2009 | San Antonio

Christ, Culture and History in San Antonio, Texas

Through some joint readings and travel activities, the purpose of this trip was to explore some of the earliest Catholic missions of North America and think more broadly about Christianity as a culture-forming force in history and about the role of Christianity in shaping American history. The reading for this trip was "Christ and Culture" (H. Richard Niebuhr). The group visited The Alamo, Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission Espada, La Villita and was led by two Gordon faculty: Professor Tal Howard, Director of the JAF and Associate Professor of History, and his wife, Professor Agnes Howard, Assistant Professor of English and History.

Reflections on "Christ and Culture" in San Antonio

Rachel VanWylen (04-05)

This past August I had the opportunity to visit San Antonio, Texas, along with several other fellow Jerusalem and Athens Forum alumni, and, of course, our leaders Tal and Agnes Howard. Our indomitable little crew trekked through hundred-degree temperatures to visit two art museums, the McNay and the San Antonio Museum of Art, and all five of the local Franciscan missions. Spain planted these missionary outposts on the Texas frontier to bring Christianity to the Indians. In the process they also shaped towns, teaching new techniques of craft and farming. Given over to their native-American inhabitants in the nineteenth century, the missions were abandoned or transformed like the famous Alamo, which became an armory and fortress during the fights for Texan independence. Throughout the trip, we discussed Christianity as a culture-forming force in history, a topic nicely illumined by the presence of the earliest Catholic missions in North America.

Our text for the "study trip" was H. Richard Niebuhr's famous "Christ and Culture," an analytical approach to the question of how Christians should relate to the conventions of the world in which they are placed. Niebuhr defines five ways that Christians have thought about this question historically: variations of Christ against, alongside, above, transforming or holding culture in paradox. As we discovered in discussion, most of us might think across these categories and end up favoring the less extreme positions. And while recognizing the rift or tension that might divide the imperatives of our faith from those of culture, none was willing to argue for a strict divorce between the two either.

One of my personal struggles with "Christ and Culture" is this: “How should I respond when the attempts of Christians to relate Christ and Culture fail to perfectly model Christ’s example?” I was confronted with this reality often while we were visiting the missions. Spanish Franciscans brought Christ to the Native Americans, but they also (however unintentionally) brought European diseases. And a cursory glance at the structure of the missions shows that the priests had larger, more comfortable quarters than the natives they were there to serve. For all the ways that the Franciscan missions were a positive influence in the Southwest, they were not a perfect model of Christians relating to a foreign culture.

This is where, for me, the text was important. Because Niebuhr’s book acknowledges that there is no one definitive answer to the question of Christ and Culture, it helps to make sense of the times when Christians, despite their best efforts, do not perfectly engage the culture around them. Even the best ministries can be, in some ways, flawed.

Still, walking around San Antonio today, there is no doubt that the lasting impact of the Franciscans was a positive one. Even now, people continue to worship in the chapel of the San Concepción mission, and the culture around the city is clearly influenced by Catholicism. Perhaps this is why, as I was leaving San Antonio and flying back to Boston, I had a profound sense of hope concerning my own attempts to relate my faith to the culture around me.