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

Stephen J. Nichols
Published by IVP Academic in 2008

Stephen Nichols’ book consists of eight chapters, a reading list and an index. The chapters deal with historical and contemporary figures and their influence on issues that mix the secular and sacred in American religion. Part of his thesis can be summarized as “Too often American evangelicals have settled for a Christology that can be reduced to a bumper sticker”(18).

Nichols begins with the Puritans, who followed the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, summarized in traditional creeds, but marginalized later when many Puritans became Unitarians. Nichols applauds many famous Puritans, including Edward Taylor and Jonathan Edwards, the former a pastor and prolific poet (he wrote a poem for each of his sermons), the latter as the third President of Princeton. The Congregational Puritans of that era were “stout of mind and heart” (38), although by the early 1800s Christ’s person and work was being redefined as “Unitarian Christianity” (39), in which his humanity began to overtake his deity. Nichols does not lay the blame entirely at the feet of the Puritans, but claims they laid the foundation for the making of the American Jesus that followed.

In Chapter 2, Nichols looks at the politics and piety of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Thomas Paine and finds increased doubting of the divinity of Jesus. In fact, according to Nichols, “The founders were deeply religious but, with an exception here or there, not Christians in the orthodox sense” (61), heralding a move into “civil religion.” Jefferson is well known for his cut-out Bible, similar, as Nichols notes, to the efforts of the Jesus Seminar, and was influenced by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke with their glorification of “Reason.” Washington said little about religion but saw Christianity as a political tool in the service of the nation. Franklin was a friend of the famed preacher, George Whitfield, but more interested in virtue and benevolence than repentance and doctrine.

Chapter 3 discusses the makeover of Christianity as Jesus moved from the frontier culture to the Victorian one. The frontier culture was a picture of a virile and vigorous Jesus, represented by men like Teddy Roosevelt, yet coexisting and replaced to some extent by the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” Jesus, who was thus being retooled as “friend.” Proponents of this view (Nichols mentions the Christian Church/Churches of Christ in particular) claimed it came directly from the Bible, bypassing tradition and creeds. The Victorian image of Jesus was essentially “Jesus for the children,” not only meek and mild, but “with flowing hair and high cheekbones, and a softness that only a womanly Savior can muster” (84). The photogenic Jesus led those evangelicals with a pacifist leaning to emphasize his humanitarian side.

The claim by Nichols and others is that the Civil War changed religion in America because it was not only “a political or constitutional crisis but a theological crisis” as well (91). Both sides, as Abraham Lincoln noted, prayed to the same God and read the same Bible. This was a fitting observation from Lincoln, who himself became a Christ figure, similar to the stature that Washington enjoyed.

In the first decade after independence, church attendance reached an all-time low and new denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, began to dump “burdensome theology” and embrace the Victorian feminized culture. According to Nichols, “The American Jesus followed suit,” becoming a mother figure with feminine features, much more human and related to a person’s own experience than to a confession in a creed (95).

Chapter 4 examines the opposing theologies of men like Harry Emerson Fosdick and J. Gresham Machen. Fosdick was a pastor-philosopher in the mold of today’s Robert Schuler, combining moral platitudes with practical humanitarian efforts. Following Henry Van Dyke, Fosdick preached a “rendering of the moral influence theory of the atonement with Victorian trappings” (103). Jesus was “the fairest flower of humanity” and the “ultimate hero for life in the modern world” (105). According to Nichols, “The sticking point here is Christ’s deity”(109), which does not hold up well in Fosdick’s version of Jesus as the altruistic and modern man, a point that Machen attacked vigorously. Machen, who established Westminster Theological Seminary (of which Nichols is a graduate), believed that “the church’s devotion runs shallow without theological depth” (118) and that “piety was not the measure of religious devotion” (119).

Chapter 5 is a critical review of contemporary Christian music, with its roots in the Jesus People movements of the ‘60s. The Jesus People emphasized love, coming as they did at that time from a drug culture. Once converted, their musicians became songwriters and fostered rock concerts. Campus Crusade for Christ director Bill Bright saw the potential of their music and sponsored the first Christian rock concert in Dallas. Eventually, Christian rock became big business and the “crossover” controversies began, where artists wanted on efoot in the religious world and one in the secular. One of the first was Amy Grant with “Baby ,Baby,” but many followed in her wake and sentimentality seemed to wash out any latent theology.

It was during this era that “Jesus Junk” began its lofty climb, not merely trinkets and T-shirts, but merchandise stores and catalogs, websites with online ordering as well as additional commercial ventures. Teens proclaimed Jesus as boyfriend/girlfriend, with love songs to God. In short, “Contemporary Christian Music was a microcosm of the American cultural landscape” (143). The Jesus People and what followed “did not go deep enough in looking for a theological revolution, a revolution that should have had a little more to say than ‘Try Jesus’” (145).

Chapter 6 examines “Jesus on the big screen” and is probably Nichols’ most critical chapter in a critical book. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was one of the biggest recent film attractions and seemed the most historical, with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. However, Nichols, who is obviously a movie buff and knows his motion pictures, criticizes the historical accuracy and theology of The Passion, just as he does a number of other films that depict Jesus in varying cultural settings, including those that are wide of the mark, such as The Last Temptation of Christ. He lists and evaluates them chronologically and theologically, noting that “Jesus films also reveal a tendency to transplant Jesus from his age to ours” (167) and show that “the humanity of Christ has been on the rise” (168). Nichols, following others, also distinguishes between “Jesus figures” (as in the Campus Crusade Jesus films) and “Christ figures” (such as in Godspell). The end result is that “The more you watch, the more you will likely find Christ figures in American film” (169).

Nichols looks at “Christ, commodification and consumer culture” in Chapter 7, summed up aptly as “Jesus on a bracelet.” The likeness of Jesus is for sale everywhere and the Christian public is anxious to buy objects like “buddy Christ,” hear lectures on “Jesus the businessman,” or golf for Jesus. Consumption is the name of the game and Christian retail stores and televangelists have cashed in “with needless stuff, which all can be purchased at a ‘Stuff-Mart’ near you” (193). For $5.95 a dozen, you can even get a rubber ducky version of Joseph. Nichols suggests that buyers maintain a certain cynicism towards forms of Christian marketing.

Chapter 8 evaluates Jesus in politics, mainly on the right wing. We have all observed how every president chants “God bless America” as he finishes his speech, regardless of his lateral left/right position. In fact, the religious right has promoted nationalism as their significant platform, as well as the more commonly known features of “pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-gun, antigay marriage, pro-war, antitax and pro-business” (200). They have had less to say about ecological concerns and stem-cell research. Nichols has a hard look at Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, seeing them as extreme right-wingers, yet noting a widening shift away from them in American culture among evangelicals. Now we in the church have “to live with the monster of political entanglement that it has created” (212). Evangelicals have read the Bible to support their views, but “Obviously culture and cultural conditioning play a role in how we read the text, how we interpret Jesus and how we employ Jesus” (216). In the end Jesus should not belong to the left or right of American political parties—his kingdom is not of this world.

Chapter 9 is an epilogue that begins by citing the Nicene Creed (“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”) as a guide to Christological thinking. The creeds were situated in historical events and the church leaders and fathers of that time struggled with theological issues that are as important today as they were then. “At times our call to be Christ’s disciples means challenging ideas and even whole systems that are presented to us” (225) and in humility looking to the past (and other cultures, Nichols adds) for some of our answers.

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, although I believe Nichols might have also have examined other more wide-ranging contemporary cultural commentaries on Christianity, such as the Mars Hill monthly audio version. I found it challenging because I too am a part of the consumerism that grips our culture and our churches. I attend a church that is African American, so I have become educated on the social problems and injustices that have historically (and currently) plagued our nation. At the same time our church, like all Dallas mega-churches, is caught up in the need to grow, expand, raise money, sell books and merchandise, even while it is obviously concerned with the needs of the poor and homeless. There is tension, or at least there should be.

The troublesome part of Nichols’ book is that it is much too close to home. When I look at the organizations I belong to, I can see that historically the recognition of the God-man has been a key ingredient to theological astuteness and has kept heresies out of the church. However, as the culture pulls us towards the humanity of God, we can water down his divine nature. Another problem: I find a similar difficulty about the dual historical nature of the organizations of SIL International and Wycliffe International, of which I am a part. Both work together and espouse a so-called “2025 vision” or creed that “all languages that ‘need one’ will have a translation program begun by 2025.” However, pulling this off without some tension between the academic and spiritual natures of the organizations is difficult. The current SIL emphasis is on manufacturing and selling the product locally (Bibles and Scripture use) and competes with the Wycliffe Bible Translators emphasis of publicizing and selling the program globally (Bible translation and raising money). In the process academics can become, to use Nichols’ term, “feminized.” Some organizations affiliated with the Wycliffe Bible Translators send me marketing brochures regularly that hold me (but mainly others) responsible for raising a billion dollars to complete the program of Bible translation. Historically, the folk theology and missiological concern of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL hasbeen to “finish the Job” (of translation). This was partly due to an informal and undocumented eschatological view that Christ would not return until the “last tribe” had the Word of God. Of course, many (perhaps most) who are involved with WBT do not voice this view, but it nevertheless has an effect on our hermeneutics of the “urgency of the task.”

SIL International (as outlined by its Board) believes also that the vision underlying the 2025 statement or creed is so important that all efforts should be directed towards its end. Its goal is worthy because of endangered languages, world social conditions that are deteriorating due to war, AIDS and other trauma, rapid church expansion, persecution, churches relying on languages that many in the congregation do not understand, church growth, and soon. However, our goal can become a marketing effort to raise money and involve people in projects and programs that are becoming more and more technologically oriented and therefore less and less community driven.

So I end up stimulated, challenged and troubled enough to recommend that SIL and WBT members, in particular, read Nichols’ book. We may not like everything we read, but it may make us examine our cultural and spiritual experiences and relate them to our motives and contributions to linguistics and Bible translation.

Cite this article
Karl J. Franklin, “Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 478-481

Karl J. Franklin

Karl J. Franklin, International Anthropology Consultant, SIL International