Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective

Craig Carter: Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006

By Stuart Murray williams

This thoughtful, challenging and accessible book makes an excellent addition to the growing literature exploring issues of faith and discipleship from the perspective of post-Christendom. Indeed, the title is explicit in its recognition of the perspective from which it is written. Craig Carter not only quotes with appreciation from Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World, but his book would fit very well into the Anabaptist Network’s ‘After Christendom’ series.

Carter, an associate professor in Toronto, offers here a trenchant critique of one of the most influential texts on social ethics in the 20th century, H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (published in 1951). Acknowledging the popularity and longevity of this book in academic and more popular circles, Carter nevertheless argues that Niebuhr’s approach is fundamentally flawed by the assumed but unacknowledged Christendom framework that pervades his work.

Niebuhr presented a typology of five approaches to the relationship between Christ and culture: Christ of culture, Christ against culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. The first four are examined and criticised for inadequacies, with reference to historical examples of groups adopting each stance; the fifth is presented uncritically so that most assume this to have been Niebuhr’s preferred option.

Carter elucidates Niebuhr’s argument and the subjects it to criticism before explaining at length (and with gratitude to John Howard Yoder’s writings) why Christendom was a bad idea and why social ethics today needs to reject the assumptions of that era. But he then goes on to offer a new paradigm, continuing to draw on Niebuhr’s typological approach but with new categories and operating from a post-Christendom perspective. At the heart of his critique and alternative proposal is the conviction that non-violence is the crucial theological and methodological issue involved in social ethics.

Carter offers six types, divided into two categories – Christendom types where violent coercion is accepted and non-Christendom types were violent coercion is rejected. For each type he offers historical examples, indicates where biblical support is sought and investigates links with the person and teaching of Jesus and the view of Christ implied or taught within this approach to social ethics. His three Christendom types are Christ legitimizing culture, Christ humanizing culture and Christ transforming culture; the non-Christendom types are Christ separating from culture, Christ humanizing culture and Christ transforming culture. There are thus significant areas of overlap between these approaches, such that two of the descriptions appear twice, but these pairs differ over the issue of violence in order to achieve their goals.

Niebuhr’s typology has been subjected to critique before, not least for his choice of examples that prejudiced the types he criticised, for assuming a monolithic view of ‘culture’ and for implying that the church is somehow separate from this culture. But Carter’s critique here is devastating, leading one reviewer (Mark Thiessen Nation, formerly director of the London Mennonite Centre) to suggest that it ‘should bring the curtains down on the more than fifty-year reign of Niebuhr’s typology.’ And his new paradigm offers a helpful typology for post-Christendom Christians wrestling with the challenges of social ethics in a world that is very different from the one Niebuhr lived in or assumed he still lived in.

Carter has written a provocative and timely book that deserves to be widely read and to stimulate continuing discussion. Two questions on which I would welcome further reflection are whether this new paradigm escapes the criticism levelled at Niebuhr’s that treating culture in a monolithic way is inevitably misleading, and whether it is helpful to retain the ‘Christ/culture’ polarity rather than working with a ‘church/culture’ (which Carter considers but rejects).

Two issues in what to make of Christ and Culture's rethinking

I have been thinking about the Christ and Culture for some time, especially since the Fiftieth Anniversary edition. When I originally read it I recognized flaws in how the categories and types overlooked more compelling examples to form the elements of the types. Of the publications that were challenging Neibuhr, Carter seemed to be taking a tact that could bring a new way of seeing this dichotomy.

As I was reading I found Carter's re-examination useful, and the initial outline of his rethinking interesting. My issue with where he has taken this is how the non-Christendom types are based Christologically in a Christendom creed. The origins of the Nicenean-Constantinopolitan Creed is out of the era at the height of the Constantinian church.

I understand and accept that God's desires through the Holy Spirit work in spite of other human circumstances and predilection to sin. So is Christendom, the idea that there is something unifying Christians in their various manifestations toward an ideal state, with or without political and governmental sanction, the real problem? Or is the Constantinian intrusion into the Christendom premise the problem?

An issue that I have not seen addressed is how this typology of Christ and Culture from Neibuhr is related to the typology of Troeltsch's Church and Sect from The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. It is clear that Neibuhr is applying what Troeltsch was using from Max Weber's sociology. The reason I see this is because at one level the examples for the various types are predominately from the Church type, with only one poorly attempted inclusion of Mennonites in the Christ against Culture type. The Sect part of Troeltsch's types are missing in Neibuhr's types. This has led me to think that the typologies in Christ and Culture are making finer distinctions in the Church side of the Church-Sect typology of Troeltsch. As such the issues that may be more authentically addressed within Anabaptist understandings of Christ and Culture are missed.