Matthew R. Perry

Jesus: Made in America by Stephen Nichols (A Book Review)

In America, evangelicalism, History on March 27, 2009 at 10:17 am

Purchase Jesus Made in America by Stephen Nichols (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008, 237 pp.)

First of all, I must say how grateful I am to Southern Seminary for (1) having a marvelous conference (Southern Seminary and the History of American Christianity, on February 18-19, 2009), and (2) providing two free books to all conference attendees.  One of the books I chose is “Jesus Made in America:  A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ” by Stephen Nichols. 

I bought this book for two reasons.  First, because of Nichols’ engaging style at the conference.  And, on a personal note, I had a chance to speak briefly with him in the Legacy Center lobby that night.  He was just as engaging in a personal conversation as he was delivering his lecture on the influence of D.L. Moody.  And his engaging style transfers to the written page, making this clearly my favorite read of the year.

Secondly, I am an avid history buff.  Ideal vacations for me are not necessarily to beach resorts or golf vacations (though I wouldn’t be opposed to them), but around historical venues.  Nichols effectively takes the reader through the main stages and eras of American history from colonial times to the present and addresses how American thought and life has influenced our American view of Jesus Christ.  As you read through this, you begin to see how by and large our culture’s view of Christ has developed not necessarily from the Bible but reflecting on differing emphases in differing eras. The chapters are laid out as follows:

Chapter One (The Puritan Christ): The Puritans saw Jesus clearly as the "God-man," but many in evangelicalism today wonder whether recovering their mindset is worth the time. To many today, "He is a bit too far out of reach for personal touch." Yet, for all their flaws, the Puritans offer a balance between the transcendent and imminent Christ.

Chapter Two (Jesus and the New Republic): When our country was formed with the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the ratifying of the Constitution (1789), many of our most influential founding fathers began to reject the Puritan look as a those of us who are "sinners in the hands of an angry God." Men like Thomas Jefferson rejected the miracles of the Scriptures, only choosing to extract the moral teachings of Jesus. Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense went further to decry religion altogether. Yet, Americans then (and now) thanks to numerous writings and paintings, were quick to paint George Washington as a Messianic figure, even though he gave scant references to God. The Jesus of the New Republic was portrayed as one who desired moral character and virtue, but little use was made for any condemning and judging role Christ played.

Chapter Three (Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild): Andrew Jackson’s frontiersman celebrity helped craft Jesus into a man’s man, with little use for the creeds and much use for . On the other end of the spectrum, the Victorian Jesus was one who was gentle, respectful, friend of children, and almost effeminate. Many depictions of Jesus were that of one with long hair, blue eyes, smooth skin, and womanly features.

Chapter Four (Jesus, Hero for the Modern World): In this chapter, Nichols discusses the theological debates between liberal scholar Harry Emerson Fosdick and conservative scholar J. Gresham Machen. For Fosdick, Jesus was all about peace and brotherhood, playing off the philosophy of Henry Van Dyke. Machen sought to bring the church back to orthodox Christianity.

Chapter Five (Jesus on Vinyl): From the Jesus People Movement to the mega-corporate Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) scene, adapting Jesus and his ways to the airwaves and drained even more of the deity out of Christ. Now, Nichols contends, we are relegated to singing "love songs" to Jesus. Crossover bands recognize that if they desire airplay on a wider realm, they must refrain from using, as DeGarmo and Key slyly remarked, "the J-Word."

Chapter Six (Jesus on the Big Screen): From DeMille’s King of Kings in 1927 to The Passion of the Christ in 2004 (with a stopover at Scorsece’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Nichols gives an interesting overview of Christ on film. He rightly notes that most of these films fill in some of the spots missing (such as Jesus’ childhood) and gloss over areas where the Scripture does speak. A case in point is Gibson’s Passion, which draws more on his Catholic tradition than it does on the sole authority of Scripture. Nichols gives a helpful survey to help us be more discerning.

Chapter Seven (Jesus on a Bracelet): from the WWJD? bracelets to Precious Moments, Nichols gives a very disturbing view on how Christ is merchandised. You just need to read this chapter to get an idea of how absorbed we are in this mindset.

Chapter Eight (Jesus on the Right Wing): From Jimmy Carter’s claim to being "born again" to George W. Bush’s claim in the 2000 Republican Presidential Primaries that Jesus influenced his thoughts the most, Nichols examines how both the right wing and the left seek to lay claim to Jesus as an advocate to their causes.


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