JERUSALEM AND ATHENS - CHRIST AND CULTURE
In 198 C.E. the theologian Tertullian wrote a treatise called Prescriptions against Heretics. In that treatise he warns Christians against succumbing to the wiles of philosophical wisdom over against the wisdom found in Scripture. To be guided by worldly wisdom is to engage in heresy. He asked, What does Jerusalem have to Athens? That question has persisted through the centuries and is a prominent one today, whether we are aware of it or not. More often than not, it is couched in such language as the tension between Christ and culture. Some lament the deleterious effects culture has had on the Christian faith and community. Others maintain that many aspects of culture have had a positive influence on who we are, both as individuals and as Christians. Do not literature, movies, and the arts, in general, reflect something about the human condition, whether noble or ignoble?
In 1949 H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale Divinity School delivered some lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary under the title “Christ and Culture.” These lectures were published in 1951 under the same title and has become a classic in conversations having to do with the relationship between the church and culture. Niebuhr offers five paradigms that reflect different perspectives on this issue: Christ Against Culture, the Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture.
In 1999 George Marsden offered a reevaluation of Niebuhr’s paradigms in lectures at Austin Seminary’s Mid-Winter Lectures. Others have also weighed in on this issue, especially as the issue is exhibited in this country -- for example, Bradley Longfield’s Presbyterians and American Culture: A History (2013); Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (2003); and Stephen Nichols’ Jesus: Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of Christ (2008).
For many, beneath the general issue of the relationship between Christ and culture is the issue of how we read and interpret Scripture. Is it possible to view Scripture as the divinely-inspired Word of God and, at the same time, written by real human beings who lived in real time in the real world? Do we allow the Spirit to work on us, in us, and through us as we read Scripture? Are we governed by the letter of the message or the spirit of the message? Can the same passage of Scripture affect us in different ways at different times in our lives, or can it only be read in one way?
Just as Scripture informs our view of the world, can culture inform our understanding of Scripture? What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? What does Christ have to do with culture? What does the church have to do with the world? These are questions that are as much alive today as they were in Tertullian’s day, and we would be foolish to ignore them. We continue to struggle with them just as earlier generations have done so. As we make history today, may we be faithful and may we be honest in our conversations with each other. And, whether we agree or disagree, may we not give up on each other.