Niebuhr’s classic categories have often been critiqued for the fact that few people fit neatly into any one of them, and for good reason. As the survey I have given in this series illustrates, there is much in common among the typical approaches as well as considerable overlap. Furthermore, Niebuhr has also been criticized on the grounds that he considers culture as something monolithic, a charge that could as equally apply to the approaches evaluated above. D. A. Carson helpfully summarizes the apparent problem one faces when evaluating the popular approaches to culture:
What this potted survey ought to tell us is that none of the powerfully advanced theories commonly put forward to explain the relationships between Christ and culture or to implement an improved dynamic is very compelling as a total explanation or an unambiguous mandate. Each has decided strengths; some are better at drawing in the highly diverse and complementary strands of Scripture and historical interpretation than others whose coinage is reductionism. Moreover, as empirically useful as certain grids may be, thoughtful Christians need to adopt an extra degree of hesitation about canonizing any of them in an age in which we are learning the extent to which our own cultural locations contributes, for better and for worse, to our understanding of these theological matters, as of all theological matters.1
Carson’s solution is to argue that the Christian will have to adopt both stances toward culture depending on the situation: “Instead of imagining that Christ against culture and Christ transforming culture are two mutually exclusive stances, the rich complexity of biblical norms, works out in the Bible’s story line, tells us that these two often operate simultaneously.”2 Andy Crouch treats the issue similarly. He suggests that each of the approaches is appropriate in certain circumstances and not in others; none of the approaches, he argues, should be adopted in all circumstances. He uses the terms postures and gestures to differentiate between the two. The various approaches to culture should never become a posture—an “unconscious default position”; rather we may adopt a given approach as a gesture depending on the nature of the situation. He summarizes: “Indeed, the appeal of the various postures of condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming—the reason that all of them are still very much with us—is that each of these responses to culture is, at certain times and with specific cultural goods, a necessary gesture.”3
The problem with each of these evaluations of cultural engagement, however, is rooted in ambiguity regarding the nature of culture itself. Niebuhr and some advocates of the approaches evaluated above seem to see it as something monolithic—more of a Christendom idea of culture. Others see it as entirely neutral, the use (or “direction”) of cultural artifacts being the only legitimate grounds for judgment. Therefore, an explicitly biblical understanding of culture is necessary in order to discern the most biblical approach to culture.
“Culture” as Behavior
I have argued elsewhere that the closest approximation to the contemporary understanding of culture in Scripture is “behavior,” expressed most clearly by terms such as ἀναστροφή. This understanding has several benefits for the discussion at hand. First, culture is not monolithic, but various behaviors and ways of living that differ among individuals and civilizations. Second, culture is not neutral but ways of acting out values. Third, application of this understanding of culture as behavior will give much clearer direction concerning how a Christian should respond with regard to his own behavior and the behavior (i.e., “culture”) of others.
We’ll tackle that subject next week.
- Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 224. Miroslav Volf agrees: “There is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole. The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that. Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet m any more. Moreover, faith’s stance toward culture changes over time as culture changes” (Miroslav Volf, Public Faith, A: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), xv.). [↩]
- Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 227. Emphasis original. [↩]
- Crouch, Culture Making, 90. [↩]