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Book Review – Jesus Made in America

2008 May 29
by Julie Clawson

I recently finished reading Stephen J. Nichols’ Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (IVP 2008). When I first received this book, I was excited to read it. The concept intrigued me – an historical overview of how the cultural sensibilities of different eras in American history shaped our common conceptions of Jesus. This is a theme I’ve personally explored and one that I believe is little recognized by the church. We all to an extent create Jesus in our own image, and reading the history of that tendency in America captured my interest. What I discovered instead though was a book that although fascinating fell prey too often to the author’s personal biases.

In my reading of the book, I discovered early on a major theological difference with the author that effected my encounter with his theories. Nichols sets up the book with the assumption that there does exist one right way to think about Jesus. In a book about how our cultural background influences our perception of Jesus, I found this assumption to be a bit out of place. There was no acknowledgement that this “correct Christology” might have been influenced by cultural factors, just that it represents right belief that everything else must therefore be deviating from. So it is in light of this basic assumption that Nichols examines the history of Jesus in America. His Christology is the standard that he holds everyone else up to. Of course this results in those he examines being either completely right or completely wrong about Jesus. He goes to great lengths (stretching might better describe it) to prove that the Puritans held to this correct Christology, while others (The Passion of the Christ, Veggie Tales, and CCM for example) fail theologically. It’s a black and white world apparently for him when it comes to understanding Jesus.

This emphasis on correct Christology develops throughout the book. He dismisses many of the cultural portrayals of Jesus because they emphasise relationship or practice over doctrine. He asserts that correct Christology must always be primary for believers. While I respect the need to have a good theology, I question his hierarchical approach. I just can’t picture Jesus stopping himself in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, slapping his forehead, and saying “but what am I thinking! All this stuff I’m telling you to do is great, but what is really going to matter is that over the next few hundred years people are going to debate how best to talk about me, hold councils and votes as to who really is right, and kill those in the minority. Making sure you agree with what the right group says about me will be the primary part of your faith…” Maybe the Bible just forgot to record that part of the sermon.

I honestly agree with many of the critiques Nichols has of popular cultural conceptions of Jesus (I can’t stand Jesus is my boyfriend songs), I am just not as inclined as he is to dismiss them altogether. He assumes that any theory of Jesus is a complete reduction of Jesus to just that theory and so dismisses them as having no redeeming value whatsoever. In what reads as a litany of his personal pet peeves with Christianity, Nichols I believe confuses his personal dislikes with bad theology. His biases against certain groups (hippies, liberals, youth) are strongly displayed. Anything connected to such groups can hold no value for him. So while I don’t believe that Jesus can be reduced to just being a friend, or a revolutionary, or a moral leader I have no problem saying that Jesus does contain those aspects. To ignore those portrayals of Jesus is just as reductionistic and limiting as claiming any one of those encompass fully who Jesus is. And to do so because one is more comfortable with the Puritans than the Jesus People seems like just another case of creating Jesus in our own image in my opinion.

While I found Nichols’ thesis flawed and fairly biased, I do have to say that the cultural history presented in the book makes it well worth the read. The different eras’ portrayals of Jesus are accurate and are useful in helping one to understand what shaped the church today. Knowing that the church hasn’t existed in a vacuum, but has been influenced by culture could possible bring some needed humility to the church (I just wish Nichols had learned from his own writing). I particularly thought that the sections that dealt with faith and politics were the strongest in the book. In those sections Nichols’ historical analysis shines through his personal likes and dislikes and the reader is treated to a well developed perspective on both the Founding Fathers and the contemporary situation.

So I do recommend this book, but with a few cautions. Enjoy the cultural history, but be aware of the author’s presence shaping what you read and in many ways undermining his own thesis. Even so, I found it an enjoyable read.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    May 29, 2008

    While I can understand your willingness to recommend books you may disagree with, I have a hard time–and I think anyone who actually thinks outside of the Calvinist box should have a hard time–recommending anything published by InterVarsity Press. I stopped reading things that come with the label IVP (along with Crossway, etc.) a long time ago. It’s not worth my time. It’s not scholarship; it’s ideology that masks itself as such.

    For a better treatment of the concept of American portrayals of Jesus in culture, I’d recommend Stephen Prothero’s book “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a Cultural Icon” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). He is a professor at Boston University, and his treatment of the subject matter is much more even-handed and devoid of the religio-cultural ideology that most IVP books on theology and culture come laced with.

  2. Andrew permalink
    May 29, 2008

    Julie,
    I appreciate this review, but after reading several of your reviews, I find there to be one troubling consistency in your approach. In most of your reviews, you seem to disagree with the assumptions of each author and thus, you fail to give them a fair reading. To illustrate, your unwillingness to accept or even consider Nichols’ Christology affects your review of his content. Wouldn’t it be better to review the book in light of his Christology rather than critique his Christology? For instance, you state,

    “In a book about how our cultural background influences our perception of Jesus, I found this assumption to be a bit out of place. There was no acknowledgement that this “correct Christology” might have been influenced by cultural factors, just that it represents right belief that everything else must therefore be deviating from. So it is in light of this basic assumption that Nichols examines the history of Jesus in America. His Christology is the standard that he holds everyone else up to. Of course this results in those he examines being either completely right or completely wrong about Jesus.”

    I know postmoderns balk at metanarratives, but this tendency is contradictory. It happens that we often critique or condemn one author’s views as having been culturally fabricated while at the same time thinking our views are less culturally fabricated. So, while you take issue with Nichols’ supposedly ‘Correct” Christology, you will undoubtedly fail to offer a Christology of your own that is indefensible from being critiqued as socially, morally, ethnically motivated.

  3. May 30, 2008

    Andrew –

    First, thanks for expressing your thoughts on the sorts of books you read. Since I am currently writing a book with IVP, I would obviously disagree with your assessment of them.

    I would never claim either to offer a christology that is beyond critique. As for how I write my book reviews… I generally am very positive about the books I review. But the last couple have been more critical. I find reviews that just summarize the book rather boring and would rather not write them. So given that this is my personal blog, I give my personal thoughts on the books I read. I disagreed with this book and I gave my reasons why. Sure a book can work within its given thesis, but if I think a thesis is flawed then its hard to honestly comment on the book.

  4. Charlotte Wyncoop permalink
    June 1, 2008

    Julie,
    Can I borrow it?

  5. Kristie B permalink
    June 1, 2008

    IVP is in a Calvinist box? Hasn’t IVP published a number of books in support of open theism – including the Pinnock book that launched the whole debate in evangelical circles? I’m closely associated with IVP, so I won’t say too much here, but I do feel an unfair accusation has been made. As a press they seek to publish books that represent a variety of perspectives on the major issues within evangelicalism.

  6. June 1, 2008

    IVP is in a Calvinist box?

    yeah, I was wondering about that accusation too. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about IVP is their willingness to publish books presenting multiple viewpoints (albeit within the evangelical sphere). I’ve not noticed any excessively Calvinist bent from them.

  7. June 1, 2008

    galatians

    oh and by the way? i think your family is lovely and encourage you to give everything up to mother with your entire heart and being.

  8. June 2, 2008

    Char – but of course

    ad – I choose to give my everything to following God with my entire heart and being. That includes being a good mom, but not making an idol of it as so many in the church seem to insist I must do.

  9. Andrew permalink
    June 2, 2008

    First of all,

    The first Andrew commenter (me) was, as it should have been obvious, not the second commenter with the same name–a person who has a problem with postmodern critique and obviously is showing his conservative allegiances.

    While my comment about IVP may have been a bit harsh, let’s look at the facts. A whole slew of commentaries about to be published by John Stott. A dictionary of the Old Testament about to be published by (the now notorious) Peter Enns. A book on female sexuality by Janelle Hallman that absurdly labels lesbianism a “destructive relational pattern.” The widely-known “Knowing God” by the uber-fundamentalist Calvinist J.I. Packer.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. Granted, IVP may not be strictly “Calvinist,” but they are incredibly friendly (especially in their more academic publications) to its doctrines and the people who vouch for their theological authenticity. Regardless of this, though, their books are, at best, conservative evangelical drivel–whether you want to characterize them as Calvinist or Arminian or “open theist” (which is nothing but a sad attempt at trying to think outside the evangelical box that can’t do so, because if it did, it would be the more philosophically oriented “process theology” of John Cobb and philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead).

    I realize I’m being a bit bold in some of my characterizations, for sure. But I don’t think they’re that far off the mark. I have no reason to read evangelical works anymore (especially conservative ones like IVP and Crossway publish) because they are full of ideas that are (to everyone except evangelicals) uninformed and theologically and philosophically bereft of valuable content (i.e., supporting ludicrous “doctrines” like inerrancy or infallibility).

    That’s what I meant by what I said earlier. Again, I respect the right of you (Julie) to publish with IVP. But personally, if I was presented with the opportunity to do so (which, because of my theology, I most assuredly would not), I would have a hard time writing for people I would disagree with so strongly. My principles would get in the way.

  10. Steve Perry permalink
    July 1, 2008

    Andrew,I would question whether your comments on evangelicals betrays a self-satisfaction with your own ideas as opposed to fully engaging the breadth of publications that come out of publishing houses such as IVP etc. I’m not a fan of Calvinism and there is plenty of books that satisfy the theological appetite that don’t masquerade as something other than they state. As far as your reference to Janelle Hallman, I suggest you read her book. There is substantive evidence to show that common views on homosexuality are largely wishful think rather than based on pure science. The studies done even by gay affirmative therapists reveal signicant contributions from upbringing and basic early childhood development in formation of sexual identity. I would recommend reading the book before casting dispersions.

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