Christianity versus culture: Classic attitudes

How faith and its relationship to the broader culture

"Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord" -- 2 Corinthians 6:17

How should Christians view the surrounding culture? Do we go to war with it? Do we insist that it be "christianized"? Do we live in an uneasy truce with it?

Two classic books can help us think through these questions. In 1951 Yale professor Richard Niebuhr wrote a book outlining five positions Christians have historically taken on the issue. Thirty years later, Fuller Theological Seminary missiologist Charles Kraft wrote a book to say that the religion vs culture debate was not unique to Christianity. He reduced Niebuhr's positions to four, combining two of the categories. Here's a listing of the Christ and culture positions presented by Niebuhr and Kraft.

Richard Niebuhr's 1951 book - Christ and Culture

  1. Christ against culture
  2. The Christ of culture
  3. Christ above culture
  4. Christ and culture in paradox
  5. Christ, the transformer of culture

Charles Kraft's 1981 book: Christianity in Culture

  1. God against culture
  2. God in culture
    1. God (or Christ) is merely a culture hero
    2. God is contained within, or at least endorses, one particular culture
  3. God above culture
    1. Deism and many African cultures
    2. Follow the requirements of both Christ and culture, but each in its own place.
    3. Dualism -- only real solution to paradox lies in the future. The Christian is like an amphibian living in two realms.
    4. Culture is corrupted but convertible.
  4. God above-but-through culture

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More Perspectives

Throughout history, Christians have adopted various perspectives toward the larger cultures in which they have lived. Those approaches have included the following:

  1. Separatist/Exclusivist Perspective: Some Christians view the broader culture as fundamentally opposed to their faith and choose to separate themselves from it. They may see the larger culture as corrupt or sinful and believe in maintaining strict boundaries to protect their religious identity. This perspective often emphasizes purity and holiness, with limited engagement with the surrounding culture.
  2. Accommodationist/Inclusivist Perspective: Other Christians take a more accommodating approach, seeking to engage with and transform the broader culture from within. They believe that aspects of the culture can be compatible with Christian values and seek to find common ground to positively influence society. This perspective emphasizes dialogue, cultural relevance, and adaptation.
  3. Transformationalist Perspective: Some Christians adopt a transformationalist view, which combines elements of both separatism and accommodationism. They believe in engaging with the broader culture while also seeking to transform it according to Christian principles. This perspective often involves active participation in societal institutions and working for social justice and change.
  4. Dualistic Perspective: A dualistic view divides the world between the spiritual and the secular, with the latter being inherently flawed or evil. Christians holding this perspective may engage with the broader culture to varying degrees but maintain a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane.
  5. Critical Engagement Perspective: Some Christians adopt a critical engagement approach, which involves discerning and critiquing elements of the broader culture while also affirming and participating in aspects that align with Christian values. This perspective emphasizes a balance between discernment and cultural engagement.
  6. Contextualization Perspective: In contexts where Christianity is understood as interacting with several diverse cultures, contextualization is emphasized. This involves expressing the the Christian message and practices in ways that resonate with the cultural context while retaining essential theological principles.

These perspectives are not mutually exclusive or antithetical. Theological convictions, cultural context and personal experiences have often led Christians to combined elements from various approaches.

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