Consider the construction of a house. The foundation is poured; the walls, floors, and other parts of the building are created. Sociologically, so it is with any aspect of culture. The family, economics, and all other parts of social structure—including Christianity—are constructed by human beings. This is a key idea in the message of Howard J. Snider’s text The Cultural Creation of Christianity. His work applies social science methodology toward a historical and contemporary understanding of Christianity. The text is divided into four main parts and concludes with five appendices that touch upon various subjects of the historical construction of this religion.
In the first part of The Cultural Creation of Christianity, Snider reflects on the Jewish, Greek, and Roman context in which Christianity was born. The author examines the multi-faceted world in which Jesus was raised. Here, a key point from Snider’s perspective: if we are to recover the essence of the teachings of Jesus we need to strip away Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures’ influences that polluted his teachings.
The second part of The Cultural Creation of Christianity focuses upon the processes that changed Jesus the man into the mystical Christ. Snider examines how the essential parts of the life of Jesus and his ethics came to be obscured and replaced by Christ, a mythic character. The basic love-oriented teachings of Jesus were abandoned and his character was transformed into Christ, a figure with magical qualities (e.g. being born of a virgin). In part, according to the author, this is related to Paul’s New Testament two-fold interpretation of Jesus’ life and death that is a theological system filled with contradictions. These contradictions include Paul’s blending the ethical thought of Jesus with parts of mythology of Asia Minor including virgin births, God-men, purification rites by blood sacrifices, ideas of resurrection, and belief in a union with the supernatural after death. Added to this Pauline interpretation is a root of Christian exclusivity based in the idea from Acts 4:12,
for there is no other name, under heaven, given to men whereby we must be saved. Snider writes that this exclusivity is a profound perversion of Jesus’ fundamental contribution to humanity.
Part three of Snider’s book focuses on the gradual change within Christianity that occurred through medieval Christianity. A significant development during this time was the work of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who lived from 1033 to 1109. In brief, this involves
the substitutionary atonement theory—the necessity of the blood sacrifice of the God-man, the mythic Christ. Snider notes Anselm’s idea has lasted a thousand years being at the core of contemporary conservative Christianity. Part three of Snider’s book also looks at the rapid change in Christianity seen in the protestant reformation. The consequent denominational explosion provided the foundations for individualism and contemporary Christian fundamentalism. In contradiction to the emphasis on the mythic Christ of Anslem and fundamentalists, Snider suggests, was the Anabaptist movement of the early 16th century which emphasized the ethical teaching of Jesus as seen in the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical letters of Paul.
The final part of The Cultural Creation of Christianity distinguishes between Jesus Christianity operating with a concern for the world and Constantinian Christianity based in dogma. For Snider these types represent polar opposites—two profoundly different approaches to following the teachings of the New Testament. Snider provides a succinctly stated two page (pp.74–76) distinction of these two types. For example,
Constantinian Christianity calls us to reverence a supernatural world and its deities. Jesus Christianity calls us to reverence nature and our fellowmen. And,
Constantinian Christianity forces us to deny our humanity. Jesus Christianity permits us to realize the potential of our humanity.
The Cultural Creation of Christianity concludes with a look at theology and life. Here Snider suggests Jesus got into serious trouble with the religious authorities because he would not let doctrine be placed above relationships. The call of Christ for Snider is one of Jesus Christianity as opposed to Constantinian Christianity. Redemptive relationships supercede dogmatic creeds. This, the author notes, is the essence of the New Testament call
to grow into the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Snider’s work is important for the student of religion and especially Christianity because it illustrates how religion is socially constructed. It is a critical idea that most Christians don’t know about and don’t want to know about! Religion does not fall out of the sky ordained by God. Rather, Christianity as we know it is the result of a wide variety of cultural happenings and human choices over the last 2000 years. Snider’s work reflects upon these happenings and choices as they relate to Christianity. His work will most likely offend those who hold a traditional, Constantinian view of the Bible. It would be surprising if such individuals would read much past the first chapter.
There are four problems regarding The Cultural Creation of Christianity from the perspective of the reviewer. Paul as seen in the New Testament is a key figure in the development of Christianity. While Snider recognizes this development, more detail about Paul’s teachings should have been supplied in his book.
In addition, Snider seems to deny any aspect of the supernatural outside the realm of cultural construction. For example, on page 90 the author writes
The supernatural world is the idealized projection of one’s own culture and nothing more. If Snider is saying there is no supernatural outside cultural construction it may be argued that he is as locked into his position as much as he says is the case for Constantinian Christians. How are we to know the supernatural or some transcendent reality does not exist? If this is the author’s position, more should have been said about this denial.
Snider applies a scientific understanding to the subject of Christianity. But he says little about what many scientists are now saying—that existence, the universe is profound and amazing, perhaps beyond our current cognitive abilities to understand.
The author uses the term
mystical in a pejorative sense—the idea that mystical has to do with magic and the occult. The term mystical may also be seen in a positive way—for example, the way St. Francis, Buddha, or a wide variety of individuals from other religions transcend their egos and live in service to others—the kind of life portrayed by Snider in Jesus Christianity. It would have been helpful if the author made this clarification regarding the word mystical.
Still, as said above, Snyder’s work is important to the study of religion. His ideas are especially important in giving a broad, contextual understanding of the development of Christianity—something most Christians don’t want to consider.
Throughout his adult life Howard M. Snider has been engaged in research and writing in terms of what he says are
the ethical teachings of Jesus and the mystical creedal pronouncements of much of western Christianity. For more than 25 years Dr. Snider was Professor of Sociology at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas. The Cultural Creation of Christianity is part of the fruition of his life’s work.