H. Richard Niebuhr was a prominent theologian of the post-World War II flourishing of ‘Main Line’ Protestantism.  His brother, Reinhold, was better known still, both as a theologian and as a founder of the anti-Communist liberal political group, Americans for Democratic Action.  A sister, Hulda Niebuhr, was an accomplished theologian as well.  H. Richard wrote at least one book that I think is of enduring value, named Christ and Culture.

Christ and Culture categorizes the main approaches various Christians, Churches, and theological traditions have adopted towards the civilization around them.  The general subject is a ‘hardy perennial’ of theological and religious thought.  What are we to make of the art, the philosophy, the entertainment, the politics, the morals, the assumptions, and values of the wider world around us?

Most Christians through most of the history of Christianity have lived in societies in which they were, at least nominally, the majority.  That fact can lead to one set of problems:  the problem of being too comfortable with the world around us, the danger of being coopted by ideas that feel right but may not be.  The opposite situation, when Christians find themselves in societies that are either manifestly or subtly hostile, certainly was familiar to the first Christians.  Some Christians likewise have found themselves under more or less severe persecution periodically ever since in some places:  in most majority Muslim societies, under the early modern Japanese shoguns, under 20th and 21st century Marxist regimes in Mexico, the Soviet Union, and China, under the pre-colonial kings of Buganda, and so forth.

In the New Testament itself it is easy to discern two very different approaches to the Greco-Roman society in which the first Christians found themselves.  In Saint Luke’s books, particularly the Acts of the Apostles, most of the Romans who appear seem to be relatively decent people working within a relatively honest and law-abiding society.  Roman centurions are always depicted in Acts sympathetically, from Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (Acts 10), to the one who escorts Paul to Rome and treats him kindly (Acts 27:3).  Roman officials in Acts usually acquit or release Paul from false or purely religious charges when he is hauled before them.  Although one Roman official is venal (24:26), most of them seem decent men desirous of maintaining peace, law, and order for the benefit of all.  This basically positive view of Roman order is reflected in Romans 13, when Paul himself calls upon Christians to obey the law, pay their taxes, and respect officials set over them.

A less rosy picture is presented in Revelation 13, where the Roman empire is the archetype standing behind the figure of a demonic beast.  This is the Rome of Nero and Domitian, the Rome encountered by the Martyrs of Lyon in 177, by the victims of the great persecution under Diocletian in the very early 4th century, and more generally the Rome of slavery and abortion and suicide and gladiatorial games and the brutal exercise of power. 

These two general approaches to the world around us have both, oddly, direct support from our Lord.  At one point in the gospel our Lord says that those who are not against us are for us.  At another point he says that those who are not for us are against us.  Neither view can simply be dismissed, either by uncritically entering the world around us or by retreating into a self-chosen ghetto of separatism.  Both approaches have an attraction, and both have a weakness. 

Niebuhr categorizes the main approaches of Christians to the wider world as the Christ of the culture, Christ against the culture, Christ above the culture, Christ and culture in paradox, or Christ as the transformer of culture.  Again, each approach has its dangers and its strengths.  The issue is perhaps particularly important as we live through a period in which the position of the Church and of most Christians has undergone rapid and radical change.  Most of those reading this will have lived part of their lives within a world that seemed recognizably part of Christendom.  Even if the state under which we lived was secular, it was in many ways supportive of our faith (tax exemption for Churches and religious gifts; chaplains in the military and public institutions; respect for faith in public utterances; marriage laws not contrary to Christian marriage, etc.).  More significantly, the society around us was Christian, with most people adhering to Christian moral norms and with most people assuming that most nice people would be religiously observant.   If the adherence was sometimes hypocritical, even that fact indicated that the generally religious character of the society was strong enough to compel a kind of acquiescence to its attitudes.

All of that ended with the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the long march of the ‘counterculture’ through the institutions in the 1970s and 1980s.  That counterculture is in fact the new culture, the new orthodoxy, the new piety to which people now tend automatically to adhere.

While there may be marginal value in resisting further particular extensions of this cultural revolution, in general I think the task of Christians today is not resistance on the political level.  Christians have lost the culture wars.  We will not be saved by a politician or even a statesman.  We will not be able to return to an earlier decade.  Instead, we need to learn how to live as Christians in this new world, which the older of us did not choose and in which we did not grow up.

In October 2019 Daryl Morey, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Houston franchise, ‘tweeted’ support for the people of Hong Kong in their struggle to preserve their liberties from the Chinese Communist state that rules them: a sentiment to which few in the United States, one would think, could object. The Chinese state, however, has a long arm, and the NBA can be influenced by the sports network, ESPN, which in turn is owned by Disney. Disney, again in turn, is a partner with the same Chinese state in building a giant, multi-billion-dollar theme park in China. Apologies for Morey’s exercise of free speech came forth from basketball officialdom. Whether the apologies were demanded by the Chinese or were acts of preemptive groveling, I do not know.

V.I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, is often quoted as saying that capitalists would sell Bolsheviks the very rope with which the capitalists would be hanged. In fact, this saying cannot be traced back to Lenin himself and first appears in this form a quarter century after Lenin’s death. Whatever its origin, in 1976, well before the demise of the Soviet Union, the saying seemed uncannily prophetic when the dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, was expelled from the Soviet Union and came forth from an airplane in Switzerland wearing handcuffs stamped ‘Made in USA.’ That incident may not in fact have demonstrated too much immorality: the handcuffs might have been purchased by the masters of the Gulag indirectly. Still, the incident at the least suggested the possibility that the moral neutrality of the free market, while creating wealth and efficiency, can also produce wicked results. Sometimes conscience revolts and calls for self-denying restraint instead of profitable wickedness.

The NBA-Hong Kong matter was by itself an ephemeral news item.  The moral problems posed for Christians by a changing culture combined with vastly powerful corporations and entities (Disney, media companies, the NBA, China) are neither ephemeral nor transitory.  And that fact is the connection between the current events just noted and the growing problems faced by Christians which are my main interests here.

Orthodox Christians working for large or largish companies increasingly are forced to take ‘training’ which amounts to brainwashing and conformity molding.  If you have any doubts about this, I can put you in touch with people who will tell you all about their experience.  The imposition of corporate conformity is not new:  male IBM employees not so long ago would find that a light blue Oxford dress shirt, rather than a white one, was frowned upon.  Most large organizations have a corporate culture that includes elements of conformity and indoctrination.  But the nature of socially regnant views is changing sharply, rapidly, and in a direction that traditional Christians find increasingly repugnant.  The enforcers of the new thought- and behavior-control are Disney and other big media companies, Coca-Cola, Delta, Wall Street, big universities and foundations, the State of California, the NEA, and advertising agencies, among others.  In many places college freshmen are subjected to similar indoctrination, as are members of large athletic organizations, government agencies, and the military. 

In a recent number (October 2019) of ‘The Atlantic’ magazine, George Packer wrote an amazing article about his experience as a father with school aged children in New York city:  ‘When the Culture War Comes for the Kids’.  Packer and his wife are politically and socially liberal and preferred that their children be in public schools with a diverse student body.  The kinds of intolerance of disfavored groups, pressure put on parents to conform, and the brainwashing of children by school administrators and teachers described by Packer are deeply disturbing.

In the United States many of the grossest kinds of control are still limited by the courts and by the power of the First Amendment.  In the end, however, the courts tend to bow to sustained and powerful public opinions.  The First Amendment slows oppressive majorities, but Christians should not count on that protection enduring indefinitely.  And private entities anyway are relatively free to demand conformity, whatever limits the courts put on public ones.

These public changes connect, I think, with one matter I mentioned elsewhere in this blog:  the decline in religious observance is harmful to charitable giving and volunteering, since religiously active people are much more generous in their giving and volunteering even to secular charities. 

Furthermore, the decline in religious observance seems related to the growth of superstition and public irrationality.  60% of 18-25 year olds, the most secularized group in our society, believe that astrology has either ‘some’ or ‘a great deal’ of scientific basis.  One thinks of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that those who do not believe in God do not believe in nothing – they believe in anything.

With such facts and thoughts in mind, I return to my questions above.  How are Christians to live in this new world foisted upon us by the unwholesome spirits of this world?

One possibility is suggested by the title of author Rod Dreher’s best-seller, The Benedict Option.  Dreher suggests that Christians, in the face of an increasingly hostile world, need to be much better Christians and often may need to withdraw from the public square into strongly self-conscious and mutually supportive Christian communities.  This option implies some fairly radical changes of view and behavior.

For example, where parents once encouraged their bright children to attend elite schools and universities for their later economic and professional benefit, Christian parents now should care more about the religious and moral character of the schools in question:  in general, the more elite the school, the more secular and the more morally corrupt.  Similarly, professional and accrediting organizations, through their role in professional and educational licensing, increasingly function as enforcers who treat religious and moral dissent as grounds for withholding access to professional employment.  The California bar association, for example, prohibited its members from affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America (until the BSA caved to that and other pressures) due to the BSA’s position on homosexuality.  If the California bar could exclude BSA members why could it not find Roman Catholicism grounds for exclusion?  Dreher suggests that Christians may in the near future be excluded from lucrative professions because of their views.  If such things happen, then it is much more important that Christians be Christians than that they be in a lucrative profession.  Our members in some countries already face professional and economic discrimination.  We are not immune in the ‘Global North.’

In addition to rethinking educational and professional choices, orthodox Christians also may need to think more than in the past about where they choose to live.  Instead of looking for religiously like-minded people and a strong congregation after a move or a school or job choice, the move or school or job chosen perhaps should be governed by those religious factors.

Home life also needs a stronger, more self-consciously Christian element.  We no longer live in a society in which religious faith is culturally supported. Christianity is not the default faith into which people will find themselves planted with little effort.  Habits of prayer and devotion need explicit cultivation, which requires more effort from parents now.  Likewise, since the moral assumptions of our surrounding society are increasingly hostile to our faith, all Christians need to be much more systematic about examining and judging the character of not just their children’s education, but also of the entertainment we seek, the friends we make, and the public officials we elect.  Since our society is increasingly hostile, as I am arguing, and also is increasingly intrusive, we need increasingly to separate ourselves from it in order to associate with like-minded folk.

This all is very foreign to the Anglican ethos. Anglicanism historically is not a separatist religious tradition but an establishment tradition.  But this is not England in 1850 or New York in 1900 or Brisbane in 1950.  The world has changed, and is changing more now, and we need to recognize our new status as members of a disfavored religious minority and to act accordingly.

(These articles originally appeared in The TRINITARIAN in 2019)

5 thoughts on “Christ & Culture

  1. Excellent. My workplace is getting more “woke”; the current admin strongly supports the far left. thus far everything has been voluntary, but what should I do if I were required to list my pronouns? Listing them, according to some Roman Catholics I have read, would be morally equivalent to supporting the transgender culture behind listing pronouns, something I am not prepared to do.

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    1. Does that mean listing the pronouns you prefer to be used for yourself? I suppose you could write: ‘I use the pronouns used in traditional, standard English for persons of the male sex.’ That makes clear that you see ‘sex’ as the essential determinant (as opposed to ‘gender’ or whim) and that you believe there is a standard to which you choose to conform. A teachable moment….

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  2. Excellent essay. The self-segregation is already happening with the wokest (most woke?) areas of the country losing the largest number of people – it’s a start.

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