Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ
Stephen J. Nichols
$20, 240 pages
Liberal scholars looking for Jesus remade him in their own image. So argued Albert Schweitzer in his landmark 1906 book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Fundamentalists cheered Schweitzer's critique even as they cringed at his own conclusion that Jesus was a failed prophet of the end times.
During the 20th century, evangelicals proudly turned back many such attempts to deconstruct the biblical Jesus. Yet if evangelicals today still regard Jesus Christ as true God from true God, fully God and fully man, they don't dwell on it. Their music, trinkets, DVDs, and movies market a Jesus who will hold you tight, model generosity, and tell you how to vote. So argues Stephen J. Nichols, research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College and author of Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ.
"Today's American evangelicals may be quick to speak of their love for Jesus, even wearing their devotion on their sleeve, literally in the case of WWJD bracelets," Nichols writes. "But they may not be so quick to articulate an orthodox view of the object of their devotion. Their devotion is commendable, but the lack of a rigorous theology behind it means that a generation of contemporary evangelicals is living off of borrowed capital."
Nichols's declension narrative begins with kind words for the Puritans. He shows how Jonathan Edwards, the Connecticut pastor who preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in 1741, paired deep devotion to Jesus Christ with meticulous theology. He introduces readers to Edward Taylor, another Puritan pastor serving on the colonial American frontier. In between raids by neighboring Native Americans, Taylor wrote breathtaking poetry extolling his love for Christ in rich theological language. As Nichols's story unfolds, Westminster Theological Seminary founder J. Gresham Machen emerges as another hero who defended the historic creeds as they testified to Jesus.
But shortly after the pinnacle of Edwards's influence during the First Great Awakening, the biblical Jesus came under assault. Unitarians stripped Jesus of his divinity. Some of the nation's founding fathers — Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in particular — isolated Jesus' moral teaching from his divine mission to redeem hopeless sinners. Nichols observes how some evangelicals, in their zeal to score political points, have perpetuated this confusion by defending these founders as orthodox Christians.
Nichols progresses chronologically through eras of American history to show how descriptions of Jesus focused on some of his traits and neglected others. For example, during the Victorian era of the 19th century, Jesus meek and mild smiled upon Sunday school students. But he gave way to scrapper Jesus during the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the early 20th century.
When Nichols reaches our current era, he explains how evangelicals have fallen captive to American culture. He admires the evident devotion to Jesus in much contemporary Christian music. But he shows how lyrics "safe for the whole family" begin with sub-Christian notions of romantic love and neglect the biblical record, not to mention the rich descriptions in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds.
"Like a good boyfriend, Jesus shows up at the right moment, says the right thing and knows how to hug," Nichols writes after surveying popular Christian radio hits. Perhaps we should not be surprised, Nichols observes with some indignation. After all, entries for Sandi Patty and Stryper in an encyclopedia of evangelicalism run longer than entries for John Perkins and John Stott.