If ever there was a case in which you should not judge a book by its cover, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to “The Passion of the Christ,” would be a classic example. Though the cover art leaves you thinking it’s going to be a pop-theology book or Jon Acuff-style book (although there is definitely a place for Jon Acuff’s books), this book is quite academic in its examination of American church history and theology.
Nichols purports that the American Jesus is a by-product of the cultural ideologies flowing from various eras, some of it good, but much of it deceptively harmful. As indicated in the title, the book begins by examining the origins of an American Jesus during the era and teachings of the Puritans. He traces the trajectory of this Jesus through American church history, from the times of the founding fathers (e.g., Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Paine), the concurrent Victorian and rugged-frontier eras, the emergence of liberalism and fundamentalism, the CCM and Christian filmmaking industries, Christianized consumerism, and finally the hijacking of Jesus in support of political movements and agendas. Each chapter looks at multiple facets of how each epoch shaped the identity of the American Jesus, both negatively and positively.
This is one of those books that, even while I disagreed with some of the author’s conclusions, has nonetheless made a significant impact on my thinking for the year. Unless Tim Keller writes some more books fast (he did just release another), I’m guessing this book is going to go on my list of ten best reads for the year. 🙂
Paradigm-Shifting and Perspective-Tilting
This book provides an excellent lens through which to view our current culture, both secular and Christian, both the culture at large and our smaller subcultures. I found myself doing this with clearer perspective after reading this book. Particularly with the increase of social media use this presidential election year, Facebook statuses and tweets laced with founding father quotes, spiritualized materialism, and religious elitism were an excellent reminder of how we all fail to see how much we’ve allowed culture to override our religion.
Sadly, American Christianity is far more influenced by culture than we would like to believe. So ensconced are we in our own culture that we accept spiritualized untruth and allow it to seamlessly flow into our once pure streams of pure doctrine, and it happens so gradually that we never notice the waters are tainted.
While Nichols exercise keen insight and awareness into the way our Christian subculture is a reflection of the cultural sensibilities at large, he is not aloof or misinformed of his surrounding culture. On the contrary, he seems very well-versed, a sometimes participant, in much of secular and Christianized entertainment, yet without appearing to indulge in it. This is a rare combination, but one that lends credibility to his cultural critique.
Highlighted the Importance of Robust Doctrine and Right Living
Both indirectly and directly, this book highlighted to me the importance of both robust doctrine and right living (and right community), and how they are united. Nichols seems to bifurcate the two throughout the book, giving the Puritans a pass on their glaring approval of human mistreatment, simply because their doctrine was correctly aligned. (To clarify, I realize that every era of theologians will have their own blind spots that will eventually be glaringly obvious when given the hindsight of time and distance.)
Robust doctrine is essential. We cannot have mere pendulum-swing theology and teaching that focuses on reacting to what the religious community perceives to be the cultural errors. Yet, this is what happened during various American eras, and we have allowed those cultural emphases to shape “our Jesus,” both in conservative and liberal divisions of American Christianity.
As John R. W. Stott wrote (183), “every heresy is due to an overemphasis upon some truth, without allowing other truths to qualify and balance it.” In the first portion of the book, Nichols highlights the dangers of reactions to the Puritans preaching, yet the reactionary back-swing of the pendulum can be equally dangerous when not taught along with all doctrine and the truths to qualify and balance.
For instance, we must study and teach diligently both Jesus’ humanity and His divinity. If the culture or doctrinally weak religious institutions of the time overemphasize Jesus’ humanity, it can be tempting to attempt to try to correct this by overemphasizing His divinity (or, vice versa–heresies exist in both overemphases). The Church must teach both aspects of Jesus’ identity, though a heavier, still balanced, emphasis on one or the other may be appropriate in varying contexts.
Concerns and Criticisms:
Nichols seems to suggest, at times, that doctrine is more important than lifestyle. While one cannot have right living apart from right theology, it seems il-advised to elevate one above the other, or even to attempt to separate the two.
I’m not against strong writing, but there is a problem with overstatement. And, sometimes, Nichols tends to overstate his point. In demonstrating the Jesus Made in America of today or bygone eras, he seems to focus on otherwise innocuous expressions of contextualized biblical lifestyle or teaching as a sign of the Jesus made in their own image. When you’re hunting coyotes in the woods, every moving branch appears to be a coyote.
Drawing major conclusions from historical instances is dicey work. For one, there are probably plenty of examples to counter the argument you’re trying to make. Second, you may never know how many examples to muster in order to prove your point. Nichols is an admirable historian, yet there are points at which the point he is making seems dubious at best, based on the historical exhibits. (For example, he discusses the theology of Puritans Edward Taylor and Jonathan Edwards to make a broad conclusion regarding the Puritans as a whole. Choosing two out of the many American Puritans may be the case for an observation, but perhaps not an airtight conclusion.) In essence, Nichols runs the risk of historical cherry-picking — selecting one or two examples, then purporting such examples to be representative of an era, and thus the linchpin of a major point.
Where does contextualization end and misappropriation begin? Christianity must be contextualized for every age and culture, just as it was in its 1st century ancient Roman setting. The fine line between contextualization and compromise has vexed the church for centuries. In some areas, Nichols may simply be looking at appropriate contextualization, and vilifying it as an American fabrication of Jesus; yet in others, he very clearly and helpfully points out the dangers of subtle misappropriation dressed up in contextualization and spiritualization.
When reading an erudite author, it can be easy to think that whatsoever the author saying is truth. Nichols is both a brilliant scholar and a skilled writer, that it can be easy to let everything he says pass uncontested. There are some areas, as in any book, where we may view his conclusions with some degree of thoughtful hesitancy.
Some of these statements of the book are particularly insightful, and worth reflecting on.
- “Once Jesus is liberated from the confines of revelation, he ends up looking a lot like the ideals of his reinterpreters.” (55)
- “The first step in retooling Christ means freeing Christ from the abstractions of creeds and instead looking to the simpler Jesus who graces the pages of the New Testament. The second step entails an emphasis on personally experiencing Jesus over merely learning of him. More often then not, this second step means looking beyond the pages of the New Testament.” (77)
- “Commodifying evangelism turns persons who relate into customers who buy, a rather alien approach to that of Christ’s.” (187)
- “Listening to the critics of evangelicalism, both sympathetic and not, may go a long way to helping see blind spots. Perhaps evangelicals especially have such blind spots because of putting Jesus, whether its on the [political] left or the right, in the wrong place.” (212)
- “Co-opting Christianity for the cause of politics does not serve to elevate, but reduce Christianity, to relegate it to a place it does not deserve.” (215)
- “American evangelicals have sterling proficiency in the realm of the subjective and experiential. But not all of the answers to life’s questions come from within or come from our own time.” (224)
Back to Those Puritans
As to Nichols’s seeming eagerness to gloss over the faults of the Puritans, I believe that theologian-pastor Thabiti Anyabwile does an excellent job addressing this common-to-more-than-just-Nichols issue in his somewhat recent article, “The Puritans Are Not That Precious,” particularly from points five and onward. I believe this paragraph addresses the Puritans as presented in this book, in particular:
“[G]ood theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso facto, ex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that.”
Thomas Kidd also offers helpful, related thoughts and reactions here.