Friday, February 26, 2010

Jesus Made in America, by Stephen Nichols, pt. 1

Stephen Nichols book,Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ, is one that I'll call a 'must read', and I haven't read a 'must read' in quite some time. The books easy style, wit, insight and obvious desire for reform make it well worth the investment of the time. Nichols sets the agenda of his book in the introduction:

"Jesus like most cultural heroes, is malleable. And his given shape has much more to say about the shapers than it does of him. Christians in all cultures and ages have the tendency to impose their understandings and cultural expressions on Scripture or beliefs...

But there is something peculiar to the tendency to con temporize in American evangelicalism...These theological and philosophical impulses of ahistoricism [anti-traditionalism], biblicism [no creed but the Bible], foundationalism [knowledge as objectice/neutral], and pietism [emphasis on personal, experiential relationship with Jesus and God] all conspire to make American evangelicals quite susceptible to culture in the shaping of beliefs and interpretation of Scripture. And perhaps nowhere is this more poignantly felt that in the area of Christology and the shape and identity of Jesus, the American Jesus...

This survey of the American evangelical Jesus intends to do more than inform. It intends to raise significant questions about the state of Christology in American evangelicalism...

The history of the American evangelical Jesus reveals that such complexities as the two natures of Christ have often been brushed aside, either on purpose or out of expediency. Too often his deity has been eclipsed by his humanity, and occasionally the reverse is true. Too often American evangelicals have settled for a Christology that can be reduced to a bumper sticker. Too often devotion to Jesus has eclipsed theologizing about Jesus...Their devotion is commendable, but the lack of a rigorous theology behind it mans that a generation of contemporary evangelicals is living off of borrowed capital."

The eight chapters of the book describe the Jesus of different periods and movements: the Puritan Jesus, the Jesus of the New Republic, the Victorian Jesus, the Modern Jesus, the Jesus of CCM, Hollywood Jesus, the TShirt Jesus, and the Political Jesus. It's not mere chronology that leads Nichols to begin his work with the Puritans. He considers Puritans to offer us the purist Jesus, the most orthodox and biblical. He commends them for bringing together both piety and precision in doctrine, "both within the confines of creedal and ecclesiastical traditions" (pg. 42).

In a chapter on the Puritan Jesus, you cannot ignore Edwards, and Nichols does a wonderful job liberating him from the caricature that is often painted of him. But beyond Edwards, Nichols looks at the life and work of Edward Taylor, "America's greatest colonial poet." Taylor is a somewhat obscure theologian, but he wrote volumes of poetry (over 40,000 lines). One p0em in particular, Metrical History of Christianity, runs nearly 19,000 lines. Nichols finds Taylor useful because he debunks the myth that the Puritans were against the arts. In fact, he argues they were great patrons of the arts, though not the contemporary theatre. At Yale and Harvard they would read the great works of literature (not in translation), and the contributed to the arts, though admittedly in a logocentric way - words were there medium. More importantly, Taylor significance lies in his "ability to wed theological precision, even using orthodox terminology, with heartfelt piety" (pg 26). He sums up the Puritans saying "They could be carried away in flights of spiritual ecstasy just as easily as thy could be lost in the intricacies of logical syllogisms" (pg. 32). In concluding this chapter, Nichols offers a little forewarning of where the next chapters will take the reader, "In some instances the story told of the movement from teh Puritans to later forms of American theology is one of decline, a downward spiral away from creedal and biblical fidelity. There is likely some truth to the declension thesis. But it is also true that at points along that downward slide there are bright spots" (pg 43). By way of criticism, I don't think Nichols spends enough [any] time on the bright spots, probably because he focuses on the 'popular' Jesus. Moving from the Puritans into the period of the new republic we find a Jesus liberated from the creeds and even the Bible. Nichols exposes the Christology of several founding fathers, including Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams (none of which were orthodox Christians if judged by creedal standards) as well as the "Revolutionary and Republican Pulpits". The founders certainly liked Jesus, but liked him as a teacher of virtue, not as the divine miracle working Savior of confessional Christianity. In many ways, the emphasis on praxix over orthodoxy anticipates the contemporary over emphasis on application at the expense of theological truth. These men were considered great political leaders, but if they were to be considered national icons, there heterodoxy would need to be covered up, and it was. Biographers, pastors and even artists did the deed, turning deists into theists, Unitarians into orthodox Christians, precursors to John Dominic Crossan into good followers of Jesus.

Interestingly, the need to express belief was obviously felt by the political leaders of the new republic - they new they needed religion to gain and keep support. Jefferson felt he needed to defend himself from his critics, arguing that "Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God" (pg. 68). Nichols argues that with these words he bequethed to American a "privitization of faith, which necessarily results in a pluralistic religious culture" (pg. 68). But religious leaders must have felt pressure to 'orthodox up' these great leaders. In both groups, the emphasis began to shift away from a doctrinally defined Jesus to a Jesus whose example citizens should follow for the good of the fledgling nation. During this time churches also began veering away from their Calvinistic roots, seeing the doctrine of predestination incompatible with the principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded. In addition, Nichols argues that it became common for "piety and patriotism, Christianity and citizenship flowed mingled down from America's pulpits" (pg. 65). Christian living and good citizenship were interlocked, secular optimism was baptized with Christian doctrine - "better days awaited the Christian nation" (pg. 66). Nichols concludes, "The enlisting of Christianity in the service of the nation was quickly becoming a political tool (pg. 67). Nichols warning at the end of this chapter is profound, "All of these (mis)appropriates fail to realize that unduly Christianizing America's past is a two-way street. It's one thing to say America and its founders were religious, even in a Judeo-Christian vein; it's another to claim that they were orthodox in their theology. Not only does it do injustice to the past and to true thought of the founders, it does injustice to Christianity and the true picture of Jesus...Civil religion and Christianity are not cut from the same cloth. Christianity, in any orthodox sense, demands that Jesus is more than a teacher of morals and an exemplar of virtue, that the Bible is more than a helpful resource, and that God is more than a benevolent deity. " (pg. 70-71). I hadn't anticipated this being such a long summary/review. I'll break off here and pick up the cultural story of Jesus with Nichols chapter 3 ("Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild") later.

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