Near the close of John Ortberg’s delightful book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, he tells the story of Robert and Muriel McQuilken. An accomplished college President, Robert left his job to care for his wife Muriel as she slowly slipped away under the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. McQuilken has written fairly eloquently about “how much his wife taught him, even with the disease. (John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, p. 226).
As he cares for her, he reads an article in the newspaper one day about a person who ended their relationship with a spouse “because it wasn’t meeting my needs.” Ortberg reports Robert reflecting on the “eerie irrelevance” of such criteria. Ortberg quotes Robert writing in response to the article: “Eventually he decided that he could not remain president of his college and care for Muriel. When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation… ‘Had I not promised forty –two years before, “in sickness and in health … till death do us part?”’”
Dr. McQuilken writes of being surprised by people’ reaction to the announcement of his resignation. “It was a mystery to me, until a distinguished oncologist, who lives constantly with dying people, told me, ‘Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their woman.’ Thoughtfully Robert goes on to comment, “It is more than keeping promises and being faith; through. As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life’” (John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, p. 226).
The contrast between “it wasn’t meeting my needs” and “in sickness and in health” highlights the clash of values and commitments between our current culture’s excessive love of personal fulfillment and the deeper commitments of a Christian marriage. The clash of following Christ or following the dominant culture collides at the deep seated level of values. Furthermore the value clash is more than just individual. It exists on a communal level as well. For example, Christians may well debate with each other about how to best provide healthcare coverage for the hungry, homeless and hurting. What is not up for debate as a Christian is the basic commitment to care for the hungry, homeless and hurting. Christian values as transmitted by Christ commend that we take care of the sick (“I was sick and you took care of me.” Matthew 25:36.) Our Lord teaches us “when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Christian faith, belief and values to some degree exist in a constant contrast and clash with cultural values. Cultural values, however good, lack the compassion and depth of care that the Christian faith practices and teaches. Our current age (the second decade of the 21st century) is awash in a philosophical naturalism that promulgates human pleasure and self-aggrandizement above the greater spiritual good of obedience to the Lord and faithfulness in service to others.
Well over half a century ago (1949 to be exact) the great Christian theological and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a justly famous book entitled Christ and Culture. In the book he categorized five major ways Christians relate to the culture of their time and age. A brief summary is as follows (with a special thanks to Pattie Wood helping with background research):
- Christ against Culture
Christ has sole authority of us as Christians and rejects what the culture pulls us to join. This school of thought can be countered by Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Niebuhr writes, “Though there is no statement here that the Christian is obliged to participate in the work of the social institutions, to maintain or convert them, neither is there any express rejection of the state or of property as such” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 49).
- The Christ of Culture
Jesus was a part of the society of his time, and the forgiveness, grace and love He offers shows us that we should be fully immersed in the culture of the day. This school of thought does not see the tension between living as Christ directed and the culture in which we live. We are directed to follow Christ’s example, but we are not directed to live “like everyone else” where the sins of culture are fully acceptable. Niebuhr writes, “Jesus Christ is the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace. …But whatever the categories are by means of which he is understood, the things for which he stands are fundamentally the same – a peaceful, co-operative society achieved by moral training” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 92).
- Christ Above Culture (“Synthesists”)
As humans, we cannot attain full unity with Christ, who is above what we as Christians can achieve. Fully aware of this, synthesists affirm humanity, sin and free will while striving to meet the One above humanity. “…when he affirms both Christ and culture, he does so as one who knows that the Christ who requires his loyalty is greater and more complex in character than the easier reconciliations envisage. Something of the same sort is true of his understanding of culture; which is both divine and human in its origin, both holy and sinful, a realm of both necessity and freedom, and one to which both reason and revelation apply” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 121).
- Christ & Culture in Paradox (“Dualists”)
Dualists believe the problem is not between God and culture but between God and humans. God’s grace and act of reconciliation in Jesus is understood, as is human sin. They function in paradox: sinful and righteous, doubting yet believers, insecure and yet assured of salvation. “The dualist knows that he belongs to that culture and cannot get out of it, that God indeed sustains him in it and by it; for if God in His grace did not sustain the world in its sin it would not exist for a moment” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 156).
- Christ the Transformer of Culture (“Conversionists”)
With a more positive outlook than dualists or synthesists, conversionists believe in the distinction between God’s work and the work of humans. They try to remain obedient to God as savior and redeemer and try to live out the work of the Lord in our society. They hold a view of creations working in the created world under Christ; of the Fall as an act of Humans corrupted; and of God authoring all things and humans responding.
(For further information see https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2015/02/25/christ-and-culture-an-overview-of-a-christian-classic/ .)
Niebuhr’s classic typologies are helpful in clarifying our thinking. They challenge the thoughtful Christian to ask…where do I fit in? Do I live in a basic rejection of human culture and society? Or perhaps, I envision the way Christian values and Christ fit in with my current cultural values? Am I primarily withdrawn from culture appreciative of culture but standing above it? Perhaps I hold to the notion of Christ and human culture in irreducible paradox that must be tolerated but not embraced. Or maybe, just maybe, I hold fast to the conviction that as followers of Christ we must be constantly engaged in transforming human culture for the better.
Most of us, when given a choice, at least verbally ascent to some version of the last choice – with Christ, in obedience to Christ, we are committed to transforming human culture along the lines of a Christian vision. Then again the allure of the other options is far stronger than we typically realize. Furthermore, even in agreement, the goal to live with Christ transforming culture opens us to the greater debate of just how our modern culture is to be best transformed. Today’s chaos continues to swirl around us.
More in the next blog.