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Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to "The Passion of the Christ" Paperback – May 4, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
After complimenting the Puritans for a vibrant spirituality grounded in sound biblical and church theology, Lancaster Bible College professor Nichols shows how subsequent generations of Americans have reduced Jesus to whatever best fits their needs. The book demonstrates in humorous detail how Jesus has proved to be a malleable figure in American culture and politics, from Jefferson's moral-exemplar Jesus to the manly Jesus of Billy Sunday, or from a trivialized Precious Moments Jesus to Focus on the Family's Republican Jesus. Nichols contends that reducing Jesus in this way is harmful. Although the book spotlights the Jesus of American evangelicalism, its chapters on contemporary images of and ideas about Jesus are filled with references that any modern American reader will recognize. For nonevangelical Americans, bemused by the proliferation of Jesus paraphernalia among believers, such discussion offers welcome perspective. Nichols's critique may not persuade his fellow evangelicals to tune out the ubiquitous Jesus is my boyfriend songs or turn off Veggie Tales. But his call to humbly accept that Jesus is more complex than a slogan or plaything strikes a chord. (May)
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"Nichols's critique will provoke thought and lively discussion on issues that today's Christians need to consider." (James Gorman, Restoration Quarterly, 53:2, 2011)
"Jesus Made in America is written in a lively style, one from which the author's voice clearly and uniquely rings. His case is compelling and his argument is one that needs to receive a wide reading in evangelical churches. May Nichols' work cause evangelicals to rediscover the robust Jesus of the Holy Scripture." (Jeff Robinson, Towers, August 16, 2010)
I found Nichols' book stimulating, challenging and troubling. The stimulation comes from the writing of a competent scholar who examines the current literature and cultural commentaries. I found it challenging because I too am a part of the consumerismn that grips our culture and our churches. The troublesome part of Nichols' book is that it is much too close to home. Nichols' book may make us examine our cultural and spiritual experiences and relate them to our motives and contributions to linguistics and Bible translation. (Karl J. Franklin, Christian Scholar's Review, Winter 2009)
Nichols has useful things to say about the evangelical use of media, especially music and film, and about the commercialization and politicization of Jesus in our own time by evangelical Christians. (Howard Miller, The Journal of American History, June 2009)
Nichols takes the reader on a history of America through the person of Jesus. How have we formulated Him to fit our collective conscience? Nichols advises: listen to scripture first, listen to tradition, and listen to experience. (JD, Libraries Alive, Winter 2009)
I certainly recommend Nichol's book to those evangelicals who wish to be capable of critically evaluating their culture, who are open to the painful experience of realizing that not everything you have assumed even as part of your Christian worldview deserves the label "Christian." For all those interested in American Christian culture, but in particular for those who participate in it, Nichol's book provides a helpful perspective and much valuable insight. (James F. McGrath, Exploring our Matrix (exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com), August 14, 2008)
One of the most engaging, informative books I've read this year. (Tim Challies, Discerning Reader, July 15, 2008)
. . .one of the most engaging, informative books I've read in a long time. Nichols helps us learn from the mistakes of those in the past, while offering words of wisdom for those of us seeking to be faithful to Jesus in the present. (Rev. John Chadick, Book Bargains and Previews, July 2008)
In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Historian Stephen J. Nichols surveys the answers of American evangelicals particularly. What he finds makes for disturbing reading. (George Wood, AG ThinkTank, June 2008)
One of the most engaging, informative books I've read this year. In fact, I'll be surpised if this book doesn't make my annual Top Ten list of "favorite reads." (Trevin Wax, Kingdom People, June 18, 2008)
"I would highly recommend the book, which can teach us a great deal about American culture and how we view Christ. It really is worth picking up a copy." (Justin Taylor on Between Two Worlds (theologica.blogspot.com), April 23, 2008)
"I hate to say it, but Nichols is right: 'Too often American evangelicals have settled for a Christology that can be reduced to a bumper sticker.' My hope and prayer for this book is that our leading preachers will read it, learn from Nichols about the profound Christian heritage of reflection on the natures and person of Christ, and work to edify their audiences with meaty biblical preaching about this most important doctrine. I am more optimistic than Nichols about the potential of recent cultural trends to fortify such efforts--especially the recent emphasis on Jesus' concern for the poor. But I applaud Nichols's attempt to take us beyond our own little worlds and help us learn from other people, past and present, about the excellency of Christ." (Doug Sweeney, associate professor of church history and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
"Stephen J. Nichols loves Jesus and he loves America, but he does not love the way that many Americans have repackaged Jesus to conform to their own cultural assumptions. With the learning of a first-rate historian, the spiritual bearings of an orthodox theologian and the passion of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, Nichols charts his way through the American religious experience from the Puritans to the present. Evangelicals who assume that distorted and undeveloped Christologies are just a problem among theological liberals particularly need to read this book. The real Jesus might have us attend first to a beam in our own eye." (Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College)
"Could it be that in their 'personal relationship with Jesus' evangelicals in the United States have gotten the better end of the deal? This is certainly one question that readers can plausibly take away from Stephen Nichols's imaginative and knowledgeable study of evangelical conceptions of Jesus. As he shows, 'having Jesus in my heart' often means reducing the eternal Son of God to the proportions of believers' limited imaginations more than it does being conformed to the image of God revealed in Christ. As somber and difficult as that lesson may be to receive, Nichols packages it in a lively narrative that is sure to entertain even while hitting the reader right between the eyes." (D. G. Hart, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and author of That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestants in the Twentieth Century)
"This is a fascinating historical chronicle of the many different ways we have attempted to 'Americanize' Jesus. But reading it is also an important spiritual exercise. Stephen Nichols points us beyond the distorted images of Jesus that so easily tempt us to the reality of a Savior who is the Lord of the nations." (Richard J. Mouw, President and Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary)
"Stephen Nichols's account of how Jesus has been perceived throughout American history is long on wisdom and short on tedium. His lively account is especially noteworthy as it explains what the nation's first presidents made of Jesus and how he has been depicted by some of its most popular movie producers. Not the least of the book's many merits is Nichols's ability to sort through the extraordinary mix of cultural nonsense and profound theological insight that make up this story." (Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame)
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Top Customer Reviews
In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asked his disciples two provocative questions. First, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Two recent books by scholars of religion survey the answers of Americans generally. They are Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon and Robert Wightman Fox's Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession. But Jesus went on to ask the disciples, "Who do you say I am?" In Jesus Made in America, historian Stephen J. Nichols surveys the answers of American evangelicals particularly. What he finds makes for disturbing reading.
Nichols begins, as historians of American Christianity must begin, with the Puritans. He critiques the Puritans for failing to live out a Christlike ethic, with regard to native Americans, African slaves, and Salem witches. Otherwise, however, he sets up their two-nature Christology and Christ-centered spirituality as a standard from which their evangelical successors have fallen. Christianity is a religion of head, heart, and hands - of doctrine, devotion, and deeds. Nichols is right to critique the ethical lapses of the Puritans, but they were certainly correct in believing in and worshiping the God-man Jesus Christ.
In a sense, the Revolutionary Era of American history reversed the error of the Puritans. They emphasized deeds over doctrine and devotion. Typical of this emphasis, a young Benjamin Franklin wrote: "My mother grieves that one of her Sons is an Arian, another an Arminian. What an Arminian or an Arian is, I cannot say that I very well know; the Truth is, I make such Distinctions very little my Study; I think vital Religion has always suffer'd, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue." It helps to know that Franklin's mother was a product of Boston Puritanism and that Franklin rebelled against his upbringing. Although there were a few orthodox Christians among the founders - Nichols mentions John Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, and John Quincy Adams - the Founders were typically Unitarians. They thought highly of Jesus as the human teacher of moral virtue, but no higher than that. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to excise miracles, atonement, and declarations of Jesus' divinity from his copy of the Gospels. By emphasizing virtue and denying divinity, the Founders customized Jesus to meet the needs of their new republic.
In the Democratic Era that followed on the heels of the Founders, Jesus was further customized into the ideal frontiersman. The early nineteenth century saw a sea change in American religious attitude, as the populace shifted from the elitism of the Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches to the egalitarianism of the Baptists, Methodists, and Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ. The frontier made no time for abstract theology. It focused on spirituality and ethics, on results, not thinking. In some cases - Baptists and Methodists - the Christological conclusions were orthodox. In other cases - Barton Stone of the so-called Christian churches - they were not. But the methodology by which these conclusions were reached was something distinctly American. There was no need for educated clergy or church tradition. "No creed but the Bible," in Peter Cartwright's formulation. Any man could pick up the Bible and develop whatever doctrinal system he saw fit. And many did. The individualism and rough-hewn character of the frontier gave way to Victorian sentimentality as the frontier closed and the American populace settled in for city life. Jesus was brought inside, bathed, clothed, and made to act respectably. Think of "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," and you'll get the picture of Victorian Jesus. Interestingly, the Victorian Jesus was suitably domesticated to be claimed by both sides of the Civil War. A Jesus who has been stripped of his divinity does not stand outside human systems to critique them; rather, he is product of those human systems, who make him in their own images.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the reaction to this Victorian sentimentality set in with a vengeance. Social Gospel liberalism saw Jesus as a hero for humanity, liberating the oppressed from the wicked maw of capitalism. This heroic Jesus was not the God-man, however. Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous preacher of that age, made sure that such fundamentalist doctrines were explained away. But others - such as J. Gresham Machen, Fosdick's bete noir - responded with the re-assertion of creedal orthodoxy. "Liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity," Machen wrote; "Christianity regards him as a supernatural person." The battle between Fosdick's modernism and Machen's fundamentalism (a term he hated, and a side he barely wanted to be associated with) continues to this day.
Unfortunately, while one would expect evangelicals - the Puritans' self-proclaimed heirs - to boldly reassert Christological orthodoxy and to reframe real Christianity as a religion of head, heart, and hands, the evangelicals have been busy domesticating Jesus in their own novel ways. Their worship music has turned him into everyone's Boyfriend ("Hold me close to You / never let me go"). Their movies have occluded his divinity. (Even The Passion of the Christ, so lauded by evangelicals and Pentecostals who otherwise would abominate R-rated movies, doesn't adequately portray Jesus' divinity.) Their stores have turned Jesus into a slogan ("Jesus is my homeboy") or a bracelet ("WWJD?") or a doe-eyed Savior (Precious Moments figurines). And their politics has shoehorned Jesus into a proponent of a preconceived right-wing ideology (lately, a left-wing ideology too).
When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter responded with good theology: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." But that theology barely nudged Peter's conceptions of what a Christ should act like. Matthew 16:21-23 tells the rest of the story. Peter had no room for a crucified Savior and rebuked Christ when Christ suggested crucifixion was his destiny. In turn, Jesus said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!"
After reading Jesus Made in America, I have begun to wonder whether American evangelicals (and us Pentecostals) might be due for our own exorcism.
What Nichols does is spends the first half or so of the book walking the reader through how particular cultures and people in the past have really shaped our thinking and their thinking of Christ. He starts with the Puritans, then to our founding fathers, the Victorians and the modernists of the early 20th century.
After Nichols goes through these with precision he then gives the reader insight on how we have specifically been affected, or infected, depends on how you see it, through Contemporary Christian Music, Hollywood, Consumerism and Politics.
This part of the book was very informative as Nichols shows how the history of each one of these has led us to where we are currently with Jesus and culture and he doesn't leave any stone unturned. He questions things such as Thomas Kinkade, Precious Moments, The Passion of the Christ, CCM Music Festivals, WWJD bracelets, Christian T-Shirts, Dobson and the extreme politics pulling on Jesus from both sides.
I believe that Nichols unpacks some things that are very worrisome in our day in age where Madonna actually has become a prophetess, even though she falls into the same trap:
Christianity is becoming more of a currency than a belief
Sadly, I think she is right.
This book is extremely well done and I would recommend this to any reader to show what is happening in front of our own eyes and the danger of falling into consumerism Christianity.
This might have been Nichols best book to date. Highly Recommended.
The first few chapters were filled with great historical insight and analysis. As I read I was enlightened about where the images of Jesus I was accustomed to came from and the points of view to which they owed their form and shape. I especially enjoyed the Billy Sunday Jesus who was portrayed as the manliest man among the manliest of men. He would stand out in a lumberjack convention, and be able to take on any one of them. This portrayal recalled to mind some of the contemporary images of Jesus in books aimed at Christian men.
I also thought the chapter on Contemporary Christian Music was well done and well cited. Recently, I have become wary of the triteness of CCM and what passes for lyrics. Nichols does a great job of uncovering the genesis of the music we get to listen to today, and how its current incarnation is a result of over-commercialization and the power of the dollar. Certainly there is a higher calling in music aimed at glorifying God than selling t-shirts at summer concert series.
Though it was well cited, the footnotes were a little hard to follow. More often than not, instead of a footnote at the end of each reference, a paragraph would end with one footnote and contain a handful of references. That little issue aside, I thought this was a wonderful and enlightening read and useful to anyone concerned with accurately understanding and portraying the Jesus of Scripture.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Thanks to Adrianna of IVP for the review copy of this book.Read more
Nichols has written a book that all Christians ought to read and ponder.Read more