A certain minimum level of learning and fluency must be met in a book before we can say it truly invites its readers in. I began Christ and Culture skeptical of Niebuhr's method and style, but he had me after a dozen pages. Whatever the merits of his argument, here was a mind whose excellences include deep learning and wide reading (in German as well as English, and ranging from Tertullian to Tolstoy), incisive judgment and generosity to controversial figures (not uncritically defending Marcion, celebrating F.D. Maurice), wit and a sense of humor ("Grace is a good thing to believe in if you want to attain deiformity or assert your lordship over nature," 113), a refusal to oversimplify complex problems, and above all, devotion to the Trinity. It is a good book to spend a week with. Niebuhr draws admirable distinctions (e.g., the difference between a modus vivendi and a "solution" to a problem, 184). He has a few excellent lines on false dichotomies (116). Critics of Niebuhr's typological method should admit his numerous caveats, and take care not to deny him the courtesy of imprecision and provisionality in treating so large a topic. Simplification is not oversimplification.

The prose is usually clear. Not a master of euphony ("They see the self-destructiveness in its self-contradictoriness," 191), Niebuhr knows how to sting with his words: "How often the Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism--by which cultural Protestantism is meant--is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty" (102; cf. 110, 220). He can build powerful, escalating paragraphs. In the following sentences, Niebuhr describes the conversionists' (the fifth approach to the problem of Christ and Culture) understanding of the doctrine of the fall:

Man's good nature has become corrupted; it is not bad, as something that ought not to exist, but warped, twisted, and misdirected. He loves with the love that is given him in his creation, but loves beings wrongly, in the wrong order; he desires good with the desire given him by his Maker, but aims at goods that are not good for him and misses his true good; he produces fruit, but it is misshapen and bitter; he organizes society with the aid of his practical reason, but works against the grain of things in self-willed forcing of his reason into irrational paths, and thus disorganizes things in his very acts of organization. (194)

Augustine is Niebuhr's chief example of conversionism; Jonathan Edwards is another. Niebuhr turns the screw on some of Edwards's followers with two excellent metaphors:

...perverted [his work] into banal, Pelagian theurgisms in which men were concerned with the symptoms of sin, not its roots, and thought it possible to channel the grace and power of God into the canals they engineered. Thus the conversionism of Edwards was used to justify the psychological mechanics of a shabby revivalism, with its mass production of renovated souls, and the sociological sciences of that part of the social gospel which expected to change prodigal mankind by improving the quality of the husks served in the pigsty. (220)

The book has weaknesses. In several places he relies too much on a single author. I have not read his sources, but I tend to distrust the use of the same expert in a brief analysis. Perhaps this is a disciplinary and generational matter. More disconcerting are the passages revealing his relativist epistemology. The problem is clearest in his brief critique of Thomism (Chapter 4), but shows up in the discussions of Rischl (Chapter 3, esp. 111) and Luther (Chapter 5). In the concluding Chapter 7, he borrows and modifies several ideas from Kierkegaard, and seems to step back from his relativism (240). But I find Kierkegaard impenetrable, so I may be wrong. In either case, I do not see how the "compresence" of "the Absolute" solves the problem Niebuhr has created. The real question is this: can we really know things, or not? "The language and concepts of a reason that is always culturally conditioned" are therefore relative, limited, partial, "fragmentary" (145). If Niebuhr had confined his assertion to "language," I'd be less disturbed; but he means our ideas, as well. The "relativity not only of historical objects but, more, of the historical subject, the observer and the interpreter" extends to concepts and mental structures. It is a red herring to say that "the hierarchical view of natural order in Thomas Aquinas is historical and medieval." The date and time of an idea are accidental in the logical sense; what matters is its truth or falseness.

Apart from this problem, the second half of the book is weaker than the first. The Lutheran chapter, as another reader has noted, is the low point. Niebuhr uses two words to describe the position: dualist and paradoxical. The first involves unfortunate associations with the Manichees, which he is quick to deny; the second term might have solved the problem, but Niebuhr seems uncertain about its meaning. After endorsing it in the chapter title, he backs away from it (156), and finally returns to it by implication ("Luther does not...divide what he distinguishes," 172). The content of this chapter is also less interesting: a rapid-fire summary of Paul's writings. After finding in Paul the roots of Luther and Marcion, he admits the latter is not really a good example of the paradoxical approach; why didn't he choose a different theologian? The problem with this chapter may lie not in Niebuhr's interpretation of Luther, but in Luther's own intellectual inconsistency. Like C.S. Lewis, Niebuhr deems classic Reformed moral analysis truer to Paul than Roman Catholic analysis. But is Luther irrational or merely subrational, awaiting the completion of later Reformers? The author declines to answer this question (185).

AuthorSeth Holler