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Countercultural Christianity

15 June 2009

The relationship between Christianity and culture has always produced a lot of discussion. Missiologists, who study the way in which Christianity spread from one culture to another, discuss it a lot. They use words like “inculturation”. And they as questions like: Does Christianity become embedded in culture? Do cultures become Christianised? and so on.

And then there is also the sense in which Christianity is countercultural, and is seen as a rebellion against the predominant culture, and when this happens, persecution of Christians often follows.

I recently came across the following article Rod Dreher’s Monastic Vision – The New Yorker: An orthodox Christian says his side has lost the culture wars—and argues for a “strategic retreat.”

The thing that interests me about that is the term “culture wars”. What do they mean by that, and which are the sides? I’m not specifically concerned with Rod Dreher’s response — I’ve already said something about that here. Seeing Christians as being on one side in a culture war is one particular response to the question of Christianity and culture, and is an example of countercultural Christianity.

When I read the term “culture wars” I think immediately of the Kulturkampf of Bismarck in Prussia against the Roman Catholic Church, and I suppose there is always a Kulturkampf when Christianity finds itself at odds with secular culture, though in the case of Prussia the struggle was initiated by the State.

These different relations between Christianity and culture were succinctly described by an American Protestant theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr:

  • Christ against Culture
  • Christ of Culture
  • Christ above Culture
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox
  • Christ Transforming Culture

There are several possible ways of interpreting these, but I think that the article on Rod Dreher’s Monastic Vision envisages only two: Christ above culture and Christ against culture. If the culture cannot be forced to conform to a Christian vision of society, then the Christ against culture model is adopted. That is the countercultural model, and is what seems to lie behind the “Benedict Option”.

I have a certain amount of sympathy with that.

St Xenia, Fool for Christ of St Petersburg: a countercultural saint

I grew up with the Christ against culture model. The official government ideology of South Africa, apartheid, propagated the idea of salvation by race not grace, and for them the first and greatest commandment was, in effect, “Let not God join together what man has put asunder” (cf Mark 10:9). People talked about, and sometimes even tried what Rod Dreher calls the “Benedict Option”, and what in Nazi Germany was called the Confessing Church. There have been many other instances of such a thing throughout history From the beginning of the Christian movement. Jesus himself emerged from such a group, the Pharisees, who were fighting their own cultural wars in 1st-century Judaea.

About 25 years ago another Orthodox Christian, Frank Schaeffer, took much the same line as the “Benedict Option”, and wrote several books. Most of them were a sustained attack on American culture. I heard him speaking on this topic at a mission conference in 1995. He called for a Kulturkampf and “an Orthodoxy with teeth”. A Russian bishop who was present replied to him, warning, “be careful that the people you want to bite don’t grow bigger teeth and bite you back.”

Orthodox Christians have found themselves, at various stages of history, engaged with all five of Niebuhr’s models. Much depends on the culture in question, the period of history and the degree of hostility. There was a Kulturkampf with Peter the Great in Russia, whose aims were quite similar to Bismarck’s. It became more intense under the Bolsheviks, and has become more subtle in the post-Bolshevik period. The West has engaged in its own Kulturkampf against Orthodoxy. And Many Orthodox live in Muslim-majority countries where it takes a different form.

But let us be careful when we talk about “culture wars”. Which sides are there, and which sides are we on? And is there not a time to say that Jesus has not come to take sides but to take over? That both sides are fighting for secular causes?

Those who talk about “culture wars” often fail to specify these things. They seem to assume that everyone knows which is the right side, that they don’t have to say what they actually stand for.

And when I look at the article on Rod Dreher’s monastic vision I see quite a lot that I agree with, but there are some things that are vague and some that are missing. What’s vague is the nature of the culture war and its sides. And what’s missing is any mention of Dorothy Day, or of the Death to the World Punx2Monks movement. But maybe they are mentioned in the book.

I’ve written about some of these topics elsewhere, which I’ve tried not to repeat too much here, so you can find more here:




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