Christianity and Popular Culture
In his classic work Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr asserts that the relationship between earnest followers of Jesus Christ and human culture has been an "enduring problem."1 How should believers who are "disciplining themselves for the purpose of godliness" (1 Tim. 4:7) relate to a world whose culture is dominated by "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life" (1 John 2: 16)? Culture is God's gift and task for human beings created in His image and likeness. At creation humanity received a "cultural mandate" from the sovereign Creator to have dominion over the earth and to cultivate and keep it (Gen. 1:26, 28; 2:15). But sin's effects are total, and culture—whether high, popular, or folk—has been corrupted thoroughly by rebellion, idolatry, and immorality. How, then, should Christians, who have been redeemed, "not with perishable things like gold or silver . . . but with precious blood, as of a lamb, unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ" (1 Pet. 1:18-19) live in relation to culture? According to Jesus in His high priestly prayer, believers are to be in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16). But in what way? How do believers act in and interact with the "crooked and perverse generation" (Phil. 2:15) that surrounds them and of which they are a part?
This is not an easy question, and yet the Church cannot avoid responding to it. Over the centuries, various Christian communities have developed alternative perspectives on this very influential Christ-culture connection. In the extreme, some believers have advocated a complete rejection of culture (Anabaptists, fundamentalists), while others at the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum have promoted a more or less uncritical acceptance of it (liberals of various stripes). Niebuhr refers to these two groups as the "Christ against Culture" and the "Christ of Culture" traditions, respectively. The first group promotes Christ but tends to denigrate culture, while the second group promotes culture but tends to denigrate Christ. Both are unbalanced and are corrected by "Churches of the Center" that seek to do justice to both Christ and culture, though they articulate the relationship between them in different ways.
Roman Catholics tend to view the gospel as the completion of culture. Despite positive contributions, human cultural enterprises always fall short of divine intentions and must be fulfilled by God's gracious work of redemption in Christ and through the Church. Grace, according to this tradition, perfects nature. Christ is above culture and completes it.
Lutherans, on the other hand, prefer to emphasize how the gospel creates remarkable tensions with culture. Christians are citizens of two kingdoms—God's and the world's—and faithfully fulfilling responsibilities to both realms creates enormous, if not impossible, challenges. How difficult it is to render simultaneously the things that are...