Fifty years ago, Richard Niebuhr's landmark Christ and Culture both summarized and sparked much Christian thought by identifying five modes of interaction between his title subjects: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ transforming culture, and Christ and culture in paradox. Though Niebuhr's interest was primarily theological, roughly similar categories can be applied to histories of the church. Three that have landed in my office recently model the distinctions.

The first is James Garlow's How God Saved Civilization, subtitled "The epic story of God leading his people, the church" (Regal, 2000). Garlow holds a PhD from Drew University but writes, in his own description, with "the heart of a pastor, not the head of a scholar." The people who endorse the book come from the pastoral side as well, including the man whose phrase of praise appears right on the front cover: Tim LaHaye.

Garlow leaves no doubt as to his view of culture. "Civilization has no hope," he begins his introduction. "No hope at all, except through God. God alone can preserve a person, a family, a people group, a nation or any part of civilization that's worth preserving." Much later in the book he bewails the "moral bankruptcy of America" (384), a typical "Christ against culture" sentiment, and vows to the enemies of the church, "Contrary to your wishes, the Church of Jesus Christ is alive and well" (395). In Garlow's view God has saved, and continues to save, humanity through supernatural intervention. Even the era many Protestants wish to forget, 500-1300 (which Garlow magnanimously includes, though in a chapter titled "The Grand Detour"), has a few saving graces—just enough to ensure that the gospel would survive.

Alvin J. Schmidt tips his hand on the Christ-culture question in his title, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Zondervan, 2001). A Lutheran minister and career sociologist, he takes a less chronological approach than Garlow, seeking rather to document "how so many of our current institutions originated and developed within the church, and how so many 'greats' in all branches of human culture were Christian" (8). His main argument for the resilience and righteousness of the faith, then, is this: "No other religion, philosophy, teaching, nation, movement—whatever—has so changed the world for the better as Christianity has done" (9).

Despite annoyingly persistent complaints in academe and the media that Christianity ruins everything it touches, Schmidt has an easy case to make. Christians labored to eliminate such practices as female infanticide in ancient Rome, slavery in Britain and America, and widow burning (suttee) in India. Meanwhile Christians built hospitals, schools, and the Western legal system. Christian fingerprints on great art, literature, and even scientific progress are similarly evident.

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Schmidt does not go so far as to suggest, in the manner of a thoroughgoing "Christ transforming culture" devotee, that all of society can or should be brought under Christian influence; he's a Lutheran, after all, not a Calvinist. Still, he celebrates Christianity's past successes on this front and would likely hail new sociological improvements, though possibly not the political victories sought by some American evangelicals. Schmidt considers the separation of church and state, as long as that idea means "freedom of religion" and not "freedom from religion," one of Christianity's gifts to society.

Niebuhr's last and favorite category, "Christ and culture in paradox," has always been the most difficult to define. Brian Moynahan's The Faith: A History of Christianity (Doubleday, 2002) may or may not fit. Moynahan, a journalist with a history degree from Cambridge, gives no indication of his theological beliefs, so he may well be looking at Christ and culture from outside Christianity (not a stance Niebuhr seeks to address). Whether or not the paradox view is his own, however, he describes a history full of irony and tension, the divine and the debased. "There is something of the wolf to the religion that adores the Lamb," he writes in the introduction, noting that the label "Christian" has been worn by "crusaders and pacifists, mystics, hermits, jolly friars and joyless puritans, polygamists, flagellants, missionaries both sensitive and crass, misogynists, heroines, bigots, popes, emperors, and the frankly deranged."

Moynahan's story, like Schmidt's but unlike Garlow's, is intensely human. It is not, fortunately, rigidly humanistic; for example, Moynahan expresses doubt that Jesus ever meant to claim divinity (2) but later states without hedging that the Resurrection "was the evidence of Christ's divinity" (19). Still, theology is not Moynahan's main concern, as he is not seeking to illuminate God's work in the world or trace the development of true faith through many dangers, toils, and snares. He is interested in the faith and the snares, the interplay of factors that can lead to development, decline, or an unsettling mix of the two.

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The scope and heft of The Faith (at 800 pages it is nearly as long as the other two books combined) make it difficult to adequately describe here, but one topic illustrates Moynahan's approach. On the subject of early Christian social ethics, the author first describes Jesus' example, taking the gospel narratives basically at face value. The author also notes directives from Paul, particularly in the epistles whose Pauline authorship scholars deem most certain (Galatians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Philippians).

Then Moynahan delves into post-biblical history to show how human error obscured the New Testament ideals. Galatians 3:28 proposes radical equality of the sexes, and this principle bore some important fruit, but before long, "Christian sects were to become quite as patriarchal as Judaism" (35). The same verse, along with several episodes from Jesus' life, proposes a radical social egalitarianism as well, yet early Christian communities continued the practice of slavery and showed little political ambition. "The faith was a spiritual revolution," Moynahan writes, "but it was meek and intensely conservative in the face of temporal authority and the social order" (61).

By focusing on the interplay of Christlike ideals and an all-too-human body of believers, from the dawn of Christianity to the present, Moynahan tells a believable story. It's messy and frequently disappointing, but what else can one expect from "a faith exposed to the inconstancies and energies of mankind" (730)? Paradox rings true in history, too.

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Christianity Today's recent article, "In the World, but … | Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture is 50 years old—and still has something wise to say to evangelicals," reviewed a reissue of Christ and Culture.

H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture was included on Christianity Today's list of 100 books that had a significant effect on Christians in the last century.

Christian History took a broader look at different ways of writing the church's story in issue 72: "How We Got Our History."

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:

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'Hier Stehe Ich!' | When Martin Luther stood up for his ideas at the Diet of Worms, did he really say, "Here I stand"? (April 12, 2002)
National Makeover | Washington's struggle to sell the American image overseas illustrates how sharply today's reality differs from seventeenth-century ideals. (Apr. 5, 2002)
Easter Eloquence | The holiday has inspired great words from some of history's greatest preachers. (March 28, 2002)
The Other Holy Day | In the rush toward Good Friday and Easter, don't forget Maundy Thursday. (March 22, 2002)
The Politics of Patrick | In the field of Irish history, every turn of phrase hints at the author's spin. (March 15, 2002)
Don't Touch That Dial | Could a bitter debate among religious broadcasters really cause a "full-scale split in evangelicalism"? (Mar. 8, 2002)
Translation Wars | Sharp as debate over the TNIV may be, the version's translators are getting off easy compared to John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. (March 1, 2002)
The Cremation Question | Firm belief in resurrection hasn't kept Christians from caring-and arguing-about what happens to the bodies of the dead. (Feb. 22, 2002)
Citius, Altius, Sanctus | The modern Olympics, though hardly Christian, hail from an era when athleticism was next to godliness. (Feb. 15, 2002)