Monday, March 08, 2010

Jesus Made in America, part 3

I'll wrap up this summary/review of Stephen Nichols Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ in this post, covering briefly four whole chapter. You could call this section "Jesus in Nashville, Hollywood, Branson, and Washington"

Chapter Five traces the developments of the Christian music industry from a movement of 'burned-out hippies' for Jesus to the 'multibillion dollar market force known as CCM". The history of the movement beginning in the 1960's with figures like Lonnie Frisbee and the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa is well told. Nichols summarizes, "The Jesus People would eventually exchange their hippie ways for more settled lifestyles, but as they came into evangelical churches and even formed new denominations or affiliation, such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movement, they brought something with them, namely, their music and their very warm, personal, experience-based relationship with Jesus...One thing the certainly did for American evangelical Christology was to focus on the love of Jesus" (pg 127).

Beyond the new 'praise and worship movement', there was the growing Christian Rock movement also. Interestingly, Nichols notes, as the movement grew, the focus shifted from outreach through music to offering Christian youth a 'wholesome, positive alternative' to secular rock and roll. Christian youth could listen to cool music without being exposed the unholy lyrics of secular rockers. You can clearly see this in the 'Christapaloozas' all over the nation that draw thousand, likely few from the ranks of the unchurched. This 'ghettoization' was resisted by many of the early pioneers of the movement like Larry Norman, who bemoan the shallow lyrics and lack of outreach in the new Christian Rock. The success of the Christian recording industry had its effect - millions or albums were sold; however, it also lead to the "loss of specific religious identity to the homogenizing effects of mass culture" (pg132). This is seem most acutely in those 'cross over artists' like Michael W Smith, Amy Grant, Six Pence None the Richer (whose song Kiss Me was sung by a contestant on American Idol Last week). Nichols asks, 'what happened to Jesus in this process?' He allows recording artist Steve Camp to answer, "Christian music, originally called Jesus Music, once fearlessly sang clearly about the gospel. Now it yodels of a Christ-less, watered down, pabulum-based, positive alternative, aura-fluff, cream of wheat, mush-kind-of-syrupy, God-as-my-girlfriend kind of thing" (quoted pg. 133).

Nichols doesn't hide his opinion. He quotes approvingly Hank Hill, of King of the Hill, "You aren't making Christianity better, you're just making rock and roll worse" (quoted pg. 135). More seriously, he writes, "One problem that arises, however, is what CCM communicates in general about evangelicalism's ambivalence to culture. While the early days of Jesus music had an edge, arising as it did from the streets, CCM today has dulled the edge, producing music that is safe, not all that complex and artistically ranking a little below the songs on pop albums that don't make it into radio circulation" (pg 135). In addition, Nichols is highly critical of the version of Jesus that is actually taught (yes, songs have a strong didactic force) by much Christian music. Much of it has a romantic, even erotic, experiential base to it.

Nichols concludes that "CCM is a microcosm of American evangelicalism...Evangelical tend to get their theology from popular novels...they also get their theology from popular music...This raises concerns about the type of theology CCM teaches. More specifically, what type of Christology does CCM teach?" (pg 143). In essence, it teaches that Jesus will be that friend (boyfriend/girlfriend?) that will stick with you through life's storm. Not necessarily wrong (open to debate), but shallow and limited in scope.

Traveling west from Nashville to Hollywood, Nichols helps the reader think about how Jesus on film has shaped American Evangelical Christology. I had no idea how many Jesus moves there have been, stretching all the way back to the era of the silent movie. Nichols, predictably, raises a few concerns regarding the portrayal of Jesus on film, questioning if it is something that can possibly be done well. The thesis of the chapter is clear, "[Jesus] doesn't shoot well. He's not a very good celluloid savior...This is not to suggest that nothing can be gained from the etnerprise of converting the Gospel accounts into film...This is especially true of the 1979 Jesus film and the Jesus Film Project, which occurs mostly out of the arena of commercial venues...But putting Christ on the silver screen involves tradeoffs - many things can be lost in translation" (pg. 152).

One of Nichols chief concerns is the "temptation facing all would-be cinema-tographers of Jesus: going beyond the biblical account" (pg. 149). "The medium almost demands departure from the biblical text" (pg 157). One of the most common elements of imagination is Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene. She appears repeatedly in Jesus movies, though the Bible tells us little about her. This leads Nichols to comment, "What is it about Mary that has brought all this on? The better question might be what is it about contemporary culture that has brought all this on? Perhaps the answer is as simple as the notion that in order for it to be a truly good story it has to have romance" (pg 161). That leads to Nichols second concern, namely that these Jesus movies often tell us more about the movie maker and his culture than the historical Jesus. Sometimes it's Jesus and the romantic interest with Mary, sometimes its' Jesus as the radical revolutionary. Thirdly, "Jesus films have difficulty, almost by definition, depicting the hypostatic union, Christ as the God-man" (pg 157). The humanity of Jesus inevitably swallows up his divinity. He correctly contends, "The Passion can portray the violence of the crucifixion, but it can't portray the break in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity, the break in the divine union between the Father and the Son as the Son bore the wrath of God for the sin of humanity. It's not Gibson's fault. NO director can pull it off" (pg 168).

Given the limitation, why were evangelicals so quick to jump on the The Passion bandwagon, touting it as the greatest evangelistic opportunity in centuries? It is odd since it had an R rating and an abundance of graphic violence. Nichols offers a complex answer, but central to it is the appeal it makes to the experiential. Nichols quotes Leslie Smith, "The people with whom I spoke gauged the Passion's [biblical] accuracy not by measures of specific historicity but rather by the emotions the film evoked in the viewer and the extent to which it could lead to a conversion experience" (pg 149). Cynically, he also argues that evangelical leaders endorsed the movie so enthusiastically because they were seduced by the limelight, enjoyed their position on center stage, and because they craved "the legitimacy that it granted both their group and their message" (pg 149).

Chapter six conclude with Nichols arguing that Jesus and film just don't mix well. Yet, Nichols still sees great potential in Hollywood. He argues, "we don't need a full-fledged Jesus film to launch an evangelistic campaign. In fact, given some of the problems with putting Jesus on the big screen, Christ-figure films and redemptive films might actually be the better way for telling the story of the good news" (pg 170).

I will spend little time on chapter seven, which is essentially about Jesus junk. Jesus junk has a long, and disturbing history, dating at least to the Victorian era (a case could be made that it dates back to Medieval selling of relics). The chapter is both amusing and depressing, as Nichols describes witness golf balls, "Jesus is homeboy" tshirts, videos (which criticize the commercialism of 'StuffMart', while at the same time selling themselves to consumer at 'StuffMart'), Christian Yellow Pages.

Special attention is given to the Precious Moments Chapel in Missouri and Nichols recalls Michael Horton's words upon visiting the chapel, "I had my own precious moment, and epiphany...Like the exaggerated features of the Precious Moment Angels - calculated to evoke particular emotions of intimacy and sweetness - popular American religion in general has become increasingly captive to false gods" (quoted, pg 179). He argues that the chapel is yet another proof that we have become captive to the 'cult of sentimentality'. In addition, Nichols contends that the 'commodification of Jesus', which is often justified on evangelistic grounds, has turned evangelicals into a laughing stock. "American evangelicals, it seems, have a hard time recognizing the comic caricature that they have become. More tragic, American evangelicals have allowed Christ to become a comic caricature. And even more tragic still, American evangelicals can't even seem to realize that Christ has become a comic caricature" (pg 181). He assert, "The true message of the cross, it seems, is getting lost in a sea of commerce. The commercials are too loud" (pg 189). Finally, Nichols concludes, "The commodification of Christianity not only exploits and subjects the faith to the cultural form of consumer captialism, but it also sentimentalizes and trivializes the faith" (pg 196).

Despite the title of chapter eight, "Jesus on the Right Wing", Nichols displays a deep concern for how both the right wing and the left wing of American politics have hijacked Jesus for their cause. Nichols seems to align himself softly with those who advocate a two kingdom approach Christian involvement in culture and politics, citing approvingly DG Hart's teaching on the 'otherworldly' nature of Christianity. He writes, "Hart concludes, 'Attempts to employ the sacred and eternal for common and temporal end up trivializing faith, which is the certain fate of religion in the public sphere.' Co-opting Christianity for the cause of politics does not serve to elevate but reduce Christianity, to relegate it to a place it does not deserve" (pg 215). Nichols sounds a call to return to notions of common grace, natural law and common morality (Edwardsian concept) over against special grace, revealed law and true virtue. These three wider concepts allow Christians to have a voice in the public, pluralistic sphere without cheapening or hijacking Jesus to fit their political agenda.

Nichols epilogue tells the reader what we already now know - Jesus hasn't faired to well in American evangelicalism. The way forward, Nichols argues, is to listen again tot he Jesus of the historic church, of Nicea and Chalcedon. Nichols anticipates the reply, "ah, the framers of these creeds were also conditioned by their cultures." He responds, "It may be very well prudent, however, to ask, How can the church improve on declaring, as those bishops did, that Christ is fully God and fully human, with tow natures united perfectly in one person...These creeds and the biblical tests they are fashioned from provide the church with its perennial theology, which the church in any country in any century simply cannot afford to live without" (pg 224). We have, in our pragmatism, shrunk away from complexity and opted for simplicity time and time again - Just Give Me Jesus. Yet, in the area of Christology, simplicity doesn't cut it. "Jesus comes to us primarily in complexity" (pg 226). If we cannot embrace the complexity of Jesus, or are unwilling to, Nichols doesn't see much hope for the evangelical movement in America.

While I may not agree with ever jot and tittle of Nichols argument, the overall case is sadly compelling. Again, I'll commend the entire book to you and pray the church will hear Nichols well.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Going by your review, I'd say that Nichols isn't saying much more than what everybody already knows. I've read other books somewhat like this, where the academician (or journalist) goes on a trip in the "red states" to "study and report back on the primitives and their strange customs," the primitives in this case being the American evangelical xtians, along with specimens being provided of their kitschy artwork and atrocious music. I might check out the book from the library and give it a look over, but it sounds to me like a yawner and a yet another "gosh aren't they weird?" books.

Dan Waugh said...

Thanks for the comment, though it's made me feel like a horrible reviewer. I'm sorry if that's what you've taken away from it. You can get that in a hundred different place. What Nichols offers is different for several reasons. First, he's an insider. As an evangelical, he's deeply committed and concerned for the health of the movement. Second, it's not just a 'they are weird' story. It's a story of how American culture and evangelicals have fashioned a new and innovative doctrine of Jesus (Christology). Many of the chapters discuss forces outside evangelicalism and the effects that they have had on the American Jesus (i.e. chapters on the New Republic, the Modernist/Liberal movement, and even the Hollywood chapters are primarily concerned with outside forces and how they have shaped American Christology, even evangelical Christology). Also, his prescription is important. He's not just mocking evangelicals (though he does do that). He offers a prescription: return to the robust, stable Christology of the creeds and confessions.

Sorry I've not done a good job articulating/summarizing Nichols. It's more than a fluff piece poking fun and Conservative Christians from Red States. Hope you'll check it out anyways.

Patmos Pete said...

Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.