This article is one of the best I’ve read on Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture in a long time. I think it has a good handle on what Niebuhr was trying to say and summarizes the various critiques to his theories- and I say this having read a lot on this topic.
Read Guenther’s article for yourself here.
This article is also the most challenging to what I am trying to accomplish through my blog- namely, to find examples of Christians engaging their world and characterize them by one of Niebuhr’s perspectives. Sometimes this project of mine is difficult because it is hard to summarize one person into only one category. This article, in quoting Yoders famous critique of Niebuhr, explains this difficulty
In order for his [Niebhur’s] types to work, culture must be accepted or rejected uniformly as a single bloc, without any qualification; “one must either withdraw from it all, transform it all, or keep it all in paradox.”
I don’t think this is what I’ve been trying to do. If so, Marsden’s perspective is better (as summarized by the article):
Niebuhr’s types do capture real aspects of the ongoing cultural analysis and discernment that always needs to be present among Christians, but the types are better understood as “leading motifs” or themes with respect to specific cultural activities.
In other words, rather than stereotype someone by one of Niebuhr’s five perspectives, it is better to say that in one particular instance they are acting with this specific perspective.
Since we all shift between these perspectives, it is fair to say,
The first four types are perhaps best seen as different strategies for accomplishing the transformation or influence of culture described in the fifth type [Christ Transforming Culture]
Last the article discusses the Christology of Niebuhr and what this has to do with culture. Some accuse this as a false dichotomy. I have taken Niebuhr as saying that how one views Christ affects how you engage your culture. This makes Niebuhr’s Christology irrelevant and the theology of the example paramount. If you have a low view of Christ (which I extend to theology in general) then you will be one of the two radical positions because your doctrine of Christ matters less to you than how you should interact (or avoid) culture. Conversely if you have a high view of Christ (and sin and redemption, which I believe goes hand-in-hand with your doctrine of Christ) you will be in the centrist perspectives to culture. Sure Niebuhr’s Christology is mamby-pamby, wishy-washy, and relativistic but that isn’t his point in this book.