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You are what you read

"You are what you read" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

In the meantime, the question is what Christians should do when faced with a hostile culture. Give in? Withdraw? Or try to change the culture?

Cultural rulers

Another of Niebuhr's models is "Christ above Culture." Instead of letting the culture rule the church, the church should rule the culture. In this view, God's Word offers the template for earthly government and for all of life. Christians need to take over and exert their rule in society. While separatists tend to be premillennialists, as in the Left Behind books, believing that things will inevitably go from bad to worse until Jesus comes back, the cultural rulers tend to be postmillennialists, believing that Christians will first establish the kingdom of God on earth, whereupon Christ will then return.

The cultural rulers also have their integrity, though they can be accused of forgetting that Christ's kingdom is "not of this world" (John 18:36), substituting an earthly, even a political agenda, for the eternal life offered in the gospel. But not to worry. The top 100 bestsellers show no trace of this position.

Cultural engagers

Niebuhr's "Christ and culture in Paradox" view sees the church and the society as two different spheres. Under the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, God rules both. He brings people into His spiritual kingdom through the gospel of Christ, giving Christians eternal life and leading them by His Word. God also reigns in the world, even among sinners and those who reject Him. By virtue of His creation and His providential workings, He already rules. Christians are citizens of both kingdoms, called by faith into His church, and called in their earthly vocations-as members of families, as citizens, and as workers with diverse gifts-to love and serve their neighbors in the world.

There is tension between these two kingdoms, to be sure. But those who think in these terms often see value in the contributions of secular culture, seeing God at work in civil government (Romans 13), the work of human beings exercising the gifts He has given them, and social institutions, from the family to civilizations, that He has made possible.

To be sure, there are often conflicts in and between these spheres, with the devil throwing a monkeywrench into God's designs. But God cannot be thwarted for long. His moral law is not just for Christians-who are made such not by the law but by the gospel-but for His earthly kingdom as well. In this model, Christians are to be fully engaged in their cultures.

Perhaps a trace of Two Kingdoms theology can be found in the openness of CBA readers to the secular wisdom of those "Lists to Live By." It is certainly found in those Christians who might find something of value both in a Christian bookstore and in a secular bookstore. Nevertheless, the top 100, as a whole, show little cultural engagement at all.

Cultural transformers

Niebuhr's final model, which he offers as something of a solution and synthesis of the best of the other models, is "Christ, Transformer of Culture." This model acknowledges that Christianity and culture are not the same, that sin distorts society. Christians nevertheless are to be engaged in the world, living out their faith so that they are salt and light in a bland and dark world. Christians, under this model, should indeed apply God's higher law to change the culture, when it needs to be changed, doing what they can, in small as well as large ways, to exert a positive Christian influence throughout the society.

Transformers change the culture not so much by exerting power, nor even by enforcing the moral law (as if nonbelievers could ever be truly moral). Rather, change is a result of the gospel. Christ changes lives, which results in changed institutions and changed societies. Those who have come to faith in Christ live differently and make their worlds a better place, both as they evangelize others and as they live out their vocations in response to Christ's forgiveness.

Transformers do recognize the sin in the world, and they combat it. They may be engaged in political action, but their main weapon is the gospel, bringing it to prisoners, drug addicts, alcoholics, broken families, and others whose lives seem ruined. Sometimes transformers work in subtler ways-changing the atmosphere of the workplace, standing up for what is right in school or the office, applying God's Word to build strong families, and doing what they can to see that God's will is done "on earth as it is in heaven."

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