Brad East’s essay “Once More, Church and Culture,” published by Mere Orthodoxy, is one of the year’s most insightful. It begins with a reflection on the rise and fall of Christendom (“the name we give to Christian civilization, when society, culture, law, art, family, politics, and worship are saturated by the church’s influence and informed by its authority”) and then revisits H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, first published in 1951.

Christ and Culture

Niebuhr provided Protestants with a template for how to think about Christians relating to the surrounding culture:

  • Christ Against Culture
  • Christ of Culture
  • Christ Above Culture
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox
  • Christ Transforming Culture

(For an overview of Niebuhr’s taxonomy, see my summary and critique.)

East believes this mode of evangelical Protestant thinking about the church falls short because of its presumption of the American context as normative. His critique here aligns at points with Don Carson’s revisiting of Niebuhr’s work, where Carson argued against a “one size fits all” mentality and acknowledged the Scriptures may advocate some elements in one situation and other elements in another. (What would it mean, for example, to tell beleaguered and oppressed believers in North Korea that their posture should be one of “transforming the culture?”)

Faithful Presence?

East goes on to sample other typologies of the church’s relation to culture, including James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. There, Hunter described three unacceptable approaches—(1) Defensive Against, (2) Relevance To, and (3) Purity From—before offering a way forward: (4) Faithful Presence Within. Hunter recommends faithful presence as part of Great Commission obedience, including both affirmation and antithesis—celebrating whatever is good, true, and beautiful in the culture and subverting whatever is idolatrous.

East appreciates Hunter’s work, but he finds four major faults. Here’s my summary:

1. Not global enough—it’s too tightly tied to the American context.

2. Not historical enough—it assumes today’s secular settlement is the norm rather than the exception in church history.

3. Not broad enough—it focuses nearly exclusively on professions associated with the upper-middle class, thereby sidestepping application for the whole Christian community.

4. Not alert enough—it fails to help Christians understand where to draw lines about what institutions or professions are off limits to the Christian, thus missing subtler spheres of life where sharp contradiction is required.

Better Way Forward

East believes we can build on and extend the work of Niebuhr and Hunter and others, but only if we give up the idea of finding one “correct” type, posture, or model. Instead, he writes,

“The church has four primary modes of faithful engagement with culture. They are inevitably overlapping and essentially non-competitive with one another. Which mode is called for depends entirely on context and content. Rare is the time when the church would forego any of them; typically they are all at work simultaneously, whether in the same community, in different communities, or in individual members of the larger church.”

The upside of East’s work is its breadth—we can apply each mode in every possible historical and political context: premodern and postmodern, established and disestablished, privileged and persecuted. He sums up the four modes with four Rs:

1. 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. It lives ‘against’ or ‘in spite of’ the existing powers that be. . . . Even when the regime is friendly to Christians—even when the regime is formally Christian—the task of resistance obtains. It is perennial. Sometimes all it requires is sheer perseverance. Sometimes that is enough.”

2. 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. Judgment must begin at the house of God. Here the command of Christ means to live ‘against’ or ‘in spite of’ the corruptions and wickednesses of Christ’s own body, which often enough find acute expression in its leaders. . . . The credibility of the gospel is rarely threatened by the church’s failures so much as by its unwillingness to admit them—or, what is most scandalous at all, its readiness to cover them up.”

3. 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. . . . Put plainly, the world is full of vital knowledge and priceless artifacts that in no way have their source in Christian faith (though their ultimate source is in Christ, as St. Paul teaches). Believers ought never to be naïve or uncritical, but in such cases the only thing to do is stretch out one’s hands in humble reception, before giving thanks to God.”

4. Reform

“The church is always and everywhere called to preach the gospel, which is the word of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. . . . When God’s word is announced it is a comprehensive address. It speaks to heart, mind, body, and soul. It concerns merchants and magistrates no less than peasants and servants. It commands righteousness among the people of God and justice among the nations. It recognizes no walls of separation. Where life is not in accordance with God’s will, it expects change. 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. . . . When and where the time is right, when and where the Spirit moves, the proclamation of the gospel cuts a culture to the bone, and the culture is never the same. Ever after, it walks with a limp.”

East’s proposal takes all the strengths of the Niebuhr and Hunter taxonomies without collapsing them into a single model. He urges us to consider the appropriate ways we might implement them all, no matter the cultural conditions or historical circumstances. I especially appreciate East’s concern in finding a way forward that applies today to the church all over the world and makes sense of the choices of the church throughout history.

The whole essay is worth your time. I hope my summary of East’s analysis and argument is enough to whet your appetite.

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