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Christ Repairs Culture

November 13th, 2023 | 12 min read

By Stiven Peter

The evangelical movement's defining treatise, Carl Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, argued Christians should neither be separate Fundamentalists nor mainline Liberals, but a third, new thing: Evangelicals: "Evangelicalism must project a solution for the most pressing world problems… involving evangelical affirmations in political, economic, sociological, and educational realms…The redemptive message has implications for all of life."[1] Since then, Evangelicalism, born out of the modern fundamentalist-modernist controversy, remains caught between the fundamentalist temptation to separate into the world and the modernist temptation to make the Church compatible with modern life, even at the expense of orthodoxy.

The promise of Evangelicalism is a "third way" that maintains Christian distinctiveness and cultural relevance, which also answers the divisions of modern life.. Henry wrote this in 1947. Still, he might as well have written them today: "Is there political unrest?" Seek first, not a Republican victory, or a labor victory, but the kingdom of God and His righteousness… Is there economic unrest? Seek first, not an increase of labor wages coupled with shorter hours…but the divine righteousness."[2] The timelessness of Henry's words, despite the enormous cultural shifts from 1947 to 2023, reveals a pertinent desire to be relevant, distinct, but still faithful. From its beginning, Evangelicalism is a movement searching for a cultural script in a tumultuous world.

A few years later after Henry's book, H.Richard Niebuhr provided Evangelicals the operating system to consider its relationship with the world when he published Christ and Culture. In it, he gives a typology of the different ways Christians have related to Culture, alongside their respective pros and cons. The taxonomy falls into three major paradigms: Christ against Culture, emphasizing opposition; Christ of Culture, emphasizing a fundamental agreement between Christ and Culture; and a combination view of the two. In this third framework, there are three variations: one that sees Christ as the fulfillment of Culture (Christ above Culture), one that puts Christ and Culture in dualistic tension (Christ and Culture in paradox), and a conversionist attitude that casts Jesus as the converter of Culture and society. This final option, Christ the transformer of Culture, seeks to transform what has been deformed by sin into the Lord for the common good.[3] The motto for this attitude is All of life for all of Christ. Seen through the script of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation, all of society stands ready to be renewed by Christians who await the final restoration of all things.

Since then, Evangelicals have latched onto this model as the default system for its marching orders for the world. Whether it's James Davidson Hunter's Faithful Presence, Tim Keller's winsomeness, Neo-Calvinism's Sphere Sovereignty, or the Already-Not Yet Kingdom of New Testament Scholarship. Evangelicalism is defined by a desire to transform Culture. Deviation from this model, even motivated by a desire to adapt to a new "post-Christian" cultural landscape, can appear as neo-fundamentalism or liberal drift. For instance, Rod Dreher, argues in his infamous The Benedict Option that Christians should embrace exile from mainstream Culture and divert their efforts on building resilient countercultures. "In the Benedict Option…we are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tid e of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on Earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing."[4] Dreher, attempting to suggest a new path to engaging the Culture, was criticized for being insular, unevangelical, and too defensive- in short, reviving fundamentalism. More recently, When James Wood argued that Christians should rethink cultural engagement by considering rising cultural hostility from the left to Christian teaching, he was accused of abandoning the fruit of the Spirit and baptizing Trumpist pugilism!

Nevertheless, Wood and Dreher reveal growing dissatisfaction with this old model of Christ transforming Culture. But this dissatisfaction makes sense. The past few decades of Evangelicalism oversaw not the transformation of Culture but its increased hostility. Now, 76 years after Henry's book, we shouldn't blame Evangelicals for asking, if we were wrong all along. Maybe we should strategically retreat to survive a tide of hostility? Maybe we should try to make our faith relevant by becoming more inviting to progressives? Maybe we should sync to the right instead and become a bulwark in the culture wars? These questions, however, threaten to schism the coalition Carl Henry brought forth. The conversionist spirit is in Evangelicalism's DNA. Deviation from a transformational model would mean the dissolution of the movement itself. In short, the culture war threatens to dissolve Evangelicalism.

But part of this fracturing stems from Evangelicalism's inability to understand the true nature of the culture shifts. Too often, "the culture war" equates it to the political polarization on current social issues of the day. But this is a distorted understanding of Culture. Fundamentally, Culture operates at the pre-discourse level. When I extend my hand to reach out to you, you don't think I'm attacking you. You know immediately what to do — you reach out and shake my hand, because that is how we greet each other in the West. It's just what we do; we were socialized into it. It just feels natural. When we wake up in the morning, we don't think about whether or not we'll go outside with clothes on. We just put them on because that is just what we do. Culture makes these behaviors common sense and effortless. Culture provides the map by which we navigate our lives.

Part of Culture's necessity comes from our biological deficiency. We come out of the womb needing to be specialized. Birds come out the womb knowing how to fly. Fish come out the womb knowing to swim. But we come out of the womb needing help from the world around us on how to talk, learn, and live. Human institutions — family, religion, civic life, etc — supplement our biological insufficiency. The matrix of these institutions forms a culture, which provides us with a set of well-defined parameters in navigating the world. Culture gives us a sense of continuity. Culture allows us to take our social world for granted. Culture gives us the general script to live our lives. We are left to fill in the details.

However, the problem of modern society is that there is no script anymore. German sociologist Arnold Gehlen coined the term deinstitutionalization to describe the process of the receding of institutions underwriting our social world. What occurs in the background, i.e. what we have been socialized to take as natural, now becomes the subject of deliberation.[5] For example, child-rearing is institutionalized when the parent-child relationship becomes habituated in society and embedded in moral norms. The stable, two-parent, nuclear family is one such institution.

The process of deinstitutionalization occurs when this social arrangement is no longer seen as the norm, and the structure of marriage and family life becomes open-ended. What was once following the general script, the natural thing to do, now becomes one option among others. According to Gehlen, when there are no stable institutions to underwrite human experience, we must turn inward and deliberate about what we should do. If institutions provide no reliable answers to "What do I do with my life?", "how do I raise my children?" "How should I interact with members of the opposite sex?" then we must turn inward to probe for answers. This process, which Gehlen calls subjectivization, fosters an incessant fixation on the self. Hence, the loss of a cultural script in society comes alongside uniquely subjective ideas like "finding myself", 'being true to you," or "everyone should do what works for them." In modern society, these blank "scripts" vie to become the de facto Culture. This is the true nature of the culture "war": the deinstitutionalization of society and the dominance of "choice" in all aspects of life. It's the dissolution of all normative Culture. It's everyone whatever is right in their own eyes.

If Evangelicalism is divided over how to engage cultural issues, it's because it also lacks the script to fit as Christians in the world. Unknowingly, it, too, is giving way to deinstitutionalization. Against this background, the typical "models" of Christ and Culture should be evaluated in how the Church responds to the dissolution of cultural norms. For instance, The Benedict Option/"Purity From"/Christ Against Culture responds to this dissolution by fortifying a Christian way of life. However, this model effectively tends to type Christianity as one lifestyle among many. It forms a social enclave, with its distinctive rhythms, and rituals. This mode cedes to modern society; Christianity is just one choice among many which people can make. The Christ of Culture/"Relevance to" model of engagement accepts the deinstitutionalization program and wholeheartedly embraces the fracturing of the Church along the lines of the specific lifestyle enclaves in modern Culture. Even the "Christ-transforming culture" that wages a culture war alongside typical political lines becomes blind to the deinstitutionalization of society. This model, in fact, all of these models, risk Christianity becoming just another preference for some.

But when we recognize that the principle problem of our Culture is that there is no more culture, the Christian response becomes clear. How does the Church, which lays claim to the truth about reality, touch a society obsessed with letting everyone create their own? It invites the Culture to share in the life of the Divine Story. It teaches the Culture again how to live in the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. It proclaims Christ has bound up the broken pieces of our lives — our relationships, self-preoccupation, and anxiety. Christ gives us the script of our lives, guaranteeing us a blessed, eternal end and a fruitful life in the meantime. In a word, Christ repairs the Culture.

Deinstitutionalization and subjectivism create the perfect opportunity for the Church to teach the world how to live in the world. While people may appreciate the anti-authoritative impulse of these forces, many more are starving for a script to make sense of their lives. Jean Twenge, in Generations, characterizes Gen Z — the generation whose ever-known denationalization and subjectivism — as marked by profound aimlessness, pessimism, and anxiety. She writes, "Fewer Gen Z'ers expect to work in professional jobs, fewer expect to get a graduate or professional degree, and fewer expect to own more than their parents — even though median incomes rose during this period. Gen Z is more uncertain about their future than Millennials were. "[6] She notes that by early 2020, more than 40% of 12th graders find it hard to have hope for the world. The pessimism reveals a profound aching for a roadmap. In a word - my generation needs a culture. We do not know how to flirt, date, parent, or even grow up. We have no role models. Popular lyrics for my generation include, "Today, I'm thinkin' about the things that are deadly. Like I wanna drown, like I wanna end me" and "I'm so insecure, I think / That I'll die before I drink." How does Christianity minister to this mood? It means showing the way. It means being the role models of communal life. It means offering people a way to live that's grand enough for everyone to participate.

The posture of repair attunes the Church to its need to minister and preserve a society on the verge of breaking down. The Church's rhetoric in other models is blind to the Culture's great need for leadership, character, and vision. Instead of having a defensive or even triumphalist posture, repair taps into what Christians are best at doing: helping those in need. Our Culture does not give guidance on how to interact with the opposite sex.  The Church should aid in modeling romance, flourishing marriages, and fulfilling family life.  Zero-child households are becoming the norm. The Church, in response, should be saying, “Here is how you date. Let us help you. Here is how we've married. Let us help you. Here is how we've parented, let us help you." Our Culture is marked by profound loneliness. The Church should model generous hospitality and deep commitment to the community. Our Culture does not know how to have hope in times of adversity. The Church should model suffering and perseverance. No one else is going to repair these institutions. Only the Church can.

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord called us to the salt and light of the Earth. Salt, by its nature, has a preserving and enriching quality. Today, the meat of life has decayed. Evangelicals must be the ones to enrich it. Henry's vision, above all, was to not let the Church slip away into relative obscurity. That said, traditional engagement models do not work in a dissolving culture. The only way for the Church to not do that is to take up the task of repairing the institutions that have been erased. A Christianity that repairs Culture fights to restore a cultural mainstream for the sake of those left to themselves to figure out all of life's questions. This Christianity goes past the political battles of the day and sees the great need to build a common way of life. It is not defensive or separate from the Culture but compassionate. A life that lives with no script is one destined to wander. If the Church wants any serious commitment to engagement, it must lead people from this desert to the land of abundant life, pointing to the one who first repaired us.

Footnotes

[1]  Henry, Carl F. H. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. United States, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. p.65.

[2] Ibid. p.84

[3] See Niebuhr, Helmut Richard. Christ and Culture. United States, Harper & Brothers, 1956. p.191-192

[4] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. United States, Penguin Publishing Group, 2017. p.54.

[5] Berger, Peter L., and Hansfried Kellner. "Arnold Gehlen and the Theory of Institutions." Social Research, vol. 32, no. 1, 1965, pp. 110–15. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40969770.

[6] Twenge, Jean M.. Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America's Future. United States, Atria Books, 2023. p.421.

Stiven Peter

Stiven Peter is an M.A. student at Reformed Theological Seminary-NYC. Previously, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in economics and religious studies. He currently lives in NYC.

Topics:

Culture