2. Relevance To (liberal mainline, pop evangelicalism)
3. Purity From (neo-Anabaptists, urban monastics)
4. Faithful Presence Within (Hunter’s own vision)

Hunter’s summary has been hugely influential in Reformedish evangelical circles, even among those who have never read it, not least because of the influence it had on Tim Keller. But it suffers from several drawbacks, several of which (it pains me to admit) were highlighted over a decade ago by our very own Matt Hosier. As Brad East argues in this essay, although Hunter’s call for faithful presence sounds unobjectionable and even irrefutable on the surface, it is articulated in a way that is (a) deeply American, (b) deeply modern and Western, (c) upper-middle class, and most importantly (d) naively sanguine about the professions and institutions in which Christians are called to be present:

When my students read Hunter, they readily voice agreement. I then ask them a simple question: In what professions or spheres of life would “faithful presence” not be possible for a Christian? After not quite following my meaning, they start to rattle off answers. Pimp. Prostitute. Pornographer. Stripper. Slumlord. Drug dealer. Torturer. Assassin. Abortionist. Nuclear weapons manufacturer. Lawyer. Politician. Spy. One student wondered aloud about selling guns or alcohol. Another volunteered that her dad, a pastor, also runs a gun shop. (I teach in west Texas.) Still another raised the question of marketing — a popular major at my university. If marketing aims to manipulate consumers to buy what they don’t need with money they don’t have, may Christians do it? Or suppose that marketing per se is licit; what of working for a firm that advertises an immoral product?

The point is not that my students are right, about these or other jobs. It is that, even setting aside the fact that our imagined audience is white-collar professionals and not the Christian community as a whole, the Kuyperian-Hunterian vision does not prepare believers to consider all the ways their faith will require them not to participate in the workforce, not to attain lucrative careers, not to benefit from the economy, not to “engage” the culture.

It is a powerful point, powerfully made.

So what is East’s alternative? Well, he argues, there is no one “model” or “posture” that we need to adopt to all cultures in all places. Rather, we have four ways of faithfully engaging with the culture which will all be needed at different times according to context, often simultaneously. They are:

Resistance. “The church is always and everywhere called to resist injustice and idolatry wherever they are found. It does this whether or not it has any social power or political prestige to speak of.”
Repentance. “The church is always and everywhere called to repent of its sins, crimes, and failures. Which is to say, the injustice and idolatry the church is universally tasked with resisting is reliably found, first of all, within the church, not without.”
Reception. “The church is always and everywhere called to receive from the world the many blessings bestowed upon it by God. For God is the universal Creator; the world he created is good; and he alone is Lord of all peoples and thus of all cultures.”
Reform. “The church is always and everywhere called to preach the gospel, which is the word of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ ... The gospel, in a word, reforms. It generates adjustment in the way things are with a view to what they shall be in the kingdom of Christ.”

Such a response has several benefits, East concludes. It recognises that context is everything; it does not prioritise paid work as the setting in which the church encounters culture; it is not limited to a particular class, or particular sorts of political or economic regimes; it is concerned with ways of living rather than results or impact; and it is differentiated. (I would add another: it is alliterated.) Sometimes the church has to enter in, settle down, get married and plant vineyards; sometimes she has to “come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean” (2 Cor 6:17). We need all four modes at our disposal, depending on the times and seasons in which we live.

I think that is tremendously wise. Read the whole thing at Mere O.

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