Who are we for Christ today? This is the central question for John Stackhouse’s new book Making the Best of it: Following Christ in the Real World. And let me say from the outset that this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read on Christian ethics.
Stackhouse explains that:
“Christian ethics, then, is not primarily about what to do rightly or wrongly, but fundamentally about what it is to be Christian in the world, what is proper to the profession and practice of Christian faith. Being Christian in the world is an identity, a motive, an agenda, and a posture, all of which lead to action.” (4)
He goes on to explain later that:
I have written this book because Christians in North America, but also in Britain, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other modern societies, typically encounter one or both of only two models of serious Christian engagement with the world and I think we need another – or, at least, most of us do. The one extant option is the option of cultural transformation, of totally reshaping society according to Christian values. This is the option espoused by the American religious right – and left. It is also expressed in the more refined accents of neo-Calvinism, the “world-formative” or “transformational” agenda of the tradition descending from Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck in the Netherlands of the late nineteenth century and extended into the twentieth century via Herman Dooyewood, D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, and Hans Rookmaaker. A similar movement is the approach of conservative Roman Catholicism, which seeks in its own way to influence culture along Christian lines and ideally to transform it into a thoroughly Christian enterprise … And liberation theologies, beginning with Gustavo Guiterrez and James Cone, articulate their respective social-transformational visions.
The main alternative on offer is the response of holy distinctiveness, of a definite Christian community living in contradistinction to the rest of society and thus offering the beneficial example and influence of an alternative way of life. In popular religious culture this shows up in Protestant sectarianism, whether in the enclaves of fundamentalism, the burgeoning but self-consciously marginal congregations of Pentecostalism, or the traditional communities of Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. This option also has its sophisticated versions, particularly in the community of thought arising out of Anabaptist John Howard Yoder and his Methodist epigone Stanley Hauerwas, and more recently out of the movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, identified with John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and others. Disgust with the religious right, and particularly with the comfortable alliance between evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, drives these Christians away from dubious cultural entanglements into fellowships of the dedicated that shine like cities on a hill above a plain on which Matthew Arnold’s confused armies war by night. From these places of integrity they offer what help they can to their neighbors while refusing any activity that would compromise their radical testimony to the gospel of new life. (5-6)
How might we conceive of an alternative to these options? Stackhouse turns to a heavily critiqued and generally out of favor source, namely H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Stackhouse acknowledges many of the criticisms of Niebuhr’s work and even offers a few of his own. However, Stackhouse believes that some of the critique of Niebuhr’s work stems from confusion over typology versus taxonomy.
Niebuhr offers a typology (not a taxonomy) of five ways church and culture interact: Christ Against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ in Paradox With Culture, and Christ Transforming Culture. “A typology is a kind of pure intellectual construct, a setting out of logical possibilities in a situation.” (32) One of the things about typologies is that they can usually be placed on a continuum or grid. Mixed types exist between the various pure or ideal types. “A taxonomy is a classification of things as they actually are in all their specificity.” (32) Think “kingdom, phylum, class, order, genus, species” here. The very aim of taxonomy is to eliminate gradations and mixed types. Many critics of Niebuhr’s work have mistaken his typological constructs as a taxonomy. When the categorizations failed to be useful, they discarded Niebuhr’s work altogether.
Few people or groups fit consistently within any of the typologies on all issues they encounter, yet most folks tend toward one of these modes as a dominant way of reconciling Christ and culture. Cultural context is critical factor as well. If we are living in Nazi Germany, then we may feel drawn to one type. We may be drawn to another type living in the midst of an open Western democracy. Furthermore, Stackhouse argues that different aspects of the same culture may elicit different responses from us.
The first two types (Christ against culture and Christ of culture) can be viewed as two extremes with the other three being types that find degrees of tension and conjunction between the two. Niebuhr identified with the fifth type: Christ transforming culture. (Even so, Hauerwas labels Niebhur “The Chaplin to Power.”) Stackhouse points out that those who gravitate to this type have tended to operate according to one of three modes: 1) converting individuals, 2) constructing Christian institutions (alternative institutions offered in the hope that they become sufficiently attractive that others are drawn to them) and 3) conquering existing institutions with legitimate power (the mode of liberal Protestants, liberation theologians, the religious right, and Christian socialists to name a few.) (29) I suspect that this fifth type is the one most American Christians would likely identify with.
Stackhouse characterizes his position as a melding of four and five (Christ in Paradox with Culture and Christ transforming culture.) Four can rightly be criticized for becoming to accommodating to culture. Yet five often suffers from a manic hubris that debilitates achieving realistic levels of shalom. Somewhere between complacency and idealism is the right tension. This is what Stackhouse aims for.
The book can almost be divided into two books. Chapters 2, 3, and 4, are reviews of how C. S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer each struggled to relate Christ and culture in their work and lives. The second part of the book does not build directly on these three vignettes but clearly dives into the issues highlighted by these scholars.
Echoing the sentiments of N. T. Wright in the book I reviewed yesterday, Stackhouse writes, “We do not go back to the garden, and we do not go up to heaven. We go forward to the New Jerusalem.” (200) In some way, our efforts and energies in this life are redeemed and carry forward into the new creation. Unlike Wright, Stackhouse repeatedly makes the connection between this understanding and what it means for our work-a-day existence in the world. And he does so compellingly.
I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was for me to read this book. I’ve often thought of my “Christ and Culture” perspective as a “radical realist.” This was my way of capturing the tension between doggedly pursing the greatest shalom within the confines of the knowledge that shalom cannot be fully consummated until the new creation. It is this ongoing tension in my life that has led me to such ambivalent relationships with Evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and emerging church. It is not often that I read a book that so clearly articulates the nuance and tension I see in living out the Christian life. There is simply too much here for me to summarize in this review.
The book is long and meaty, but well written. It is going on my shelf right next to Miroslav Volf’s (who endorsed this book) Work in the Spirit and Darrel Cosden’s A Theology of Work. (That means the Kruse book hall of fame.) Whether you are a Christian wrestling with culture or a pastor leading a congregation of folks who are, this is a must read!