He Gets Us, Culture Christianity and Propaganda (Part 1)

He Gets Us, Culture Christianity and Propaganda (Part 1) February 22, 2024

In my previous post, I argued that there were several fundamental problems with the #HeGetsUs Ad that aired during the Chiefs vs. 49’ers Super Bowl. Those problems were hermeneutical (interpretive), as well as aesthetic, conceptual and biblical. If the reader has not yet seen the Ad in question, see it here. In this article, I want to step back and look at a much larger and broader concern, namely, the problem of Culture Christianity and what we might call Christian “Propaganda.” This is the first in a two-part series.

What is Culture Christianity?

When I speak of “Culture Christianity,” or in this context, “Culture Protestantism,” I am not thinking of the unsaved person who casually goes to church and practices some Christian disciplines because they were raised to do so, or because of some vague allegiance to a culture still imbued with Protestant, or Roman Catholic, identities. The unsaved who act like Christians for motives other than a total allegiance to Christ and a resolute and genuine belief in the fundamental truths of the Faith are often called “cultural Christians.” In this article, however, I am not using the term “Culture Christian” to refer to people like this (one of whom I used to be, of the Roman Catholic variety).

What I am talking about is what Karl Barth was talking about when he spoke of “Culture Protestantism,” and what Richard Niebuhr wrote about in his classic work on Christianity and Culture: Christ and Culture. In that book, Niebuhr famously categorizes different Christian approaches and attitudes toward culture, tracing them throughout the Church’s history, and giving examples of each embodied in particular Christian thinkers.

For example, there are those who see Christianity and culture fundamentally at odds with one another, so much so that nary shall the two e’re meet. These are the “Christ against Culture” Christians (Chapter 2) who often wind up withdrawing from the society they live in completely, or almost completely. Examples of these are believers like Tertullian in the 3rd century, or some Puritans in the 17th. Perhaps this view is most purely represented by the history of Anabaptism, to include its manifestations in Europe and America, there embodied by the Mennonites and the Amish. These Christ-against-Culture Christians often reject notions of natural law or common grace, and see themselves as communities of new creations living in an old and utterly corrupted world bound by the iron rule of the Evil One.

Unfortunately, as Niebuhr points out, even the most radical among this group cannot fully expunge the culture they grew up in from their Christian Faith:

It is so with all the members of the radical Christian group. When they meet Christ they do so as heirs of a culture which they cannot reject because it is part of them. They can withdraw from its more obvious institutions and expressions; but for the most part they can only select–and modify under Christ’s authority–something they have received through the mediation of society.

Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 70

In contrast to these, then, are the “Christ of Culture” Christians (Chapter 3). Unlike their counterparts, they see Christ as predominantly cultural, in fact, as the paradigm of all human endeavors. These “Culture Christians,” or, for our purposes, Culture Protestants,

Are Christians not only in the sense that they count themselves believers in the Lord but also in the sense that they seek to maintain community with all other believers. Yet they seem equally at home in the community of culture. They feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the Gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress.

Niebuhr, 83

Unlike the Christ-against-Culture believers, who abandon this world and place total emphasis on the other-worldly nature of the Christian hope, the fundamental interests of Christ-of-Culture believers are “this-worldly,” (84). As to the “this-worldliness” of the Christ-of-Culture Christians, Niebuhr says:

Though their fundamental interest may be this-worldly, they do not reject other-worldliness; but seek to understand the transcendent realm as continuous in time or character with the present life. Hence the great work of Christ may be conceived as the training of men in their present social existence for a better life to come; often he [Christ] is regarded as the great educator, sometimes as the great philosopher or reformer.

Niebuhr, 84

Famous among these types of believers are the early Gnostics, men like Basilides and Valentinus, the medieval theologian Abelard, the Enlightenment president, Thomas Jefferson, and the modern, German theologian, Albrecht Ritschl. Given the critique of #HeGetsUs I have already given, at face value it seems to be that the organization as a whole, and their version of the Gospel, fall into this category of Christ-of-Culture Christianity. The political nature of the Ad, the use of biblical imagery, taken out of context, as a means to solve social ills, even the medium of presentation all lend support to this conclusion.

#HeGetUs As Culture Christianity

One of the central features of any Christ-of-Culture view throughout its history is the attempt to untether God, and Christ, from their historical and biblical contexts. The early Gnostics did this by “disentangling the gospel from its involvement with barbaric and outmoded Jewish notions about God and history” and, as such, attempted to “raise Christianity from the level of belief to that of intelligent knowledge.” (86) The reason for this is, as Niebuhr points out, to “increase its [Christianity’s] attractiveness and power.'” As such, the culture Protestant attempts to turn Christianity into a “religious and philosophical system” that is congruent with the cultural presuppositions and sensibilities of the day. It may be the”best” system on offer, even perennially so, but it is nothing more than a system.

This Christian system usually reduces the Gospel to two vague, metaphysical assertions, once popularized by the pithy “Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man.” In lieu of these vague metaphysical claims and the commensurate strength of one’s commitments to them, Christianity, or Christ more specifically, becomes something like the cherry on the top of the best humans can achieve. This idea is clearly articulated on #HeGetsUs website:

Throughout our shared history, Jesus has represented the ultimate good that humankind is capable of aspiring to. And though some no longer believe in God, most are still compelled by the idea of a person capable of unconditional love for others despite their differences.

https://hegetsus.com/en/articles/he-gets-us-has-an-agenda

Thus, Christ-of-Culture Christians operate with an understanding of the Gospel that makes Jesus analogous to “the highest principle” of any given era or expression of human culture. As the culture shifts and alters over the course of time, one can easily extract “Christ” out of His concrete, 1st-century Jewish context, and apply His abstract nature to whatever is the social and political ideology of the day. So, for example, in a highly rationalistic culture, like Jefferson’s 18th-century America, Christ becomes the highest ethical principle, the most rational exemplar of religious sensibility. In the late 19th and 20th century, with the rise of Marxism, the Christ becomes the champion of social justice, the great leveler of social dynamics and solver of socio-political ills. In today’s therapeutic society, He is the great empathizer, the therapist we all need to help resolve our inner conflicts; the highest principle of loving tolerance and affirmation. He is, as Depeche Mode put it so well, “our own, Personal Jesus.

Problems with The Christ of Culture View

There are, of course, many problems with this view. There is the problem of historical neglect, taking Jesus out His actual, Jewish context, as if the context mattered not to His mission or our understanding of that mission. In doing this, Culture Protestants, whether they realize it or not, fall prey to the metaphysical heresy of Historicism, or Process Theology– the view of God unfolding or evolving in time along with His creation. Another problem with Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man Christianity is the horribly unbiblical idea that Jesus loved human beings more than He loved the Father. This grand theological error often turns Jesus into a type of mythical Prometheus, rebelling against Zeus to save a human creation not lost in sin, but merely deprived of knowledge by a petty and cruel Creator.

But more pernicious than all these is an idea inherent in Culture Protestantism, namely, that man’s most fundamental battle is not one between man and God, but between man and nature. And this is where conservative Christians who have pointed out the total lack of any mention of sin, alienation from God, and the need for transformation in the #HeGetsUs Ad have been trenchant in their criticism. For in a Man vs. Nature understanding of the Gospel, our primary need is not reconciliation with God, a reconciliation that only comes through Christ’s death. Instead, our primary need is to conquer Nature, to reverse the curse upon Nature, and to do so using the ethical, moral and social principles of Jesus Christ. The goal is not to be transformed by Christ from an old nature to a new nature, but to use the Christ as the “Highest Principle” by which we can transform ourselves. Or, as one former president once put it, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for” plus Jesus thrown in. This degrades the Gospel into a sheer moralism, one that can find expression both in liberal and conservative forms.

Is He Really Just “Us?”

Ultimately, however, the one thing that always undermines the Christ-of-Culure project is the Bible itself, or, as Niebuhr points out:

They [the Christ-of-Culture] take some fragment of the complex New Testament story and interpretation, call this the essential characteristic of Jesus, elaborate upon it, and thus reconstruct their own mythical figure of the Lord.

Niebuhr, 109

The Bible is the historical, inspired testimony of God that forever resists the Christ-of-Culture enterprise. One will hardly get two pages into the New Testament (let alone the Old) before one realizes that the Christ presented to them by the Cultural Protestant is simply not identical to the Christ of the actual, written Gospels. On that note, in the next post, I will discuss an inevitable result of the Culture Christianity view, namely, the creation and dissemination of Christian Propaganda.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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