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Becoming All Things, Spoiling the Egyptians, and Occupying Culture till Christ Comes

 

The 50th Anniversary edition of Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr.

Furthermore, Richard Niebuhr’s now classic Christ and Culture explicates five possible attitudes toward culture for Christians.14 John Stackhouse notes that Evangelicals tend to approach culture most commonly through the “Christ transforming culture” model. This suggests that culture, somewhat like individuals, can be converted and become more Christ-like. It stresses God’s original creativity in conjunction with the subsequent distortional impact of sin and appeals to the restorative power of grace and faith. However, Stackhouse suggests Evangelicals today need to consider more carefully Niebuhr’s “Christ and culture in paradox.”15 In the paradoxical relation between Christ and culture, Christians live with strong tension. They believe that God has ordained worldly institutions and therefore they may be, though in a limited sense because of the strident reality of sin, recognized and utilized; but, also that the Kingdom of God is penetrating the world here and now with a holy alternative in the power of the Spirit. In either of these cases, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in Christ’s dealing with culture, both sin and grace are always evident and the balancing act is never easy.

I suggest that Origen and Niebuhr’s views are consistent with Apostle Paul’s courageous ministry among the Corinthians. He declared himself willing to “become all things” to them under the standard of Christ as the lawful norm (1Co 9:19-23). Soards, commenting on this passage, explains that, “the gospel is not relativized to worldly social conditions that are no more than contemporary social structures and sensibilities; rather, the apostle himself becomes relativized in order to preserve the integrity of the gospel.”16 The point is that Paul not inconsistently uses whatever he can from the cultures he encounters in order effectively to share the gospel but is not brought under binding power to any of it (cf. 1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). Pentecostal Pauline scholar Gordon Fee calls this “Paul’s apostolic freedom,” and notes that it applies an “accommodation” not of the gospel message but of “how one lives or behaves among those one wishes to evangelize”.17 Speaking anachronistically, in my opinion this kind of dynamic “pre-modern postmodernism” is precisely what is called for today. Accordingly, this biblical-conceptual-theological framework will inform my subsequent reflections.

Essentially, I will suggest that Christians, including Pentecostals and Charismatics, should take what they can find of value from postmodernism, use it in building better relations with contemporary culture for faithful performance of ecclesial mission, and yet always carefully gauge everything by Jesus Christ as the measuring norm or guiding standard. Possibly aspects of postmodernism may even be of benefit to Pentecostalism. I will first define postmodernism a bit more carefully, and then describe suggestive ways contemporary Christians involved in leadership and church related ministries might apply its insights.

Mention has already been made of the interrelatedness of culture and postmodernism. Now a slightly more substantive statement is necessary. Bouchard notes that, “Culture entails every aspect of the social, artistic, and linguistic environment” of humanity existence. Furthermore, he notes that it includes “particular” and “universal” aspects of the human condition.18 Essentially, culture is an interpretative framework for bringing meaning and purpose to the human existential condition. According to Bouchard, biblically, culture can be perceived as both promise and problem because of the dual realities of God’s creative action and humanity’s sinful condition.19 Not surprisingly, there have been vastly differing approaches even by Christians for dealing with culture. Bouchard perceptively proposes that whatever particular theory of culture one adopts, maintaining a “critical, prophetic imperative” is always important. Thus, Christians can “identify idolatries and pretensions” of culture, including religious culture, and be “self-critical” and even, if necessary, “call culture into judgment.” In fact, this is possibly the only way successfully to survive the changes in culture and theology commonplace in contemporary society.20 Pentecostals do well to take note. Hereby we may rise above cultural reliance without falling below cultural relevance (cf. Livermore, Donev).

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2009

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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