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December 06, 2005


Dana Ames

Hey Bill, the TSKiwi's blog continues and this conversation has been left in the dust... But I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your clarification, and I did not feel picked on. So thanks.

My thoughts on this are very much informed by Wright and Willard ("Our God-Bathed World" section of "Divine Conspiracy"), and what I understand from Robert Webber as the Christus Victor focus of the early church. My understanding is, God has redeemed, through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. It's a done deal. From the Ascension and Pentecost on, it's a matter of that redemption (new creation) being worked out. This surely involves culture- culture exists because people exist and express themselves, and that expression intersects and influences the lives of all in a given people group. Cultural paradigms also influence how we treat non-human life & non-living things. I see it all linked together.

I get your point about Christ being over and above culture. Of course! To me, the fact that it's so obvious and yet so difficult to put words around means that you (we) must be on to something.... :)

Try to get some rest. God bless you.



Bill I have been following this some. I haven't read Niebuhrs book so I can't grasp his intent even in the past. However, just from our conversations and this virtual dialogue I have some thoughts.

I think that what was appropriate for his era is not appropriate in ours. We no longer have the issue of seeing in modernistic strokes. There is no dichotomy of sacred and secular, all is God's and is being redeemed and restored. As soon as Niebuhr wrote a book entitled "Christ and Culture" with these typologies he was creating, or claiming a dichotomy between christ and culture. This is no longer helpful. With that said, I do believe that it can be a springboard for dialogue. Niebuhr may have articulated his musings in his period appropriately, but those articulations are no longer helpful. We need new articulations and new language.

As far as culture is concerned, it is much more complex than how it is being presented. By Niebuhr positing typologies of culture and christ he is insinuating that both are not holistically one (I agree w/ Dana). I think they are. What God is doing in the world is happening in culture because we all are enculturated. We all are prisoners of our culture whether we want to be or not. God is moving through us and we are moving culture. God's mission in redeeming and restoring creation to its intended place is going to involve culture. It is not a matter of whether we should see culture as something to be engaged with, but as the enviroment where God redeems. If culture is the norms, values, and attitudes of a given society, then God is not seperate from culture but within it. The two cannot be seperated.


Then why do people make value judgments about what needs to be redeemed about culture? What is the source for those judgments? If you say the Bible or Christ or the gospel then we've come right back to the categories that Niebuhr proposed.

I agree that we can't escape culture. I also agree that God is in culture--he is immanent--but he is also transcendent. He is above creation as well as a part of it.

Is there anything specific that is normative for life? (i.e. scripture, tradition, etc.) If there is than that means there have to be at least two influences on a person. There is some kind of duality and multiple approaches to approaching that duality. Am I making any sense?


I don't know what you are raising in the last paragraph.

Culture is the expressions of a given society. There is no culture apart from the people. A culture cannot be redeemed outside of a people group. Culture is the expression of the people group. The peoples values and norms need to be redeemed and reappropriated to God's values and norms in a given context. This is where the people of God come in. We are called as participants in all spheres of our lives to do things the way God would have us do them. If you agree that we are enculturated then we cannot step outside culture, and judge it. We can only be inside of it contributing our values, and norms, so that the entire societies values and norms become God-like. Culture is not something apart from us. We determine the expression of culture. We are on mission with God to bring God's reign to all places and all people. The focus is not culture but people.

If individuals feel the need to make value judgements on what expressions they endorse or condone then those value judgements can be based on christ/scripture without Niehbur's categories. However our goal should not be to rebuke our neighbors values and behavior but for us to do it differently. We can say "I choose to do it this way instead." We are all participating and contributing to culture (what the norms and values of our society is). We are not up against an objective culture we subjectively participating in our societies expressions of values and norms.

These are two assumptions of Niebuhr that I would not share:

1. You can't assess and judge a big "C-ulture" because it is comprised of a plethora of little "c-ultures"

2. After reading some of your posts before-hand I would fundamentally disagree with Niehbur's understanding of human nature, sin and the imago dei. (We can chat about this one later, there isn't enough space here ;)

I am not sure if we are missing each other on this one, we can chat later.


You wrote:
"The peoples values and norms need to be redeemed and reappropriated to God's values and norms in a given context."

That makes it sound as if you are subscribing to the transformationist view at least to some extent.

What the typology seeks to show is that there are other views than yours or mine...other ways that Christians approach the world around them. Actually, some would say that we all exhibit all of the types in different ways.

You wrote:
"We can only be inside of it contributing our values, and norms, so that the entire societies values and norms become God-like."

Where are you getting your information for what "God-like" means? That's what I was getting at in that last paragraph. There is something outside of you that influences your decisions about what should be redeemed and how. Those in the "Christ of Culture" go to the extreme of understanding Christ ACCORDING TO the best of what they see in culture. Those in "Christ Against Culture" tend to think anything "worldly" is all bad and choose to remain separate from it in some ways. Notice I'm trying to talk in generalities because the point is not that it all works perfectly.

The point of the typology should not necessarily be to say who's right or wrong. The point is to understand other ways of processing the engagement of faith in Christ with the world around us.

As you said, we'll have to chat later. It's a lot easier to do this in person!


I just had an epiphany. I think a lot of people approach Niebuhr thinking that he is prescribing a specific view for how Christians ought to proceed with their ethics. I wonder if it would clear things up a bit of they just realized it's a way of describing the different approaches people take, right or wrong. I'm not saying that no judgments can be made. I'm just saying that the typology is the starting point for conversations.

Having said that, I realize that there are problems with the typologies framework as set forth by Niebuhr. This is why my paper advocates for "extensive revisions."


Bill, we can continue this in person, however I like writing as well.

Miroslav Volf has written a paper here that I think is helpful.

I had a whole post going but then I deleted because of this. I think that we have fundamentally different understandings of the church and culture. I can see Niehbur's typologies working on the popular culture end, but I am highly dubious about this working for an anthropologist or missiologist.

Just from our responses I gather that you are working in a dualistic paradigm, which is not plausible to me. I am in agreement with that Niebuhr's typologies can be a spring board for some in western thought but they cannot succeed even with "extensive revisions." I see them as destructive for holistic thinking and a hinderance for the integration of all of creation. His framework philosophically is dichotomistic and I don't see the world in this manner. I think that this conversation is more than language and rhetoric on our parts, it is essence. I am gathering that we may have differing epistomological understandings.

Can you define (Niebuhr's) definitions of church and culture, and your own understanding of them?


BTW, is this how Del Gray taught us to do scholarly criticism? ;)


Brother, I think my computer is finally on its last legs. It's been freezing up on me all night. I wrote a long response to you and lost it all.

I just want to say a few quick things:

1. Maybe I'm playing the devil's advocate too much. I don't think we disagree as much as you're saying.

2. I don't think my view of culture is fully formed enough to make any definitive statements.

3. I hear what you're saying about dichotomies, but it almost seems like what you're advocating is some kind of monism. That is to say that everything is of one essence. Since I don't believe that (and doubt you do either), I can talk about two distinct variables, if you will: God and creation.

What does God want me to do as a part of his creation? D.M. Yeager points out that for every x and y we can imagine at least five relations:

1. they are identical
2. they are incompatible on all points
3. they are related sequentially
4. they are related reconfiguratively
5. they are related paradoxically

I think I'm somewhere in between 3 & 4 with a dash of 5. You seem to be saying there is no separate x and y. But then how do you account for the fact that various Christians deal with and perceive the world in different ways than you or I do?

Better go before:

a. my battery dies
b. my screen goes completely dim
c. the computer freezes up again
d. i take the whole thing and chuck it out the window


Bill - I may obtuse so forgive me but I'm not sure why you're so kean to pursue Niebuhr's typologies. Yes they can be a starting point for discussion, but what's the topic of the discussion - perhaps it should be that Niebuhr's typologies have unhelpfully constrained us in doing missional church, in being contextualised? Just a thought & i hope you get your paper sorted soon.


Brodie, it's probably me that's being obtuse. I think I just got into a cycle of defending it because of my thesis for the paper. It's not like I love the book or anything.

I have a class on Theology and Culture at Fuller starting in January and Niebuhr's book is one of our required readings. It will be interesting to see how the professor (John Drane) references it.

Dana Ames

Whoa, you lucky dog! Taking a class of that caliber with John Drane! Makes my mouth water just thinking about it!

On further thought, perhaps a bit of teasing out of the knot of the idea of "culture" might be in order. What is culture but an aggregation of actions? One can certainly critique actions, with or without knowing about motivations.

(This is a place where you can insert some of what you've been learning at Fuller in those classes...)


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