Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Aristocratic Missionalism

The second of Niebuhr's five options regarding the relationship of Christ to culture is dubbed "The Christ of Culture." This position, Niebuhr argues, is adopted by those who hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, and has been represented by the early Gnostics, Abelard, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, and the various "culture-Protestants" who have dominated the religious scene since the eighteenth century.

Advocates of "The Christ of Culture" are to be congratulated, Niebuhr maintains, for making Jesus appear less alien than he does in the "Christ Against Culture" mindset.
"The cultural Christians tend to speak to the cultured among the despisers of religion.... They are missionaries to the aristocracy and the middle class, or to the groups rising to power in a civilization. "
The main difficulty with this view, argues Niebuhr, is that its watered-down flavor is so diluted that it fails to win the respect of true pagans or the truly pious. Carson remarks that:
"[Pagan writers] suspect that what is to them a compromised position will weaken the purity of their paganism, or of their liberalism, or of their Marxism—just as, from the other side, the orthodox suspect that these cultural Christians have sacrificed too much of what is essential to Christianity. "
From where I sit, I see a disturbingly fair amount of this "aristocratic missionalism" in my own circles. The main difference, though, is that the much-coveted prize is not so much the respect of politicians or scientists as it was in Niebuhr’s day, but the props of the bohemian, soul-patched Gen X-er (the well-inked Gen Y-er works, too, but he doesn’t tithe).

The way this plays out in the contemporary scene is in our obsession with "the arts" and "the city," and our palpable disinterest in anything that likes NASCAR, wears a blue collar, and rocks a John Deere cap unironically.

In biblical terms, these are the same people who would have bragged to Jesus about how impressively ornate their temple was, right before he pronounced that not one of its edgy, postmodern stones would be left upon another.