Protestantism and the Shaping of Western Culture

Christianity has always had an ambivalent relationship with its cultural context. As Christianity became a growing presence within the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of its existence, it was regularly regarded with hostility and suspicion and occasionally even persecuted by the authorities.1 So how were Christians, who often held high public office, to understand their relationship with the culture at large?

The rise of monasticism was a particularly significant development in shaping Christian attitudes toward culture. Antony of Egypt and others believed that life in the world distracts people from the love and praise of God and leads to their corruption rather than salvation. Withdrawal from the world was the only solution. These attitudes are expressed in the title and contents of Thomas a Kempis's spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ and of Contempt of the World and All Its Vanities.

As Protestantism gained prominence in western Europe and beyond, it was forced to address the question of how it interacted with its cultural environment. The question had, of course, never been entirely absent from Protestant reflection. Martin Luther's theology of "the two kingdoms" can be seen as an attempt to give intellectual justification to his own somewhat complex relationship with Frederick the Wise, just

312 c H R I s T I A N I T Y ' S D A N G E R O U S I D E A

312 c H R I s T I A N I T Y ' S D A N G E R O U S I D E A

The burning of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1563. From "Actes and monuments"by John Foxe (1516—87).

as John Calvin was obliged to develop a theology that was consistent with the social realities of Geneva. Neither Luther nor Calvin, of course, could control his cultural context; each was obliged to work within that context, while aspiring to its transformation. Anabaptism found itself in conflict with sixteenth-century culture at large and believed that its own identity and agendas were best served through withdrawal and disengagement with the world.

Those tensions remain today. In twenty-first-century America, many Protestants are involved in cultural activities and debates, while others withdraw from these entirely, seeing them as "worldly" or leading to compromise. Today Protestantism displays perhaps the greatest range of attitudes to culture of any religious group, Christian or otherwise. To understand the variety of Protestant attitudes to culture at large, we shall explore a number of "models" of how Christianity relates to culture that have been adopted by Protestants. Each is based on a particu lar reading of the Bible, and each leads to quite a different attitude toward culture at large.

So what is "culture"? The word is often used in a neutral sense to mean something like the integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of a society, or the total way of life of a people.2 The word can also be used in a more nuanced sense, as in T. S. Eliot's famous remark, "Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living."3 For our purposes in this discussion, we take the word in its neutral sense to refer to the intellectual and social environment within which humanity exists. In a later chapter, we consider Protestantism's relationship with culture in Eliot's sense of the term.

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