As I write this, we just celebrated the feast of Pentecost (May 24): the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon the church. We gave some thought at the service to the presence of the Holy Spirit speaking through culture, and, as with those at the first Pentecost, how we hear the gospel in our own language and culture.
Many years ago, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr released a book called ‘Christ & Culture’, which studied the relationship between Christianity and culture. It is a classic, and very few contemporary studies in this area fail to mention this important work. However, it is, I would say, a product of modernity with its desire to categorise things, and through that control the discourse around culture. Life in post-modernity has become more complex than the time Niebuhr’s writing, with the advent of global migration, multi-culturalism, the rise of Asia and the middle-east as major economic and political forces; alongside this, the rise of and influence of feminism, and post-colonialism within the western world, to name just a few major changes. These events Niebuhr could not foresee, and his work is primarily directed to the church in the West. It is a book written in the 1950’s, and, as is to be expected, reflects the thought and concerns of that era. Having said this, some of his thesis still rings true and it isn’t a bad place to start our thinking around the Holy Spirit and Culture.
Niebuhr defines culture as comprising the ‘language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organisation, inherited artefacts, technical processes, and values’ of a group of people. He indentifies two extreme positions the church can take in its relationship to culture:
Christ against Culture – the classic Christian Fundamentalist position: culture is set in opposition to the Christian gospel.
Christ of Culture – the close association between Christ and Culture (NAZI Germany is the classic example of this, alongside many contemporary nationalistic Christian expressions). The Christ of Culture is a very subtle thing. Sometimes it is referred to as cultural Christianity, and can be associated with the ‘classic Liberal’ position: the lines between Christianity and its surrounding culture are blurred.
Niebuhr then defines three typologies that are to be associated with the ‘centre-church’. I would place most mainstream churches, including Anglicanism, in this category:
Christ above Culture – this is a willingness to accept certain cultural elements without necessarily being opposed to, or agreeing, with them: Christ is ultimately eternal and above culture: ‘... your throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away’.
Christ and Culture in paradox - is basically pragmatic; it represents the position whereby we are inescapably involved in the world and its political and cultural institutions. We know, however, that they are transient, and can sometimes be quite sinful, but we work for their transformation and redemption – a Christian politician may well hold this position.
Christ the transformer of culture - is the classic conversionist, and culturally positive, model: ‘Christ is at work in the world, converting people from within their cultures, not outside them.’
As I gave some thought to all this, I realised that I basically align with typologies 1 and 3 of the ‘centre-church’. The Spirit of Christ is above all cultures, but also works within them and through them. Not everything in culture, and even what might be called Christian culture, is necessarily of Christ, but there is much in culture that is good, beautiful and worthy. ‘We hear in our own language’, because we can do no other. The challenge for us is to hear what the Spirit is calling us to do within our own culture and what in our culture might help or hinder the spread of the Christian gospel? We are called to be self-critical (Phil 2: 12) rather than criticise the cultures of others. We are reminded during the season of Pentecost that the Spirit helps us to see what is both helpful, and unhelpful, within our cultural setting to the living out and proclamation of the gospel (1 Cor 2: 10, 13; Rev 2: 11).
With blessings for the Pentecost season.
 It is helpful when thinking about the Holy Spirit to see it within a Trinitarian framework. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, as well as being the Spirit of itself.
 Ellerton J, ‘The day you gave us, Lord, is ended’, Hymn # 388 in The Australian Hymn Book, Collins, Sydney.
Buxton, G 2007, Celebrating Life: beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide, Paternoster, London. p. 31; Niebuhr, H.R 1951, Christ and Culture, Harper Torchbooks, New York; Carson, D.A 2008, Christ and Culture Revisted, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.