Sweet and Sour

Richard Niebuhr

‘There’s nothing like a bit of Richard Niebhur on the first night!’… so I said to Barry as he led a conversation on the relationship between Christian faith and culture at our first Collide gathering of the year. We are having a little series called You are what you eat, using different dishes to help us think about issues relating to our faith. Last nights questions focused on:

  • When is Christianity sweet  to the surrounding culture? i.e. When does our surrounding culture feel comfortable with Christian faith?
  • When does Christianity leave a sour taste in the mouth for a world that does not seem to share its values?
Niebuhr’s classic work of over fifty years ago ‘Christ and Culture’, remains a valuable tool to help us think about how we relate to the world around us. Niebuhr observed that there are five ways in which Christianity has approached its relationship with the prevailing culture:
  1. Christ against Culture
  2. Christ of Culture
  3. Christ above Culture
  4. Christ and the Culture in paradox.
  5. Christ transforming Culture
You can still purchase Niebuhr’s book or google the title for a more detailed synopsis!
The world today is light years away from Niebuhr’s world. As I observe the culture in which I live and work, it is dominated by number of worrying trends. Alcohol overuse, drug use, sexual experimentation, a rise in mental health problems are just the tip of the iceberg. I have walked streets in Belfast and in Ibiza and wondered, what on earth is going on? What is going to happen to this generation? Where will this all lead? You could walk the streets of any large town in Britian and Ireland and think the same.
Yet Niebuhr’s work helps me. Do I condemn this culture? Do I impose my culture? Do I put up with it and live with the tension of the stark contrast between this culture and my own values? Do I embrace the culture? Do I campaign for the transformation of the culture? We had a great conversation last night throwing up the need to think through all five of the responses and the need to see that what we thought about last night isn’t just theory, but needs to impact how we approach life and people today.. on a Monday.. in class, in work, in our social space. What I know is I have a heart for the people living in this culture, and I constantly need to have humble confidence and trust in what I believe even though there are countless times when it will be in tension with what happens all around me.
Next week… we are going to eat a lot of sweet stuff! A night to keep the dentistry profession in work!



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