Reading and Writing Culture…

Posted by on Sep 16, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

In  Everyday Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer (the key editor of this fine collection of essays) laments what he calls the Great Omission, which he suggests is the failure of Christians to read the signs of the times. He particularly reproaches our inability to read culture and to write culture, and calls on Christians to increase their ‘cultural literacy’, so that we can both engage appropriately with our time, and make our own distinct mark on the world (writing culture).

The idea of  ‘writing culture’ caught my imagination, and I thought it worth exploring in this post – and as always, I do so with the hope that you will add your insights and thoughts as well.

One of the classic studies exploring the relationship of Christianity to Culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 publication Christ and Culture.  It continues to shape the way in which we think about the topic, even though the context in which Niebuhr wrote has now changed so significantly.

Niebuhr identifies five ways in which Christianity has responded to its relationship to culture. He speaks of:

1) Christ against culture, where the sacred and profane are seen in opposition to each other, and where the response is to withdraw from worldly matters. While this might appear to lead to a pure version of faith, in usually leads to an otherworldly spirituality that has minimal impact on the world.

2) The Christ of culture, where the sacred is discovered in culture, the danger being that the sacred and profane merge, so that in the end a genuine awareness of the sacred is lost. Its proponents are very much at home in their culture, sometimes to the point of compromising on Christian essentials.

3) Christ above culture notes that some compartmentalize the sacred and the profane. Christ is for the churchly sphere, culture for the realm of business. The overall system is usually a little too neat to be authentic, and leaves key areas of life unchallenged by the Christ event.

4) Christ and culture in paradox acknowledges the corrupt nature of culture, but recognizes that it is our embedding context from which we cannot be removed. We live in a time of struggle between faith and unbelief, and have the promise of life but still wait for its fulfilment. There is thus always a dualist tension with which to grapple.

5) Christ the transformer of culture proposes that all is permeated by the immanent presence of God in the world, and that rather than reject or assimilate to our culture, we should work to transform it.

If you think through your church background and tradition (if you have one), you will probably be able to identify which of these five views has dominated. But what do you think of Vanhoozer’s idea of writing culture?

It seems to me that the tone adopted is what will be crucial.

For too long we have travelled the road of ‘we are the font of all wisdom and knowledge and what we say is right, while what you propose is fallen and sinful and should be dismissed out of hand’. It has led to anger and deep resentment in the wider community, and a fairly fixed perception that the church is in the business of telling, but never listening. If we try to write culture in these prescriptive and oppressive tones, we will simply build a smug Christian ghetto – one in which we hear no dissenting voices, because the walls are so high that no alternate opinion can find its way through.

Because this has happened in the past, there are those who prefer to withdraw from the idea of ‘writing culture’. To them it sounds too militant and exclusive. But does it have to be this way?

I think not…

In writing culture we can compose as people who are culturally engaged – very aware of what others are saying and thinking, and fully understanding (even empathizing with) why they approach a topic as they do. Each age has its own particular pain and angst. We should listen to ours. Our script does not have to be seen as a counter to the script of our time, but rather an extension of it. It could add a new level of grappling  and struggling with ideas – one that doubts easy answers and which questions the smug sound bites that supposedly solve complex issues. Our contribution should often be to deepen a conversation, rather than to proclaim it invalid.

We can also explore winsome alternatives. They can be announced in an invitational (why not try…) rather than a proclamational (you must) tone. And we should be relaxed that many will want to simply tip toe onto this new territory for a fleeting glance – content to ponder it at leisure in the familiar setting of mainstream culture.

What does it require to write culture from a Christian perspective? It will be preceded by deep reflection on the significance of the life, death, resurrection and ultimate return of Jesus. Our approach to work, family, sex, marriage, money, power, nationality, recreation… must always be filtered through the Christian conviction that Christ has been born, Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. We understand our own humanity in the light of Christ’s perfect humanity. If he was willing to enter each human experience, why should we tred a different path?

I think that is why Vanhoozer calls us to be culturally engaged. If we engage as people impacted by the story of Jesus (and that not as a static one off experience, but an ongoing journey), we will discover that the story that has shaped us gives us words to speak to our time. While at times they might be words of challenge, often they will be words that encourage a slight shift in focus, a deeper look at some areas, or a new way of framing questions. And so we might help to write culture not just for the church, but also for those who seek genuine answers. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I know where the search for genuine answers ultimately leads…

As always, nice chatting…



  1. Brian, I love your sentence, “Our contribution should often be to deepen a conversation, rather than to proclaim it invalid” – so helpful. I think the practice of asking good thought-provoking questions in conversations can sometimes prove more fruitful than simply declaring our “Christian” point of view. I’d really like to get better at doing that!

    • Thanks Terry. I do think we miss so much when we refuse to genuinely discuss.It is such a pity, as we usually have a worthwhile contribution to make.

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