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.
One of the book's most compelling chapters traces how Jesus movies reveal more about their era than about Jesus. Nichols does not even spare Mel Gibson from critique for his film The Passion of the Christ. Gibson borrows from extrabiblical sources to portray Jesus' upbringing where the Gospels are silent. The flashbacks help Gibson illustrate the agony Mary endured while watching her son die. Nichols is especially disturbed by Gibson's decision to dwell on Jesus' flogging. The Gospel writers, by contrast, conspicuously chose not to share many details about Jesus' crucifixion. Yet Nichols does not argue that Gibson exaggerated the torture. And Nichols fails to observe that there was little need to explain crucifixion to churches in the Roman Empire that understood the process all too well. Compare this situation to our own day, where the central Christian symbol has surrendered its irony to mass-produced necklaces.
Nichols rightly observes that we cannot expect Jesus films to tell us all we need to know about the Savior. The genre is fraught with so many problems, Nichols argues, that movies with messianic themes such as The Matrix can more effectively trace the arc of redemption. Even so, we should not expect too much from any movie.
"The Passion can portray the violence of the crucifixion, but it can't portray the break in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity, the break in the divine union between the Father and the Son as the Son bore the wrath of God for the sin of humanity," Nichols writes. "It's not Gibson's fault. No director can pull it off."
Nichols should be commended for venturing into mass-market evangelicalism, territory where few theologians dare tread. Indeed, the growing divide between evangelical scholars and laypeople contributes to the problem Nichols laments. If evangelicals are learning the meaning of Christmas from VeggieTales, then maybe our theologians should take a break from the latest academic volume and scout the competition. Like Nichols, they might be shocked by what they find. They may even agree with Nichols that the series' emphasis on imitation over incarnation resembles old-school liberalism more than the gospel.
While often humorous, Nichols can't completely avoid snobbery toward these popular expressions. And his impossibly broad vision for the book leaves some gaps. He writes about the "frontier Jesus" of Western expansion in the 19th century, but he does not document this observation.
Nevertheless, Nichols has written a much-needed companion to recent surveys such as Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. As an evangelical scholar, Nichols suggests how to resist the temptation to cast Jesus in our own image. Rather than beginning with our experience, falling back on tradition, and only then turning to Scripture, we should reverse the order.
Readers who do not share Nichols's particular views can still appreciate his loyalty to a theological confession that exalts the God become man, Jesus Christ. They will agonize with Nichols that evangelicals don't seem to get the joke about the infamous "buddy Christ" figurine. They just might lose control when they read about Golgotha Fun Park.
"How ironic it would be if American evangelicalism reduces its message to such a saccharin-sweet package, not to keep up with religious pluralism or because of some philosophical or theological shift but merely because it falls victim to its own commercial success," Nichols muses.
Focused for so long on the enemy outside, evangelicals may now face a far more dangerous foe: themselves.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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