Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ

Stephen J. Nichols IVP Academic, Grand Rapids April 18, 2008
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Nichols, research professor of Christianity and Culture, Lancaster (PA) Bible College, has written a provocative and insightful book about the influence of American culture on views of Jesus within American evangelicalism. He identifies four major theological and philosophical impulses as the culprits: suspicion of tradition, a naïve biblicism, the myth of objectivity and neutrality in epistemology, and a pietistic elevation of experience over doctrine. These factors, he argues, “all conspire to make American evangelicals quite susceptible to culture in the shaping of beliefs and interpretation of Scripture. And perhaps nowhere is this more poignantly felt than in the area of Christology and the shape and identity of Jesus, the American Jesus” (p. 12).

This cultural history begins in Puritan New England and then proceeds chronologically, stopping along the way to examine representative snapshots of Jesus in each period. Nichols’s selections effectively illustrate his thesis and tell a persuasive story. The bulk of the book discusses the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, examining Jesus in the lyrics of contemporary Christian music, as presented in several Hollywood films, as marketed as a commodity in consumer culture through bracelets and clothing, and as co-opted by both political parties to support their agendas. Again and again Nichols illustrates how the ideals and values of American culture influence people’s views of Jesus more than do Nicaea and Chalcedon. The result is a Jesus who looks more like an American than like the eternal Son of God who became incarnate. As Nichols puts it, “How can we not see that this view of Jesus as the God-man is imperative for any right understanding of the gospel? These creeds and the biblical texts which they are fashioned from provide the church with its perennial theology, which the church in any country in any century simply cannot afford to live without” (p. 224).

Any attempt to synthesize centuries of history and a tradition as diverse as American evangelicalism (and to do so in 240 pages) will necessarily be selective and open to the charge that the author’s choices are not representative or that he has overgeneralized from insufficient sampling. Nichols’s selections of snapshots and his interpretation, however, tell a compelling story and lead to the undeniable conclusion that American evangelicalism as a whole is in need of a corrective in its Christology. Of course some segments of evangelicalism are healthier than others and some need correction more than others, but the warnings Nichols sounds should be heeded by all.

Nichols’s concluding paragraph in the introduction succinctly summarizes the book: “The history of the American evangelical Jesus reveals that such complexities as the two natures of Christ have often been brushed aside, either on purpose or out of expediency. Too often his deity has been eclipsed by his humanity, and occasionally the reverse is true. Too often American evangelicals have settled for a Christology that can be reduced to a bumper sticker. Too often devotion to Jesus has eclipsed theologizing about Jesus. 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. 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 means that a generation of contemporary evangelicals is living off borrowed capital. This quest for the historical Jesus of American evangelicalism is not just a story of the past; it perhaps will help us understand the present, and it might even be a parable for the future. This parable teaches us that Jesus is not actually made in America. He is made and remade and remade again. What will next year’s model look like?” (p. 18, italics his).

This is an accurate, carefully researched, theologically nuanced, historically sensitive, and culturally engaging look at American evangelicalism. Although the book is a hard-hitting jeremiad, Nichols’s use of humor and his kind and loving tone make for enjoyable reading. His love for Jesus and American evangelism are obvious and evident on every page. This book should be on every Christian’s reading list. Christian leaders, especially pastors, must read this book. An accurate Christology is that important.

—Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2010 vol. 167 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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