Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ. By Stephen J. Nichols. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008, 237 pp., $24.95, paperback.
As popular as the genre of history has become in the world of books, it is still a most difficult task of making history interesting reading. Many historical books are dry, academic, and rarely worth reading beyond professional historians. Stephen Nichols (Research Professor of Christianity and Culture, Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA) has developed the uncanny ability of making history interesting and especially helpful to Christians and pastors for the life of the church. His volumes on Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Christology, and others are written clearly and interestingly. In fact, they are written so well it is often hard to put them down! And Jesus Made in America is another hit. Cultural history is often even drier than regular history but Nichols makes the study of how Americans have viewed the person of Jesus Christ from the time of the Puritans until now completely fascinating.
This is not to say that Nichols is not heavy in parts. In particular the first few chapters are intense as they seek to understand the person of Jesus Christ in early American history. The topic of Christology in the Puritans is vast. Many Puritan pastors and theologians spent great amounts of time on Christ. It is fascinating to see how the “Word” rooted Christ of the Puritans becomes the commercial Jesus of today. The move from the Puritans to the Founding Fathers is also fascinating. Many today might disagree with Nichols views on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers (he would argue many of the Founding Fathers were deists, not just Jefferson) but his case is compelling and it forces those who assume the Founding Fathers were Christians to at least look at both sides of the evidence. This reviewer found his arguments quite compelling.
The next chapter looking at the Victorian makeover of Jesus to the feminized Christ from the masculine frontier Jesus was fascinating to this reviewer. It opened up an era of the Church not clearly understood especially as it related to understandings of Jesus. Surveying magazines of the time the church often looked to the feminine Jesus. Next, Nichols looks at the change to the feminized Jesus to the social liberal Jesus of the Fundamentalist-Modernist period. Nichols excels here especially in contrasting Fosdick from Machen (Nichols previously has written on Machen) and it seems unfortunately Machen was not able to bring Jesus back to the Word-centered Jesus of the Puritans but forced Jesus into this social-gospel mode.
Nichols looks at the further movement to the Jesus people and how modern society views Jesus as evidenced in contemporary Christian music, movies, and the commercial culture. It would seem that Nichols is right when he has says that today we can include all of our Christology on a bumper sticker. “The history of American evangelical Jesus reveals that such complexities as the two natures of Christ has 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” (p. 18). Modern society’s commercialized Jesus has clearly distorted the real Jesus of the Scriptures.
Finally, Nichols look at how both the right and left on the political spectrum have viewed Jesus and used Him as their champion for respective causes. Nichols ably demonstrates how Jesus does not fully fit into either a Republican or Democratic mold.
In Jesus Made in America, Nichols provides a fascinating look at how America has changed in its view of the person of Jesus Christ. From a time of Christology rooted in the Scriptures under the Puritans to a Jesus on the celluloid screen most clearly emphasizing His humanity over His divinity, as the feministic cigarette saying goes, “you’ve come a long way baby.” The question is, is it the right way, or the wrong way? Nichols concludes, that as we as the church continue to move into the 21st century we must reaffirm the person of Jesus Christ as rooted in the Scriptures and as understood by the church throughout history, especially as represented in the various ancient creeds. It is interesting that we have moved from a time when our Christology was communicated in a lengthy creed and now is communicated on a bumper sticker or on a bracelet. Can we truly boil the great and sovereign Lord of the universe down to this limited amount of space? Nichols rightly shows us that we lose much when we do so.
The value of this book is that it shows us the damage that we have done to the person of Christ over the years in America and how hard the church has to work to reconnect Jesus Christ to the Scriptures. As pastors and church leaders especially, I would recommend all to engage with these observations and again bring back a Christology of the Word as it makes much of the divine-human Jesus Christ and little of ourselves. Perhaps we are not at the point of preaching for two years on the person and work of Christ as the Puritans might, but perhaps if we begin to make much of Christ in our preaching and teaching we can begin to rescue the church from the theological/biblical reductionism it which it has found itself. I am so thankful for people like Nichols who can show us where we have come from, where we are at, and where we are going so we can better be more faithful as pastors to our Lord Jesus Christ living in a culture that wants to squeeze the God of the universe onto a bracelet. Let us make much of Christ!