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Once More, Church and Culture

April 18th, 2023 | 20 min read

By Brad East

Christendom is 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. Christendom traces its beginnings to the fourth century after Christ; it began to ebb, in fits and starts, sometime during the transition from the late middle ages to the early modern period. It is tempting to plot its demise with the American and French revolutions, though in truth it outlasted both in many places. It came to a more or less definitive end with the world wars (in Europe) and the Cold War (in America). Even those who lament Christendom’s passing and hope for its reestablishment have no doubt that the West is post-Christian in this sense. The West will always carry within it its Christian past — whether as a living wellspring, a lingering shadow, a haunting ghost, or an exorcised demon — but it is indisputable that whatever the West has become, it is not what it once was. Christendom is no more.

To ask about the church’s place in society while living in Christendom is redundant. The question answers itself. The question is genuinely new, however, when posed after Christendom. For that reason it has been posed continually in the past few centuries, especially in the last 75 years. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, published in 1951, is a reliable touchstone. The postwar period up to the present has seen American Protestants in particular eager, and sometimes anxious, to clarify, to solidify, and, if necessary, to resituate their relationship to the nation: its legal and political operations, its respectable professions, its educational institutions, its means of cultural production. The conversation is no closer to being resolved today than when Niebuhr first gave the lectures in Austin, Texas, that would later become his book.

Niebuhr’s template set the standard for those who followed. An ostensible sampling of major approaches to church and culture, by way of historical ideal types, the final type receives no criticism and remains at the end of the line, giving the unavoidable impression of a final evolutionary development. Like liberalism, it lies at the end of history; there are no alternatives, certainly not those that came before.

Other authors are less coy, proposing the correct model (or option) plainly and forcefully. Whether explicit or implicit, however, such approaches to “church and culture” are inapt to our present moment. Though we have much to learn from them — especially Niebuhr’s, which stubbornly resists summary, simplification, and dismissal — they fail to offer either the practical guidance the American church so desperately needs today or a sufficiently capacious (because insufficiently catholic) appreciation of the radically different contexts in which the church has found itself across the centuries and, thus, the understandable diversity of its responses to those contexts. In other words, American (especially evangelical) Protestant thinking about the church after Christendom is overdetermined, on one hand, by its presumption of the American context as normative, and on the other, by its failure to see Christendom as truly at an end. Its besetting vices are amnesia and nostalgia.

If this seems contradictory, that’s because it is. America is at once the post-Christendom nation par excellence and, for most of its history, Christendom’s last outpost. As to the former, Oliver O’Donovan writes that “Christendom is an era, an era in which the truth of Christianity was taken to be a truth of secular politics. … Let us say that the era lies between AD 313, the date of the Edict of Milan, and 1791, the date of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.” Formal and principled disestablishment, that is to say, is nothing but the repudiation of “the idea of a professedly Christian secular political order” — namely, Christendom.

As to the latter, American political order was for two centuries explicitly Christian. Not in theological substance — that is, this is not a material judgment about the conformity of the American regime to the truth of the gospel —but in social and rhetorical practice. “Free exercise” was a means by which Americans might differently embody their common faith in the God of Abraham. And so they did. Public office, presidential debate, congressional law, judicial opinion, family life, civic order: it was all shot through, overtly and unashamedly, with Christian speech, Christian belief, Christian identity. It was therefore a shock to the churches’ system when, after the triumph of World War II, the informal establishment of Christianity as America’s religion suffered repeated losses in the courts, in the arts, and in the pews. And now, at last, the exodus from the mainline that began in the 1960s has come for the evangelicals. The de-Christianization that started in the Bill of Rights and continued in law and popular culture has finally caught up to the local congregation, once thought secure in the Bible Belt. Of Americans born after 1995, fewer than half claim to be Christian, and the percentage declines with each passing year.

This is what I mean when I point to amnesia and nostalgia. Until the last few decades Christendom in America was alive and well, although alert observers could read the writing on the wall. In this way American Protestants had reason to suppose that “Christendom” (i.e., an ancient civilization symbolized by names like Constantine, Charlemagne, and Richard the Lionheart) was a thing of the past and that present political arrangements (i.e., a demographically Christian nation that had no qualms about privileging one faith above others) were built to last. Read any evangelical writing on politics or culture from the last half century, and what you will find is axiomatic rejection of the first followed by a quixotic plan to rescue or retrieve the second. The failure lies in the inability to see that the second is the final, exhausted form of the first; and, moreover, that it is the principles animating American liberal order that struck the fatal blow.

In what remains of this essay I want to do three things. First, to offer a sample of some of the typologies on offer in “church and culture” literature. Second, to show their practical, historical, and political limitations. Third, to propose an alternative.

Start with Niebuhr. He describes the matter of his book as “the double wrestle of the church with its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives in symbiosis.” His aim is to supplement as well as to correct the work of Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. He expands Troeltsch’s three types to five and subjects them in turn to theological and not only historical or social analysis. Those five types are:

  1. Christ Against Culture. This is the classic “sect” type: Anabaptists and other radicals who reject natural law and the duties of governing in order to adhere to the letter of Christ’s commands, above all the Sermon on the Mount.
  2. The Christ of Culture. This type swings the other way, subordinating the teachings of Scripture and tradition to the dominant cultural norms of the day. Niebuhr is thinking most especially of German Protestant liberals like Ritschl and Schleiermacher, but also Abelard and Clement of Alexandria.
  3. Christ Above Culture. This is the first of three “median” types, which attempt to balance or find some agreeable compromise between the demands of the gospel and the duties and expectations of the surrounding society. The image of Christ standing above culture is meant to connote Christendom: a comprehensive synthesis obtained (or sought) between the Rule of Christ and the rule of kings, the law of the gospel and the law of nature. St. Thomas Aquinas is the great theorist here.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. Niebuhr calls members of this type “dualists.” If “Christ Above Culture” conjures a cathedral, dualism and paradox call to mind nothing so much as a pendulum. It is, as he says, an “oscillatory” type. It finds its ideal representative in Luther (that able advocate of Christian liberty and God’s hangman alike) but also in Troeltsch, Niebuhr the elder, Kierkegaard, Brunner, and the early Barth. Such figures are always joining the battle, always pressing the cause, but never with wholly coherent terms of peace in mind. They reject the radical route yet speak with equally ferocious rhetoric. They reject likewise the quiescent cultural embrace of the liberals and the medievals. So they fight without rest, world without end.
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture. This is what Niebuhr terms the “conversionist” type. He aligns it with St. Paul(!), St. Augustine, Calvin, and the mature Barth. It is more hopeful toward culture than the dualists, more honest about the demands of Christ’s teaching than the synthesizers, but less extreme than either the radicals or the liberals. It grants precedence to the gospel and thus anticipates conflict between the gospel and the world — all without denying the doctrine of creation, the validity of natural reason, or the corruption of both through sin. It wants neither to replace culture nor to leave it alone but to convert it: to take its antecedent morals and beliefs and transfigure them. Yet Niebuhr allows that such a process of transvaluation is sure to remain incomplete this side of glory.

There is no doubting the erudition and insight of Niebuhr’s typology. As to whether the final type is a legitimate peer alongside the others or something of a cheat — not to mention whether he is just to the other types, particularly the first — one’s mileage will vary.

In any case, consider a more recent model. It comes from James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, published in 2010. This book rightly serves as a lodestar for understanding the waning fortunes of Christian cultural influence in America and the consistent failure of (again, especially evangelical) strategies to turn the tide.[1] Hunter makes a persuasive case regarding what culture is, how it circulates, how it changes, and accordingly what one would have to do in order to go about changing it. He is ambivalent about that last goal, though. He doesn’t see it as a principal feature of Christian mission to “change the culture.” But he offers a roadmap for those who do.

In addition, or as it were in parallel, he offers another path. This path he sets in contrast to three dominant modes of cultural engagement in American churches. They are:

  1. Defensive against. This approach “seeks to create a defensive enclave that is set against the world.” Hunter points to conservative populist activism, motivated by lost causes, lost privilege, even a lost world — the world of the WASP mainstream (or as I put it earlier, Christendom in its late American phase).
  2. Relevance to. This is the strategy of the liberal mainline and, more recently, of seeker-sensitive pop evangelicalism. It makes “a priority of being connected to the pressing issues of the day.” Two or three generations ago, this meant making peace with “changing social mores” (on sex especially); today it means something like an exercise in “rebranding.” If young people find the trappings of historic, institutional Christianity boring or outdated, then the obvious thing to do is give it a makeover. As Hunter writes, “the truth and integrity of faith is mostly assumed to take care of itself.” This assumption turns out to be naïve in the extreme.
  3. Purity from. This paradigm is similar to Niebuhr’s “Christ Against Culture.” But unlike those in the defensive crouch in (1) above, there is no attempt to reclaim territory or engage in mass evangelism, with dreams of another Great Awakening spreading throughout the land. “Neo-Anabaptists” and “urban monastics” may be Left or Right or off the political map altogether; whatever their doctrine or social ethics, they are united in the conviction that “the church has no … obligation other than to be itself,” with a “net effect” of “a certain kind of disengagement” from law, politics, and the arts.

Hunter believes these postures to be inadequate to the calling of Christian mission. So he proposes a fourth approach, which he sees as a way forward:

  • Faithful presence within. Hunter roots his alternative in a theology of divine presence, solidarity, and loving initiative. In imitation of the incarnating God, the church ought to dwell, socially and bodily, in the midst of “the world” — where that term means the heart of society as such. Wherever a particular people may be found, their culture is there with them; Christians ought, as a matter of course, to take up residence among them, and thereby within their culture. Such residence ought to be faithful, though. First, it ought to be characterized by obedience to the Great Commission; whatever change, cultural, political, or otherwise, that results should be a byproduct of focusing on what matters most. Second, faithfulness begins with affirmation: What is good, true, and beautiful about this culture? What of it points to God? What of it does the church find amenable to the good news of Jesus? Third, after affirmation comes antithesis, or “constructive subversion.” The church’s Yes toward culture contains also a No, which the church should not be shy in articulating. Affirmation and antithesis thus form a dialectic of cultural engagement.

It is hard to take issue with a proposal as sober and subtle as this one. It calls to mind a similar vision, spelled out by Robert Jenson just a few years before he passed in 2017:

So what, if anything, should the Church do about the state of Western culture? To deal cogently with that question, we must avoid an error that has confused much of the discussion. The question about “Christ and Culture,” as if Christ were one sort of reality and culture simply another, has generated much admirable thought but is nevertheless a category mistake. For the Church is herself manifestly a culture, and according to the New Testament the Church is the embodiment of Christ. The question then should be about “Christ and Other Cultures.”

Christ embodied as his Church does not swim in a homogeneous sea of “culture.” Rather, the Church makes a way through history between Pentecost and the End, encountering other cultures as she goes. Each newly encountered culture already has its own morale and worship, and given that the world is at once the good creature of the one God and fallen into evil, the encounter between the Church and any culture will be both appreciative and polemical. The Church will find practices and ideas she can adopt and transform for her own, and others which she must combat. Neither the Church nor the other culture will ever be the same.[2]

In this sense Hunter’s suggestion is unobjectionable. Zoom in closer, however, and there are details that call for clarification or correction. Given, then, its kinship with Niebuhr’s conversionist type and its location in such an important work of sociological criticism, I want to highlight certain features and limits that will aid us in constructing an alternative.

First, it is deeply American. That is, it is not a timeless vision but one applied to a specific context. This is not a problem so long as we do not mistake, as American Christians are wont to do, our contingent situation for a universal one.

Second, it is also deeply modern and Western. By this I don’t mean that Hunter is modernist or subscribes wholesale to the Enlightenment. He is not and does not. Nevertheless the vision he casts presupposes something like the settlement of the last two centuries — at once secular, liberal, and capitalist — as the status quo. Again, this is not a problem, because it is the setting into which he is speaking. But we must continually remind ourselves that this settlement, not what came before it, is the historical and global oddity in the church’s mission. Perhaps it will outstrip the length and legacy of the church’s prior experience. But what if conditions changed? Or what of communities in quite different parts of the world, such as Egypt or China? For all we know, our situation is unique and will be short-lived.

Third, it is a proposal by and for the upper-middle class. Almost without exception, the examples of faithful presence adduced by Hunter belong to professions and careers filled exclusively by the college-educated and sometimes only by bona fide elites. He refers approvingly to “business … policy and law … inquiry, scholarship, and learning … art [and] music.” He calls for civic leadership, entrepreneurialism, founding institutions, and joining or contributing to the highest levels of cultural production and influence. All this, in service to and funded by a Reformed theology of work that sees labor of whatever kind as an ennobling participation in the creative work of God. Though he seeks to head off the following criticism, it is difficult to see most working people’s jobs in this account. Flipping burgers, cleaning toilets, and moderating Facebook do not have to rise to the level of a divine vocation (in which one is asked to take pleasure!) in order for believers to do them with integrity. Pauline injunctions about doing work “as for the Lord” are not about baptizing the work — he is, we should not forget, addressing slaves — but about the baptized doing their duty, even if there is nothing about the work in itself that is meaningful.

Fourth and finally, given these features of the proposal, Hunter’s presentation of “faithful presence within” suffers from an overly sanguine view of the professions and institutions in which Christians are called to be present. He writes, for example, that “faithful presence in practice is the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity.” Bracket the echoes of corporate dicta that suggest inside every one of us is a leader (to which is appended: now obey your boss and God forbid don’t organize). The more relevant allusion is to Abraham Kuyper, who famously remarked: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This claim is often redeployed in theologies of work, vocation, culture, and politics similar to Hunter’s. And, like his proposal, they are true as far as they go.

But how far is that? 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. At the end of the day, even when it nods at critique, it is a social ethic of relentless affirmation and only modest, and then partial and incrementalist, antithesis.

I don’t want to overstate the critique. As I said above, Niebuhr, Hunter, and Jenson are right to see a dialectic at work in the church’s encounter with various cultures. Any suggestion of an absolute No or an absolute Yes is out of the question. Allow me, then, to submit an alternative. Not in rejection, but as an appreciative modification and extension of their proposals.

As I see it, there is no one “correct” type, posture, or model. Instead, 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. Each mode applies in every possible historical and political context: premodern and postmodern, established and disestablished, privileged and persecuted. Here are the four:

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. Sometimes these powers fade quickly, as with Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa. Sometimes they last longer, like pagan Rome or the antebellum South. Sometimes they last still longer, as with the fate of the Copts in Egypt and other Christians in the Middle East. But 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.

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. To be sure, the confession of sin ought to find its regular reiteration in the liturgy. But more is required. When the church, whether corporately or in the person of individual members, finds itself in sin, it should need no external pressure to admit its faults, publicly and penitently. 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.

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. As it is written, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jam 1:17). Or as the popular proverb goes, “All truth is God’s truth.” Which means that all good is God’s good and all beauty is God’s beauty. This means not only that the church will find much gold among the Egyptians. It means further that some such gold will be genuinely new to the church. 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.

Reform

The church is always and everywhere called to preach the gospel, which is the word of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Another term for this task of proclamation is prophecy. The church is a company of prophets and is itself, as a community, a single great prophet, just as it is the corporate body of the Lord Jesus, who is its head. The Spirit fills and equips it for just this work. Nor is prophecy a “merely” spiritual matter. Whether we look to the prophets of Israel, the apostles of Acts, or Jesus himself, 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. We see precisely this process in the church’s history: the public remorse of Emperor Theodosius; the development of cenobitic monasticism; the revolution of St. Francis; the abolitionists of England and America; the spread of child labor laws; the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These are not instances of secular activism. They are the word of God in its triumphal march through history. 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.

The benefits of this fourfold model are many.

First, it does not privilege any one mode but takes for granted that context is everything, on one hand, and no context is simple, on the other. Even under the Diocletian persecution, for example, the church was not solely resisting, even if that response was to the fore.

Second, it does not prioritize work as the primary sphere in which the church encounters a culture or makes its presence known. There is no question that the church’s manifold witness encompasses labor. But there is no reason to make such labor central; doubly so when labor is, as it tends to be, insignificant, inconsistent, humiliating, unpleasant, or unjust.

Third, it does not focus on any one class of persons within the church but instead on the community as a whole. The generic modes I have identified here may be disaggregated into concrete tasks that any one individual or sub-group of the community might undertake, whether intentionally or unconsciously in the course of one’s daily life.

Fourth, little here is measurable in terms of external or tangible impact. Inasmuch as these forms of engagements are “modes” they are modes of life. They don’t necessarily pick out discrete activities whose consequences one might evaluate by economic, political, or sociological methods. This seems fitting, given the nature of the subject matter.

Fifth, as I have already indicated, there is no specific social arrangement or political regime either presupposed or generated by this proposal. It applies when the church has no power and when the church has all of it. It pertains to Chalcedonian Christians in the Byzantine Empire, to Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and to Baptist Christians in the American Empire. The mission of the church is one and the same wherever the church finds itself; the same goes for its engagement with culture.

Sixth and finally, this proposal understands that the faithful presence of the church is a differentiated presence. Sometimes, that is, the Spirit beckons believers, like the Macedonian man in the vision of St. Paul, to cross over, to enter in, to settle down, to build houses and plant vineyards. In other words, to inhabit a culture from the inside. Sometimes, however, the Spirit issues a different call: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4); “come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean” (2 Cor 6:17, paraphrasing Isaiah and other prophets). The fidelity of the church’s witness is measured not only by its presence to the world but also by its difference from the world. That difference is called holiness.

Consider, by way of conclusion, the monasteries of Mount Athos. Much in American Protestant discourse on the topic of “church and culture” rides on whether one sees Athonite monks as an especially beautiful or an especially baleful example of “faithful presence” and “Christian engagement.” For me, I’m siding with the monks. If a model of the Great Commission cannot make sense of monasticism, then so much the worse for the model.

Footnotes

  1. I’ve previously written about these issues in Mere Orthodoxy, using Hunter’s book as a framework: see “Theologians Were Arguing About the Benedict Option 35 Years Ago,” March 13, 2017.
  2. Jenson continues, concluding the essay:

    The Church’s encounter with moribund Mediterranean paganism was perhaps unique in its results. For the Church did not merely affect this culture; she shaped a new culture from its ruins. The last strictly Roman emperor, Constantine, called to the bishops, “Come over and help us”; give us a new law and a new hope. Deplore it though some may, the bishops responded and Christendom appeared.

    Now the Church encounters her own creation precisely as ex-Christendom. How are we to deal with that? Should we try to rescue Western culture from itself? To recall it to what once shaped it? It seems unlikely that persuasion or argument, however cogent, will have much effect; our apologetics are all discounted in advance. Various nostrums, such as entertainment evangelism or seeker churches, have been tried and seem only to dumb down the Church’s own culture. Perhaps the cause is lost, and the Church must simply move on from her old base as a mammoth “burnt-over district.”

    Or we may find ourselves willy-nilly emulating the roles of Celtic Christianity or of the Benedictines during the “dark ages.” If the Church survives in the West as a tiny and despised community, let her attend to the authenticity of her own life: Let her cultivate Eucharist and its associated practices of mutual care, with the world viewing this strange body. God may bless such witness, as he did that of the Irish and the Benedictines. And we should remember: Pagan antiquity did not exclaim, “See how they love us,” but “See how they love one another.”

Brad East

Brad East (PhD, Yale University) is assistant professor of theology in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019) and the author of The Doctrine of Scripture (Cascade, 2021) and The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context (Eerdmans, 2022). His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Anglican Theological Review, Pro Ecclesia, Political Theology, Restoration Quarterly, and The Other Journal; his essays and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, Christianity Today, Comment, Commonweal, First Things, The Hedgehog Review, Living Church, Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia Review of Books, Mere Orthodoxy, The New Atlantis, Plough, and The Point. Further information, as well as his blog, can be found at bradeast.org.