Conversations, VOLUME 6

Christ and Local Culture – My Top 5 Books

By C. Christopher Smith

In the current issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity, and the new book [easyazon-link asin=”0801014743″ locale=”us”]Gray Matters: Navigating the Space between Legalism & Liberty[/easyazon-link], offers his top 5 books on Christ and culture that have shaped this new work.

[ Read McCracken’s list on Christ and culture… ]  
While McCracken’s list is solid, and I have a deep appreciation for three of the books on the list (Smith, N.T. Wright, Myers. Niebuhr’s work is dated and not particularly helpful and I haven’t read the Rogers book), I have been struck by recent statements by both Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben (in his new autobiography [easyazon-link asin=”0805092846″ locale=”us”]Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist[/easyazon-link]) that the way forward for humanity lies in cultivating strong local communities. There often is a temptation to think of culture in the broadest, most abstract sense and to gloss over the particularities of the local cultures in which we daily live and move and have our being, therefore I thought that I would spin McCracken’s idea a bit and offer my own top 5 list, on the theme of Christ and LOCAL Culture.

I am eagerly anticipating the Spring 2014 release of The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Dwight Friesen, Tim Soerens and Paul Sparks, next spring, which will likely supercede all of these books, but until then, you can’t beat these five books.


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0664235166″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”103″ alt=”Christ and Local Culture” ] 1) [easyazon-link asin=”0664235166″ locale=”us”]Journey to the Common Good[/easyazon-link] by Walter Brueggemann.  [ Read our review… ] Brueggemann provides here a compelling theology of church and local culture. He concludes the book by saying:”[A] biblical perception of reality is urgent for the imagination of the public community, especially if that public imagination has been enthralled for a very long time in the claims of Enlightenment rationality.  While there are huge gifts given in that rationality, what we cannot derive from the account of Enlightenment rationality is demanding, generous neighborliness grounded in God’s own passion for the neighborhood.”

This book and Brueggemann’s recent work with community development gurus[easyazon-link asin=”1609940814″ locale=”us”]Peter Block and John McKnight[/easyazon-link], moves his work to the top of this list of resources for understanding the relationship of Christ and local culture.

2) [easyazon-link asin=”0836191609″ locale=”us”]Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World[/easyazon-link] by John Howard Yoder
Although Yoder’s work is coming under scrutiny of late, as the Mennonite church wrestles to understand it in the context of Yoder’s patterns of inappropriate relations with women, this is an essential book that demonstrates how five essential Christian sacraments each provide a way for churches to engage their neighborhoods and to leaven their places with the shalom that God intends for all humanity.
[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0836191609″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”103″]
[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”1557256233″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”108″] 3) [easyazon-link asin=”1557256233″ locale=”us”]The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture[/easyazon-link] by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

[ Our 2010 Book of the Year – Read our review… ]

As long as a we continue our habits of moving from place to place every few years as individuals, families and churches, we are unlikely to bear much fruit in the work of engaging our neighborhoods. As the most prominent non-monastic book on stability, Wilson-Hartgrove makes a compelling case for staying rooted in our places.

4) [easyazon-link asin=”080107231X” locale=”us”]Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood[/easyazon-link] by Alan Roxburgh

[ Read our review… ]

Roxburgh offers both theological reflection and immensely practical advice for churches seeking to be engaged in their neighborhoods. If Roxburgh’s message here is taken to heart by Western Christianity, as it should be, it will undoubtedly have a transformative effect, guiding our church communities from the stale recesses of institutional survival to the vibrant conversational life (as if around a table) of a gathered people who bear witness to our neighbors of God’s work reconciling all creation!

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”080107231X” locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”107″]
[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”1597526568″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”104″] 5) [easyazon-link asin=”1597526568″ locale=”us”]Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us[/easyazon-link] by Ragan Sutterfield

You will notice that there are no Wendell Berry books on this list, as I wanted to include only ones that specifically engage the Christian theological tradition, BUT Sutterfield’s book is best resource we have on how the agrarian work of Berry and others offers a way forward for churches.


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0830833943″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”” width=”74″] [easyazon-link asin=”0830833943″ locale=”us”]Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling[/easyazon-link] by Andy Crouch

Although I wish Crouch’s work here had a deeper ecclesial rooting, his emphasis on creating culture and not merely consuming it is an important word as we seek to engage and nurture local culture.
[easyazon-link asin=”0801039088″ locale=”us”]The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment [/easyazon-link] by Eric Jacobsen

[ Read our review ]

An essential part of engaging in the work of our neighborhoods is understanding and re-imagining the built environment.  Jacobsen is a helpful guide for churches on this quest.

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0801039088″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”” width=”73″]

What others books related to Christ and local culture would be in your Top 5?

C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author (with John Pattison) of the forthcoming book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP/Praxis, Spring 2014).


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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  1. One book on “Christ and Culture” that I’m very interested to read is Amos Yong’s *In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology.* I feel sure it will make my top 5 list 😉

    It’s interesting to me that this discussion is framed as “Christ and Culture.” Where is the Spirit? You said in your post that the particularities of local culture and communities are often ignored/overlooked in favor of a broad, generic perspective. I agree and I would attribute this tendency to weak pneumatology. There is no “Christ and Culture” without “Spirit and Culture” and losing the relation between Christ and Spirit means losing the “many tongues” of the Spirit, ie voices of local communities. Hence, why I’d like to read a Pentecostal perspective on the topic… and Amos Yong seems like a great place to start. Thoughts?

    btw, great list!

    • Joe,

      Great question, and impeccable timing, as a bunch of us at Englewood were talking about the relations of Christ, Church, Spirit last night…

      I used “Christ and Culture” b/c that’s the way that the conversation is often framed. For me, it’s really more about THE BODY OF CHRIST (ie, the Church) and Culture. And, of course, as you noted, there is no Christ/Body of Christ/Church and Culture without Spirit and Culture. I think I agree with your assessment, insofar as the pneumatology is weak if the theology of culture is not attentive to the particular gifts of the Spirit that reside in a local congregation. These gifts of the Spirit (and personally, I have a broad interpretation of what such gifts might be that includes the traditional — preaching, teaching, prophecy — and the non-traditional: fixing cars, entrepreneurship, etc) are given so that the local body might bear witness to God’s reconciling work in a very specific way that can be understood by their particular neighbors.

      Or at least what I think… 😉

      • I think we’re on the same page. I like the shift you suggested from “Christ” to “Body of Christ” because, for me, that gives more “weight” (can’t think of a better word right now) to the presence and action of the Spirit.

        Maybe I’ll write a review of Yong’s book if I ever get around to reading all 427 pages of it!

        I’ve only read books #1 and #3 from your list and I don’t recall either of those having a particularly prominent pneumatology, but that concern wasn’t really on my mind when I read them so I could have missed it. Does the Spirit play much of a role in any of the other books you listed?

      • Joe, As best I recall, the only one that has a solid pneumatology to it, is Yoder’s BODY POLITICS — which basically informed my view as described above…

        Would love a review of the Yong book if/when you finish it…

  2. I’d have to put “Life Together” by Bonhoeffer in the mix.