Christians and Culture

More fun with word clouds to get us started this morning:

CWC Synthesizing Essay Word Cloud

The above is what you get when you take every word of every final essay written by one of the three lecture sections in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class (better known at Bethel as CWC — it’s a 1st year general education course taken by about 70% of our students that combines a Western Civ narrative with elements of philosophy, theology, social science, and church history), run through them through, and remove redundant versions of the same term and non-distinctive words.

Niebuhr, Christ and CultureFor this essay, students are supposed to synthesize their own opinions and experiences of how Christians relate to a dominant culture with historical examples provided during the semester of Christians who have interacted with Western culture. In this year’s particular iteration of the assignment, students were asked to identify which of Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and culture” categories best describes them: (we reconfigure his terminology a bit)

  • Christians who affirm that culture is rooted in God’s good creation and generally compatible with Christian belief and practice, and so ABSORB the surrounding culture (what Niebuhr called “The Christ of culture”)
  • Christians who stress the effects of the Fall on culture, believe themselves called to be set apart from the world, and so REJECT the dominant culture to a significant degree (“Christ against culture”)
  • Then three categories of Christians who affirm both the goodness of Creation and the fallenness of the world, but also the ability of Christians to partner in the redemptive and restorative work of Christ and the Holy Spirit: those who seek to CONTROL culture (“Christ above culture”); those who try to TRANSFORM it without controlling it (“Christ the transformer of culture”); and those for whom other categories do not easily fit and STRUGGLE with the surrounding culture (“Christ and culture in paradox”).

For the assignments, we asked students to focus on particular issues relevant to their own experience of American culture as Christians, but they were also to include at least two historical examples of earlier Christians who could fit the same category, plus at least one that would critique their approach to culture.

I haven’t read my own students’ essays yet (a few rough drafts aside), but a few observations based on the word cloud above and some earlier experiences with similar assignments:

  • By far, most of our students place themselves in the TRANSFORM or STRUGGLE categories, and often have a hard time articulating why they wouldn’t fit the one of those they don’t choose. I think it tends to come down to personality: optimists (who quote liberally from the John Calvin and Martin Luther King, Jr. excerpts in our reading packet) and pessimists (who turn more commonly to Martin Luther or Augustine of Hippo and the distinctions they drew between the kingdom/city of God and that of humanity). Given Bethel’s own culture, there’s also a good amount of pressure to affirm the TRANSFORM position. (One of Bethel’s core values is that “We are world-changers,” a theme that is promoted visually and verbally on campus at several points.) For that matter, Niebuhr’s many critics (especially those from the Anabaptist tradition) complain that he privileges the “transformer of culture” category.
  • Of the three remaining categories, the one most commonly discussed is REJECT — not so much because many of our students would affirm it, but because it makes for the starkest contrast with the category they pick for themselves. And we give several clear examples of such Christian responses to Western culture: e.g., the Latin apologist Tertullian, who appears in our reading packet (perhaps unfairly) in his guise as the harsh critic of Christian theologians in Alexandria and elsewhere in the Hellenistic world who would (to his mind) bend the Gospel to fit Platonic philosophy; early monastics who withdrew to the wilderness even as Christianity became a politically, economically, and socially advantageous faith in the 4th century Roman Empire; Michael Sattler and other 16th century Anabaptist martyrs who rejected concepts central to both Protestants and Roman Catholics (such as the just war tradition, or close cooperation between church and state).
  • Ulrich Zwingli
    Statue of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zürich - Creative Commons (ChrisO)

    At least when I first came to Bethel, I was most surprised how few students agreed that Christians should seek to CONTROL culture, given the prevalence of “America is” or “America ought to be a Christian nation” rhetoric among some of our students. That tone, it seems to me, has become more muted over the past decade. In an earlier writing assignment this semester, about the phenomenon of “magisterial” Reformation (in which Protestant leaders like Ulrich Zwingli sought to employ the power of civic authorities — or magistrates — to accomplish religious reform), students were asked if they would want political authorities to take part in religious reform: with perhaps one exception, my students strongly rejected this and affirmed the importance of separating church and state.

  • Finally, the least popular position among our students: ABSORBING culture. I think we try our best to make strong cases for all five positions (pointing out, among other things, that each category can yield evangelism, which our students tend to equate with transforming culture), but I don’t doubt that mostly evangelical students at an avowedly Christian (rather than simply “church-related”) college are highly unlikely to affirm that they most often absorb the values of the larger culture, since many of them attend Bethel explicitly because it looks so different from other models of higher education prevailing in 21st century America.

And there are hints that students reacted to this assignment as veterans of the “culture wars”: e.g., homosexuality (and the perhaps related terms family and marriage) showed up often enough in the essays to appear in the word cloud. Others talk about government, law, and public education.

But in my last meeting with my own students before finals week, I was struck by the answers they gave when I asked for examples of values they associate with contemporary American culture:

  • Freedom
  • Entitlement
  • Individualism
  • Conformity
  • Competition
  • Materialism/wealth
  • Education

I wasn’t yet asking them how they responded to such values, just what they were. But as we talked through them a bit, it became clear that many students viewed several of these values quite critically. (Another in this category: several women mentioned self-image or body image as an idol of American culture.) Even the fact that they, as 1st year college students, could recognize that something like individualism or an emphasis on competition might be particular expressions of a culture rather than abstract universals to be found at all times and places was a nice surprise.