Monday, March 01, 2010

Jesus Made in America, part 2

In chapter three of Nichol's book, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ, he explores the Jesus of the nineteenth century, focusing our attentions on the different portraits of Jesus that emerged on the frontier, in the parlors of Victorian culture, on the battlefields of Civil War. Beginning with the frontier, Nichols highlights the election of Andrew Jackson over John Quincy Adams. He asserts, "Jacksonian era religion would be a democratized one, as the individual usurped the reign of the clergy and the religious elites" (pg 75). This individualism is represented well by Charles Finney and his revivals – revivals that were markedly different than those of Edwards and Whitefield. Finney's revivals had more Arminian tendencies (I'd say Pelagian, but Nichols is the historian). This form of revival became the norm in the church. As Nichols notes, "in the hands of Finney the American church moved from having revivals to becoming a church or revivalism. Revivals would indeed be the new norm of church life" (pg 75). In addition to these changes, Nichols draws the reader's attention to how Jesus himself was changing in the minds of Americans. In the most memorable line of the book, Nichols quips, "American evangelicals do indeed like Jesus; we just don't always like him straight" (pg. 79).

On the frontier, the new image of Jesus would be a very masculine one. Jackson, Nichols argues, had a "trickle-down effect" on the American Jesus. Those on the frontier shared two traits that would greatly affect the way they would view religion and the way Jesus would be tweaked to meet their needs: a rugged individualistic, pioneering spirit and deep poverty (which had a leveling effect). On the frontier "only a rugged and plain and unvarnished religion would do" (pg. 77). And there were people ready to provide a simple Jesus. The Wesleyan circuit riding preachers were up to the task, offering "plain preaching for plain folk, by birth or aspiration" (pg 77). Simplifying Jesus meant freeing him from the historic creeds and confessions while emphasizing a personal experience of Jesus. Alexander Campbell and Baron Stone were exemplary in this regard, and the new movement they began had a profound impact on the frontier and its Christology. Nichols follows the trajectory their newly freed Jesus would take in the denomination/movement they founded, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Campbell took this freeing of Jesus seriously arguing that churches that followed creeds "are not churches of Jesus Christ, but the legitimate daughters of the mother of harlots, the Church of Rome" (pg 80).

This attempt to be utterly biblical and the radical interpretation of the priesthood of all believers "opened them up to allowing these cultural pressures to govern what they see in the Bible and what they take away from the Bible. Culture too easily takes the upper hand once one is freed from creedal formulations" (pg. 79). Both Stone and Campbell shifted away from orthodox views of Jesus in their teaching. Stone, according to Nichols, questioned the doctrine of the Trinity and of Jesus' substitutionary death. He eventually became a subordinationist (a hierarchical view of the Trinity that holds the Son and Spirit are inferior in their beings to the Father). Campbell said, "In the first place I object t the Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity" (pg. 81). Nichols comments, "Calvin might have been flattered that Campbell attributed the doctrine of the Trinity to him" (pg. 81). Campbell, based on his writings, should probably be considered a modalist, viewing the Father, Son and Spirit as different manifestations of the One God, not persons within the God head. Nichols also picks up on (picks on) the Christology of one prominent Restoration Movement author/pastor, Max Lucado. Lucado emphasizes "Jesus as your friend". That's not a bad emphasis except when it comes to the exclusion of Jesus as your Lord and Master. Lucado is quoted, "Jesus wants to be your friend. He wasn't you to understand your relationship with him not as a servant to Master, but as a friend to a Friend." (pg. 78). The case is clear when it comes to Stone and Campbell – "[their] Christology did not resemble the orthodox view of Christ" (pg. 82). Nichols does concede that later leaders in the Stone-Campbell movement reigned in the heterodoxy, yet still appreciated and advocated a simple, non-creedal Jesus known by experience.

The Victorian Jesus was "also hairy", but that is where the similarities start. The Victorians, argues Nichols, feminized Christianity and in so doing feminized Jesus. Part of this feminization was the result of mass produced art. Nichols jibes, "American Catholics had their Madonnas and crucifixes, American Protestants had both in one" (pg. 83). Among Victorians, one scene in Jesus life quickly became a favorite – Jesus with the little children. Moreover, their developed an odd fascination with Jesus' own childhood. Indeed a flurry of books on his childhood were published. "By so emphasizing this story of Jesus blessing the children," Nichols writes, "the Victorians proffered a narrow view of Jesus, one that ignored those episodes less compatible with Victorian sensibilities, one that could not contain the full complexities of the biblical narrative, the darker sides of wrath and judgment and the ravages of sin…Not to be missed, either, are the Victorian sensibilities of childhood innocence" (pg. 87-88). Like Ricky Bobby of Talladega Nights, they preferred "little Lord Baby Jesus." Alongside these literary images of Jesus were the artistic ones which also emphasized the human side of Jesus at the expense of the divine.

Nichols moves on to a brief examination of Jesus during the Civil War, noting that Jesus could be found in both camps. After the war, civil religion marched on and the notion of America being the Promised Land grew. The religion of period "was certainly in debt to Christianity, the Bible and Christ. Yet this religion trended away, first, from the creeds, which had narrowly and explicitly defined Christ as the God-man who died 'for us and for our salvation,' in the words of the Nicene Creed. America's civil religion next trended away from the Bible itself" (pg 94). Nichols concludes the chapter citing with approval Mark Noll's assessment that evangelicalism fell victim to its own success. Noll contends that just as evangelicals nearly converted the nation, so the nation molded the Christian nation in its own shape" (pg. 96).

Chapter four moves the reader into the twentieth century and the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which Nichols argues "did much to shape, if not to define, twentieth-century American religion, leaving an indelible mark on Jesus" (pg 99). The hero role in this chapter is played by J. Gresham Machen (pronounced May-chen); the villain roles go to Henry Van Dyke and Harry Emerson Fosdick. Van Dyke wore many hats: He was also the pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church in NYC, and a well know author of such books as The Story of the Other Wise Man and The First Christmas Tree. These books, which were 'standard fare' for the evangelical churches across the nation, earned him a job as professor of literature at Princeton University (which is where his conflicts with Machen started, while Machen was still as student). Van Dyke wrote his books on the Christmas event hoping to encourage the masses to 'live Christmas'. Van Dyke was, having been heavily influenced by liberal theologians like Bushnell and Scheiermacher, popularizing their ideas. Nichols writes, "He was reducing Christ to a moral example because he had reduced Christianity to a set of moral platitudes. This also carries with it the necessary correlate of an elevated view of humanity and a diminished view of sin, all of which serve as the ingredients of classic theological and religious liberalism" (pg 102). Van Dyke also wrote non-story theological works, which were heavily criticized for being less than orthodox. Van Dyke, in a move that has become common, dismissed his critics as hair-splitters, arguing that theological bickering only distracted from the churches mission and obscured the gospel. Nichols summarizes Van Dyke's 'contribution', "The combined results of Van Kyke's efforts is nothing short of a rendering of the moral influence theory of the atonement with Victorian trappings. He inched the religious establishment along in rethinking the person of Christ, redefining his deity and the orthodox tow-nature Christology. Not to be missed either is VAn Dyke's loose treatment of revelation" (pg 103).

Fosdick took Van Dyke to his pulpit and preached this newly envisioned gospel and Jesus to millions, but in his church and through his radio show. Nichols opinion of Fosdick is made transparent when he writes, "Riverside [where he pastored] was, after all, a Christian church; the first of its three stipulations for memebership being 'affirmation of faith in Christ.' The stipulation came, however, without any elaboration of either faith or Christ, begging the question of what Fosdick and the Riverside Church means when they said Christian and Christ" (pg. 105). Additionally, "Fosdick sums up American civil religion: predicated on democracy, religion is privatized, whith the only test being sincerity" (pg 106). Fosdick radically reinterpreted Jesus, arguing that the process of interpreting him began with his first disciple and was necessary for every other disciple. Fosdick's interpretation was a departure from the interpretation of the earliest disciples and of the creeds of historic Christianity. "Christ's divinity became redefined, if not defined away...It was God through him...There was the original Jesus, the Jesus of the disciple's making, and the Jesus of the twentieth century's making, not to mention a host of reinterpretations intervening" (pg. 109). Others followed this example of reinterpreting Jesus. Bruce Barton's book The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of Jesus (1924) portrays Jesus as an 'Outdoors Man', ' the Executive', 'the Founder of Modern Business'. Nichols comments, "Barton turned Jesus into a neon sign, making him into an entity open for business. Fosdick may not have like Barton's overdrawn Jesus as businessman, but he had no grounds for objection..." (pg 111).

The sting of this chapter comes in the next few pages. Nichols contends, in my opinion rightly, that the spirit of Van Dyke and Fosdick live on in evangelicalism, especially in children's materials (though not exclusively). He picks on Veggie Tales -not because they are necessarily worse than other popular children's products, but because they are so popular. His points the reader to The Toy That Saved Christmas, where the viewer is taught that "Christmas isn't abut getting, it's about giving" (pg 115). Moralism. Nothing more. Even when Jesus is discussed as the greatest gift, nothing about who he is or what he has done is explained. The message remains, don't be selfish. (If any CGroup leaders are reading this - this is exactly what we've talked about not to do! Don't turn stories about David and Goliath into object lessons about being courageous. And DON'T turn Christ into yet one more example of how to live a good life).

The last section of chapter four bear the heading "Machen as Antidote". I love Machen. I love that he drank wiskey, smoked cigars and fought for the real Jesus. He fought battles that got him defrocked from the PCUSA, fired from Princeton and led him to start a mission board that would uphold historic Christian doctrine, a seminary (Westminster) and a denomination (the OPC). You can read more about this warrior-theologian in a bio-sermon by John Piper. Nichols sums up the core of the disagreement between the liberals and Machen, "To Fosdick, they [different views on historic Christian doctrines] were simply two different perspectives on Christianity; to Machen, one was Christianity and the other was something altogether different. Crucial to the distinction was Christology" (pg 117). Machen did not deny that Jesus was the be the example of how to live a truly human life as it was intended to be live. However, he would argue that Jesus was and did much more. He wrote, "Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul" (pg. 117). His final words were, "I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it" (pg. 116). I think Nichols assesment needs to be heard clearly. He contends that "Machen was actually promoting a both-and approach against Fosdick and liberalism's either-or approach. Fosdick set the impasse: theology or devotion, obscurantist bickering or proclaiming the gospel. Machen knew, as the history of the church had taught him, that the church's devotion runs shallow without theological depth, and that preaching the gospel apart from all of its biblical trappings is not preaching the gospel at all" (pg. 118).

Nichols concludes the chapter with strong language, asserting that Fosdick's Christ and Machen's Christ "were two different Christs" He wonders if the modern evangelical church can tell them apart anymore. Further, he pleads with the church not to assume the "foundation of orthodox Christology is in place" and rush to make moralistic application. Instead, "our Christology must be explicit, must be elaborated on and, in some cases, must be taught in the first place" (pg. 121). Finally, "It should not escape notice that what got checked at the door as liberalism in the previous generations of evangelicals now finds a home in the current generation" (pg. 121).

I know this review is long - two more posts to go. I'm being thorough assuming not all will read the book. I think its so valuable that I want to convey as much of it as I can to those who won't be able to read it anytime soon.

No comments: