Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

A Paper I Wrote on This Book

A Presentation and Reflective Response to Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology by Kathryn Turner


The purpose and scope of this paper is to provide a starting point for discussion amongst the members of the course CL8520 Gospel and Culture around Kathryn Tanner’s book Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology.[1] A more specific purpose is to provide the first respondent with clearly marked hooks upon which to hang a coherent response. A baseball metaphor may serve useful at this point. I will try to lob some pitches in so the points of discussion will be easy to hit.

The paper will move in three parts. The first part will provide a concise summary of Tanner’s argument. This will serve to both further clarify my own thinking and offer a helpful resource to my classmates for future reference. The second part will engage Tanner in reflective discourse regarding certain specific points that I found either interesting or concerning. The third part will bring Tanner’s proposal into conversation with a missional imagination.

A Concise Summary

Author and Occasion

Kathryn Tanner is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. “Her research relates the history of Christian thought to contemporary issues of theological concern using social, cultural, and feminist theory.”[2] Tanner was invited to write Theories of Culture as part of the larger series published by Augsburg Fortress titled Guides to Theological Inquiry. The stated purpose of this series is

to introduce students, scholars, clergy, and theologians to those academic methods, disciplines, and movements that are most germane to contemporary theology.[3]

Theories of Culture was published in 1997. She penned these words just as the world was about to explode into a globalized digital experience. Even so, the words ring prophetic in our ears today. The following quote from her current website captures the essence of Tanner’s approach to theological inquiry and culture. She says:

Enlightenment challenges to the intellectual credibility of religious ideas can no longer be taken for granted as the starting point for theological work now that theologians facing far more pressing worries than academic respectability have gained their voices here at home and around the globe.

Theologians are now primarily called to provide, not a theoretical argument for Christianity’s plausibility, but an account of how Christianity can be part of the solution, rather than simply part of the problem, on matters of great human moment that make a life-and-death difference to people, especially the poor and the oppressed.[4]


Tanner leads the reader into a deeper understanding of the term culture. She contends that “the anthropological notion of culture can be profitably employed in theology,” specifically through its postmodern manifestation.[5] She presents her argument in two parts. Part One traces the evolution of the term culture through three basic eras of history. The term was most commonly used in Europe during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to denote a sense of higher cultivated society or sophistication. This understanding was nuanced between France, Germany, and Britain, but, in essence, it carried with it the notion that a person, or a people, could strive to become more cultured through education and self-discipline.

The definition of culture began to change in the early twentieth century and take on a more anthropological sense. The modern anthropologist now observed the culture of a people group from a supposedly objective distance. The term culture, in this anthropological sense, was a “group-differentiating, holistic, nonevaluative, and context-relative notion.”[6] A person or a people were no longer cultured, rather, people groups collectively formed a culture that was a self-contained whole, the boundaries of which distinguished it from other cultures. It was meaningless to pass judgment upon or to evaluate cultural differences through ethical lenses. Each culture contains its own set of values which are constructed within the cultural boundaries. This anthropologic sense of culture became dominant in the twentieth century and heavily influenced many fields of study. It influenced theological inquiry in that Christianity, Biblicial studies, and the notion of Christian culture can now be understood through the lens of cultural relativity, conveniently dividing Christianity into separate spaces of geography and time.

Tanner deconstructs the modern, anthropological sense of culture and introduces the current, post-modern reconstruction of the term. The need within the modern anthropological sense for culture to be a consistent whole revealed more the need of the anthropologist to explain culture than an authentic description of the practice of culture.[7] Culture, for the postmodern anthropologist, “forms the basis for conflict as much as it forms the basis for shared beliefs and sentiments. Whether or not culture is a common focus of agreement, culture binds people together as a common focus for engagement.”[8]

Simply put, culture is messy. There are still large groups of people that, at the surface, may appear to be cultures as understood by the modern anthropological sense, but they have been “decentered or reinscribed within a more primary attention to historical processes.”[9] Culture is formed by external and internal engagement and conflict. One culture engages another culture—sometimes overlapping, sometimes resisting—while each culture is simultaneously struggling internally as the members of that culture vie for power and sense-making of the current moment. There is no longer the notion of holistic, homogeneous cultures existing in self-contained spaces. The postmodern anthropocentric notion of culture sees the world as a mixture of cultures continually intersecting and evolving in a pluriform, polycentric interplay of engagement and conflict.

Part Two shifts the conversation from a focus on the term culture to a discussion of how the anthropological sense of the term culture impacts theological inquiry. Tanner draws parallels between the modern anthropologist and the postliberal theologian. Both were reassessing their respective fields in the early twentieth century through fresh and modern lenses. Theologians began thinking about theology in terms of culture and how theology is a part of culture. Tanner plots out the difficulties and tensions that lie between theology and culture, and what it means to speak of a Christian culture. She proposes that it is, first of all, impossible to speak of a single Christian culture. Christianity has always drawn from the host culture in which individual Christians find themselves. Christian practices “are always the practices of others made odd.”[10] Christian culture is not a matter of traditions and rules, but one of style. The what of Christian practices may differ amongst Christians, but the how is what characterizes them. Christian Identity is defined by a task in which Christians are united in a “concern for true discipleship, proper reflection in human words and deeds of an object of worship that always exceeds by its greatness human efforts to do so.”[11]

Tanner claims that the great benefit for theological inquiry derived from the postmodern anthropological understanding of culture is the recognition and embrace of diversity in a polycentric and ever-changing world. Christian culture cannot be defined or encompassed by a homogenous and universally agreed upon proposition of belief. Agreement, she proposes, is not about consensus but “about how to have an argument, an argument that can, at any particular point, turn back against what was initially agreed upon, in an effort to rework it.”[12] The goal is to find a way for Christians to search for the meaning of discipleship together, without killing each other along the way. This can only be done when we remember that “Christians cannot control the movements of the God they hope to serve.”[13]

Points of Reflective Discussion

Christian Parasites

Tanner states, “Christians do not construct out of whole cloth, or from the bottom up, what they say about God and Jesus or the nature of things in relation to God; instead they use in odd ways whatever language-games they already happen to speak…A Christian way of life is, then, essentially parasitic.”[14] Christians are parasites. This conjures many strange images and should raise some interesting discussion. She contrasts her view against that of both postliberals and correlationists. These two groups, while very different, share the idea that Christian identity must be grown up within the boundaries of Christian culture. Whatever may be borrowed from the outside culture is automatically altered and assimilated into the Christian identity that is being uniquely formed within. It is only after the Christian identity has been formed that it can be contrasted in relationship to the outside culture and tested for integrity.

Tanner’s parasitic view claims that Christians occupy the same time and space as non-Christians and therefore have the same raw material with which to work in order to construct a Christian identity. They do, therefore, merely adopt and adapt the forms and language of the larger culture.

Here is my question for Marie (my first respondent) and the class as a whole. How does Tanner’s notion of the Christian parasite work when the dominant culture is supposedly Christian and is practicing oppressive behavior to marginalized groups who, in their own right, may also claim to be Christian. I know that Marie comes from South Africa in which the church has dealt with power struggles, racial strife and oppression. I also know that many of our classmates come from countries or contexts in which the first so-called Christian experiences were that of European colonization and subsequent oppression.

Another way to frame this question is in conversation with Tanner’s proposal that Christians lead lives as resident aliens. Christian social practices form a voluntary social association within the larger society as a new social movement. This social movement, in turn, affects the wider society. What is the nature of Christian identity when Christians within the dominant, oppressive culture share the same time and space as Christians within the oppressed group? How are these Christians to be resident aliens within these contrasting cultures?

An Eschatological Loophole

The conversation of this book begs the questions that Tanner notes in the final chapter: “What kind of practices are Christian ones? To what degree do they seek consensus or view diversity as good?”[15] Is it possible for Christians to ever agree? Is there such a thing as a Christian standard? I honestly wrestle with these questions daily as I move deeper into my understanding of the postmodern world and the missional imagination. I wonder what it looks like to be one as Jesus prayed that we would be[16], or to be of one mind and spirit as the Epistles continually exhort us.

Tanner calls for patience. She says, “one must simply wait, without drawing precipitous conclusions, for consensus among Christians to arise in the course of the argument that Christianity is.”[17] This reminds me of Pannenberg’s caveat of provisional knowledge.[18] He basically asserts that we must hold all of our theological speculations loosely in light of the eschatological hope that God is bringing all things to their proper end. In other words: we’ll find out when we get there.

Is this a cop-out, or is this the humbling reality of finite beings seeking to discuss the infinite?

The Gospel and Culture

It seems appropriate to ask a question that brings Tanner into conversation with the purpose of this class. The class title is The Gospel and Culture. This title intimates boundaries, does it not? It implies that there is such a thing as The Gospel and such a thing as Culture. Yet, what are the boundaries around these terms? Do we know exactly what lies within the definition of Gospel and what lies outside it? Do we know what culture means? Tanner’s argument seems to indicate that boundaries like this are philosophically and theologically untenable. Is there a definition of The Gospel that is universally accepted among Christians? Do we, in this class, stand inside of The Gospel and ask how it connects with this thing out there called culture? Or, do each of us stand within our own understanding of the Gospel, which has been derived from our own Christian culture, with the edges of our boundaries interconnecting—sometimes in agreement, sometimes in conflict—in dynamic interplay? Do each of us stand within our own culture, internally struggling for the definition of such, while struggling to define how our cultures intersect with each other’s, with the Gospel, and with the larger culture of the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and the United States?

Tanner states, “Although we have said it is very difficult to tell when it is the case, those differences may be just that—differences, without amounting to any fundamental disagreement in what Christianity stands for.” (italics mine)[19] I could not help, as I read these words, to ask myself, “how can we know what Christianity stands for when everyone disagrees on what seem to be essential elements, e.g. scripture, revelation, atonement, authority, etc.”

I pose this question to Marie and the class: Does Tanner help us understand the goal of the course, or does she render us unable to stand, for lack of solid ground on which to plant our feet?

How to Fight Like Christians

I would like to propose that an alternate title to this book might be How to Fight Like Christians. I have already stated above that Tanner’s main premise is that Christianity should not seek agreement or consensus, but learn how to argue in a constructive way. Her goal is twofold: to strengthen the bonds of Christian fellowship, and to search for the meaning of Christian discipleship together.[20] While I agree with the sentiment of this goal whole-heartedly, I am concerned about one word. What is fellowship? How can there be fellowship and conflict? I understand that it is possible to agree to disagree, but that generally leads to topic avoidance rather than working through the topic. What does fellowship mean? If it means intimacy—in which brothers and sisters in Christ share with one another in vulnerability and openness—then how can that happen when there is conflict over deeply emotional issues? Additionally, if the conflict is over the very definition of things like The Gospel, as mentioned above, then how can there be fellowship when one group feels that the boundaries around core terms have been crossed and the opposing group is no longer within the definition of Christian, thus rendering Christian fellowship impossible? Or, is it that Christian fellowship means that everyone must engage with all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, in the same way, and this, then, is the definition of Christian fellowship? If this is true, then is it accurate to call this Christian fellowship? Should it not simply be fellowship?

Another corollary issue is that of power. Tanner does not seem to address the inevitable issue that is at the core of conflict: power. Human beings are finite creatures. We live within the boundaries of our own finitude and constantly seek to draw boundaries around things, spaces, and ideas. We have to do this. Without boundaries we cannot perceive things. Yet, with boundaries come boundary disputes. How does Tanner deal with this?

A Dialogue with a Missional Imagination

It is important that we bring this book into conversation with the missional imagination, since this is a course in the Congregational Mission and Leadership department and most of us are students thereof. The missional imagination is one that understands God to be the active agent in the universe. God is at work in God’s world and God calls the church to join God in that activity. The basic missiological move is to deconstruct the Eurocentric idea of European Christendom that has dominated the Western church for hundreds of years. The missional imagination understands that the church—in the form and working of the Holy Spirit—is a pluriform and polycentric reality that exists throughout the world before, alongside, outside, and superseding the European church and power structures.

Tanner’s work provides important theological legs to this imagination. If the church truly is polycentric—having Asian, African, European, American, and multifarious centers therein—and there is no such thing as a single Christian culture, then what does it mean to be a Christian in this world? Tanner helps us to realize that it is actually healthy and normal for there to be great diversity within Christianity. The conflict that inevitably arises when Christians from diverse cultures engage one another is one that can bring about the desired task of pursuing discipleship of the infinite God. It would do church leadership well to dwell on Tanner’s proposals in order to seek better ways to engage in conflict and seek unity in the Spirit.

Again, the real question remains. How can church leaders engage in constructive conflict while avoiding the inevitable power struggles that seek dominance and control within our humanly constructed institutions?


Pannenberg, Wolfhart. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991.

Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.


[1] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).

[2] http://divinity.yale.edu/tanner-0 (accessed September 7, 2012)

[3] http://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/productfamily/91/Guides-to-Theological-Inquiry-series (accessed September 7, 2012)

[4] http://divinity.yale.edu/tanner-0 (accessed September 7, 2012)

[5] Tanner, x.

[6] Ibid.,  24.

[7] Ibid.,  42.

[8] Ibid.,  57.

[9] Ibid.,  56.

[10] Ibid.,  113.

[11] Ibid.,  152.

[12] Ibid.,  174.

[13] Ibid.,  175.

[14] Ibid.,  113.

[15] Ibid.,  171.

[16] John 17

[17] Ibid.,  172.

[18] Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 17-18.

[19] Tanner, 172.

[20] Ibid.,  175.

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