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Jean Bethke Elshtain


With or Against Culture?

In 2006 we are asking a series of contributors a provocative question: How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? There are few writers who have explored the inherent tensions in this question more thoroughly than Jean Bethke Elshtain. As a political theorist, she has focused her attention on the common good in an era when her fellow scholars have often been busy retreating into more limited and provisional assessments of the political task. Spanning a wide range of topics, from the morality of war to genetic engineering to capitalism's incursions on family life, informed and cited by thinkers both secular and religious, her writings and lectures are indispensable evidence of a Christian mind at work. Readers who find this essay compelling should make time for her book Who Are We?, a searching inventory of contemporary culture that sustains surprising optimism alongside incisive critique. If Christians are to be an effective counterculture, as Elshtain argues here, we will require the critical hopefulness that she models so well.

Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ as transformer of culture—these are the possibilities enumerated by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic work. I take these to be strong tendencies rather than airtight laws of Christian engagement, often with considerable overlap between categories. They can help us to take our bearings as we reflect on the question of a counterculture for the common good. Clearly the question presupposes not one but at least two of Niebuhr's models: both Christ against culture and Christ as transformer of culture.

In our time, these are not mutually exclusive. As a stand-alone posture, against too often turns into brittle condemnation, a stance of haughty (presumed) moral superiority, wagons circled. Transform on its own may degenerate into naïve idealism, even utopianism, a stance concerning which Dietrich Bonhoeffer ...

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