Culture is a slippery concept for Christians to navigate and engage. Do we seperate from culture to keep ourselves pure and sanctified from the world? Or have we been called to live in the world so we can be a witness to Christ and harbinger of God’s kingdom to earth?
Can we transform culture to be more Christ-ian in economics and politics, arts and science? Or have we been called to conquer culture in the power of the Spirit with God’s blessing to fight political campaigns and wars?
Trump’s prophets who predicted that Trump would win the 2020 election were convinced that God had chosen Trump to conquer America culture for the interests of the American evangelical church. (See my last blog Trump’s False Prophets I: How do we know when God speaks?)
Have we all become Cultural Christians now?
Richard Niebuhr tackles this Christian dilemma in his classic work Christ And Culture which he calls the enduring problem for the church. It is the problem of “reason and revelation, of religion and science, of natural and divine law, of state and church, of non-resistance and coercion.”2
Niebuhr classifies the problem of Christ and culture into five paradigms which he calls types that help us identify and clarify the issues the church has faced over its history. The point of the exercise is not to identify the correct or best type but to better understand our biases and appreciate our Christian sisters and brothers who may hold a different view.
We all see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We live in a world in which the kingdom of God is not fully present but still arriving. The church finds itself between the ’now’ of Christ with us but the ’not yet’ of Christ’s kingdom on earth.
The type that sheds the most light on present American evangelicalism is what Niebuhr labels Christ above culture. This type recognises Christ’s kingdom is not fully present but it attempts to synthesis the kingdom of heaven with the present culture where the church finds itself in history.
This type like the others has positives and negatives. The down side with all Niebuhr’s types is when they are pushed too extremes.
“The cultural Christian reconciliation of the gospel with the spirit of the times is made possible by its presentation either as a revelation of speculative truth about being or of practical knowledge of value.” Culture is understood as both “divine and human in its origin… [where] both reason and revelation apply.”3
The answer provided by the synthesist is to resolve the tensions between living in the ’now’ and ‘not yet’ of the in-between church time in history. The now of the risen Christ; the not yet of the coming kingdom of God. The problem with the synthesist type is it can conflate Christ in culture, if pushed too far, in the eternal now of the dominant culture, to use Brueggemann’s language.
In Niebuhr’s words, the problem for the synthesist is mistaking culture for the gospel of Christ. “It is logical that when a synthetic answer has been given to the problem of Christ and culture, those who accept it should become more concerned about the defence of the culture synthesised with the gospel than about the gospel itself. The two things then seem to be so interconnected that the perennial gospel seems involved in the withering of the annual culture.”
The synthesist then becomes devoted to “the restoration or conservation of a culture and thus becomes a cultural Christian.”4
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so
While there are different agendas at stake, it is now well documented that American white Christians have aligned with the radical Alternative Right of American politics, intersecting on immigration and Trump’s nationalist and populist rhetoric.
It’s not hard to see why. Preceding Trump as the first American black president, Barack Obama favoured pro life, same sex marriage, and religious freedom, even for Muslims. For much of the American white church these are anathema.
The conservative evangelical factions of the American white church struggle with women in leadership (complimentarianism), sexual identity (LGBQTI+), pro choice (purity culture), and black representation (not to mention Jews, Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t fit the white male Protestant identity.)
Ostensibly, this differentiation is argued on ‘the Bible tells me so.’ As the old Sunday school song goes
Yes, Jesus loves me Yes, Jesus loves me Yes, Jesus loves me The Bible tells me so
Reputedly, Karl Barth, held up as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, had quoted this hymn in response to a question by one of his students asking how he could sum up his theology in one line. “In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”5
Sixty years later, Karl Barth would have been shocked to hear of a different Jesus. Yes, Jesus loves me so long as I’m white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (many would add – male, straight, and married or celibate) would appear to be the American evangelical response. Shocked, but probably not surprised. Barth lived through the horror of Hitler’s Nazi Third Reich that came close to decimating the Jews (the Holocaust) and splitting asunder the German church.
But it should be surprising, even shocking for us to hear it now because the Bible tells us there is no difference in Christ. Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). Which just goes to show that not everyone reads their Bible in the same way. Or uses the same benchmark in testing the spirit of the prophet with God’s Word.
This is not America
Two ‘stars’ aligned in 2016 heralding in the reign of Trump. The American Alt-Right’s radical nationalism and the American Evangelicals conservative Christianity. The first was trying to make America great again. The second believed it was ushering in God’s kingdom on earth.
What emerged was an evangelical church more concerned with defending the dominant culture that had been synthesised with Christ than the uncompromising gospel of Christ that can only be proclaimed prophetically as an alternative culture of the coming Kingdom.
A dominant culture against which Martin Luther King Jr. rallied 250,000 demonstrators in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., defiantly proclaiming, “I have a dream!” King kept it up, repeating prophetically, “I have a dream,” until it reverberated to a growing roar of affirmation.
“When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”6
Jeremiah Johnson, who called the 2020 election in Trump’s favour, and then repented after Trump lost, was one of many self proclaimed prophets, distracted with idols in the dominant culture. Trump’s distracted prophets “became a stumbling block” to God’s people, because “when prophets are distracted, people become distracted.”7
When the prophets are distracted, the dream turns to nightmare. When the prophets are distracted, strange prophets from across the seas are called to rise up and cry out justice in the streets.
This is not America.... shalalalala A little piece of you, the little piece in me, will die (this is not a miracle) For this is not America Blossom fails to bloom this season, promise not to stare, too long (this is not America) For this is not the miracle There was a time, a storm that blew, so pure For this could be the biggest sky And I could have the faintest idea For this is not America8
The hope of much of the American church was in Trump, not God admits one American church leader, Jennifer Toledo. We became distracted admits Jeremiah Johnson. Prophets are not here to predict the future or forecast elections, but to point people to Christ.9
And on that point, maybe we can all agree. Certainly, a turn to Christ, away from idols, is a step in the right direction. It’s the only move left for a church that otherwise might be fast losing its way in heralding in the prophetic call of God’s kingdom here on earth.
- This image was originally posted to Flickr by Tyler Merbler at https://flickr.com/photos/37527185@N05/50820534063.
- H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ And Culture, Harper & Row, New York, 1951, p10
- Niebuhr p121
- Niebuhr p146
- Jesus Loves Me This I Know
- I Have A Dream speech
- Prophetic Reckoning, p61
- This Is Not America, David Bowie, Capital Records, 1985
- Prophetic Reckoning, p61
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