Christ, Culture, and Academic Research

painting of Christ

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

To correct, to rebuke, to edify, or build up – these all describe the full gamut of purposes that God’s word serves in the Christian’s engaging of human culture. H. Richard Niebuhr looked at 2000 years of Christian response to the societies and civilizations it has existed in tandem with, and Niebuhr observed that it amounts to five basic ways:

  1. Christ Against Culture
  2. The Christ of Culture
  3. Christ Above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture

Each of these suggests a different but interrelated approach to the Christian mission of learning, correcting, rebuking, and edifying. Take, for example, the typical critical paper, an assigned task involving a subject we (perhaps) find mildly interesting, with research we endure, and a written document we dread. While I would be remiss to suggest that we can ever entirely remove these obstacles, what would happen if we consider this assignment an opportunity for bringing together Christ and culture?

Christ Against Culture

Sometimes the message of Christ is a threat to the dominant cultural trends. It rebukes corruption and power abuse and lies. It highlights our deceived, misguided attempts to manipulate and defile each other. Neither literature nor the criticism of literature is immune from sin. At times, the most Christian thing to do is to argue an insightful critique that reveals the consequences of sin. This takes research. To be able to show how Aeschylus’ view of women distorts the just society or to set out the contradictions in a Marxist reading of Augustine does a service to readers. It teaches us a precise, truer way. Of course, such a position has its dangers for us. Unlike Christ, we are fallen and fallible ourselves. Always researching to show why something is wrong puts us at risk of ending up judgmental and egotistic, unwilling to learn from another and mistaking our own voice for that of Christ’s. To help us, then, Christians need more than one stance in regards to culture.

The Christ of Culture

At other times, instead of posing a threat to the predominant culture, Christ’s message is reflected in its surrounding civilization. Christians have searched in three different, overlapping areas for evidence of this:

  1. Noticing where Christianity and the culture agree, in essence showing the same position;
  2. Uncovering where Christ is located in the culture, furthering the work of his kingdom;
  3. More problematically, identifying Christ or Christianity with the culture itself, sometimes radically conflating the two.

What does this suggest about the nature of research? Cultural products, such as literary texts, can sometimes support Christian truths; at other times, they can represent or illuminate those truths. This is certainly the case with explicitly Christian authors like Dostoevsky, Christina Rossetti, or T.S. Eliot. It can also be the case with authors who do not name the name of Christ yet illustrate matters close to his heart. The Islamic poet Rumi might teach us something about Christ’s humanity. We can, thus, research with the expectation of finding Christ’s truth. As I noted, the danger inherent in the Christ against culture position is to conflate one’s own voice with Christ’s. This same danger is equally present in the Christ of culture position because here we also run the risk of confusing our culture’s position on an issue with Christ’s. Many of us in the United States I suspect do this at July the Fourth. We too closely identify our patriotism with our call to Christian distinctiveness.

Christ Above Culture

To try to address the dangers in the previous two positions, many Christians adopt a position Niebuhr labels "Christ above Culture." This position is wary of either the wholesale rejection of culture by Christians or the complete accommodation to it. Instead, we need a synthesis that recognizes that nature (or the human world on its own) is separate from grace (the divine action of God). Nature has its own rules and ideas and understanding, while grace (because it is above nature) can add to and complete nature. The advantage of this position is that it seeks to represent what is best in a culture before it brings the Christian addition to bear. Thus, Dante deeply respects the ancient Roman poet Virgil, even if he also holds that Bernard, the famous medieval Christian teacher, is greater and can go farther than Virgil.

When we research, this position encourages that we first seek to understand the good that the text or critic has to say on her own terms. Later, we may apply the Christian message to show how much further God’s grace may carry us. It suggests how we may love what we study for itself and yet for Christ’s sake as well. There is, however, a danger here too. Some take this position to an extreme, arguing that nature is somehow sealed off from grace, that Christ cannot speak at all to the world of a twentieth-century Nigerian like Wole Soyinka or the Medieval Japanese writer Sei Shonagon.

Christ and Culture in Paradox

If the first two positions run the risk of identifying one’s own voice or one’s own culture with Christ, and if the Christ above position can end up sealing off the realm of nature from grace, the fourth position, "Christ and Culture in Paradox," challenges us to reexamine our very assumptions about God and our societies. When something is paradoxical, it cannot be expressed in a straight-forward manner because the most honest statement of its truth sounds contradictory. A subatomic element is both a wave and a particle. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. To live you must die. Jesus is fully God and fully human. Death is both a curse and a blessing. Christians are to be in the world but not of it. We love people for themselves or some task for itself, yet paradoxically we also love them for Christ and in order to love Christ better.

This position recognizes that we may have to hold our immediate responsibilities in life both in regards to our culture’s short-term demands–business goals, educational goals, family goals -- and with regard to the long-term goal of serving Christ in tandem. Thus, Christians may serve in both the Republican and Democratic parties, which would seem to be at odds, yet ultimately all can serve Christ. Paradox can be an exciting motif in exploring literary research because it suggests how we may both discover the possibilities of a subject yet also uncover our limits. Literary criticism is often comfortable with teasing out the ambiguities in life and faith. It can be comfortable with the twists and turns of messy reality.

Christ the Transformer of Culture

The fifth position recognizes that we are not now what we will be. Christ has come to give us a foretaste of that future, eschatological perfection. He comes to convert us all to the New Way. He comes to transform culture in part by asking his people to be what all creation longs to be. Our research can be a model of conversion. We seek not only to reject what is not Christ, to recognize what is Christ, to respect nature in its own right, and to see from the paradoxes of faith, but also we seek to remake it all in Christ’s image. Thus, Augustine transfers the classical rhetoric of Cicero for Christian purposes, the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins enters into a new Christian poetic, Flannery O’Conner reworks the despair of Nathaniel West into tough, acerbic visions of sin and grace. Equally, our research might strive to rework a critic we study according to the image of Christ. We can learn to recognize the possibilities inherent even in those views that seem far from God.

Above all, these five varying positions show us that our research and our faith are important partners.

Find more specific suggestions on how this might be applied to the research paper.