19 October 2006

Christ & Counterculture.

Here is the latest in the Christian Vision Project's series of commissioned essays responding to the question, "How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?" Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain takes on the question in terms of the categories elucidated by H. Richard Niehbur in his work Christ & Culture, a classic treatment of the subject and a seminary staple. For Elshtain, the question seems to presuppose either a "Christ against culture" or "Christ as transformer of culture" paradigm. But, she avers, not so fast:

". . . In our time, these are not mutually exclusive. As a stand-alone posture, against too often turns into brittle condemnation, a stance of haughty (presumed) moral superiority, wagons circled. Transform on its own may degenerate into naïve idealism, even utopianism, a stance concerning which Dietrich Bonhoeffer reserved some of his most severe words. The radical begrudges God his creation, Bonhoeffer insists, for the radical seeks a self-sovereignty incompatible with recognition of our indebtedness to others in the past as well as the present. The radical is all ultimacy, prepared to sacrifice the penultimate, the here and now, for some eschatological goal.

Avoiding these extremes, we must see Christ against and for, agonistic and affirmative, arguing and embracing. This is complex but, then, Christianity is no stranger to complexity. One of the glories of the faith historically has been its wonderful intricacy, the way in which it engages the intellect, helping us to "serve God wittily, in the tangle of our minds," words uttered by the St. Thomas More character in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. What can Christians embrace in the here and now? The blessings are all around us. In my book Who Are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities, I tell the story of one of our grandsons, who, when he was but two years old, exclaimed one beautiful sunny morning as he was swinging in the backyard: "Grandma, everything is everywhere!" I loved those words then and I love them now. They remind us of how much there is to be grateful for and how easy it is to take it all for granted.

I don't want to wax romantic and sound like Wordsworth extolling daffodils, but it is hard not to sound that way if one attempts to describe the beauties of creation. Even St. Augustine, wary as he was of worldly pleasure and beauty, couldn't help himself. Why is everything so beautiful? he asked. It is as if the very trees and flowers long to be known; indeed, the flowers lift their faces to us. Augustine's great biographer, Peter Brown, notes Augustine's "immoderate love of the world." That love includes friendship and family and the canny ways human beings craft and build and care. . ."

I notice, by the way, that the estimable Brazos Press's new list includes has a reassesment of Niehbur's paradigms - Christ and Culture: a Post-Christendom Rethinking, by Craig Carter.


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