H. Richard Niebuhr has provided the paradigm for discussions of Christianity and culture. In his seminal volume, Christ and Culture, he articulated five “ideal types” that are now widely employed in this conversation: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.
Critiquing these categories has become a cottage industry in the theological village. It seems that one way of gaining one’s theological spurs is to offer a new evaluation of Niebuhr. Naturally, the explanations and criticisms have varied in their usefulness.
One of the most frequently heard is that Niebuhr’s categories do not fit real-life individuals, and that several of Niebuhr’s examples seem strained. This criticism would be more telling if Niebuhr had meant to provide a taxonomy rather than a typology. Since ideal types are supposed to represent logical possibilities, however, it is not surprising that few “pure” examples of any type can be found.
A more responsible criticism is that Niebuhr’s typology is incomplete. One recent evaluation of Niebuhr’s work, a volume by Craig Carter (Rethinking Christ and Culture, Brazos, 2007), offers a sustained argument to this effect. Carter suggests that Niebuhr’s discussion assumes “Christendom,” i.e., a cultural situation that has been created by the sustained political and social enforcement of Christian domination. Since Christendom is now disintegrating, Carter presents a series of alternative types for Christians to employ in the future. Unfortunately, Carter’s discussion is skewed by his Anabaptist assumption that non-violence and non-involvement in the state are requirements for Christians.
No work exerts more influence upon the way that contemporary Christians discuss culture than H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr’s categories have become standard for professing Christians from liberalism on the Left to fundamentalism on the Right. One might well disagree with Niebuhr’s typology, but no reputable discussion of Christianity and culture can ignore it.
Niebuhr himself developed his classifications over several decades. He intended the book to provide a typology that describes logical possibilities rather than a taxonomy that classifies observable phenomena. He found the notion of a typology (or “ideal types”) in sociologist Max Weber, from whom he also borrowed his original two classifications. Weber had posited that Christianity could be classified socially as either church or sect. This distinction had been repeated by Ernst Troeltsch, who had added a third type (mysticism). Niebuhr dropped Troeltsch’s third type and renamed Weber’s original two categories. What Weber and Troeltsch had called a church, Niebuhr called a denomination. What they had called a sect, he called a church.
This distinction was important for Niebuhr in an early work, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. As Niebuhr used the term, a church is relatively small, personal, inward looking, perfectionistic, and generally drawn from the lower social classes. In contrast, a denomination is part of the accepted social order and appeals to the intellectual and ruling classes. Denominations tend to work downwards through the social order while churches criticize the social order from outside. Importantly, Niebuhr observed that affluence and influence tend to transform churches into denominations. This observation suggested that church and denomination represented the two poles of a spectrum of possible positions in the relationship between Christianity and culture.
Niebuhr expanded this distinction in The Kingdom of God in America. Dealing specifically with American Christianity, he identified revivalism with church and liberalism and its social gospel with denomination. He noticed, however, that the Puritans fit neither of these categories neatly. Their approach to culture suggested the possibility of intervening steps between denomination and church.
As Matthew Arnold envisioned it, high culture is the effort to “know the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Culture and Anarchy). It consists of those products of civilization that are deliberately meant to preserve, shape, and propagate human ideals and mores. It is encountered in libraries, academies, museums, and concert halls. It includes philosophy (broadly defined), the humanities, belles-lettres, music, the visual arts, and the performing arts. High culture can be contrasted with traditional or folk cultures as well as with popular or mass culture.
Each major civilization has produced its own high culture. Typically, high cultures have centered upon worship—not surprisingly, since every culture is the incarnation of a religion. From this center, however, each culture has gone on to examine the enduring aspects of human life: birth and death, comedy and tragedy, love and marriage and childbearing, hearth, home, valor and friendship, among others. They also explore answers to the perennial questions such as the nature of existence, truth, freedom, justice, duty, goodness, and beauty.
Christian leaders have been ambivalent in their opinion of high culture. Saul of Tarsus imbibed deeply from the high cultures of his day, but after his conversion he refused to rely upon cultural sophistication as a strategy for advancing the gospel. Even then, however, he clearly employed his cultural skills in the composition of his epistles. Tertullian, rejecting philosophy as only a trained rhetor could, asked “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Others, such as Clement of Alexandria, followed by his pupil Origen, virtually subordinated Christian doctrine to the major philosophies of their day.
This ambivalence has a reason. On the one hand, the content of the various high cultures has often militated against Christian perspectives. On the other hand, the articulation of Christian perspectives seems to require mastery of the very disciplines that are perpetuated within high culture. The utterly unlettered or completely bumptious have only rarely made much of a contribution to Christian thought or sensibility.
J. Gresham Machen’s essay on “Christianity and Culture” forces its Christian readers to evaluate their relationship to high culture. While Machen surely did not expect every Christian to become a poet, composer, philosopher, or statesman, he did expect Christians to adopt a generally positive attitude toward such activities. He was particularly concerned with the Christian attitude toward scholarship. He argued that Christians should neither subordinate Christianity to culture (liberalism), nor simply ignore or reject culture in favor of Christianity (obscurantism). Rather, he suggested that Christians should engage in the work of consecrating culture to the service of God.
Not surprisingly, Machen’s approach has been rejected by those branches of Christianity that have been most influenced by populism. At best, such Christians see high culture as a distraction. They may even perceive it as an outright threat to the life of faith. Fascination with high culture is thought to exhaust time and effort on education and the arts that might better be spent in winning souls. High culture is presumed to produce arrogance in those who fall under its spell. Worst of all, high culture introduces Christians to corrosive ideas that have the potential to deceive. According to this theory, Christians might better leave such things alone and choose a plain life of humble service to God.
Admittedly, high culture—and especially academic culture—can provide an occasion for arrogance. People who invest years of their lives perfecting their mastery of an art or a learned discipline tend to become a bit testy when critiqued by dilettantes. Furthermore, they sometimes assume that their study grants them authority outside their areas of expertise. Even within those areas their competence may actually be less than they imagine.
Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission reports on erosion constitutional freedoms and Judeo-Christian ethos at “The Awakening 2011”
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.
—J. Gresham Machen in “Christianity and Culture”
Contemporary discussions of Christianity and culture almost always begin with an analysis of the “ideal types” that H. Richard Niebuhr developed in Christ and Culture. So prominent have Niebuhr’s categories become that one might overlook the fact that Christians were writing and thinking about culture for a very long time before Niebuhr came along. One writer who contributed to this discussion was J. Gresham Machen.