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The Christ & Culture Question

Three brief proposals for thinking about the “Christ and Culture” question. 

  1. There is no Christ or culture in the abstract, but only the Jewish Jesus of history and particular cultures.  We cannot abstractly talk about the relationship between “Christ and culture” as if Christ and culture are static givens which can be coordinated vis a vis each other.
  2. The relationship between Jesus Christ and culture is technically a question about how Christ related to the particular culture(s) he inhabited, not a question about how God is related to the various cultures of throughout space and history.
  3. Thus, when talking about the relationship between Christians and the cultures they inhabit we cannot pose such questions under the rubric of “Christ and culture”, since Christ’s relationship to culture is his unique and irrepeatable historical life amonst first century Palestinian and Greco-Roman culture.  To speak of the relationship of Christians to culture(s) is to pose a different question altogether, namely the question of church and culture.  

If this is correct, then I contend it requires us to severely question, if not completely abandon any and all typologies of “Christ and culture”.


  1. freder1ck wrote:

    It’s good to distinguish somewhat between the encounter of Christ with culture and the encounter of the Church with culture.

    But I’d say that The Dream of the Rood, for example, documents the encounter between Christ and Anglo- Saxon culture. To be sure, this encounter is mediated by the Church. Even so, the encounter is never typological or abstract but intensely personal and therefore tied to particular historical circumstances.

    For Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces (Hopkins).

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  2. james wrote:

    I think that all three of your points have unfortunately reductive consequences for Christology. How would you answer the question: What is the relationship between the second person of the Trinity and culture? I think this question makes fine theological sense whether culture is being considered as an abstract form of human organization or any particular human culture in history.

    Monday, July 30, 2007 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  3. chris wrote:

    I like this point and it makes me think of a book I’m into by Joerg Rieger titled “Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times.” (Fortress, 2007) In his Preface he addresses what you’re talking about here.

    “The primary context in which we think about Christ–whether we realize it or not–is shaped by large and ever-changing comglomerates of power that are aimed at controlling all aspects of our lives, from macropolitics to our innermost desires: this is what I call “empire.” Empire in this sense is a more comprehensive term than culture because it incorporates more complex notions of culture. . . a complex picture that does not allow for the easy typologies and classifications of Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture.”

    So Rieger moves from the culture paradigm to the power paradigm. What comes out though is that power itself is much messier than the top and bottom models we imagine. When, for instance, it is the Roman Emperor himself who calls Christian councils and enforces creeds, somehow God acts within and without the powers to build our faith.

    It is true that we start with the culture Jesus inhabited and show how he related to it, but how do we pass judgment on church decisions across time from the vantage point of our own situations?

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:


    I strongly disagree with you. Your question about the relationship between the second person of the Trinity and culture seems to assume that we can distinguish between Jesus and the logos. I don’t think this is possible because Jesus simply IS the logos.

    We can’t abstractly answer how Christ is related to “culture” because there is no such thing as “culture”. Rather there are cultureS. How Christ is related to the culure of German Socialism and how Christ is related to the culture of post-aparetheid South Africa are going to be very different and cannot be answered abstractly, only concretely and particularly.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    how do we pass judgment on church decisions across time from the vantage point of our own situations?

    Very carefully? Is that a good enough answer? More substantially, I’d say that we make such judgments on the basis of the revelation of God in Christ, especially as mediated in Scripture. We have a lot of resources to draw on there, I think.

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 8:46 am | Permalink

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