Here is a book review on Steve Nichols' recently published book, Jesus Made in America.
In his book, Jesus Made in America, author Steve Nichols poses the thesis that the Jesus known from generation to generation is more of a culturally created Jesus than the biblically centered Christ Jesus. He posits that theology is not done in a vacuum, interpretation is not made through a crystal clear, unbiased lens, and that “Jesus, like most cultural heroes, is malleable.” Nichols sees a special way in which American evangelicalism contemporizes Christ on four counts: they are consistently antitraditionalistic, meaning they have a tendency to be suspicious of tradition; when they do follow tradition, it’s to the tune of Luther’s sola scriptura, creating a naïve hermeneutic of Scripture; they “tend toward an objectivist or foundational epistemology,” meaning a belief becomes the belief; and finally they highly value pietism, or the experiential, over doctrine. According to Nichols, these four factors make American evangelicals vulnerable to root their Christology in the ever evolving, rapidly changing American culture. If rooted in culture, it thus follows that what grows will be a Jesus truly “made in America” (pg. 12).
The thrust of Nichols’ thesis is found subtly in the main titling of each chapter, as chapter one is the only that refers to Jesus as Christ. The rest, two through eight, all use the name, Jesus. This may simply be a coincidence, but it is telling nonetheless. Explicitly, Nichols’ defends that the Puritans were orthodox in doctrine, with lifestyle and practice stemming from their strong and thorough understanding of the two-natured Christology of Jesus being both God and man as he writes, “The Puritans, to put it another way, were stout of mind and heart” (pg. 38). Yet right on the heels of Puritans like Jonathan Edwards, who rightly predicted an Arian influence arriving in America, was a wave of dissolved Christology, where “the heart overtook the head,” first being introduced through William Ellery Channing and his religion, Unitarianism. Nichols then spends the following chapters telling the history and exposing the impact of our culture in the making of the American Jesus, a culture that never has returned to its Puritan roots, seemingly living in their constant shadow as each generation tries to break more and more free.
In the New Republic era a literal cut and paste job of the Gospels done by Thomas Jefferson marks a time when he and other influential fathers of our nation like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Paine were not only bringing about a new identity for America as an independent nation, but were also giving Jesus an identity that fit their cause. Nichols notes that, “the founders were deeply religious, but, with the exception here or there, not Christian in any orthodox sense—precisely because they answered the question of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth wrongly” (pg. 51). Though the founders have been Christianized over the years, Nichols strongly argues that what they really sought from Jesus was his virtue, summing it up by stating that, “Franklin and Jefferson’s moralizing, as well as Paine’s rationalizing, have a direct impact on the early nineteenth-century evangelical Jesus…It was not what Jesus taught, and certainly not what was taught bout him, that mattered, but instead what Jesus did” (pg. 71).
In the nineteenth-century, “Jesus is no longer the God above, the God-man who breaks into this world. Instead, he becomes interpreted by this world, conformed to cultural mores and ideological pressures, be they of Jacksonian era politics, frontier sensibilities, genteel Victorian manners or even Union ideals or Confederate dreams” (pg. 76). For frontiersmen like Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, Jesus needed to be a “suitable Savior, not one of the theological exactitude of the creeds but one that reflects the simple stories of the Gospels” (pg. 82); Victorians like J. Paterson-Smyth needed the gentle Jesus, making up stories about his childhood and also taking the ones of him blessing children, narrowing his life and person, making him, in the words of Mark Driscoll, a “marginalized, Galilean peasant.”
Nichols is dead on in his assessment of our contemporary evangelical Christian culture by looking at four major influences on Americans: music, films, goods, and politics. Earlier in the book he hinted at how the shaping of Jesus would affect us today by writing that, “Jefferson wanted…a religion fit for public consumption. Curiously that’s exactly what Jefferson found” (pg. 55, emphasis added). And that’s exactly what Americans find today in our overly consumeristic culture—Big Business Jesus fit for the consumption of all. Christ lost out to capitalism a long time ago.
Whether it’s the Jesus Movement turning into the behemoth known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), or films such as The Passion of the Christ raking in millions of dollars, or entrepreneurs taking a slice of the Jesus market, or politicians using “faith in Jesus” as a way of winning votes—at the heart of it all for Nichols is the utter lack of orthodoxy in American evangelicalism. Some, like the Jesus Movement, made great strides for the sake of the gospel as it was being preached by ex-drug addicts and the like, which Nichols begrudgingly acknowledges: “But the Jesus People, if numbers count, were effective at winning souls” (pg. 128). However, with an overwhelming amount of evidence, such as Precious Moments and the Precious Moments Chapel, countless songs like “I Can Only Imagine,” which emphasize feeling and experience over theological accuracy, and the politicizing of Jesus as he becomes “a man of the issues,” Nichols exposes an popular American Evangelicalism that doesn’t know Jesus, the Christ.
Nichols is also right in being cautious in his critique. He does not call MercyMe singing heretics. He does not call for the burning of all the movies portraying Jesus or all Jesus gear. He recognizes that certain songs express longings similar to those in the Psalms and that movies such as the Jesus Film Project seek to be as real and authentic as possible. But the caution enters as he is keenly aware of the fact that most American Evangelicals get their theology from pop Christian culture instead of the solid study of Scripture as he writes, “Evangelicals tend to get their theology from popular novels, learning about spiritual warfare from Frank Peretti and learning about all things ‘rapture’ from the dynamic duo of LaHaye and Jenkins. They also get their theology from popular music. If numbers can be trusted, then the amount of albums bought, songs downloaded and hours logged listening to Christian radio cannot lie” (pg. 143). Nichols sums it up best by quoting Mark Noll: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
Although I agree with most of Nichols’ critique and analysis my question is, “against which tradition is America always in rebellion?” How does it not follow that, like with many other cultural trends, the pendulum doesn’t really seem to swing back to a “Puritan” view of Jesus? Instead, Nichols paints a picture of how Jesus, the Christ, has been increasingly watered down to slogans like “WWJD” or “Try Jesus” since the days of the Puritans and that the “tradition” continually rebelled against is theirs? Do Americans, this “Christian” nation, really live in the shadow of its Puritan foundations, each generation fighting to break free? I think this is a weakness in Nichols’ argument, as he only loosely states and rarely defends throughout the book that “for every Harry Emerson Fosdick, there is a J.Gresham Machen” (pg. 12).
In the epilogue, Nichols offers some fairly hope-filled advice to his readers to look to Scripture first before tradition or experience, to challenge what is acceptable, to build each other up, to teach “the cardinal doctrine of the person of Christ” (pg. 226), and to not shrink back from the complex truths in Scripture, particularly two-natured Christology. Sadly though, Nichols’ critique never really comes with the glimmers of light for the present era, such as the theologically sound music of The David Crowder Band and The Cross Movement or the impact of the Christ-saturated preaching and writing of John Piper, Tim Keller, CJ Mahaney, Matt Chandler, and Mark Driscoll. Although the warning is well warranted and there is a much greater need for orthodox Christianity to invade and impact all aspects of our culture, Nichols and others can be somewhat encouraged that our sovereign God is in complete control and that there are people who don’t just say, “experience our American Jesus,” but are confessing, like Peter, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16).
By His Grace.