Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture, made a huge impact on me in seminary. (Occasionally, I'll review other books that have had such an effect on me, in hopes of inspiring you to read them and to be changed by them.)
Christ and Culture, published in 1951, has exerted a powerful influence on many spiritual and even secular leaders over the years. And it goes on influencing people.
Richard Niebuhr, born in Missouri in 1894 and died in 1962, was the son of a Protestant pastor. He was the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, another famous theologian. Richard earned his PhD at Yale and later taught at its Divinity School. He published many books.
In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr looked at Christ's relationship to culture, culture being the sum total of human expression, including religion, art, literature, music, languages, political systems, and much more.
After surveying the ways that Christ and culture relate--Christ in and with culture, Christ over and against culture, for instance--Niebuhr concludes his analysis with a plea for Christ "transforming culture."
Niebuhr's assumption is that culture is not fully what God intends it to be. It must change. Culture, including American culture, does not fully embody and express God's relentless and passionate concern for the poor and marginalized, for a just world, for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace among his children.
The role of Christians, therefore, as expressed in our Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer, is to repent of sin, to resist evil, to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being. In Baptism, we pledge to carry on Christ's work, furthering God's kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.
Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven...." Heaven--where everything conforms to God's loving plan, and not to the world's unloving plan-- is not just out there, beyond space and time; but heaven is, potentially, right here in the physical world and in everything that constitutes this world, including human beings, our relationships, government, institutions. Everything.
The New Testament writings proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is Lord of all--not just a part of our lives, that one hour of Sunday worship, the quick prayer in a moment of desperation, the "dues" we pay to the church, that carpenter-Gothic building at Kimbrough and Walnut Streets in Springfield, Mo., called Christ Episcopal Church.
No. Christ is Lord of all creation, ruling all things through active, loving concern. He rules most visibly (his hope is) through his disciples, everyone who acknowledges him as Savior and who follows him as Lord. To follow Jesus Christ means to conform one's life to his teaching and actions of love, mercy and justice. .
And we need plenty of help from God to do so, especially today.
Alas, too many Christians regard themselves as merely consumers of religious services. How can it be otherwise? We live in a consumer culture. I understand consumers of religion, because I used to be one. Perhaps I still am in some ways.
We consumers of religion might not articulate our relationship to Christ's church in just such a phrase, but, in the words of the Prayer Book, our many "things done and left undone" would demonstrate just such a relationship.
Consumers seek out the church primarily when we need something, such as a beautiful Christmas or Easter service, a place for a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, a priest to say a prayer at the bedside, preaching that confirms existing beliefs and choices, or some other specific service.
Please understand: It is good when people seek out the church, as I did a long time ago, even if it's just for a one-time service, because there is, at least, a chance that the church might become more than a spiritual mall.
Through the Spirit, church can become a community with Christ and others, where we consumers of religious services can begin to grow into the "full stature of Christ," as the writer of Hebrews puts it. This process is life-long and is completed in the life to come.
At the same time, increasing numbers of us consumers are weary of conforming, in St. Paul's words, to the world. Some of us are conforming ourselves to Christ by the renewal of our minds, which is usually painful, a kind of death-and-resurrection experience.
When we make that transition from conforming to the culture to conforming to Christ, we discover that our true and eternal identity is not that of consumers of religious services, but that of members of Christ's body, the church, and servants of Christ.
Engaged in daily conversion, as Trappist monk Thomas Merton put it, we're conforming to Christ--and being transformed by him--through our regular reading and study of the Bible; by taking an active part in Christian education weekly; by praying daily, worshiping weekly, giving generously and even sacrificially, joining other Christians in ministry.
In the words of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, we're learning and living Jesus Christ today.
The Episcopal Church and Christ Episcopal Church rightly and proudly proclaim that we welcome all people. And we do (and we can do a much better job of it).
We welcome religious consumers, in hopes that they'll meet the living God at a wedding or funeral or baptism or in a prayer at the bedside and start that life-long journey of growing in Christ.
And become part of what Richard Niebuhr aptly described--and called Christians to embrace--Christ transforming culture.